Last week, Wagner James Au of the long-running virtual worlds blog New World Notes, wrote a blogpost about Sansar, using user concurrency data collected by Gindipple, who is runnning a program which automatically scrapes data from the publicly-accessible Sansar Atlas listings sorted by popularity. Wagner wrote a blogpost citing Gindipple’s data, underscoring the fact that Sansar had less than fifty concurrent users at any one time. It was the first time any sort of user concurrency figures for Sansar had been publicly released, and some people were surprised at how low they seemed to be.
This is partly my fault. Wagner first reached out to me via Facebook Messenger, saying that he had heard that someone had some Sansar user concurrency figures, and if I knew how to get them. I told him that I didn’t have any, but I did mention Gindipple’s work. I then referred Wagner to Gindipple directly, who decided to share his data with him, thus Wagner’s blogpost last week.
I must confess that I feel very conflicted about the role I have played in this, even though Wagner very kindly thanked me publicly for making the connection. Gindipple has, quite rightly, pointed out that his figures are accurate and truthful. But Wagner’s coverage of Sansar has always been somewhat negative (at times unfairly so, in my opinion). In a sense, Gindipple just gave Wagner another really good and valid reason to bash Sansar.
Wagner went and cross-posted his blogpost to various Second Life communities prefaced as follows, which really made me grind my teeth in anger:
I get a very definite whiff of schadenfreude here. If Wagner had wanted to make a fair comparison, he should have compared Sansar’s concurrency with Second Life’s user concurrency nine months after it was first released in 2003, not with today’s SL user concurrency figures. And it doesn’t help that he is sharing his news specifically with SL communities who might already feel aggrieved (rightly or wrongly) that Second Life is suffering by comparison as Linden Lab continues to put resources into Sansar. This is just like pouring gasoline on a raging fire, in my opinion. It makes a big flash, it sure gets attention, but it’s not going to put the fire out, or help the situation overall.
But Wagner does make a valid point in his blogpost based on Gindipple’s data: the fact that the official Ready Player One movie tie-in really did not make much of a difference at all in the overall level of usage of Sansar (the following is a screen capture of the section of Wagner’s blogpost where he discusses that):
If Linden Lab had been hoping for an uptick in Sansar usage as a result of the Ready Player One tie-in, they must be feeling rather disappointed by now. So why didn’t that happen?
I am going to compare the RPO movie tie-in with a similar situation over a decade ago when Linden Lab also had a media tie-in, this time with the popular TV crime drama CSI:NY. (The episode was called “Down the Rabbit Hole” and it aired October 24th, 2007.)
Recently, there was a discussion thread in the popular Second Life Friends group on Facebook, asking people to share their stories of how they got involved in SL. And a surprising number of those people stated that they started SL due to the CSI:NY TV show tie-in. So why did that one work so well for Linden Lab and Second Life, where the Ready Player One tie-in failed to ignite user interest in Sansar?
First, Second Life was an integral part of the storyline in that particular CSI:NY episode. Second Life was mentioned by name throughout, and there were also several in-world video segments showing television viewers what SL looked like and how it worked. By contrast (as far as I am aware), there was no mention of Sansar in Ready Player One, and no in-world footage of Sansar in the movie. (I’m not 100% certain of this, because I haven’t gone to see the movie in the theatre yet.) People could come in, watch the movie, enjoy it, and leave without ever hearing about, or knowing about, Sansar. There was never a definite link between the two properties in people’s minds.
Second, the Second Life tie-in to the CSI:NY episode was an interactive game where avatars were expected to work to solve a puzzle (see image above). The only level of interactivity in the two Ready Player One experiences that Sansar Studios created, were clickable icons with audio clips of Aech describing various artifacts. The experiences were beautifully done and skillfully assembled, but after you visited them once and listened to all the audio clips, you were essentially done. There was really no reason to return, unless it was to show someone else the experiences.
Linden Lab may have won the jackpot in getting an official movie tie-in for Ready Player One, but that win has not translated into increased attendance in Sansar. They’re now hoping that the tactic of signing up with some popular livestreamers like UmiNoKaiju might attract people (hey, it worked for VRChat). It’s becoming really clear that simply offering people beautiful experiences is not enough to retain users. You need to give them something to get involved in, something for them to do. And a “soft” movie tie-in is simply not enough to bring people in nowadays. You need more.
Wagner James Au may be more on the negative side of the fence about Sansar, and I may be more on the positive side. But we do agree on one thing. Linden Lab, unfortunately, is going to have to go back to the drawing board when it comes to drumming up interest in Sansar, and promoting the platform effectively. The old playbook, used in the days when Second Life was pretty much the only game in town (and pretty much sold itself based on its merits) doesn’t seem to be working like it used to. They’re going to have to think outside the box.
And, especially after my guided tour of Virtual Universe last weekend, I realize that the marketplace for compelling social VR experiences/virtual worlds is going to be extremely competitive. I can now pretty much guarantee you that not every virtual world product currently on the marketplace is going to survive. The days of a virtual world like Second Life having the market essentially to itself are done and over. Every company is going to have to try harder to get the consumer’s attention, and keep it.
As Bette Davis said in the movie All About Eve: “Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.”
UPDATE 8:48 p.m.: Galen made such a great comment that I wanted to add it here to the blogpost. He said:
Nice essay, Ryan. I especially appreciate the distinction you draw between the CSI:NY tie-in and the RPO tie-in, which helps explain the different outcomes.
I don’t actually think that the NWN blog post was all that bad. I thought it was relatively fact-based and not really slanderous. And I think the world and even LL benefit from some transparency. I don’t think there’s any reason for LL or the Sansar community to be ashamed of the relatively small persistent population here right now.
Gindipple’s pioneering work in collecting data from Sansar inspired me to finally get around to doing the same a bit over a month ago. Not surprisingly, my data generally agree with his. But one conclusion I draw from the data I see is that there is a very steady stream of new people coming to Sansar every day. From a few fuzzy indicators I would estimate it’s around 50 first-timers each day. That translates to maybe 1,500 first-timers each month. At HoverDerby, we usually see 1 – 5 newbies each weekday during just one practice hour.
The important take-away from this is that Sansar may be new, but it is fresh and growing. And the work we residents are doing to capture the attention of those daily newcomers, combined with the new features LL is regularly adding to Sansar, are slowly yielding fruit. Stay tuned.