Editorial: Why I Still Have a Soft Spot for Sansar, and Some Other Random Thoughts on the Day After the Friday Product Meetup

I partly credit virtual reality—and yes, Sansar—for my recovery from serious clinical depression. When I was accepted into the Sansar closed beta in December 2016, it prompted me to upgrade my computer to a VR-ready system, and to purchase an Oculus Rift headset in January 2017.

In May 2018, I wrote about my experience:

I’ve been under a doctor’s treatment for depression since my mid-twenties, and I probably would have benefitted from seeking treatment even sooner than that. At times, my episodes of depression have been so severe that I have had to go on extended sick leaves from work. I’ve even been hospitalized twice when I was at my very worst. I have had to work very hard to crawl back from the edge of the black pit of despair, more than once in my life.

I first got my Oculus Rift headset back in January 2017, when I was on sick leave for depression from my job, and my life was feeling pretty bleak. Shortly afterwards, I also got the Oculus Touch hand controllers to be able to handle objects in VR.

I have no scientific proof, but I do believe that using that VR headset regularly—creating art using TiltBrush and Oculus Medium, using apps like Guided Meditation VR and Nature Treks VR, and interacting with other avatars and exploring new experiences in High Fidelity and the then-closed Sansar beta—was indeed a beneficial factor in my most recent recovery from depression. The best way I can describe it was that VR got my neurons firing again!

So now you know. I have revealed a little bit more of why I do, still, have somewhat of a soft spot for Sansar in my writing on this blog, compared to other products.

I also believe that my continuing work on this blog, as well as on the Metaverse Newscast, as well as all of my social VR platform (mis)adventures since January 2017, have been an effective, ongoing bulwark against a relapse of my clinical depression. I know this to be true. All this work helps define me, gives me purpose, and helps keep me going.

While I was lying in bed feeling sick and slightly depressed yesterday, the thought occurred to me that if Sansar goes down, I might just go down with it! But rest assured: I am not going anywhere. I have found my niche, and I intend to stick around, regardless of what happens to Sansar in the long run.

There has been a lot of conversation about the various implications of the announcements at yesterday’s Product Meetup, both on the official Sansar Discord and on the RyanSchultz.com Discord. And I note that a number of Linden Lab employees whose names used to appear in red in the right-hand column of the Sansar Discord user listing (i.e. staff working on Sansar), either are missing completely, or now have their usernames in white (i.e. no role assigned). It’s troubling to me and to many others.

I am going to depart from my usual way of doing things on this blog, and paraphrase what people are talking about, rather than seek to quote people directly. I am doing this because I don’t want people to feel that they can’t talk about whatever they want, on either Discord, because it might inadvertently show up on my blog (even though I always ask permission first if I do quote someone verbatim). But I also think it’s very important to provide a record of how Sansarians are feeling about this pivot—and yes, no matter how you sugarcoat it, it is a significant pivot. (So, as you can see, I am doing a bit of a balancing act today. I may fail, and if I do, I apologize in advance this time, instead of afterwards.)

So here is what people—some people, at least—are saying. (And my comments on their comments.)

Many people have said (on both Discords) that this Sansar pivot reminds them of the recent High Fidelity pivot. That is not good news, especially since HiFi handled that particular pivot so badly, and alienated a lot of their existing userbase in the process. Sansar has a small but strong community—by far the best ambassadors for the platform—which Linden Lab simply cannot afford to lose.

However, I hasten to point out that, unlike High Fidelity, Sansar is not getting out of the consumer market. If anything, they are doubling down by focusing on live events. And Sansar has undoubtedly had some success in the past with events such as the Monstercat launch concert. However, just as I have said in the past that High Fidelity may not have any success breaking into the remote workteams market because of a large number of competitors, so I will say this: Sansar has no guarantee of success if they are going to rely on live events, given all the current and future competition in that particular marketplace. And some people are worried about exactly that scenario.

