Monday, January 7, 2013

Virtual Worlds: Is the Dream Over? - Part One

Extropia Burning
Extropia Burning
After contemplating the latest Second Life drama over the weekend, I realized that one reason we're so sensitive about the future of Second Life is that we emotionally equate Second Life's downward trajectory with our own future within virtual worlds. I understand that point of view.
  • OpenSource grids aren't expanding the virtual world market; they are currently surviving by capturing a sliver of those abandoning Second Life. Relatively few of the thousands of private islands disappearing from Second Life are reappearing on other worlds.
  • Although thousands of Second Lifers have established a presence on other worlds, there has been no mass movement. ManySL expatriates still spend the majority of their time, energy and money back on Mother World, rather than focusing on community building in their new homelands.
  • Most SLers have thousands of virtual goods locked up in Second Life that can't be legally or easily exported. Few Second Life creators have exported their work to marketplaces on other grids, so even if we had the money to spend, we couldn't replace our current SL assets.
    • Although a few new virtual world platforms have launched, they have yet to gain much traction within the current virtual world community; none has made a splash outside that domain.
    It seems to me that the virtual world market has been declining in step with Second Life for the past five years. New players have come and gone, not one gaining significant traction. Even Linden Lab has stopped viewing virtual worlds as their most compelling future. That's why they're shifting investment into new projects instead of reinvesting in Second Life. 

    I've been to a number of virtual world conferences over the past six years. It's obvious that our collective vision of the virtual world future has been shrinking. We once expected virtual worlds to change the way most people work, live and play; to change the world! Today, the industry is mostly looking to offer some practical solution to a niche market such as training, education or meetings. Despite the efforts of a number of credible offerings, I can't think of a single industry or domain where the use of virtual worlds is considered a best practice, or even a credible alternative.

    Although I've painted a fairly dark picture about the future of virtual worlds, I'm actually optimistic about the future of the Virtual World. I'll describe my vision of the virtual future in the next post of this series.

    31 comments:

    Scarp Godenot said...

    Some people's dreams are over.

    Some people's dreams were over in 2004. And every year since.

    Other people's dreams are just beginning.

    Others are yet to start.

    I don't think we need to worry about SL dying any time soon as there are hundreds of millions of dollars being spent on virtual goods each year......

    I went to an opening yesterday by Oberon Onmura or his scripted moving primmage. At the opening I saw at least 50 artists that have been around and active in SL for many years.

    Their dreams are still active after all these years.

    Just sayin'.....

    Gaga Gracious said...

    You made an interesting observation, Botgirl but I think you skipped over at some important factors when saying few of the people leaving Second Life are finding virtual homes on Opensim grids or others like Cloud Party. What you missed was the fact the refugees, if I might call them that, from SL are spreading themselves out far and wide because Opensim is not a single grid. Many who leave SL are, in fact getting the Opensim software like Sim on a Stick and buildings private simulators or small special interest grids like UFSgrid (United Federation Sci-fi, formally known as United Federation Starfleet, a Trekie grid). The number of small grids opening has more than doubled in the past year and each has a small community ( some quite large) that may even still hold land in Second Life as well. As ever, the problem with counting traffic in Opensim is that they don't all connect to a central grid like Second Life. I make a study of this and I assure you it is getting harder to keep track because it is growing all the time. So, the fact is, where people once owned land in second Life the opportunity to own land in the free Metaverse is both cheap and largely unrestricted. You never even really mentioned the Education grids springing up either and that is another growth area. If it appears the main commercial grids like Inworldz, Avination and the none-profit grid OSgrid appear to be loosing traffic that has a lot to do with the growth in small grids too, not people leaving.

    The open Metaverse is the nearest think to a 3D web of sorts because many small grids connect via Hypergrid so when I point out that the number of small grids has more than doubled in the past year I'm saying the Metaverse is expanding even faster.

    Botgirl Questi said...

    I agree, there are still ten thousand individual dreams in the shining city, large and small. But the metrics indicate years of stagnation and decline in Second Life. There is no other alternative world that has captured the broad public imagination, nor grown the market.

    I'm not proposing that Second Life is going to go out of business in the near future. I suspect that slow decline of land ownership will continue and eventually accelerate once much less costly OpenSim grids prove their stability, security and attract enough creators to create an alternative marketplace with enough content to satisfy SL expatriates.

    In any case, I don't think the long term future of virtual worlds will live or die on the fate of Second Life or OpenSim. I'm going to write about that aspect in part two of this series.

    Botgirl Questi said...

    Gaga: I agree that people are spreading far and wide on OpenSim grids. But the vast majority are former (and current) users of Second Life. So I don't see this as an expansion of the market, but just a shift from one vendor to others. And for now, the competitive products don't offer any earth shattering (pardon the pun) new features that are likely to draw in significant numbers of nubes. I don't see traditional business using virtual worlds. I don't see virtual worlds considered as a normal way to interact in personal life, on the level of Facebook, for instance.

    michelehyacinth said...

