VIRTUAL REALITY WORLDS-- A CRITICAL EXAMINATION
A considerably lengthy evaluation of the state of virtual worlds at this time.
Please be sure to examine the SL Metrics Analysis in the comments section following the blog. This appears approximately page 3 of the comments.
The field of virtual reality is not doing well, relatively speaking. Over the past four years there has been virtually zero growth (in fact, decline in user base is evident). There has been very little significant growth in technology and ability (mesh is about the only advance in features that can be credited to the worlds from 2008 to present... and people are widely divided in opinions about that). Sim count (the number of privately-owned lands) on Second Life, the largest of virtual worlds, is at a stall or declining and has been for years. In short, in a time period when virtual reality should be in its glory phase and booming... it seems in steady decline.
There are two exceptions to this downward trend.
OSGRID / OPENSIM
OSgrid, an OpenSim-based virtual grid in which users host sims on their own computers and tie in to a central address base, has seen slow but steady growth. This is primarily due to the fact that it is free and open, and users have almost total control over their own lands. They can back up their worlds and inventory in-entirety, have no one to report to, no TOS to follow, no corporate profit-centric policies to deter their work. In truth, the primary disadvantage is the OpenSim software itself, which has seen very little progress during recent years. Bug-filled, laggy and unstable... it does not present significant technical competition with the far more expensive Second Life platform.
Inworldz is the largest of the subscription virtual worlds. Although it is only one percent of the size of Second Life, it is far less expensive (¼ the price of SL), offers considerably more in the way of assets and is widely known for being a friendlier and more user-centric company. Inworldz was created by users for users and is less concerned with profit than Linden Lab, the owners of Second Life. Inworldz has a reputation of putting the customer first, which is the foundation upon which they've built their business model.
Although Inworldz is not free like OpenSim (the average sim costs $75 a month with free setup), it is also nowhere near the cost of Second Life ($295 a month and $1000 setup fee). Technically Inworldz is very close to Second Life, at this time lacking only fully-functional physics and mesh. However Inworldz boasts a completely re-written and more reliable asset server system (the system which handles inventory and user assets) as well as the Phlox scripting platform, a system considerably faster and more streamlined than Second Life's Mono. As a result, Inworldz simply runs better and faster than Second Life, with less lag and bugs than the grandfather grid.
In addition users on Inworldz seem to be in general far happier. While Second Life is plagued with drama and griefers (people who intentionally harass other users), the Inworldz Founders are far less tolerant and more consistent in their handling of such. As a result the Inworldz environment as a whole is more peaceful and friendlier than Second Life.
Inworldz has a very competent and skilled technical staff. As a result they've fixed many of the bugs that have plagued Second Life for years. The grid itself has a more stable, faster and stronger foundation of any grid existent, including Second Life. It is widely considered that once PhysX and Mesh are installed, they will be the most technically advanced virtual world on the planet, surpassing even Second Life in quality of performance. This opens up the way for Inworldz to increase dramatically both in size and profitability, as their lower fees and better product attract new users, both from Second Life and the Internet entire.
WHERE'S THE KABOOM?
In the cartoon, Marvin the Martian often tries to blow something up, only to have his weapons fizzle. “Where's the Kaboom? There is supposed to be a Kaboom” is one of his well-known lines.
Interestingly though, this is uttered just before the Kaboom occurs. Unfortunately in his case, it doesn't occur where he expected it to. That may turn out to be the case with Second Life.
So where is the Kaboom? Why aren't virtual worlds flourishing and even booming?
For Second Life the answer is simple: while the platform is fascinating, the host company (Linden Lab) has alienated so many customers that people have abandoned the platform by the tens of thousands (even tens of millions, when one considers their registration numbers). A company that focuses on profit rather than customer welfare is bound to lose its customers. That's a simple reality of business.
For other grids such as OSgrid and Inworldz, they simply haven't had enough time to solidify their foundation to the point that they are ready to attract new users.
So those are the simple answers to the question of absent growth. But there is more involved, something considerably more important and potentially more devastating to the future of virtual reality. That something is what no one likes to talk about: what if the very concept of the platform is not what people need or want?
Second Life is the concept on which most virtual worlds are formed. They all work basically the same way, have the same design, function almost identically in use. As a result, they all tend to have the same flaws: slow loading textures, avatar skins that fade in and out, lag issues, bugs, and a very steep learning curve that is discouraging to new users.