There are even more platforms out there (in varying stages of readiness) that want to focus on the lucrative market of live events, then there are that want to be the next virtual remote workteams workspace. Here is just a brief list taken from my comprehensive list of social VR/virtual world platforms that are either already hosting, or plan to host, live events:

  • AltspaceVR (which has just been killing lately it in terms of programming)
  • Bigscreen
  • Ceek
  • Endless Riff (even though what they offer so far, is far from “live”)
  • EpicLive
  • High Fidelity? Not any more! They removed themselves from this market, but they were known for their splashy, high-capacity live events and they are entirely open source code, which means that anybody can fork off the existing work and start a version devoted to live events. It could happen.
  • IMVU, which even has a live events listing
  • LiveLike
  • Oculus Venues (which has already held very successful events)
  • Rec Room
  • RedpillVR
  • Sinespace
  • Somnium Space
  • Second Life and its OpenSim-based variants (yes, Linden Lab is competing against itself for live events!)
  • Stan World
  • Utherverse/Red Light Center
  • VRChat
  • Wave (which recently pulled off a very successful Lindsey Stirling concert, among many other recent live events)

Not to mention, that games want to get in on the live event action too. Remember the Marchmello concert that was held in Fortnite? Don’t think for a second that concert promoters aren’t drooling over the possibilities of future linkups between musical acts and game platforms. Sansar definitely wants a piece of that pie, and they feel that they are well-positioned to take advantage of it. They might be right. (Also, obviously, platforms like Second Life can’t support virtual reality.)

Now, many of the platforms I mentioned in the list above are still years away from being able to host live events (if at all). An example is RedpillVR, which at this point seems to be nothing but concept art and a very limited demo for tradeshows, as far as I can tell. And products like Stan World are frankly nothing but hot air. So Linden Lab does still have a golden window of opportunity that they can take advantage of. But it is a window, and it will close.

And Linden Lab is still considered a relatively small company, and they can easily be outbid and outmaneuvered by big game companies (or by the even bigger technology companies like Facebook, Microsoft, Google, Apple, and Amazon) for the rights to present concerts and other events.

And you can bet that Facebook Horizon (the upcoming social VR network, which will launch in closed beta in 2020) will also have live events—plus the immense power of the Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp social networks to promote the hell out of whatever live events they are hosting.

The pivot announced at the Friday Product Meetup could easily be the beginning of a long, losing battle for Sansar, as they are slowly worn down by attrition in competing against companies with much deeper pockets, like Facebook.

O.K., back to the discussion on the Discord servers. One person said (again, I am paraphrasing here) that they had a feeling that Sansar was going to “pull a HiFi” for quite a while now. (Yes, “pull a HiFi” has entered the lingo.) They don’t think it’s as bad as what HiFi did (which I agree with), but that it’s a bad sign. They feel that the avatar body deformation features could have been what really set Sansar apart from the competition (again, I agree), and that Linden Lab really should have waited until that was completely ready before releasing it just for the face. We were told that all that content Sansar broke, that all the Avatar 1.0 clothing and accessories and attachments that had to be rerigged by the content creators—we were told that it would be worth it, because of the upcoming body deformation. Now that was all for nothing, it would seem.

One person said that it seemed as if Linden Lab management made the decision to stop adding new features until there was enough growth from the existing features. However, it seems clear to me that Linden Lab is still going to be working on new features for Sansar, although they are going to be different features from what was expected. They did announce many new features in the next release of the software at the Friday Product Meetup, for example. However, many sharp and critical eyes will be watching the releases after this one.

Another person said that Linden Lab is repeating all of High Fidelity’s mistakes, but they hope it all works out, noting that they still have the reliable cash cow of Second Life to fall back on. Which they do, for now.

Yet another person stated that the cosmetic aspects of Sansar were what want to make people want to use the product, implying that delaying or halting future cosmetic changes to the avatar is a tactical mistake. (And I agree.)

Another comment was that gamification and questing in Sansar seems to have been aborted, at the expense of hosting live events. Again, we will have to see what is in future releases of Sansar.

