The future of virtual worlds

Thursday, December 20th, 2007

The concept of virtual worlds has long appealed to me, ever since I first read about them in elementary school, then proceeded to see them in popular media. The idea of a separate reality with its own set of rules fascinates me. And although we haven’t quite reached the farthest reaches of what we were promised with virtual worlds, they are, for the most part, here already.

Second Life (which I’ve written about a lot) is currently the best example of a general purpose virtual world. In it, one can interact with other people, play games, create things, participate in a full-fledged economy, find love, etc. — basically anything one can do in real life. Yet Second Life’s popularity pales in comparison to pure-gaming virtual worlds like World of Warcraft, RuneScape, Lineage II, etc., showing that we are still very much on the forefront of the field, and so far, it’s the gamers who are proving to be the bulk of the first adopters. But virtual worlds are inevitably on the way in and they should continue growing ever more popular over time, right?

Right?

Well, as it turns out with Second Life, this isn’t the case. Second Life’s player base peaked in July, 2007. Since then it’s been ever so slowly, yet inexorably, declining. What’s happening? Is this a problem with the entire virtual worlds concept? Maybe all that’s been holding it up is hype, and once people really start using one, they find it unnecessary? Or is it a problem with one particular virtual world?

My bet is on the latter. Second Life has significant problems that are directly harming it. It has many stability issues. Performance is inconsistent and prone to glitches and slowdowns in high traffic areas. The game is also nearly impenetrable to everyone but hardcore gamers (and despite having played games most of my life, it still took me a couple of hours after first playing around with Second Life to get the knack of things). And if you want to create some of the more advanced in-game objects (you know, the ones that actually do things), you’ll need to learn an entire programming language, complete with API.

In the end, I think Second Life’s interface is simply too idiosyncratic to appeal to the vast majority of the casual non-gamer types that it needs to truly burgeon. Compare that to the gaming-oriented virtual worlds like WoW which are doing just fine. The problem isn’t with the virtual worlds concept itself, it’s just that there hasn’t been a breakthrough general purpose virtual world like there have been breakthrough gaming ones. Yet. But that time will come. Who knows, maybe it will come in the form of an all new version of Second Life. But I kind of doubt it.

The same game-style interface that is so successful with WoW simply won’t work with something like Second Life. But it’s a deeper issue than interface design: the interface technology itself is there yet. Virtual worlds won’t be successful on a large scale until the interface itself evolves beyond the tired two-dimensional display, mouse, and keyboard. This interface is great for navigating the Internet (which will inevitably be the precursor to whatever virtual world ends up making it big). But it won’t see us through to the next revolution.

I cannot claim to know what specific future innovation in computer interfaces will allow the creation of the first breakthrough general purpose virtual world. I suspect anyone who knows would stand to be very successful off it. But I do have some guesses. Virtual worlds of the future will have to be more intuitive and accessible to the average person. Thus, they will need to map much more closely to the way we interact with the real world.

Rather than pressing a key to turn one’s view to the right, one should simply have to look to the right. This immediately suggests some kind of display set into glasses with motion sensors (or a full-fledged helmet if you want to be bulky about it) such that the view always tracks what you are looking at, and by turning once around you can see the whole world.

What I am describing is seemingly delving into the realm of science fiction. But it’s all completely possible with current technology. A decade ago at Disney World I played a virtual version of Pac-Man. They had me put on a helmet with two screens in it, one for each eye. To look around the virtual Pac-man maze, I simply turned my head to either side, and the view adjusted accordingly. The graphics weren’t so good, but that was a decade ago.

Technology has progressed very far since then, and is able to deliver a much closer simulacrum of reality. It’s now possible to get the feet into the action as well, using some sort of motion sensor or, even better, an omnidirectional treadmill, so you can actually walk rather than having to march in place. Imagine, a virtual world that you navigate through in exactly the same way as the real world. That’ll be much more easy for non-gamers than having to learn about WASD.