Inworldz overcomes this to a certain extent in several ways:
* Mentors. These are self-giving volunteers dedicated to making the new-user experience easier-- and are indeed one of Inworldz greatest assets. Without the Mentors, Inworldz would not function as smoothly as it does.
* Software Improvement. The devs at Inworldz know their stuff and are dedicated to making the board run as smoothly as possible. They have eliminated a great deal of the lag and bottlenecks that plague Second Life (and that really plague OpenSim).
* Inworldz cares about its customers... more-so than they care about profit (and we hope that continues. It's part of what makes them great. Put the customers first-- and the profit will follow).
A LIMITED AUDIENCE
Even so, one of the chief problems of the current design of virtual worlds seems to be the design itself-- and the possible reality that it appeals to a rather limited audience. Just how large is the audience available?
A main problem with virtual worlds is that they offer an incredibly versatile environment-- but within a fairly limited context. They also have a great deal of competition, both from other computer environments and games, and from real life itself. Because one of the downsides of Virtual Reality is that it takes a lot of time. This significantly limits the potential audience for Virtual Worlds.
There is a tendency for users of virtual worlds to have several things in common:
* They have a lot of free time on their hands
* They are often disabled, aged, home-bound or have other handicaps that prevent them from functioning socially in real life
* They have a certain level of income (at least enough to own a computer and have constant access to the Internet)
* They understand and enjoy computers (people who dislike computers aren't likely to enjoy computer-generated worlds)
* They tend to be more interested in virtual reality than their real lives
* They use VR as an “escape”-- or alternately to totally replace their real life social structure
* They tend to not be "family people" with husbands, wives, children; families are time-intensive.
* They have a specific mentality that makes them more interested in creating their own world than in taking part in pre-created worlds (such as online games)
* They tend to be fairly intelligent; Virtual Worlds have a high learning curve and demand focus.
* They like the concept of virtual worlds, preferring to spend their time there rather than say, Facebook
These are not only items of commonality among VR users, they are also limitations. If an individual doesn't fall into at least two or three of these categories, likely s/he isn't likely to be interested in VR. When we consider this reality-- the available audience for Virtual Reality suddenly becomes a great deal smaller than the whole of the Internet.
The realization we come to then is this: the dream isn't likely to happen. It has too much competition.
“The Dream” was the creation of one of the founders of Second Life, Philip Rosedale. The concept was to create a second Internet of sorts, founded around 3D virtuality rather than 2D web pages. Whether people ever thought that was actually possible or not is a matter of question, but at this point in time it becomes obvious it didn't happen, for several reasons.
One was because of the closed-wall design of Linden Lab. The company apparently started out with good intent, but over time and with the addition of significant money-focused investors, the company became profit-centric rather than user-oriented. They forgot the dream. Customer welfare took a far back seat to the concept of earning more and more money. The virtual world was “walled in”, the company taking a dictatorial stance on company policies, user rights, and limitations of ability (how much can one actually do with 15k prims on a 256m chunk of virtual grass?). They prevented users from expanding their creations and activities to other grids outside of Second Life, which fairly killed any hope of the dream being fulfilled. Above all the dream required company-user cooperation-- something that Linden Lab not only discouraged, but actively prevented.
Customers didn't take this lying down. They created OpenSim, a definitely free-and-open society which had the potential of at least carrying the concept beyond the iron-curtain walls of Second Life. To a degree they succeeded. However a lack of organization, lack of direction and ever-present egos (always a danger in the computer field) prevented OpenSim from growing as well or quickly as it could have. Thus after years of work the software remains a bug-ridden, laggy and shaky in foundation code... not the kind of thing on which dreams are built.
The largest and most successful of the next-generation grids, Inworldz formed a blend between the professional status of Second Life and the low-cost of OpenSim. There are several such grids out there, but Inworldz topped the list by exercise of simple business common-sense. They started out as users dissatisfied with how Second Life was managed, so decided to do things differently, focusing on the welfare of their users and putting the customer first. That proved to be an excellent launch pad.
Unlike OpenSim they realized that for a virtual world to progress technically, it would require money, organization and professionally-qualified people. So they set up a platform similar to Second Life (a closed-wall system), but charged ¼ the price and offered three times the assets. This attracted considerable interest, most notably from large groups like Elf Clan, along with skilled and talented creators and builders who had tired of the restrictions of the Second Life platform.
