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Dale Glass as written a follow-up to his first guest editorial, What’s Wrong with High Fidelity. Here is a very lightly edited version of the article he sent me (apparently, Dale is not a firm believer in the use of commas 😉 ). I have taken the liberty of adding my own images to illustrate his text.
Imagining a Successful High Fidelity
by Dale Glass
Now that I’ve discussed what I think is wrong with High Fidelity, I’m going to try and propose a working model that would preserve as much of it as possible. I’m going to ignore solutions that involve a radical reorganization, because I think the interesting question is whether HiFi could make money being what it currently is, rather than doing things the easy way by turning it into a Second Life clone, for instance.
A successful High Fidelity will need two parts to it: a thriving community, and a thriving company. The company hardly can succeed without having users, so I will start with them.
HiFi needs content, because not everyone can make their own artwork, or code. It’s hardly an inviting proposition to join a new virtual world to find out it’s a virtual desert devoid of anything interesting, and that if you want a nice looking house, your only resort is to spend a lot of time learning how to use Blender. So one of the very first things HiFi needs is a large amount of content creators churning out a large variety of things: avatars, clothes, houses, toys, tools, scripts, etc.
To start with, here’s what I think won’t work: imitating Second Life. SL creators expect there to be asset permissions, which don’t exist in HiFi, and don’t make that much sense since without a central asset server and servers being under user control, any restrictions can be ignored. SL creators also won’t be happy with that scripts are just as vulnerable as 3D assets, because many rely on scripts to make their creations harder to clone. HiFi has made a token effort towards content protection by attempting to verify that something was officially bought on the High Fidelity Marketplace, but this is an entirely opt-in scheme, which is unlikely to make creators happy.
Any attempt to make SL businesses establish themselves in HiFi, as-is, is likely to end badly, as they will find people can do anything they want with their assets, and that there’s nothing in place to deal with it, and no solutions on the horizon, either.
How to do business in such an environment, then? My suggestion is basically Patreon and commissions. Rather than trying to shoehorn the SL business model into High Fidelity, it would be a lot better to go with a model that doesn’t need to fight against HiFi’s nature at every step, and Patreon seems to be that. A lot of artists on Patreon release work to the general public on places like YouTube, and thus don’t need to be concerned with ensuring only the right people can get at it. Patrons contribute money to creators voluntarily, wanting specifically to support the artist and not to buy a single copy of a product.
I realize that this is a rather tricky proposition, but it’s the only thing that would seem to work in such an environment. Doing things the Second Life way either requires drastically changing High Fidelity, or results in creators leaving for greener pastures.
Another thing HiFi users need is a lot of small improvements to the way the platform works. It’s missing many of the features needed for large groups of people to communicate and manage themselves – groups, group permissions, land and object ownership, to name just a few. HiFi shouldn’t stop at replicating SL here – surely one can do even better. HiFi would be well served to listening to what long time SL users have been complaining about and trying to give their users that.
Of course, the company’s business model also needs to be considered, and the problem is that in the previous article I concluded that there’s nothing much HiFi can earn money from. So what now? I see two ways forward.
The first is pivoting towards an “Open Source business model”, in which the company sells technical support, custom work, and perhaps additional functionality to primarily corporate clients. The public is allowed to play with the code without much support on the part of the company, mainly for the sake of publicity, testing, and gathering third party fixes from people who never were going to pay for a 24/7 support contract anyway. Here HiFi could benefit from changing to a “scary” license like the GPLv3 or AGPLv3, which, while perfectly okay for the general public, makes many companies deeply uncomfortable. This creates another potential source of money by offering an alternate license scheme to those who don’t like this. HiFi is under the rather oddly permissive terms of the Apache 2.0 License, which allows anybody who wants to take all their work, do anything they want to it, and contribute nothing back. This is very generous, but a dangerous way to try to earn a profit. A license like the GPLv3 ensures that any third party work also benefits the company.
Some of this already seems to be happening on HiFi’s part to some extent, and on the whole I think it’s a pretty sane direction to head in, except for that, currently, it’s not really clear what is it that High Fidelity has that other companies would want to pay for. Second Life already gave this a try, and it ended up fizzling out. It’s also a pity that this seems to involve disconnecting from the community.