Looking farther down the line, I think eventually we’ll be able to interact with virtual worlds directly using thoughts, first with neural sensors worn on the head, and then later, using computers implanted directly in the brain. This sounds like science fiction, but it’s rapidly becoming science fact. Researchers have already developed brain implants that allow deaf people with defective ears to hear, or mute people with defective vocal cords to speak through computer speakers. For now this technology is limited to helping people with disabilities, but eventually it will be available to everyone, and not getting an implant will be as Luddite then as not using a telephone is now.

But I’m looking a bit too far into the future now. Virtual worlds don’t need brain implants to be as hugely successful as the world wide web is. They just need something along the lines of the non-invasive natural interface I first described. That will be good enough to put them over the edge and make them hugely successful. But until then, the way we interact with virtual worlds simply isn’t good enough, and Second Life is limited to being a fun novelty rather than the Next Big Thing.

Second Life continues to experience issues

Wednesday, May 2nd, 2007

Everyone’s favorite virtual world Second Life continues to be plagued with issues. The main five issues that are brought up are: inventory loss (items randomly disappearing), problems with find and friends list (frequent outages during which no results are returned), grid stability and performance (lots of crashes, teleports fail often, game falling apart at the seams), build tool problems (failed linking of primitives, imprecise placement, placement lag) and transaction problems (transactions, and records of transactions, failing and disappearing).

Needless to say, these are some very hefty issues. I experimented with Second Life during this past winter and I ended up stopping playing around in it following these very basic gameplay issues. The lag wass terrible at peak hours, making it difficult to do much of anything (especially teleport). Building anything was impossible because it literally took seconds between issuing a build command and the effect actually happening. And that was months ago. They’re experiencing exponential growth, so I’m sure it’s only much worse now. Second Life was lots of potential, but Linden Lab just doesn’t have the resources to make it live up to its full potential. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Google could run a great Second Life. But Linden Lab cannot.

Second Life: A bumpity annoying script

Thursday, March 1st, 2007

Okay, I just launched Second Life for the first time on my new computer just to see if things have gotten better. They haven’t! Teleportation takes over ten seconds, that is if it works at all. My failure rate in teleporting was 80%, and each time a teleport to a new region fails you get thrown out of the game and have to restart the client. Seriously. I tried playing for twenty minutes but just gave up. I cannot believe that “Second Life” is really the next big thing when it offers such a consistently poor user experience.

Anyway, I did have time to make a fun little script, but I wasn’t really able to fully test it, so it may have bugs! Throw it on a small physics-enabled object and try it for yourself.

default {
    state_entry() {
        llSetStatus(STATUS_PHYSICS, TRUE);
        llSensorRepeat("", NULL_KEY, AGENT, 300, PI, 1);
    }
    
    sensor(integer total_number) {
        integer i;
        integer theTarget = llFloor(llFrand((float)total_number));
        vector targetPos = llDetectedPos(theTarget);
        llApplyImpulse(-llGetVel(), FALSE);
        llApplyImpulse(10 * (targetPos - llGetPos()), FALSE);
    }
    
    no_sensor() {
        //We don't do anything.
    }
}

Basically, it sets a sensor to look at its surroundings every second, picks a random person, and then throws itself at high speed at that person. It’s incredibly annoying. You get bumped around the screen a whole lot. Even more insidious would be combining this script with a rezzing script, to make, say, five of these bumping objects a second. You could easily knock around a whole sim full of people that way. Of course, I do not endorse griefing, but if you’re hanging out with your friends on your own property, why not show them a good time?

Second Life goes nuclear

Sunday, February 25th, 2007

Yahoo is running a ridiculously-framed story about “virtual nuclear terrorism” in Second Life:

SAN FRANCISCO (AFP) – In an explosive display, virtual-world banes now mirror the havoc of the real one as terrorists have launched a bombing campaign in Second Life.

