My last post generated waves and counterwaves which I frankly did not expect. I hope my personal rant regarding NWN wasn't the only thing people came away with. I was addressing a point that a recent (trollish) comment on this blog brought up: for every person what writes a book, 20,000 people read it. Perhaps the bloggers are a numerically-small ratio of residents inworld, but they do express the oft-heard, widely-disseminated and general underlying comments, complaints and problems of many, if not most, residents.
Some people might argue that these complaints are "sour grapes," unfounded, unjustified or whatever other labels would be used to dismiss such discontent. So what if they are? Public perception of your company's actions and stance should be the #1 priority of Marketing/PR unless you happen to be selling something crucial to life itself (oxygen, food, electricity).
Problem #1 - What's that you say about me?
With all the talk from the Lab about "the first hour experience," most of these complaints and critiques touch directly on that first hour. They are, to most new and old residents alike, THE problems with Second Life. It is very seldom I (and I bet many others) have heard a complaint about the viewer "not being sparkly enough/enough like Facebook/Google/WoW" in comparison to hearing these complaints. These problems affect everything about the SL experience and discourage people from returning or from bringing friends inworld. They are directly responsible for the falling retention numbers.
The recent example of nVidia's problems is instructive: by trying to cheat their core customers one time, they sacrificed 7 years of fanatic support and goodwill in the gamer community. They lost enough business to let ATI gain a foothold in areas nVidia had all but locked up. They caused not only their loyal customers but future customers who those loyal ones would have brought to the table to look elsewhere. They lost billions of dollars in present and future sales. nVidia might recover, unlike the original ATI who suffered so much from their perceived arrogance and unapproachability regarding driver and architecture problems that the company failed and had to be bought by AMD, who spent a great deal of time repairing the drivers before they even marketed a new "ATI-branded" video card.
The mention of the Ford Edsel was not a sarcastic one; I'd have to republish the whole Wikipedia entry here to point out the parallels with the nVidia, ATI and SL problems. My first job in retail was at a record store that had been in business 40 years (and was semi-famous). It had two stores (one tiny, one warehouse) less than a quarter-mile apart. Despite being in competition with Sam Goody, The Wherehouse and Kmart, we had customers come to us from Denmark, Leningrad and Paris on strictly word-of-mouth recommendations. It was drilled into me over and over that customer goodwill and word-of-mouth was the most fundamental and critical tool at our disposal, worth more than 20 half-page newspaper ads at 1000$ a pop. I've never seen that bit of wisdom fail.
If the Lab feels that their position is being misrepresented, is being ignored, misunderstood or is not accurate, it is up to them to openly address that problem as a problem in public relations.
We hear you hearing us
Rod Humble's recent Twitter presence has surprised people and given them much to chatter about. Most-often repeated comment: "This gives me hope." That such a small effort at outreach is providing hope to many who have taken a sad or cynical view of the Lab's position should raise a huge beacon. The response has been overwhelmingly positive to some of the statements Rod has made ("he'd really go to Inworldz to check out the Mentor program?!?!") and I join the chorus of praise and compliments for the effort. This is PR as it should be.
Rod's comment to me (after actually reading my blog), "Adversarial? Surely not!" was very nice and a good position for a CEO to take. He might be unaware that this word is one of the most-frequently stated opinions regarding LL's relationship with their customers (a short Google search of "Linden Lab" +adversarial will demonstrate this). It's certainly not only my own opinion and it is not recent. It is based not on one incident alone (like Viewer 2) but the culmination of the perceived conduct of the Lab over the past 3 years I have been in Second Life.
I'd point to this perception of unavailability, standoffishness and arrogance as the crucial problem Second Life/LL has at this present time. It's a public-relations catastrophe. No new toys (viewer 2.0, mesh, FB integration) will help this problem; none will relieve it. No one will stick with the program or bring new people to explore and enjoy Second Life if this problem continues.
