February 8th, 2011 by Marianne McCann
Pardon if this post turned out to be very much too long. It’s actually a couple of blog entries, all smushed into one the longer I thought about it.
You see, I was thinking of Rodvik Linden, and what the legacy he is inheriting from Philip’s stint as once-and-future-CEO, and M Linden’s two years in the driver’s seat. In the course of doing so, it caused me to think about what Second Life is, what matters, and — in my opinion — where things may well have gone a bit off the rails.
Two big things
I think there’s two big things with Second Life, and these are what makes Second Life what it is. It’s the things that keep me coming back to this place and, I presume, is at the core of many other peoples’ interests.
The first is building. In a December 2001 presentation given on a little program called LindenWorld, would-be investors heard that 5% of LindenWorld users would build the content that 100% of the users would enjoy. We can argue how close the numbers are, but I think it is the tools to build your world — and even make some modest profit from same — that drive Second Life.
I think that a majority of users, if not most, have at least a rudimentary knowledge of building. I don’t mean that everyone is a content creator: I mean they might know that they can right click and edit their hair to resize it, or how to move a rezzed object.
When Viewer 2 came out, one of the biggest complaints was that it was antagonistic to builders. This was fairly true. Not only did builders have to re-educate themselves to the basics of finding their build tools and learning how to upload a texture, they also were faced with the inability to rez a prim on top of another prim, and the removal of a much-loved “build” button at the bottom of their screen. Likewise, a new Welcome Island that hit the grid around the same time did not include ll but one mention — in a shared media video — about the fact that it was we, the Residents, who build things.
One of the most enchanting things with Second Life is that we not only get to explore and consume content, but we get to create the content. We’re not tied to whatever the game company’s staff put there. If we want a better mousetrap, we have the tools to build it. This is so very key to the fabric of this world.
I think some of that vision was lost. I think we see that at the heart of Viewer 2, and I hope that we can see this change.
In a meeting with some of the creatives of Burning Man, T Linden defended Viewer 2 in part by suggesting that maybe a third party would make a viewer “for builders.” Indeed, his view was that maybe there should be a whole lot of different, specialized viewers for builders, and machinimatographers, and so on.
I don’t think we need a lot of different viewer, however. We need one viewer that works. We need the existing tools made that much better.
In seeing Rodvik’s first blog post about building his crude log cabin and raft, well, maybe we will indeed see an increased focus on providing a quality experience for Second Life’s builders.
One caveat: Mesh. It’s beautiful stuff. Far more robust and a lot less tricky than sculpties, and in the hands of a good designer, it’s almost magical to see the results. Yet the downside should be obvious. All you need do is upload your mesh model to second life and pay an upload fee. There is no inworld tools to it, no manipulation — and therefore less of a reason to even put it in Second Life in the first place — because the second big thing is socializing.
Second Life is a social medium. Sure, we build, we explore, and we shop. But to what end? While we do these things, we build a network of friends and acquaintances in this world, people who we share similar interests and desires. We explore not only so that we can see the cool stuff, but so we can show others the cool stuff we found. We shop for things to make our avatars represent us better, and we decorate our spaces with items we’ve built or bought to make them more comfortable for us ad our friends.
Over the last several years, people have banded together, creating communities, affinity groups, and cultures within this world. The Luskwood has become a vibrant home for furries, the SL children have their schools, neighborhoods, and camp. Steampunk has flourished stretching out into Caledon, New Babbage, and Steelhead, amongst others. Even the mainland has its own unique culture, as do some of the cities — both Linden and Resident formed — that populate it.
You can create the most beautiful things here — but without the people, it’s all just ones and zeros.
To this end, I have never understood why Linden Lab have continued to hobble the ability for people to come together. The backbone for friends, groups, chat, and Instant Messages have been problematic for as long as I’ve been in Second Life. The obvious example: group chat has always broken down, and conferences are just as unreliable. There remains no good way to communicate to your friends what you are doing in SL on a large scale without resorting to other social media sites like Twitter and Plurk. It was only with the addition of the “Share” feature in Viewer 2.2 that one could even send an object to more than two people at a time.
The ability to socialize is so key in Second Life.
Yet in the last year we’ve seen the community team more than decimated, and the focus being on marketing over community. This, IMO, is a mistake. Without a grasp on ones own users, you cannot effectively market to the people who may well be attracted to your product and have not yet taken the plunge. The existing userbase can make or break the product. Speaking of which…
I had the dubious pleasure of being part of the private beta on Viewer 2. Really, what this means is that I’m able to say “You should have seen it before public beta!” to those that hate the V2 UI. I’ve actually continued to use it since then, only logging into 1.23.5 on those rare moments that I have to use my creaky old MacBook Pro to access Second Life.
but I need to go back before the beta. Back at SLCC 2009, the crowd was wowed with screen shots and video of what was to come. By wowed, I mean some catcalled the need for things like, oh, working group chat over mesh, advanced graphics, and shared media — but many seemed to like what they saw.
Nevertheless, this was the “SL 2.0” we were being sold at the time. A redesigned UI (although we were told it would look nothing like what we were seeing on screen), shared media, advanced lighting and shadows, and mesh capabilities. This was called, at the time, “Viewer 2009.”