People controlling animated avatar members of a self-proclaimed Second Life Liberation Army (SLLA) have set off computer-code versions of atomic bombs at virtual world stores in the past six months — with their own manifesto.

The SLLA claims to be an “in-world military wing of a national liberation movement” devoted to replacing the rule of Second Life creator Linden Labs with a democracy representing the nearly four million residents.

There are a lot of misconceptions here that need addressing. I’ve spent a bit of time in Second Life, so I guess I know what’s going on there, at least moreso than the AFP’s reporters. For one, this isn’t terrorism, it’s simply a protest. Real terrorism is so vile, deadly, and damaging I don’t think it’s even appropriate to use the word in reference to events in a virtual world that only last a minute and cause no lasting damage. The proper term for this is “griefing”. Terrorism doesn’t even begin to enter into it. It’s like comparing an online troll to the Nazis. It’s very offensive to the millions of people who had relatives killed in the Holocaust. Likewise, I’m sure a mourning family in Iraq would stare daggers at you if you referred to events in Second Life as “terrorism”, because they know what terrorism really is.

I’ve had it up to here with the news media treating every little thing that happens in virtual worlds as if it has parallels to the real world. No it doesn’t! Yes, so a few people have made lots of money out of Second Life. For all of the rest of the players, however, it really is just a game. If someone is griefing the grid with “nukes”, replicating objects, or whatever else is hot these days, you can simply log out for a little while and go play a different game until the attackers are inevitably banned. It’s not a big deal. It’s happened all the time. There have already been so many more destructive griefer attacks against the grid in the form of replicating objects, and nobody called those terrorism.

It’s just because we’re using this silly word “nuke”. It’s not a nuke on any level. Second Life is only programmed with Newtonian physics. It has no concept of nuclear physics. For that matter, it has no concept of even normal explosions, either. All that any “bomb” in Second Life really is is an object that is packaged together with some graphics and sound (to fake the explosion) and a push script that pushes everyone within a certain radius (and in a combat-enabled zone, also deals damage to them). That’s it. All a “nuke” in Second Life is is a normal faux bomb with the radius turned up to the maximum and a different set of graphics.

I’ve been nuked before in Second Life, and surprise surprise, it didn’t make the news. This was months ago. I was in a combat zone and this guy was showing off his weapons package. It had eighteen different ammunition types, all of which were pretty unique. For instance, one ammo type shot expanding balls of ooze that trapped avatars in place, another type of ammo was a net, another was exploding ammunition, etc. And of course, one type of ammo was a nuke, which is basically the best griefer weapon ever, because it throws you dozens of kilometers into the air and more likely than not also crashes out your client. That is if you don’t have the weapons package, of course, as the weapons package contains an anti-push script, so its user isn’t affected by bombs or nukes at all. This weapons package, incidentally, can be bought for L$2000 (~US$8) at in-game stores. It’s basically just a well put-together program that people buy and use for fun in the combat zones. It’s not even illegal within the game so long as you use it within combat zones; go outside of the combat zones and use it on the main continent to grief people, however, and the Lindens may want a word with you.

So you see, this whole “nuking” incident really isn’t a big deal whatsoever. All that happened is that people took a commercially-available script and used it outside of combat zones on the main continent as a part of their protest. Yes, their accounts may be facing some sanctions for it. No, it’s no terrorism, and more importantly, it’s not news. I hung out with some real griefers and I saw attacks far, far worse, such as infinitely replicating, bouncing, realistic-looking penises. Why didn’t the news media pick up on that? Because it doesn’t fit our conventional definitions about what terrorism looks like?

Addendum: Dr. Dobb’s just put up a great Second Life scripting tutorial.

More negative economic forecasts on Second Life

Wednesday, February 21st, 2007

I previously wrote about Randolph from Capitalism2.0, who had a very dismal (but perhaps accurate) outlook on Second Life’s future. Now he’s at it again. This latest article is very detailed, and contains more figures and graphs than one can shake a stick at. It’s hard to argue against, and even harder to dismiss out-of-hand, which is what some people did with Randolph’s last post.