Most of the issues brought up over countless JIRAs, conversations and complaints to Linden Labs could be dealt with in a way that did not alienate the community of users and kept not only retention of old users but brought in new ones. Most of them mesh with the Lab's own stated goals of retention and growth, being observed as broken parts of the program; things that make "fast, easy, fun" a somewhat sarcastic refrain.
Who's doin' it right
InWorldz is a good example in this discussion. I am there currently for several reasons; a main one is that I worry about the stability of Second Life and its continued existence (also the reason I am spread out over numerous grids now). That doesn't mean I wish to abandon Second Life.
One of the repeated comments regarding IW is "they are so approachable!" This I have found to be true by my own experience. Elenia, Tranquillity and Legion are very hands-on. They are seen working hard, making a deep effort to connect and dialogue with the residents of the grid; they are very active in the forums; they listen to problems and complaints and have enough foresight and business wisdom to separate the wheat from the chaff. They demonstrate their willingness to listen and their commitment to problem-solving for the benefit of the residents so that they may benefit the company. (please don't take this as cheerleading for IW; there's plenty of good grid-managers out there now; ask Pathfinder Lester and the rest of the Hypergrid explorers)
Sure, IW has problems. It's a growing grid with far less staff than Linden Labs. There are glitches just like in SL. There are things that are not enabled yet (some script functions, physics). Sure, some people are the kind who wish to only take from the world, not contribute to it; the legions of wanna-be Anshe Chungs who read that SL/VWs were the way to make oodles of spacebux; who get disgruntled when they port their inventory over and immediately do not start making Iz hand-over-fist. I'd guess they've never started or maintained a real-world business before and don't understand how to build one in a new market.
But people stay, and InWorldz has been growing steadily, as have other grids. Why? They have the same troubles (or more/different) than Second Life. What's the difference?
The difference is that these other grid operators are seen as less mercenary; as more involved with their grids; as caring about their grids beyond a mere profit spreadsheet; who have not succumbed to the current insanity that passes for "business acumen" in the web2.0-hypervisor-datamining-cloud vapor-speak crowd and recognize that principles that have served business well for at least 2000 years have some validity and profitability. The difference is in people committed to long-term and steady growth in an industry, not some vulture-capitalist-tainted ADHD view of one quick quarterly bump on the P&L sheet followed by a steady decline.
The difference is that they treat their customers with attention and respect, listen to them and understand that what hurts a business most is the perception that the owners do not care about the people who fork over money to them. They understand that no amount of talk will stand for long without a concrete demonstration of feedback and response to their customer's complaints and issues.
Retention: who stays and why
Most of the residents who have been present in Second Life far longer than me have a huge investment in this technology. We believe, as we believed in 1993 with HTML and the beginnings of the WWW, that this is the edge of a tech that will proliferate into wide use and change the nature of online presence. We weren't the fashionable crowd; we weren't the daytrippers and the samplers. We put a great deal of time, money and energy into something that we believed in and we had good practical reasons for doing so. We were in the minority; I remember trying to explain to people in '93 what email was and what HTML was and why I thought it would revolutionize communication. I was not alone in that view.
The answer is all around us now, as your grandmother goes to You Tube to see videos of her out-of-state niece in her first ice-skating competition or in the ubiquitous nature of email; in the recent democratized bulletins from Egypt and Syria and in Wikileaks. Time has proven us right.
This tech, in its infancy in 1997 (VRML) and its steady progression fueled by the gameworlds' interest and efforts in 3D visualization, is still at the steam-engine stage. It isn't for everyone; it does demand some learning and some experience. No one jumps into Blender, Maya or Lightwave; there is a learning curve, yet no one argues for removing the nurb controls in those programs "because they are too hard or confusing." Trying to "democratize" this tech is to destroy what the tech is without the time, energy and investment needed to develop and mature the tech in the same way that it took 5 years, more or less, from the first initial postings on the WWW to the explosive adoption and widespread use of websites in or around 2000.
