Second Life – Here's Who Is To Blame…

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Have you been watching the Second Life and Virtual World backlash lately? I find it all a little funny. You have Disney scooping up Club Penguin for lots of millions, newly-formed agencies cutting major Brand gigs and deals with some of the largest advertising networks, and the number of participants who are aware of Virtual Worlds (or even have their own Avatars) seems to be climbing too.

Maybe it’s not as hot as it was a couple of months ago. Maybe the PR play has dulled because all of the "firsts" in Virtual Worlds have been gobbled up by the mainstream media. Maybe it’s because some of the major players – who got some early skin in the Virtual World game – have done all they could and abandoned their Second Life for a variety of reasons (the primary one I’ve noticed is how much work a virtual environment is to maintain – from pure staffing to dealing with the always-on nature of no time zones).

In the latest episode of the Podcast, Jaffe Juice (episode #101), Joseph Jaffe (author of Life After The 30-Second Spot and Join The Conversation) blamed it on us – Marketers – stating that had we put Second Life front and center in a Superbowl spot, the masses would have seen it and checked it out.

I think there is a clear blame on why virtual worlds and, more specifically, Second Life is failing to meet expectations. My finger is pointed (which rarely happens) directly at technology.

Technology is to blame for the lack of Second Life lustre.

And, worse, it’s technology at every level. Let’s say you get through the download process, sign-up and make it through Orientation Island, it is still a very small percent of computers that have the speed – from CPU performance to graphic card – to truly have a superior Second Life experience. Just sniffing around the software that Second Life is built on uncovers a gaming platform that was, probably, not intended for this use and in dire need of upgrades to the point that some have said it can never truly develop unless it is totally scratched and started over.

So if the Internet connection, the hardware and the overall usability remain this complex, it can never be adopted by the masses. Just look at online social networks. It took many iterations from Friendster, MySpace to Facebook to create a compelling, fun and, most importantly, easy-to-use environment (and there are still plenty of complaints floating around).

I believe strongly in Virtual Worlds. After having spent some significant time in Second Life, I do believe it to be one of the main ways we will "surf" the Web in the coming years, but we’re just not there yet. And, like all great things, it will just take some more time. The first telephone, phonograph player, radio, TV, personal computer, mobile phone were all not perfect.

I’d rather wait on seeing masses adopt Virtual Worlds or hop into Second Life until the experience is as simple (and engaging) as popping open a Web browser.

As off as you might think this Blog posting may be, take a look at Webkinz. I believe a huge part of its success is based on the fact that it works on nearly every computer from a minimum requirements stand-point, and is as advanced as the mass population comes to expect from a current Web experience.

If you wondering where to put the blame on why Second Life has not taken off like YouTube or Facebook, look no further than the technology.


  1. I have to agree with you. Joseph makes some excellent points, but the technology is, quite frankly, awful.
    I also, though, think 3D gaming technology will likely continue to have really high technical requirements. Its going to be many many years before everyone can be a part.
    Which is why I’m betting 2D virtual worlds are going to dominate for quite some time. They’re usable by far more people, and there is more potential too. I could see 2D worlds being ported to mobile devices for example, but I couldn’t see 3D on a cell phone.

  2. I wrote something similar, asking the SL community to teach me about the thing here:
    The comments were perhaps the most interesting part of the conversation, including the general attitude that if I am not a “gamer” then I can’t possibly understand what’s there.
    I think the barrier to entry in second life, the ease of use issue, is a big turn-off. It’s keeping Second Life from becoming more widely adopted, and I think that may even be by design. You can only participate if you pass the initiation of being able to use the tech easily enough. It’s geek snobbery, in a way.
    The crux of the issue is that the learning curve for second life is steep and with the tech being slow, it violates all the rules of stickiness. Most normal games start out with easy levels and easy interfaces to get you in and hooked, gradually getting harder and more complex once you are initiated. Second life has a learning curve that is steep enough to discourage many people before they get hooked. And for those who don’t have all the time in the world to learn it, it’s easy to give up and write it off as “not there yet”. And I am one of those people. I know it will get there, the question is when?
    One of my friends is a software engineer at Pixar. Dave is the guy who figured out how to apply real world physics to animation, and it’s why there is so much verisimilitude in everything they do over there. Fabrics work like fabrics in the real world, rocks fall with real gravity, and even when you violate those rules on purpose, it tricks the brain in such a way that we believe what we see in a way we don’t with other animated film. And the amount of computing power needed for this is just incredible- rooms and rooms of cooled processors and the like.
    I think once a virtual world works enough like a real one, and has the speed and snappy interface of real life, it will gain more traction. This doesn’t just mean the tricky bit about physics, but it does mean making it so there is a predictability about it. After all, we have a whole set of neurons devoted to making predictions and mirroring actions of others (mirror neurons)- without giving you the advanced lecture on neurology, let’s just say all fake or all real is processed better by the brain, half and half creates a certain amount of discomfort and cognitive dissonance.
    To Mario’s point, my kids want to be able to play miniclip and webkinz on the iphone (not there quite yet) but it’s clear that are going to want to be accessing the web on iphone like devices anywhere, anytime.
    As Seth Godin points out, meatball Sundaes don’t work. No amount of Superbowl ads will hide the fact that SL’s interface is not end user friendly, and people don’t have the patience for the uncertain return on the other side- simple, economic cost-benefit analysis we all should be able to understand, no matter how geeky we are.