Yet another comment is that losing so many staff members means big problems down the road, reasoning that the staff who originally worked on the features are not there anymore to help. In response to this fear, I will say again that we don’t know that any staff have actually been let go. They may still be around to help out in future. However, significant staff upheavals such as this do have a negative impact on employee morale. I wouldn’t be surprised in the least if a number of people affected are quietly updating their résumés, seeking to get out of a chaotic work environment.

One person noted that the new General Manager for Sansar is not even in the Sansar Discord yet. However, the dust still needs to settle on all the staff changes. It’s still very early days. Let’s hope that this is not an indication that Sansar staff are moving to a more hands-off, distant relationship with the users, as has sometimes been the case in the history of Linden Lab under previous CEOs. However, Ebbe Altberg has set a new, top-down standard on staff being approachable and participating in the Sansar Discord and events in-world, and I think I speak for all of us that we want this model to continue. Whether it will happen remains to be seen, however.

This is just a representative sampling of what Sansar users have been saying yesterday and today. Again, I wanted to give the reader a sense of what is being talked about in the wake of the announcements yesterday. There is a lot of unease.

Overall, the impression I get is that this was a sudden, unexpected, wrenching change, although I have no doubt it was brewing for some time in upper management. The shakeup in staffing seems to be widespread, though, with some high-level people like Sheri Bryant changing jobs. What was the impetus? We might never know for sure.

It’s still not clear what happened to many formerly key staff working on Sansar, like Landon, Nyx and Cara. Have they been reassigned to work on Second Life? Have they been let go? Nobody knows. And, of course, in a news vaccum, gossip and sepculation tends to takes on a life of its own. There’s a lot of FUD—fear, uncertainty, and doubt. If the Friday Product Meetup was meant to counteract the FUD, Linden Lab failed.

Linden Lab Announces Major Changes in Sansar Staffing and Direction: Is This a Platform Pivot Similar to High Fidelity’s?

This was me on Friday…
(Photo by twinsfisch on Unsplash)

Yesterday I was off sick from work, and I landed up spending most of the day resting in bed, popping extra strength Tylenol and nursing a sore shoulder and just generally feeling depressed, tired, and cranky.

I slept most of the day, so I missed the unexpected Product Meetup held on Friday in Sansar (after a previous announcement that there would be no Product Meetup this week, instead of on Thursday when they are usually held). Even worse, Inara Pey missed the last-minute meeting as well; I usually rely on her excellent, detailed reports myself, as I tend not to go to Product Meetups that often.

At Friday’s Product Meetup, several major changes in Sansar staffing and direction were announced. I did watch the livestream video that is posted to Twitch here (warning: the audio is still a bit low for my tastes, so you might need to use headphones or earphones to hear it) and here is what I learned:

  • The big news is that Sansar will now be focused primarily on live events. Galileo said Linden Lab will be bringing in some new event partners, as well as encouraging Sansarians to create more live events. They also announced a second focus, on in-world socialization and communication tools, but there were no technical details given.
  • It would appear that avatar body deformation, which according to a message I received from Landon McDowell back in September, Linden Lab was “working to get body morph in before the end of the year“, has been taken off the Sansar development roadmap. It would appear that any further avatar customization features have been pushed back indefinitely or even halted. Landon McDowell is (was?) the Chief Product Officer at Linden Lab. I say was, because it is clear (both from announcements at the Friday meeting and gossip I am hearing today) that there has been a major staff shake-up on the Sansar project.
  • While Galileo said that Linden Lab couldn’t comment on specific staff changes, a few were announced or mentioned in passing at the meeting. Lacie Linden said she is now responsible for responding to support tickets in addition to her other duties. Galileo said that Harley Linden has been reassigned to Second Life. Other staff changes announced at the Friday meeting: CowboyNinja Linden (someone new to me) is apparently the new General Manager for Sansar; Sheri Bryant, previously Vice President of Marketing, is now also a General Manager of Sansar (two General Managers? I’m confused); Hari Raghavan, previously the Senior Manager, Marketing Communication at Linden Lab, is the new Director of Marketing.