Linden Labs has a damn good steam engine here. Just as the railroads had not a track-and-trestle business but a transportation business, Linden Labs has a fundamental technology that given proper development and attention could be the next WWW. We're already seeing signs of the desire for immersive experience, mostly from the gameworlds (as usual, the cutting edge). They do a lot of business.
Most of the complaints and problems raised regarding Second Life are endemic and address the architecture and performance of the program. This affects the retention and attraction of new users to the platform, which inevitably affects the profitability of the program and of the Labs. The technology is proliferating now; LL is not the sole-and-only. As an example, Elf Clan, a long-time group of residents giving LL thousands of dollars a month to maintain their inworld community, finally had enough of non-response to problems and complaints to the Lab and took those thousands of monthly dollars to another grid.
I've read a couple years' worth of Wayfinder Wishbringer's forum posts, JIRA reports and the rest of his output to be confident in saying that he was no mere whining troublemaker; Wayfinder did some amazing bug-tracking and reporting, collating reports from the many Clan landholders and members as to problems impacting the Second Life experience of hundreds of people; not only wasn't he paid to do this, but he was paying LL while he did it. He is only one example; I am sure people with much more knowledge and history could point you to dozens of other capable and technologically-competent people who have tried for years to help Linden Lab through JIRAs and community meetings to address these problems for the financial betterment and growth of the company (and for us).
We're not playing a game; we have a home where we play games
I think the single-most important perception and disconnect between residents and Linden Labs is in what Second Life is to most people. Again, I'll reach into the gameworlds for examples -my experience with them was deep and committed; after the collapse of the first VWs I spent a lot of time in those worlds, pursuing 3D model-making and texturing (and flying!). As now, I did not profit immediately from this time and investment.
People who think worlds like WoW are just "a place to go to waste some time between other things" haven't really spent much time in those worlds. People can play many games offline; they can get to Level 99 Uber Elf on their own; they can hack them, expand them with mods and tinker with them all they like without shelling out a monthly play fee and the fees for online connectivity required to play. So... why do they go there?
Because there's a community there. I can say from personal experience that at least half my time in a gameworld was in talking to other people; not just about what weapon I needed to get past a level Boss, but about their lives, their friends, their interests, their hopes, their dreams... them as people; as friends. Why do people put in so much effort into their Farmville farms? Just to raise cows? Hardly; they raise cows to brag about, discuss, get tips about and in general interact with other people, forming friendships and alliances and being part of a community. This urge to belong is fundamental to the human experience.
WoW, Farmville, Minecraft, Diablo, Freelancer/Crossfire, EVE and dozens of others thrive (and profit) because they are a home to many people. They are not played in isolation. People have serious time and money invested in those games because they offer more than a simple 2-hour escape from reality; they offer friendships and a sense of belonging. People go to these places to play games... but they also get news, tips, opinions, discussion, jokes and pointers to resources outside the game universe.
Who are you going to brag to that you made level 99 with a Mercenary/got past that nasty uber-Boss/found the rare Brass Panties of Athena granting you +50 to your bowshots/finally understood a LSL script/made your first Castle/sold your first outfit/found Bryn Oh's Standby if you're playing in standalone mode? I have my own local sim now (on a USB stick no less) where I can create all I want. So why do I still go to SL/IW? It's my home. My chosen community is there.
People who have homes are passionate about their neighborhood/state/country/world. They spend enough time inworld to recognize the difference between someone merely complaining about difficulty ("I tried and tried to get past this Boss and I can't! This game suxor!") and the real problems with the neighborhood ("I keep getting latency times of >700ms since that last patch"). They understand that problems with access or useability trump all eye-candy or decoration and discourage not only long-term players but newbies who will not have the good parts of the world to draw on and temper their experience with patience for a very complex technology. Sure, populations rise and fall in such worlds due to many reasons, but a glance at the P&L sheet of Blizzard will assure anyone of their profitability over the long-term.
