-- A commentary by Wayfinder, as is my occasional habit ; )
We've all read a great deal lately about problems with Virtual worlds, specifically Inworldz because this is our home. Some view such as "negativity". I view such as solid gold customer feedback. Companies pay for this kind of "information from the trenches". Valid or invalid, positive or critical... it's customer feedback.
Customers silently fuming is far more negative and destructive. If they're talking... it means they still care.
Inworldz is by no means "failing", nor have they failed. Time estimates and predictions may have been a bit overly optimistic, but that is a trait of the human species. It is very difficult to estimate the progress of software development-- improbable at best and ludicrous at worst. Sometimes this causes people to expect things that simply cannot be delivered. Such is life... especially with a developing company.
Many people expected things 2-3 years ago that are only now coming about. Region crossings, improvement of physics, server code, viewer code and other basic, essential items have been long and slow in coming. On the positive end, they have been steadily coming. Sure, there have been setbacks, but at least we haven't seen dead ends and widespread customer frustration as were often experienced on SL.
When we see a movie by Disney, Lucasfilms, Pixar or other major production companies, we don't see just three credits at the end. We see hundreds or even thousands. On the other hand... they have hundreds of millions of dollars with which to work.
Inworldz unfortunately has a limited budget and staff count. Perhaps something should have been done about that long ago. But discussing the back-end-business issues is not the purpose of this blog. Rather, I wish to discuss the uphill struggle of virtual reality as a genre. Mind you, all of these things are just my opinions. I'm just another user, like you. But "the wise General heeds daily information from the trenches." Consider me as part of "the trenches". Many of you out there share the same position and experience. You know from whence we come.
Most likely the chief deterrent to virtual worlds is the almost 90 degree learning curve. We all know this; no one doubts it exists. All we have to do is look at the extensive user, builder and scripter menus to realize just how difficult it can be for a new user to get started.
People don't like difficult. They like intuitive. They appreciate learning-on-the-run. Compare:
1) A game which requires reading 64 pages of instructions before it can be even played
2) A game which teaches those 64 pages of instructions, step by step, while the game is being played.
Which game would you prefer?
Inworldz is not a "game" by any means. It can be a game to some people, and that's fine. But it is in reality a society, with all the trappings and bells and whistles thereof. On the one hand that makes it potentially very exciting. On the other hand, it can make it very complex. In general, people do not like complex, especially in their entertainment. Further, even businesses don't appreciate complex when it comes to adding additional business. They're willing to tackle just about anything, but they want to know how and they want their employees to be able to master it now, without years of special learning.
Right now, to be totally honest, virtual reality takes weeks, months or in some cases years to "get the hang of it" on a relatively full level. One can learn to move and fly in a day. But to achieve all the things virtual reality has to offer... that takes a bit more time and effort. No, let's correct that: it takes a lot more time and effort.
Therein lies the foundation flaw of virtual reality as we know it: it is just too difficult.
So... how do we "dumb it down" without making it goofy? That task is also not the purpose of this blog. I am merely the person that cries, "The Emperor has no clothes!" as I have done in the past. It's up to the Emperor to recognize and correct that situation. Over the years I have learned one dominant thing about forums and blogs: one can write until carpal tunnel syndrome sets in, and it won't do a bit of good at all unless the powers-that-be decide to recognize the problem and do something about it.
Despite all claims, VR success has never been in the hands of the customers. It is the job of the company to promote the grid. That is the reality of business.
NO GOALS, NO ACHIEVEMENTS, NO REWARDS
Generally speaking, players love goals. They love having things to strive for, markers along the way, achievements to accomplish, rewards for doing so. In virtual reality, there is very little if any of this. For the average computer enthusiast, this makes virtual reality rather boring.
We have heard that comment time and again. "I'm bored." While we often consider that the cry of the unimaginative, the truth is people come to computer sites to be dragged into worlds of imagination... not create them. As such, they want set goals to achieve, affirmation they have reached that goal, and rewards for accomplishments. To be frank: for the most part virtual worlds simply don't have any of that.
Oh, we can be merchants... but we have to struggle and grab that title with each. difficult. step. One has to be multi-talented to be a top, recognized merchant.
We could be a land-baron, but that too is a specialty skill. One can start a group but groups are a dime-a-dozen and relatively few of them actively successful over a period of years.
Every one of these goals and achievements are self-assigned and the rewards sketchy at best. Most of all: they are not the property or within the ability of the average user. Again: high learning curve.
As result, the people virtual worlds attract are those with vision, imagination, creativity, time and spare cash. Anyone care to estimate what percentage of the population meets all those requirements? (Hint: research indicates it's somewhere below the .02% mark. Significantly below.)