Inworldz realized a virtual world is built on its foundation, so they hired some very talented programmers to shore up that foundation and create a more stable, faster system. As a result their scripting system, built from the ground-up, exceeded all expectations and technically gave them a boost over even Second Life. Their decision to use Nvidia's PhysX rather than the problematic Havok promises to provide a superior physics platform as well.
In short, Inworldz did things right... for the most part. Of course like any grid (or for that matter any business) they've had their problems and downsides. No virtual world is perfect. But Inworldz succeeded in areas where both Second Life and OpenSim failed. Whereas Second Life had a technically shaky platform and dissatisfied customers, OpenSim had satisfied customers but a very shaky platform... Inworldz for the first time managed to have a solid platform with satisfied customers. They seem to have struck on the right combination. It isn't one that will accomplish the dream... but it works and for the most part, customers are pleased and very loyal to the company.
So... why isn't Inworldz booming? Where is the Kaboom?
FACING REALITY IN VIRTUAL REALITY
As much as some may hate to admit it, the reality is that Second Life was there first, and they are still by far the most popular grid. That will likely remain the case for some time yet.
Why is this? The reason boils down to limited audience, limited interest and investment. Consider:
Many people are very heavily vested in Second Life. They have invested in the grid to the point they financially cannot afford to abandon the platform. They own land that they rent out, they've invested tens of thousands of dollars in their group or business and they're simply not willing to write that off. Many people earn their real-life living from Second Life. Such folks are going to stick it out so long as it proves to be profitable.
Others are socially vested in the grid. “I'd leave, but that's where all my friends are” is a commonly-heard statement.
Others have invested so much in their avatars and inventory they simply don't want to leave all of that behind. Even for those who move elsewhere there is often the lament, “I wish I had my stuff from Second Life.” Not everyone is willing to pull up roots, leave it all behind, and start a new life. That's a simple reality of the situation.
Second Life has approximately 750,000 regular users and a concurrency (the number of people online at one time) from 30,000 to 50,000 people. They have some 30,000 paid sims (or so, no one is really sure at this time. It has been declining on a monthly basis for some time) and some 95,000 (or so) paid subscribers (premium users).
Comparatively, Inworldz has somewhere around 5,000 regular users, a concurrency of 200-300 and around 800-900 paid sims (it fluctuates). Paid subscribers is a moot point as Inworldz does not charge for premium membership; all users have the same rights and privileges. (While that doesn't do much for the profit line, it does a great deal in encouraging new members to become involved with Inworldz.)
Interestingly Inworldz isn't too worried about those figures. In fact, it's part of their business plan, which has basically been: Make the system work right first, then we'll bring in the customers. That makes sense in many ways. If the foundation is solid and the system running well before new customers come in, those customers are likely to be far happier with the environment as a whole, and more likely to stick around to become paying customers.
We had as a historic example Second Life itself. Although they have been financially successful and are reasonably large... their 95,000 paid members are a tiny percentage of the some 24 million registered users-- the vast majority of which took a look around and then left. The reasons are well-known: poor performance, lag, bad customer support, unfriendly environment. That's a part of well-known history, and a mistake Inworldz didn't wish to repeat.
As a result, the vast majority of Inworldz' current population consists of pioneers, early-adopters or explorers if you will. Most have either come from Second Life, or are friends of people who did. We came to Inworldz prepared for the early stages of a new company, were willing to put up with the bugs and glitches and burps... because we foresaw a potentially bright future for the grid. As a result during the relatively short period of time Inworldz has been online, their growth has stabilized at around 200-300 concurrency and 800-900 sims and has hung in there for quite some time. Yet although Inworldz is the largest of the “secondary” grids... there has been no “kaboom”... yet.
WAITING FOR THE KABOOM
That doesn't mean of course, there won't be growth. Part of Inworldz plan is to get the foundation installed, the major bugs eliminated, both Phlox (scripting) and PhysX (physics) installed... and then start their marketing push. Pretty much all users are aware of this and are willing to wait for that time. We're the early-adopters, the explorers. That's what we came prepared for, and we like it this way. We're patient.
