Slate has an annoying story on “Why Second Life failed,” which presupposes that SL failed.  I don’t think it did— except compared to the hype.  The authors compare it to Facebook— well, jeez, almost every Internet app is a failure compared to Facebook.

They also annoyingly illustrate the story with a video that showcases butt-ugly SL graphics from about 2006.  SL avatars have improved:

Slate's example (left); today's avatars (right; from an ad)

What’s undeniable is that SL hasn’t developed as Linden Labs expected it to.  Right, because LL is pretty clueless.  They clearly expected it to either be a social network, or a venue for business meetings.  But it was never any good as a social network, and that was clear years ago when all we had was texting.  All you need to network is text chat.  The SL interface— avatars, virtual spaces, logging into a dedicated app— just gets in the way.   You can get completely up to date on Facebook in the time it takes to log in to SL.  As for teleconferencing, this is a pretty niche market, but it’s perfectly well served by a webcam.  Honestly a phone call will do— I don’t need to see the pasty faces of my coworkers in another state or country.  If I do want to see them I want to see them, not an avatar that doesn’t show their gestures or facial expressions.

Also, their basic world model is broken.  I’ve spent many hours building maps for video games, and map designers are strongly encouraged to optimize rendering— mostly by limiting textures and line-of-sight visibility.  SL has to render a huge sprawling world, and as a result it’s slow and you can’t fit more than forty people in any one region.

LL’s main way to make money is to rent virtual land.  But the result is that, well, there’s way too much land in SL.  People build things and never use them, so people new to SL are confronted with a huge but desolate vista composed mostly of crap.

The article is trying to make a point that an app has to fulfill a “job”— i.e. meet some need, even if it’s a new kind of need.  But it fails to actually apply this test to SL.  SL does meet needs, just not those that LL thought it would.

  • It’s a great 3-D modelling program— the easiest one I’m aware of, which is why I recommend it in the PCK.  It’s fun to build things and you can show them off easily.  Of course this is going to be a niche market.
  • I know a lot of people who like to shop and decorate, and they support a surprisingly large marketplace for people who like to create things.  A better comparison is not to Facebook but to The Sims.
  • It’s great for roleplaying— with minimal work  you can create your own RPG populated by actual people rather than NPCs.  (LL has never quite known how to build this market as it includes a heavy dose of sex.)

What these things have in common is that they’re less like social networking and more like games.  From that perspective, what LL should do, I think, is allow modding the engine, in the way that Valve or Bethesda do.  They’ve already open-sourced the viewer; they should open-source the engine too.  Then people could create engines that support NPCs, or combat, or puzzle games, or really expansive explorable environments, or which improve avatar modelling and control.

Or to put it another way: people love 3-d virtual environments!  It’s a multi-billion-dollar industry!  But the LL (or Snow Crash) vision of fitting them all into one big multiverse doesn’t make much sense.

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