    Interesting post as always and comments. @Gaga, I'm heartened to hear that education grids are springing up. I'd be interested to learn where they are. I work in academia and have encountered less and less discussion of the use of virtual worlds as part of any education delivery component. If other schools are pursuing it, though, that's wonderful. Where I work, the interest seems to have shifted away from virtual worlds and to the ability to share documents-projects on the cloud or to experiment (rather abstractly) with mobile applications. I'd be very interested to learn of academic institutions that use virtual worlds in a meaningful way as pertains to enhancing the education process.

    Gaga Gracious said...

    Sorry, but there are new people coming over and even criss-crossing from SL to OS grids and back. There is more interaction between SL and OS than before. Virtual worlds are not social networks even if some people try to treat them as such. Social networks like Facebook are flat pages where virtual worlds are dynamic three dimensional experiences teaming with creative people and a whole other culture few outside of virtual worlds would understand. Opensim has shown people can enjoy virtual worlds without over commercialization and, moreover, has shown Linden Lab does not need to be charging the prices it does.

    Gaga Gracious said...

    @ michelehyacinth

    If you read Hypergrid Business, the editor has covered many stories of Education grids. Here is one for example but there are plenty more and some Universities too...

    http://www.hypergridbusiness.com/2012/03/atlanta-puts-opensim-in-every-classroom/

    michelehyacinth said...

    @ Gaga...thanks for the link. It's funny...I can see the value in elementary schools. I'm curious about university-level involvement primarily. After reading the story you shared, I came across another story about a university-elementary school partnership: http://www.hypergridbusiness.com/2012/12/university-elementary-schools-partner-in-virtual-world/

    Botgirl Questi said...

    Gaga: I hear you. I'm not denying that there aren't some people being introduced to virtual worlds through OpenSim, only that the numbers are very small, compared to the overall market. I also suspect that if you take add the expanded participation in OpenSim with the decline in Second Life, it would indicate a stagnant market.

    Yordie Sands said...
    This comment has been removed by the author.
    Buni Chuku said...
    This comment has been removed by the author.
    Buni Chuku said...

    It seems to me that Second Life has a cancer. It hasn't bee shot in the head. So its death will come more slowly.

    In my household, three of us were and still are in the VW. One rents an apartment (400 prims @ 950 lindens) because his virtual wife has friends who remain ignorant of the freedom of OS grids. However he has created a sim for her on OSGrid ... we run 20 there.

    What drove us from SL (for the most part) was the cost and the greed that causes that cost.

    SL will not be dying anytime soon. It coughs and hacks from time to time. But what will happen is one of these days they will announce that they are closing and give people a month or so to get their stuff and get out. "So long it's been good to know ya."

    The greedy will move to InWorldz or someplace. The artists will go to the open grids. With the open grids being interconnected, its really almost as if they are one large grid and not many smaller ones.

    We will stay in the open grids. After tasting such freedom, who wouldn't?

    Botgirl Questi said...

    Buni: Interesting. So you help run 20 sims on OpenGrid? Would you mind sharing how they are used? Is everyone on your sims from Second Life or have any people started out there?

    Botgirl Questi said...

    Buni: Interesting. So you help run 20 sims on OpenGrid? Would you mind sharing how they are used? Is everyone on your sims from Second Life or have any people started out there?

    Buni Chuku said...

    Sure thing. Most of them are ocean. One has a small club on it. Romance, jazz, etc. Another has a public swingers club on it. A third is a nod to Mother Africa, as we are all African American. We just decided to put one aside for a sort of a role play arena .. meant to encompass all HG grids in the role play on whatever grit in whatever way the players see fit.

    Our OSGrids are all run for the cost of the router and internet connection.

    Dale Innis said...

    I'll second what Scarp said. :)

    I still have all sorts of dreams, new ones and old ones. And I run into all sorts of people, old and new, who also have them.

    And also lots of people who shop and party and talk... and probably also dream, come to think of it.

    Nothing wrong with thinking about the future (and the present and past). But best not to assume that because one is tired oneself, everyone else must be too. :)

    Botgirl Questi said...

    Dale, I guess I didn't do a good job of explaining which dream I was talking about. Not the personal dreams of people using virtual worlds. But the dream of virtual worlds becoming commonly used within mainstream culture. It hasn't even come close.

    Even your company, which was a leader in virtual world business use five or six years ago, has only a tiny group of people using virtual worlds today.

    My point isn't that people are getting tired of virtual worlds. It's that only a relatively tiny number of people ever became interested and it hasn't been able to grow from there.

    .

    Dale Innis said...

    Oh, I understand! I just think it's premature. I guess if your dream was that they'd be in wide use by 2014, or that the curve of adoption would be monotonically increasing, yeah that dream will need modifying. :) But the dream that they will become common in mainstream culture? I don't see any reason to let go of that one...

    Botgirl Questi said...

    Dale, It felt quite imminent to many of us at the time. For a couple of years there was a lot of public interest in Second Life, both in the mainstream press and within major corporations. The user count and grid were rapidly increasing. And then it seemed to hit a wall. A series of bad decisions by Linden Lab certainly had something to do with it. I think there were platform limitations that started to become apparent (and are still a problem.)

    That said, I agree with you in the long term, but don't think it's going to be Second Life that takes us there. That's the direction I was planning to go in part two of this post.