Randolph has backed off on the rhetoric a little bit. He no longer thinks Second Life is a pyramid ponzi scam. He does, however, see a significantly negative economic outlook. In particular, he says that Second Life will need to maintain a staggeringly high 40% monthly growth over the long term to prevent rampant currency devaluation. Linden Lab has been very busy selling currency in-game (making them lots of money), but Randolph questions how willing they will be to buy a lot of back to prevent an economic collapse when the growth rate inevitably slows down. The whole economy seems to be based on rapid growth, with the large influx of new people supporting the established users. What happens when this hierarchy of spending collapses?

Randolph also makes some good points about how the Linden dollar isn’t actually a real currency by any financial definition of the term, but rather, can best be summed up as a virtual microtransaction token. He also has all sorts of interesting numbers on average hours of playtime per character and such. I’ll be following this saga with fascination. The potential of virtual worlds seems so high, but who knows if Second Life is actually sustainable? One wonders if they even have an economist on-staff to help manage their virtual currency. If not, all it could take is one Black Tuesday (which meatspace economies tend to experience a couple times each century) to shut down the whole endeavor permanently.

A Second Life advertising backlash?

Saturday, February 17th, 2007

There’s been a lot of news recently about corporations and other groups with ulterior motives advertising in Second Life. For instance, Toyota now has a presence in Second Life, as does John Edwards’ presidential campaign. On the surface of things, this appears to be good news for Second Life and its creators at Linden Lab. After all, they are getting lots of free publicity over it (the media loves stories about virtual worlds), and it shows that corporations are taking it more seriously. But I think there’s a serious risk of a backlash over all of these outside groups using Second Life to their own ends. After all, how useful is advertising in-game if all of the users are scared off, and the advertisers are just left advertising to each other?

People are naturally distrustful of advertising. They don’t like being exploited, and advertising frequently exploits. Second Life’s media attention recently has been almost entirely focused on organizations using, nay, exploiting, Second Life for their own purposes. Are users and gamers looking at these media stories and honestly thinking to themselves, “Hey, I want to go play a game where I get advertised to!” It doesn’t so much matter that the advertising is only in a small minority of locations, and that you could easily spend years enjoying the game without ever stepping foot into an advertiser’s zone. All that matters is the perception.

Second Life used to be cool because it was an virtual world that was entirely created by users. It still is, for the most part. But it’s changing. It’s increasingly being built by corporations and conglomerates, who are only looking out for their own interests. It’s the difference between, say, Facebook and cocacola.com. People go to Facebook because it’s a user community. People by and large don’t go to cocacola.com because it’s just a big web advertisement. As Second Life shifts further and further away from a peer-created virtual world to a corporation-created virtual world, how many new users is Linden Lab really going to be able to recruit?

Toyota advertises the Scion in Second Life

Thursday, February 8th, 2007

Toyota has launched an advertising campaign for the Scion (an automobile model) in Second Life. It’s one of those ingenious advertising campaigns where they actually get people to pay to use the advertisement. Seriously. They’re selling a virtual version of their car dubbed the Scion xD for L$300 (which translates to about US$1). It’s not that expensive, but then again, why in the hell should people have to pay money to take part in an advertising campaign?! There’s already lots of good, free stuff inside the game world that isn’t making money for mega corporations, so why should we have to pay for the stuff that is?

Toyota has also created a destination inside of Second Life called Scion City. I suspect it’s going to have a huge rush of people at the very beginning due to the high-profile exposure of the front-page CNN article on it (seriously, what?!), but I imagine it’ll drop off very quickly within a week. Also, I wonder how many thousands or tens of thousands some Second Life ace was contracted for to make this zone. CNN also gets the number of residents wrong, saying Second Life has “1.2 million residents”. This is not as bad as the estimate we saw earlier this month, but it’s still an over-estimate by about one order of magnitude. Where exactly are these newspeople getting the numbers from anyway? Just making it up? Asking Linden Lab, who seem to give a different number each week, and then taking the response at face value? Do some real journalism dammit!