WHERE DOES THE BUCK STOP?
So how does Inworldz deal with these realities? Partial answer: it's not by relying on customers to do it for them. The idea is to create customers by offering such things. To do that, one has to have staff or volunteers specifically devoted to those areas.
The advantage of staff is that they're paid and they will follow company guidelines or else. It's a controllable asset. The disadvantage of staff is it costs $$$.
The advantage of volunteers is they are free, but the disadvantage is that they're not paid and they need to be motivated. Quite often they do what they please, resulting in disharmony and drama unless they have very capable appointed leaders to guide them in a unified process and goal. Frankly, such accomplishment is rare.
Such a thing seldom happens in the virtual environment. It does happen. It happened in Elf Clan. It's happened in other groups. We members are aware of this. We know why we joined Elf Clan and we know why we support this group-- even when some aspects of it don't agree with our personal ideals and whims. We support Elf Clan because we believe in it, because we understand its goals, because we agree with the overall harmony, peace and friendship of this group.
Other groups have accomplished similar things, if on smaller scales. But with a company such is much more difficult to achieve, because quite often company policies and concepts do not agree with the desires and goals of potential volunteers. Then what? Usually those potential volunteers either don't volunteer or they present ideas that the company discards... which demotivates one of the greatest potential assets virtual worlds can have. Too often there is the concept of "No, that's not the direction we want to go"... when the current direction isn't exactly panning out.
A visionary discarded is a visionary lost.
"Don't put all your eggs in one basket." That is an ancient and well-known adage. So why do virtual worlds do so on a regular basis? Why do they head one single direction, without examining alternative possibilities. Why don't they let their customer-visionaries run with an unusual concept to see if it works?
When OpenSim started... why did they decide to imitate almost to a "clone" the Second Life environment-- a company which they'd left in disgust? Why did they base their worlds on a buggy viewer surrounded by widespread controversy? Why didn't they start from scratch and try something better?
I have no answer to these questions. But what see as a result are numerous virtual worlds all basically styled after the original Second Life concept... and none of them being all that original. And that is a real problem. Because along with the SL concept came inherited SL problems and it seems Inworldz has been spending the majority of the last five years trying to fix those problems.
That can certainly form a large part of an uphill struggle.
Might it have been easier to totally re-design the system and originate the code? Perhaps. Hard to say at this point, five years down the line. The real question though, is what will people be saying ten years down the line? Will VR as we know it even still be around, or will it have been wiped out by someone who decided to do things smarter and better? No one can predict that future. (Well actually some of us can try... but no one really wants to, me included.)
People like to be recognized for their achievements. It's not a matter of pride or arrogance; it's the reality that every human creature has a certain degree of ego. Take any employee of a company and have that person work hours on end with zero recognition... and odds are that employee will soon be looking for another job, no matter what their pay scale. There are few personalities that will just plod on endlessly without recognized achievement.
Inworldz users aren't paid. It's the other way around: we pay to use the system. But there is no recognition system built into the system. Again, there are no goals to achieve, no titles to be won, few rewards or awards, and sometimes actually anti-recognition.
A semi-recent situation comes to mind. Inworldz asked for people to design a new IDI, the very center of Inworldz intake activity. But so that they could not be accused of "favoritism"... all creators were to take on anonymous avatars and submit their work as such, would receive no credit for what they'd done, and in reality didn't even have access to their primary avatar building inventory.
As a result, many experienced and highly-talented creators simply said, "No thanks, we don't appreciate the limitations" and refused to participate.
That is now history. But did Inworldz as a company learn from that experience? Has IDI been successful? Is the average new visitor impressed with IDI?
What is the initial first impression of the current IDI environment for both new and experienced users? We don't have to guess; people have stated such clearly in the forums. They aren't impressed. General statements: It's a nice, peaceful, well-built environment... and boring as grass.
That's what happens when people don't receive recognition. That's the result of no goals, no achievements. That is part of why virtual worlds are not growing. (This includes both Second Life and Inworldz. Inworldz has hovered at around 800 private regions for some 2-3 years now. Second Life has actually declined in popularity.)
STILL THE SAME
"If one continues to do what one has done, one can expect to remain where one has been." That's a simple and obvious reality. It's not that Inworldz or Second Life isn't trying new things; it's a matter of are they fixing the very basic, obvious things listed above? What are virtual worlds doing to attract new customers, other than token "quick fix" gestures?
As an experienced user, I have to observe: very little that counts. This is evidenced in simple region numbers.