  3. Mitch:
    I completely agree with you. Great post!
    I have long felt that the thing holding back many more people from adopting SL (other than the “geek” factor!) is technology. When it says right on the site that basically most Dell computers won’t perform…and there are “a few” people with Dell computers…you do the math.
    I think that one of the other things holding Second Life back is people’s misunderstanding of what it is. It is so open to do whatever you want that people don’t approach it with any sort of goal. Things like Webkinz allows people to unite around a common purpose in going there, then branch out into other things that interest them.
    I know that people are expected to develop those connections and interests themselves, but I don’t think that mass adoption can occur under those circumstances. People need a reason to check it out other than seeing Dell Island.
    If there were some hook to get people to try it and then expand I think that would go a long way to adoption by a larger number of people.
    But, that can only happen when the technology issues are addressed and solved.

  4. Mitch, you are right about the technology along with JJs comment about us being part of the problem. When I read the post and the comments the first thing that popped in my mind was Metaplace.
    “Metaplace is a next-generation virtual worlds platform designed to work the way the Web does. Instead of giant custom clients and huge downloads, Metaplace lets you play the same game on any platform that reads our open client standard. We supply a suite of tools so you can make worlds, and we host servers for you so that anyone can connect and play. And the client could be anywhere on the Web.
    Build a virtual apartment and put it on your website. Work with friends to make a huge MMORPG. Share your puzzle game with friends. We have a vision: to let you build anything, and play everything, from anywhere. Eventually, anyway. We have to finish first.”
    Metaplace is owned Areae, which has people like Raph Koster who have been in the MMO/virtual world space for quite some time. I don’t know if they’ll build the next level of virtual worlds, but they do have the vision and background to make it happen.

  5. Many people I’ve talked to have also complained about how long it takes to ‘get the hang of SL’ – if people get frustrated using it before they start having fun, they’re going to leave for good.
    Can we please just let SL go though? I don’t see people bemoaning the loss of Friendster, so why SL?

  6. Well, it depends on how one sees SL fail. It is all work in process, it is not easy technology, it is not just a website where you can quickly change things. Also take into account that you also have to roll out actual clients.
    So of course this is technology. And of course it’s hard to change because it’s a grown and complex system and would probably be done differently would you start from scratch today.
    Still I think the backlash also has to do with not marketers like you but mostly with all those companies who thought a simple presence is enough. No interaction, no entertainment, no cluetrain. Add to that the hype which made journalists raise expectations which are not going to be met.
    (I might see this through a german view here by having read the news here and meeting people)
    I am not sure technology would have helped that. In fact I don’t hear anything about any virtual world these days in the news. Maybe because the whole topic is now done for them for the moment.
    But nevertheless SL is not dead. The growth is of course not exponential anymore but it’s there, the technology gets refined and the problems are known (OI, retention rates). But it takes time to change it.
    And think of the Open Source efforts of Linden Lab. So even if the Second Life of Linden Lab is dead some other grid based on that technology might evolve. And this won’t be a walled garden as SL and all the other virtual worlds are right now, it will be more open.
    Clear is nevertheless that a better web integration really will help here. Being able to connect to my SL contacts also via the web or maybe first via the web would be a great help IMHO. Having a browser plugin with simplified graphics might help, too. That’s all ideas floating around.
    Thinking about it again I think actually nobody is to blame πŸ˜‰ It’s how hypes go.. we will if it will survive it but I think in the one or other form it will.
    (how many marketers are active in other worlds actually? and in which ways?)

  7. I listened to a bit of Jaffe’s rant. I think *he* (and people like him) are to blame! He has no clue how to leverage Second Life for brands. Just look at his own company’s launch fiasco, and “Crayon Island” … unengaging, pointless and empty. The tiny program he did for Coke was laughable! It may make him feel better lashing out, and I am sure he is trying to stir controversy – but he needs to take a good long look in the mirror before he starts blaming us marketers.

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