That hasn't held true for everyone of course. Some have come to Inworldz and gone back to Second Life, or to another grid, or quit VR entirely. Why?
* Price. As relatively inexpensive as Inworldz is, it still has a price. $75 a month compared to $295 is considerably less-expensive, but it's still $75. Some people can't afford $20 a month, much less $75. So price is always an issue... and a reason thousands of people use OSgrid instead of Inworldz. It's just a matter of personal finances and economics.
* Merchants. Some merchants came to Inworldz expecting to expand their business, hoping to make the same kind of killing there that they did on Second Life. What they found was that Inworldz wasn't to that stage yet, and unwilling to be “early adopters” and hang in there waiting, they simply shut down their investment and left. There's really nothing wrong with that; a professional merchant goes with the money and at this time-- the money isn't in Inworldz. They will however, very likely return when Inworldz population starts growing. That's just simple common-sense business and isn't a big problem for Inworldz. Inworldz knows they'll likely be back when the population expands.
* Socializers. Face it, if you want a social environment Second Life is the place to be. That's a simple reality. That's where the people are, it's where the events are, it's where the concurrency is, where the already-developed-society is. It's a simple concept: Second Life was there first and they've had several years advance start on everyone else. Not everyone enjoys living on an island. Some people like living right in the heart of the big city and right now-- SL is the “big city”.
* Dissatisfaction. Some people are simply dissatisfied with VR for one reason or another and bounce from grid to grid until they find one that allows them to do exactly what they want to do. Inworldz has a TOS, it has rules, it has expectations of its users. So it will expectantly lose some users to the simple reality that some people don't enjoy a “closed wall” environment with rules. Inworldz isn't a place for the chaotic, the anarchy-driven, the “I wanna do what I wanna do”, anti-social or malcontents. Inworldz doesn't worry too much about that. Elf Clan agrees; that's kind of the way we work as well. If people don't like us, they are welcome to pursue their entertainment elsewhere. No one is handcuffing users to anything.
So these are all realities of the virtual environment of Inworldz. The platform isn't for everyone, nor is it meant to be. Its growth will come from specific types of people who appreciate its structure, security and stability.
BUT WHY IS SECOND LIFE STAGNANT?
For the last four years Second Life has not only stagnated, it has declined. During that time Linden Lab discontinued publishing their public demographics, strongly indicating they didn't want people to see what was happening behind the scenes. As a result we don't have a real idea of how many sims there are, how many paid users, how statistically popular Second Life is.
However, there are ways to examine things outside of the realm of Linden Lab's “Iron Curtain” restrictions. Analysts indicate SL is losing sims at the rate of approximately 100 a month. Indications are their profits are declining (although that's largely a matter of speculation). Customer satisfaction is at a low, due primarily to the OpenSpace Sim Fiasco (a “bait and switch” price hike which cost the company some 5,000 sims and tens of thousands of customers), a new Viewer that the majority of their users dislike (read: hate with a passion), and new company policies that have reduced user rights and capabilities significantly.
In an independent survey Linden Lab as a company was given an “F” rating in “trustworthiness” by their customers. Company stock has fallen to almost worthless value. Indications from third-party companies such as Glass Ceiling indicate significant employee disgruntlement and disorganization among management. Second Life's own forums and blogs reveal thousands of angry protests and hate-rants regarding both the company and the environment.
In short, for years Linden Lab has done just about everything wrong, without consideration for the welfare of their customers, and as a result are reaping the consequences of blatantly self-centered company decisions and management.
WHY AREN'T THE CUSTOMERS GOING TO OTHER GRIDS?
Many of them are. As pointed out, Inworldz has reached a stage where it is “working”... profitable enough to remain in business although it's not yet booming. Most of its customers came from SL. In addition OSgrid has over ten thousand sims, indicating a significant exodus from Second Life.
But the truth is (as mentioned way back there) the potential audience for virtual reality is somewhat limited... and a good portion of that audience has been soured in regard to virtual reality. They not only left Second Life... they left VR entirely and went to other areas. Notable are online societies such as World of Warcraft with a paid user base of nine million subscribers, a figure that puts the joint whole of virtual reality worlds to shame. WoW is just one game out of thousands on the Internet.