Coho Linden, the Release Manager for Sansar, reported on what will be in the next release of Sansar (hopefully next week):

  • Desktop user aiming improvements
  • Support for the pre-morph skeletons (not sure what this means)
  • Improved freecam edit mode in the Lookbook editor mode
  • Scripting of avatar spawn points
  • Scripting of camera view
  • Snap-to-grid for movement and rotation of objects
  • Import JPEG files and remove the limitations on texture dimensions
  • Establish an avatar texture budget which would allow for more avatars to be in a scene, and improve Sansar performance for users on lower-end computers
  • Allow users to abandon in-progress quests

Binah Linden announced a few changes to the in-client shopping experience:

  • The Sansar Store is now a movable, resizable window
  • New searching filters: male, female, Marvelous Designer, static mesh
  • Can now copy and share store links in chat
  • New script to add an interaction to an object that will open your store

Boden Linden announced a major change to events: events will be linked to a currently published world, instead of a template. Also, notifications that an event is starting will be sent out in-world to those users who indicated that they were interested in the event.

Skyler Linden, the Engineering Manager at Linden Lab, announced that persistent storage is coming. New scripting abilities will allow you to save data and keep track of persistent data. Data can also be shared using tables.

More information on these new features will be published in the documentation that always comes out with each new Sansar release.

So, what do I think about all this? Glad you asked, because, as always, I have opinions. People have been messaging me all day with gossip surrounding what appears to be a major shake-up of staff working on Sansar. One person told me:

Hello Ryan are you aware that there was “restructuration” that went on at Sansar? Apparently Landon is gone, Harley has been sent to SL, Nyx is gone, and I don’t know other names. People are saying 30 are gone, but I don’t know if that number is just speculation. People are checking the staff’s profiles on Discord to see if they are gone, but it’s not up to date yet. Harley is gone altogether from the server. Others show up in white: no roles.

But I am going to wait until I can get some confirmation before I report on any other staff changes. Here I have reported on the four staff changes that were talked about at Friday’s Product Meetup.

It is clear that there has been a major change in Sansar product development, similar in tone (if not in size) to the recent pivot announced this spring over at High Fidelity. Only in this instance, the pivot is not away from consumers to enterprise users; the pivot appears to be a new, primary focus on Sansar as a live event platform, at the expense of previous development priorities such as further avatar customization options, including the long-awaited body deformation Landon had promised me.

And, as you can tell, it’s not even clear yet who exactly has been taken off the Sansar project, and who is no longer with Linden Lab at all. It sounds as though most staff affected have been reshuffled to other jobs rather than let go, but nobody external to the company knows for sure. Again, comparing this pivot to High Fidelity’s recent pivot, at least Philip Rosedale made an official announcement of staff layoffs. I doubt that we will get a similar formal announcement from Ebbe Altberg; Linden Lab has tended not to announce staff changes, such as layoffs, in the past and I do not expect this to change.

Is this set of major changes in staffing and product direction a response to the relative lack of interest in Sansar, compared to the higher levels of concurrent users on other platforms such as VRChat and Rec Room? Is this is response to the lambasting Sansar is getting in user reviews on Steam? There has been a steady stream of thumbs-down reviews on Steam lately, to the point where Ebbe Altberg has recently asked users on the official Sansar Discord to post a review if they haven’t yet. I take this as a sign that Linden Lab is obviously worried about all the negative reviews on Steam. Is this a battening down of the hatches? Has Linden Lab decided to do what some external critics have suggested, and transfer some workers from Sansar to Second Life?

But the thing that bothers me the most about all this, is that we are now stuck halfway through what was supposed to be a major avatar update! What happened to all the big plans for Avatar 2.0? We were supposed to be getting body deformation in addition to the extensive face deformation options previously released! It sounds as though all work in this area has been halted. In response to a question from Bagnaria, we are not even getting custom skins for avatars. To me, this is a major disappointment, and a major setback to the project.

Feel free to leave a comment below, or, as always, you are welcome to join the freewheeling conversations, arguments, and debates about social VR and virtual worlds taking place on the RyanSchultz.com Discord server, the first cross-worlds discussion forum! We’d love to see you there. (And we do have a Sansar channel there, just for Sansar-related discussions.)