The examples of this perception of a home online are self-evident. Why do people check /. or Huffington Post first thing in the morning instead of Faux Noos? Why do they patronize one web page over another? Why have people fled to other grids and reduced their presence in Second Life or let their (4-5-6-year) Premium Membership lapse into a freebie account in protest, preferring to pay a Private Island landlord tier rather than Linden Labs? Because they feel betrayed by LL as a community. They feel they are merely numbers in someone's spreadsheet; numbers that can be easily manipulated on paper to show a (paper) profit; numbers that can be discarded for the pipe-dream of "future, betterer numbers!"
These people have put up with a great deal of instability, technical limitations and problems to remain inworld for years, continuing to give LL money for that privilege. They have tried helping LL locate, document and focus on problems relating to the performance and stability of the program. They have continued not only to remain but to spread the word and their recommendations for Second Life despite the sensationalist press which passes for SL reporting in the media and makes SL look like some dumb sex chatroom.
But we can't do anything about the slipping retention rates or the fleeing of customers to other grids without active and involved Linden presence and attention to these problems that impact the user experience so devastatingly. We take the continued ignoring, covering up, dissembling, icy pronouncements from On High and general lack of inworld presence of The Company to be a clear sign of apathy and dissociation with their own product. It makes us wary of continuing to invest in that company and wary of bringing anyone new into an environment that shows signs of deterioration, neglect and appears unstable and uncertain.
This is Linden Lab's primary problem at this time. It needs to be addressed quickly and competently with more than sugar-words, pasties and smoke and mirrors if Second Life is to stop the horrendous attrition rates, stabilize and grow.
As usual, this post has gone on long; some would say overlong. This post and the ones preceeding and following are a condensing of my own thoughts on these matters over the (almost 3) years I have spent in SL and the hundreds of hours I have spent researching and reading articles, blog postings and in inworld conversations with many residents.
In choosing to spend this time reconnecting to the general net community and the new tech as a full-time, unpaid job, I have invested not only my time but $30,000USD of my savings and income for a reason. Soon I will need to reduce the amount of time I spend online in search of some kind of employment to pay my modest rent, food and gas bills in order to maintain a place where I can continue to invest in the future as I see it.
These latest blog posts are my own way of digesting, ordering and reaching conclusions to the vast amount of information I have absorbed in these years and activities; a summation of experience in order to place it into some kind of perspective for my next step. I publish here because it is my own space to say what I will. I do not monetize, a decision I made in order to be free of the pressure to write for income and to be free to express myself. I have no agenda for profit; I do not do it to grab ego-stroking and yayas. It's my private journal.
I realize this post is not as "juicy" as the previous ones; I have firmly distracted the ghosts of Dorothy Parker and Hunter S Thompson from their usual hijinks for a reason. If by some strange happenstance I have the talking-stick right now, then I will do my best to express the sentiments of the many as clearly as I can without theatrics in order to use the working supposition that these expressions and concerns are being heard or at least looked at by LL management. Once more, I commend Rod Humble for his recent Twitter presence and engagement in these dialogues and take that as one of the more hopeful signs I have seen in a long time that perhaps I did not waste my time and resources for the past 3 years.
I've stated the problem as I see it; in Part III I will attempt to put forth some answers and courses of action that Linden Lab might consider as unpaid, honest and ernest suggestions and feedback from the community for their own, and our, benefit in fixing, maintaining and growing this world.
I know that these observations are not original; many of the ideas expressed in these posts owe a great deal to other people. I'd like to thank, in no particular order: soror Nishi, Wizard Gynoid, Skylar Smythe, Botgirl, Honour McMillan, Crap Mariner, Doc Gascoigne, Daniel Voyager, Vesper Kling, Apmel Goosson, Tateru Uno, Jeri Rahja, Nazz Lane, LadySakai, Kev Sweetwater, The Alphaville Herald, Thirza Ember, Iggy Onomotopoeia, Maria Korolov, Prim Perfect, Raven Haalan and a host of other blogs and people inworld for these ideas and summations. If I've forgotten anyone, please forgive me; this is what happens when you do not plan an article and keep meticulous notes.