    Pep said...

    Unless LL find a way to monetise future investment SL is doomed to a slow descent into cult usage; think bicycles in an automobile society. And nobody else commercial is going to muscle in without the prospect of profit. The next step is likely to be the superposition of a virtual world on the real world, using the truly personal computers which are laughably still labelled smartphones. Pep (A gestalt-develeoped Android-based virtual community will be waving goodbye to SL in a couple of years.)

    Dale Innis said...

    Well, yeah, see the Gartner Hype Cycle; that's how pretty much everything works, good or bad decisions by LL or anyone else notwithstanding. No reason to expect Virtual World(s) to be any different. ..

    Alan Tupper said...

    I wouldn't say that the dream is over, it just needs serious evolving. Your analysis on the nature of the population growth in Opensim seems to match what I've witnessed, though that could just be confirmation bias. To my mind, what we are seeing is that while the Second Life/Opensim VW model works well for some, is not working for many others. As a result we seem to have hit the saturation point for users interested in such an experience. Ultimately the question echoes your realization; is the Metaverse really meant to be just worlds like Second Life and Opensim, or can we broaden our horizons and create a system that can grow and evolve to find new kinds of worlds? Personally I believe it's the latter and am doing what I can to help create it.

    @Gaga re: Social networks -
    It seems hazardous to equate the notion of a social network, i.e. a network of social connections between people with the centralized manifestations we see with things like Facebook. I would argue that at their core, virtual worlds are indeed social network platforms. The 3D interface merely provides a shared experiential glue that allows strangers to meet and connect based on their reactions to the shared collaborative experience.

    Botgirl Questi said...

    Dale: I actually have a Gartner subscription and was researching another topic there for most of the day. I'm very familiar with their hype cycle concept. But when I look at technologies that emerged around the same time as Second Life, or even later, it's easy to see that virtual worlds are, at best, way behind the curve of emerging platforms such as social networks, MMORPGs, casual social gaming, mobile social sharing, etc. I've been working on a little chart to visualize that idea and will throw it up here in the morning along with a little narrative.

    Botgirl Questi said...

    Alan: I agree with you that Second Life, after ten years, has cornered the market for those interested in the type of experience it offers. The growth of OpenSim is going to come almost completely at the expense of Second Life. (By the way, all OpenSim grids combined have only around 20,000 active users .)

    Botgirl Questi said...

    Actually, I would amend that to the people who "think" they know what it offers. :)

    Gaga Gracious said...

    @Botgirl

    You said, quote; "By the way, all OpenSim grids combined have only around 20,000 active users." but actually it is more and truth is we don't know the exact figure because we still don't have any centralized way of collecting the traffic data across all Opensim grids, unlike Second Life which is all under one roof.

    There are many small standalones and closed education grids that don't publish metrics as well and, of course, there are, I suspect, very many standalones serving specialized interests like product simulation and architecture. The Opensim Metaverse is not a straight forward grid because it is not a single grid at all.

    Botgirl Questi said...

    Gaga: Here's where I got that number:

    http://www.hypergridbusiness.com/2012/12/region-numbers-continue-to-fall/

    Even doubling that figure would only take OpenSim from 2% of Second Life's MAU count to 4%.

    Gaga Gracious said...

    Maria of Hypergrid Business blog only reports what grid owner's care to tell her or she searches on a particular day. It's quite limited actually and I prefer to count active grids myself. I do agree though Opensim traffic is not that great but then Opensim is still a developing technology and has not reached anywhere near it's full potential yet. But, whatever you say, I think Opensim is no clone of Second Life. It has clear differences and advantages for the long term and it is the nearest thing to a connected 3D web we have as yet. Linden Lab let that one go long ago.

    Maddy Gynoid said...

    OpenSim is only a software and it's far away from a "connected 3D web". And most of the biggest grids are walled gardens, like Second Life (e.g. InWorldz, Avination, Kitely, et cetera). To compare OpenSim with an open metaverse is lipstick on a pig. Only the hypergrid with the OSGrid as central instance, is an approach to a decentralized platform.

    Gaga Gracious said...

    @Maddy

    I said what Opensim is capable of, not that it is a grid or 3D web in itself. I said it is the nearest thing to a 3D web which gives it clear advantages over Second Life for the future. No other platform has the hypergrid option and and the Opensim walled gardens are all capable of opening up to Hypergrid while Second Life had that option closed by Linden Lab long ago. Kitely and Avination have both let it be known they will open up to hypergrid once the system is more secure. Inworldz, which has made major changes to their forked version, is probably too far removed from Opensim core to go hypergrid so Inworldz is something else.

    zhochaka said...

    It's maybe worth remembering that virtual worlds have been around for a long time. FurryMUCK was founded in 1990 and is still running, Tapestries MUCK started in 1992. They're both implementations of the Multi-User Dungeon concept that appeared at Essex University in 1978.

    When I first signed up with FurryMUCK it was running on a machine with less RAM than my current video card.and could easily support a could of hundred users. That's easy with text. And, yes, they had the kinky sex.

    There are times I wonder why I stick with SL.