The bottom-line is that if one is not an imaginative, creative individual (or alternately someone who can lamely dance and cyber-sex for months on end)... virtual reality doesn't offer much attraction. People don't see the value in it. Businesses have seen Second Life rise and fail-to-achieve... and they're not impressed with other virtual worlds trying the same recipe but just offering cheaper ingredients. None of these things alter the problems listed above... the high learning curve, the lack of goals / achievements / rewards, the element of "What is there to do?"
The currently existing answers to that question are evidently not sufficient; if they were, people would be buying more regions.
It is possible to progress without growth. We can work and try and try and try... but unless we break beyond existing barriers, unless new things are tried, unless new visions are entertained and attempted... the failures of the past will continue to be failures of the present and of the future.
Fortunately with virtual companies the possibility of significant growth exists... but only if the companies themselves are willing to try new visions and go far beyond what has been already attempted. Gimmicks are not going to work. Virtual companies have to get to the core reality of human psychology and offer customers what they really want. Not just the creative and imaginative .0002% of the population... but the average person. VR needs to access the Facebook crowd, the gamer crowd, the people who currently spend their time watching television and DVDs. How do we appeal to them?
If something is currently failing to achieve growth, it will likely continue to fail to achieve growth. In order to grow, one cannot avoid change. One must embrace new visions... and those visions cannot be limited to a tiny path with few or no alternatives.
Take out of that what we will or ignore it. This is the credo by which companies live or die.
FAILURE TO MATURE
While both Second Life and Inworldz are regularly increasing in numbers of registered users... those numbers are irrelevant unless they become active. That means buying lands, starting their own projects, becoming contributing members. They will only do that if they have reason to do that.
The numbers that count on virtual worlds are the numbers that bring in revenue, namely: the number of privately-owned regions. On Second Life that number has been steadily decreasing since 2008. On Inworldz that number has set, stagnated if you will, at around 800 regions for quite some time.
This brings us to a very valid question: Since the registered user numbers are increasing... why aren't sim purchases increasing proportionately?
So what can be done to get these registered users to become active, paying customers?
If Inworldz / Virtual Reality-as-we-know-it was attractive and exciting to new users, they'd be buying their own lands, creating their own projects, adding to the rich diversity which already exists. But that's not happening. One can make all sorts of excuses or try to justify / rationalize why this is the case, but the bottom line is that new users simply are not impressed enough to invest their time and money in the system.
Why is that?
The answer to that question is the answer to the uphill Virtual Reality struggle. It doesn't just affect Inworldz; it affects every grid based on the Second Life premise.
It is my opinion that we can add all the coding, gimmicks, bells and whistles we want, but it's going to do little good if we don't catch the attention of the first-time visitor. In order to grow in lands, Inworldz has to convince people early in their exposure that there is good reason to buy land. Currently, obviously, that simply isn't happening.
Yes, we need to concentrate on background code. Yes we need to develop new things like Windlight and Mesh and other goodies. But none of that is going to matter if new visitors aren't impressed at first look, if they're not swept off their feet, if that first taste isn't all that impressive. To sell burgers, the first bite has to be awesome. Then we have to give people a good reason to come back and buy more burgers. Are we doing that at this time? If not... how could Inworldz offer a far better and more motivating first impression?
A virtual reality company needs to make a lasting first-impression, one that sparks and motivates the visitor to become an avid customer. Code is extremely important. Customers are equally so. One cannot focus on one and ignore the other.
Inworldz simply needs to provide a far better first impression... and a more lasting, motivating impression.
How do we do that?
IT'S NOT THE TIME FOR NEGATIVITY
This isn't a negative blog; it's a realistic one. Virtual Worlds simply are not growing, progressing or accomplishing what they originally intended to accomplish. Whether it is Second Life, or Inworldz, or OpenSim or any adaptation thereof... no one is growing where it counts: increasing revenue to fuel additional R&D and grid economic growth.
The problem with an uphill struggle is that it continues to be uphill unless someone figures out a different path. We can continue to climb on, struggling upward, but until someone builds a new stairway, lift or rocket, that struggle is going to continue uphill with very slow progress.
Eventually perhaps, the summit of the mountain will be reached. Or alternately perhaps members of the climbing party will die along the way from failure to plan ahead or adapt to the harsh environment. This is the reality of what virtual worlds globe-wide are facing. The question is: do they develop new ways to reach the summit, or plod on in the current method, failing to adapt to an ever-changing and demanding computer environment?
As with all such tasks... the proof will be in the outcome. Claiming one is going to climb a mountain may gain some initial fanfare, but it's only reaching the peak that makes such claims a reality.