Now 2009 came and went without release, and the private beta started in earnest within the first quarter of 2010. Many of the beta testers were not what you’d call enthusiastic with what they were testing. Things were radically changed, with a sidebar that had to be slid out to get to most of the much-needed components. There were no media controls aside from the ones buried in preferences. The UI was unusable for those with special needs, and the small, white-text-on-black-background caused us all to get used to squinting.
Now a majority of the troubles with the UI are ones I call “moved cheese,” based on the book title from a couple years ago. After years of doing things one particular way, changing your methods to V2 makes you feel like a noob — and no one wants to feel like a noob.
Consider what everyone who used V2 for the first time got to experience.
You load the software, get past the “we’ve set this based on the specs of your computer,” type your information in, and hit the login button. So far, so good. Then things go wrong. Your avatar — your very representation in the world – just won’t load. This is only one problem you face, because the audio and video feed of the parcel you’re on are blaring through your computer’s speakers. Both, at the same time. You fumble for the sound controls, which are not just two buttons in the upper right hand corner. If you were lucky enough to be on the first public beta, you even had to stumble over the fact that the play and pause buttons were reversed (a feature, we were told).
So your heart has stopped racing from the noise. You still have no shape, you have to fumble around looking for your inventory. You’re friends and group chats are all coming in within these little windows, you’re confused and upset, and suddenly everything your friends told you about V2 makes sense. You log out, reinstall 1.23.5 or a third party viewer, and join the ranks of those who hate viewer 2.
For what its worth, Viewer 2.2 is around where a Viewer 2 user like myself begun to feel like the severe bugs were ironed out and we could start to move forward. That said, Viewer 2.3 and up cause my iMac to hard lock. “Logging out” by clicking your computer’s power switch is never a good option.
Back to the UI. Yes, much cheese was moved, but it’s deeper than that. No one needed to feel that way. The UI was poorly developed, and is still flawed.
Now I don’t mean “zOMG teh sidebar,” though I know many point to it as an issue. I don’t think it is in and of itself — but the way it was presented was. People were used to working with multiple windows open, and at launch you had a single, fairly inflexible dock. Sending group notices with attachments became difficult, viewing two profiles at a time was impossible.
But this was a symptom of the bigger issue. The UI is inflexible. It was seemingly not designed with extensibility in mind. While it was designed to be simple, it was instead constraining. Features were hidden, and workflows were hobbled. I would go so far as to say that the UI was the very antithesis of what Second Life should be. In a world of infinite possibilities, why impose arbitrary constraints?
Almost done, promise!
We have needs
Early in the release of Viewer 2, I saw my avatar Ruthed. Later, I saw her folded over. She would sometimes be invisible, or her textures would go solid black. She might even end up with the textures of a completely different avatar.
Some of these bugs had been supposedly resolved ages ago, yet here they were again. It was as if all the bugs that were squashed, weren’t. They were merely brushed under the carpet, left for someone else to deal with, some day. Or maybe the SL codebase is so labyrinthine that its nigh-impossible to straighten out these issues. After all, there has to be some reason why blocking a prim will get stuck offlines to load, or changing a group tag will get “cloud” avatars to load.
Meanwhile, we saw support and governance staffs cut to the bone in the last year. Support is now even more nonexistent for free accounts (a move I don’t necessarily disagree with), while other support tiers have been given outsourced service or limited hours to contend with.
Meanwhile, governance — the people who take care of terms of service and community standards violations — seem to be rare birds nowadays. So rare that few even know who is handling governance. While they still do seem to handle big issues fairly quickly, it is the more complex — and often more necessary — governance issues that are falling through the cracks.
I understand the need to cut costs. 2010 was a rough year for Linden Lab, and things simply had to happen. Nevertheless, there are things that need to be tended to in order to keep the existing userbase feeling like they’re more than simply the cash cow that gets milked every so often. And this brings me to my last point.
Communication has long been difficult in Second Life — and this time I don’t mean failed group chats. From support staff that offer responses to problems that don’t fit the trouble, to SL seemingly being the only company that actively does not advertise itself, to “conversation managers” who don’t well, have conversations, it’s always been a sore spot.
Like I said above, one of the big things in Second Life is socialization. Many of us are here because of this. we need that from the Lab, too. No, I don’t expect Rodvik to come by my inworld residence and leave a mint on my pillow (besides, I don’t have many prims there). What I do expect is for them to give us a clear vision of where the Lab is heading, what we should expect in the next weeks, months, and year.
So often, life on the grid has been a gamble. Tomorrow, some piece of code and/or some policy change could wipe out my way of Second Life. I know what its like to log in, having friends and acquaintances pouncing on me to let me know that something is up — from the original “notecard policy” that child avatars faced in 2007, to the June 8th layoffs.
If things are going to be rough — tell me. Let me know what you face, so I can try to make things easier. Let’s weather the storm together. If there’s some new shiney in the pipeline, let us know. We may need to make changes to our own products and services to accommodate it. We may even have ideas on improving it.
In 2008, we were told in essence that we did not matter. In my opinion, the shock waves from that — and later actions that buoyed that opinion — are still feeling felt in 2011. Now’s the time to change this.