Anyway, the Second Life hype machine runs along at full bore. I cannot possibly fathom how some minor virtual marketing ploy deserves a front-page mention on CNN, but there it is.

Sweden to open “virtual embassy” in Second Life

Thursday, February 1st, 2007

MSNBC reports that Sweden is planning on opening a “virtual embassy” in Second Life, to be staffed by real government employees. Joystiq makes the good point that it’s more of a tourist bureau than an embassy, since Second Life is not a sovereign nation in any way, shape, or form, and Sweden gains nothing by having “diplomatic relations” with a software company. However, I’m sure Sweden is quickly going to learn that Second Life is not all that it is hyped up to be. Sweden is going to find it impossible to justify the hourly wages they’re paying people to maintain the in-game presence, especially once they realize very few people are actually dropping by. To get appreciable visitor numbers in Second Life you basically need to be a casino, a sex club, or a hangout for marginalized fetishists (like the furries and Goreans).

Also, I find it necessary to rebut (yet again) Linden Lab’s misleading marketing hype, which MSNBC seems to have accepted at face value without even attempting to verify:

Second Life is a 3-D virtual world built and owned by its residents. It was created by Linden Lab and opened to the public in 2003. It says it now has more than 3 million inhabitants from around the globe.

This number of supposed inhabitants is ludicrous. That’s just the number of registered accounts, which anyone on the Internet will tell you means absolutely nothing. Hell, I’ve registered three accounts and haven’t played in over a month … but I still count as three of the “3 million inhabitants from around the globe”! One actually valid statistic to look at is the concurrency figures, that is, the number of people who are logged into the game at once. Second Life’s peak concurrence is around 27,000, and its average is below 20,000. Compare this to really successful online virtual games, like World of Warcraft, and you’ll see that it’s between one and two orders of magnitude smaller. Hell, World of Warcraft has 8 million subscribers: people who are currently shelling out $15/month to play the game. If Blizzard wanted to use the utterly unrealistic metric of “how many user accounts were ever registered” (like Linden Lab does), they could easily claim over “30 million inhabitants”.

There is no charge for a basic account but a one-time $9.95 fee is charged for additional basic account. Premium accounts start at $9.95 a month and allow you to own land on which you can build, entertain and live.

This isn’t true. You don’t own land in Second Life by any reasonable or legal definition of the term. At best it can be described as a land rental (although Linden Lab can revoke the rental agreement at any time, making it not much of an agreement). But the second you stop paying the (rather large) monthly land rental bills, boom, it’s all taken away. Yes, rented land can be transfered to others in exchange for money, which is probably where the confusion about land ownership comes from. The person you transfer the land to is now the one paying rental fees to Linden Lab.

Is Second Life really just a pyramid ponzi scheme?

Thursday, January 25th, 2007

A venture analyst offers his take on Second Life. The short story: it ain’t pretty.

Randolph Harrison was contacted by venture capitalists who were interested in getting involved in real-money trading, which is basically about trying to make real money by trading in virtual goods. Many people are quite profitable at doing this in World of Warcraft and other MMORPGs, but it is against their Terms of Service, making it far too risky to get involved in. Besides, these venture capitalists are only interested in getting into it if there are tens of thousands of profits to be made at least, and trying to secretively trade that amount in gold on World of Warcraft is a non-starter.

So the venture capitalists set their sights on Second Life, which is one of a very small number of games that explicitly allow real-money trading. Harrison did some calculations on market exchange rates, in-game interest rates, potential arbitrage situations, investment, etc., and concluded that there could potentially be a lucrative business there. As he says, “an array of journalists, academics, and company executives have claimed that SecondLife boasts an economy complete with in-game banks, multiple currency exchanges, a floating currency exchange rate, and a burgeoning in-game commerce and business base.”

