(Continues Virtual Worlds: Is the Dream Over)
Second Life may be the center of the (virtual) world to us, but it's like a once promising frontier boom town that's stagnating in the midst of a global explosion of modern metropolises. When I started out in Second Life in 2008, it seemed that it was destined for mainstream acceptance on the heels of incredible user growth, positive press, corporate initiatives by global corporations and what appeared to be a strong commitment by Linden Lab to invest in the future of the platform.
I was lucky enough to attend a few of the big virtual world industry events in 2008 and 2009. (I still have a Second Life t-shirt I snagged at their booth.) The vision at the time was that the virtual world paradigm would eventually become as ubiqtuous as the 2D internet. I remember sitting at a table with executives from IBM, HP and Northrop, discussing how collaboration in virtual worlds would be a common business practice within a few years. On the consumer side, there were exhibits from dozens of vendors who were investing in new products and services, hoping to cash in on what they saw as a significant near term opportunity.
By the end of 2009, growth and enthusiasm begin to stutter and stall, including Second Life. Despite (or because of) Linden Lab's repeated attempts over the last four years to regain positive momentum, the downward trend continues. In 2012, Second Life lost over 10% of its regions. The handful of other surviving virtual worlds such as Twinity and Blue Mars have fared even worse. Although OpenSim gets a lot of attention in the virtual world community, it's just a blip on the map with an estimated 20,000 active users.
During that same period of time, social networks, MMORPGs, casual gaming and even 3D chat services have been growing astronomically and winning users in the millions, tens of millions and even hundreds of millions. In short, the virtual worlds paradigm is an also-ran in the marketplace and there is no indication of a significant positive change for the foreseeable future. That's why my optimism is for the future we can't foresee, which will be the focus of the concluding post in this series.
(By the way, I realize that some reader will want to dispute the accuracy of the reported user statistics. I agree that the numbers in the chart are based partially on self-reported figures, various definitions of active users, and very different business models. But you can slice 25% from everyone's reported numbers and the underlying picture of Second Life vs The World would be the same.)