How about High Fidelity being profitable by serving the users, like Second Life does? That’s rather trickier, but I think there’s some potential. HiFi would need to move to a community supported model. Since it gives everything away, there’s almost nothing that absolutely must be paid for, so the only thing that can be done is asking nicely.
This isn’t as crazy as it sounds. This idea is usually adopted by non-profits and Open Source projects like Wikipedia, KiCad and Blender, but there exist some rare for-profit examples. For example, Reddit partly works a bit like this, selling premium memberships that don’t give the buyer much, since the base access is free.
Following this idea, HiFi could offer some sort of premium membership. For instance, you could get your name listed among the list of sponsors, get some sort of distinctive sign or title next to your name, and perhaps get some privileges, like access to test servers or technical support.Most such advantages would probably be largely symbolic, but I think there’s a fair amount of people who’d send some money HiFi’s way if the cards were played right.
High Fidelity also could, and in my opinion, should at least try, offering domain and asset hosting. While they couldn’t compete with established vendors like Amazon on price, they can offer something Amazon doesn’t have: a deep knowledge of the platform. Having HiFi host your stuff should result in it being taken care of by people who know very well how it all fits together, and who are very close to the original developers. HiFi itself would also benefit, in that this would allow them to have a much better idea of how exactly the software is being used, and what problems the users run into.
A harder-to-get-right possibility would include paid custom work, on a level accessible to average people. For example, one could create bug and feature bounties where people could pledge money in exchange for features. This would be fairly tricky, but I recall that for instance OpenSim used to have bounties. Paying to be able to talk to a member of the team is another thing comes to mind. It could be useful to just be able to pay to speak to whoever wrote a given piece of code for half an hour.
To add another revenue source, I would consider selling merchandise. Things like T-shirts and coffee mugs seem like a no-brainer, providing both income and advertisement in exchange for little effort.
Developing a digital economy and taxing it is another possibility, but I do not think such a thing can amount to much in the early stages.This would be more of a long term plan, as a large user-base is needed for this to amount to anything. If High Fidelity catches on, however, this could be a pretty nice source of income.
A crucial part of such a plan would be removing all roadblocks possible for paying the company. This would involve accepting payments by every method that’s remotely practical, as well as removing every possible roadblock to content creation in general. It could be worthwhile to improve in-world creation abilities, so that something can be accomplished without needing to learn or install anything besides HiFi itself.
Let’s resume, the issue of making money by trying to sell pretty much anything that can be sold. HiFi being what it is, making a profit off it isn’t going to be trivial, so I think no possibility should be left unexplored. While HiFi’s openness allows third parties to take all their hard work and do their own thing with it, the company has the most knowledge about their own platform, and by playing their cards right, and taking advantage of an established user-base, they could outrun any competition without that much trouble.
For all this to work properly, HiFi would also need to improve its relationship with the community. By that I mean more openness and more communication, with regular meetings with users, easy access to the developers and in general a sustained effort on HiFi’s part to say “we care”. If you’re going to depend on the users’ goodwill, you have to convince them that you’re a lovely bunch of people well deserving of money.
I don’t have a whole lot of hopes on High Fidelity doing anything of the sort, of course. Part because that’s really unlike what I’ve seen of them so far, but also partly because this is not the way they’ve chosen, and it would take an awful amount of work, as well as restructuring the company and probably shrinking it by quite a bit.
What I think is a bit more likely is some third party giving this a try. Given that the code is out there, nothing technically stops anybody from taking it and trying to go in their own direction. Somebody would need to fork it on GitHub, set up a pretty website explaining their ambitious plans, put in a lot of hard work both to improve the code and to communicate with the current community, and regularly mention “please support us on Patreon”. This would be a tricky gamble to pull off given the small size of HiFi’s community at present, so I think if somebody ever does this, it’ll be an effort from an established community member.
If HiFi survives, what I think might happen is those two things, run by different entities. High Fidelity seems to have committed itself to corporate work and abandoned its original user community. But if it keeps delivering code that’s useful enough for a community to use, and the userbase grows enough, then I expect that eventually somebody will try to make a community edition. From there it doesn’t take much to fork the source, and start accepting donations, and that could get the ball rolling again.