Harrison identifies the three main profit-earners in Second Life: land speculation, which is what Anshe Chung used to make her million, avatar accessories (such as clothing) that people use to customize their appearance in the game world, and the seedy underbelly, which consists of virtual “escort services” (think chat room cyber sex, but with 3D graphics) and casinos galore. Lots of businesses are flourishing in Second Life that are otherwise simply banned in real life. This is something I noticed immediately, and it immediately dampened all of my (briefly entertained) thoughts of making real money in Second Life. This is a place run by virtual mafia.

So the venture analyst started off with a (relatively puny) US$10,000 investment, because he calculated large arbitrage opportunities on in-game banking exchange rates. But the apparent gains never materialized. Player-run “banks” simply vanished when they were given a large amount of money, disappearing into the virtual ether, along with the money. “FDIC insured” is a phrase unimaginable to Second Life denizens. In Harrison’s own words:

Whole banks will disappear over night, along with your L$ balance. Private businesses will simply refuse to make good on financial contracts. And individuals, pretty much all of whose real world identities are carefully guarded anonymous secrets, sometimes even will openly default, without recourse. […] The simple fact is, if you arbitrage a bank for over 2,000% return because they don’t understand financial engineering, don’t expect to be able to collect come payment time.

Trying to get their Lindens out of the game world at a profit proved impossible. The Linden Exchanges’ purported rates of 250–300 $L/US$ only exist for small quantities. Try to conduct large transactions and suddenly the rates become a lot more unfavorable: “Interestingly, these trades tended to net returns of right around 4%, which was the prevailing dollar deposit rate.” It’s not a real currency trading market, it’s an auction for virtual money, and all of the advantageous exchange rates are only available in small transaction volumes, almost like a scam to make one think their virtual money is worth a lot more than it actually is.

Harrison’s conclusion is that Second Life is a giant ponzi pyramid scheme. There is no profit to be made in it for the average person. It’s only the people at the top of the game world, the Anshe Chungs, those who control the large exchanges, who are able to profit from it. Everyone else coming in with a gleam of profit in their eye is really just feeding their money into the people at the top. Harrison ends with a grim, yet surprisingly accurate, summary: “There are but a very tiny handful that profit off of the Second Life economy. A handful of casino owners, large scale virtual land flippers, and brothel owners are responsible for nearly all of the real money extracted from the game. And they continue to attract new recruits to the bottom of the pyramid.”

I must admit, I was like Randolph Harrison two months ago. Yes, I lacked the venture capital, but I was attracted by the same lure: tales of people making lots of real money in the virtual realm. When I actually arrived and started to try to figure out how I could get in on any of it, however, I came to the same sort of realization that Harrison did. Which is why I use the game now as little more than a virtual physics experiment sandbox. Like any ponzi scheme, if you don’t get in on the top, you’re just a sucker hemorrhaging money, and I didn’t get in on the top.

Second Life has new competition: First Life

Wednesday, January 24th, 2007

GameSpot has a hilarious tongue-not-so-in-cheek review of Real Life. Reading through it, the review is actually very insightful, and it does touch all of the bases of real life. Thinking of real life as a videogame really does help elucidate some of the finer philosophical points that so many people struggle with. I especially like the following two quotes; they are very apt:

The only problem is you’re relegated to playing as a human character, though the game does randomly choose one of several different races for you (which have little bearing on gameplay and mostly just affect appearances and your standing with certain factions).

Player death is a serious issue in real life, and cause for continued debate among players, who often direct unanswerable questions on the subject to the game’s developers, who are apparently (and understandably) so busy that they generally keep silent.

It is somewhat maudlin to think of “real life player death” as “account expiration”, but it is a useful metaphorical tool to help those grasping with death. And hey, if by the time your account expires, you haven’t wringed every last drop of fun out of the game, then you weren’t playing it correctly.