The popularity of social networks such as Facebook have done much to derail VR. Such systems are far easier to use, fulfilling to their users, less stressful, and very time-consuming. As pointed out earlier, one of the primary requirements for VR is plenty of free time. There are only so many hours in the day... and people will devote those hours to what pleases them most. When they have a choice between the complex, often-stressful environment of VR, and the simpler, full-control environment of their favorite social network, they simply opt-out of Virtual Reality and go elsewhere.
Trying to predict the future of Virtual Reality is like playing a game of darts... blindfolded... and standing with your back to the board. There are simply too many variables. However, we can give a stab at it:
* Second Life will continue to rule the roost... for a while. The reasons are stated above. Even when something better comes along (such as Inworldz) those reasons aren't going to change. There are thousands of people who would rather spend $295 a month for a piece of land on SL than $75 a month for a better deal on Inworldz- and no matter how good Inworldz works that will continue to be the case... for a time.
That doesn't mean however that Second Life will always be the largest grid, or that it won't decline over time. One of the main problems with SL was failure to grow because of negative company policies. Remove those negative policies and growth potential exists. Since Linden Lab has a reputation for being stubborn and ignoring their customers, that potential isn't likely to emerge on Second Life. It will have to emerge elsewhere.
* Inworldz future looks pretty bright. Its significantly reduced price and considerably better product will attract users competitively. Whereas it got its start primary by users leaving Second Life, Inworldz will in 2013 (if things go as planned) start generating new users from the public... and those users won't face the same problems they faced on Second Life. Inworldz users will be cheerfully greeted and helped, they will find a stable and non-laggy environment, and prices they can afford (even if they can't handle $75 a month for a sim, they might be able to afford $5 to $7 for a good-size rental plot). Even if Second Life stays where it is at this time... Inworldz may eventually grow to be considerably larger. It's simply friendlier, more stable and offers more for your money (considerably less money at that). Inworldz may very well wind up being the most successful of the virtual worlds.
* OSgrid will undoubtedly continue to grow. Free is free and people will take advantage of FREE even when it's not their preference. How popular and successful it becomes depends a great deal on the progress of their software... which at this time doesn't look very good. The future of OSgrid and OpenSim in general depends almost totally on the ability of their volunteer developers to organize and improve their product. We're not holding our breaths on that one. Still, people own entire sims or even clusters on OSgrid when they could not possibly do so elsewhere; that free environment is OSgrid's primary strength.
Of one thing there is no question: Virtual Reality worlds have not lived up to their potential. Why does Second Life have only 30,000 sims instead of 300,000? Why after all these years are all virtual grids still buggy and laggy (admittedly, Inworldz less so than all others). Why does SL have a reputation of being a “virtual brothel” and an “iron curtain” environment... and why do people look at other virtual grids based on that reputation? Why is VR still so difficult to learn and use? Why don't customers find easy and intuitive solutions to their questions right inside the viewers? Why do virtual worlds insist on being 18+ instead of trying to be more family-friendly?
These are all good questions-- questions the grids are going to have to work hard to answer over the next year or two. Because a very real problem exists, one that we've seen only recently and appears to be growing:
People are getting tired. They're getting tired of VR in its current state, they're getting tired of waiting for the features and performance they want, they're just getting tired of messing with it. They've been there, done that, can go no farther. As a result, currently all of the virtual worlds seem to be going more on existing momentum than they are change, improvement, simplification/ease of use, and new growth. Momentum only goes so far before the train comes to a grinding halt.
THE THREAT OF COMPETITION
One very real problem is one that has existed for quite some time: if we're not doing it the right way now, that leaves a major gap for someone to come along and do it better. This has been one of the primary threats to VR for quite some time. What happens to all these worlds if suddenly a new product hits the market, one that has been in secret production for years, has had significant research and development and money behind it, and is designed in such a way that overrides the flaws and problems of the existing SL-based worlds?
That concept may sound far-fetched, but that is how the computer field works. It's highly competitive, highly-innovative, and it tends to learn from past mistakes. All it takes is one easy-to-use, common-sense, customer-friendly virtual world product hitting the market to put Linden Lab and everyone else in the business out of business. If it doesn't happen tomorrow, it could happen a year from now, or the year after that. The point is that if that happens, it will be too late to try to fix the problems VR has now. That is a potential threat everyone should take quite seriously.
If Virtual Worlds are going to succeed and prosper over the coming years, these things must be addressed today.
– Wayfinder Wishbringer