The Perks of Virtual World/Social VR Premium Memberships: Are They Worth It? What Do You Get?

Second Life (which I still consider to be the perfect model of the mature, fully-evolved virtual world that the companies creating the newer social VR platforms would be wise to study) has two levels of membership: Basic (free), and Premium. How Premium membership in Second Life works: for US$99 a year (or $32.97 quarterly, or $11.99 monthly), you get a set of benefits and perks over free, Basic user accounts:

Second Life Premium Membership (source)

VRChat is another platform that decided to offer a comparably-priced paid premium membership level last December, called VRChat Plus (which I first wrote about here). Now, upon first reading of the perks such a membership would offer me (see below), I was less than impressed (probably because I have been spoiled by all the goodies Second Life Premium memberships offer me in comparison).

Among the (relatively) small number of features for VRChat Plus users is the ability to set a user icon to display in a circle next to your user name:

But in conversation with Voices of VR podcaster Kent Bye last night via Zoom, he raised a point that I had hitherto failed to consider, Given my well-documented, one-man, scorched-earth campaign against Facebook and Oculus for, among other things, forcing Oculus headset users to get Facebook accounts and their toxic advertising-based business model which scrapes and strip-mines users’ personal data, why would I not support an alternative way for VRChat to earn a profit?

I stopped to think of what VRChat would be like with Facebook-like advertising, and I positively shuddered in revulsion. So this evening, I pulled out my credit card and ponied up for a VRChat Plus membership (US$99.99), so I now have the familiar “red Ryan” logo displayed next to my username in world (which has sort of become an icon for my brand, as I use it everywhere else, too). If it helps other users in VRChat recognize who I am, then I think it’s worthwhile.

My familiar “red Ryan” user icon

So, I have decided to do a quick survey of the major social VR and virtual world platforms, and find out whether or not they offer a paid premium service, and if so, what you get for your money.

Second Life

My alt Moesha Heartsong, sitting on the porch of her lovely Victorian Linden Home on the continent of Bellisseria (one of the many nice perks you get with your Second Life Premium membership)

Second Life Premium membership (currently priced at US$99 a year) offers you the following benefits:

  • A weekly L$300 stipend (basically enough to buy a nice outfit or pair of shoes for your avatar every week)
  • A L$1,000 sign-up bonus for first-time Premium users (can only be used once)
  • Priority entry when regions/sims are full of avatars (in other words, if a Basic user and a Premium user both try to get into a packed sim at the same time, the Premium user gets priority; this comes in handy at crowded shopping events, and I have made use of this perk often!)
  • A 1024m² virtual land allotment for use towards a nice starter Linden Home or a parcel on the Second Life mainland; this is another benefit I do take advantage of!
  • Expanded live-chat customer support (which I have used on occasion!)
  • Premium virtual gifts (frankly, kinda useless to me)
  • Exclusive access to Premium areas and experiences (such as building sandboxes)
  • Increased cap on missed IMs (which I never use)
  • Increased group membership limits (I make use of my groups ALL THE TIME! A freebie fashionista can NEVER have too many free group slots for store groups, freebie groups, etc. Basic accounts have 42 group slots, but Premium has 70;)
  • Voice morphing (never used it, myself; most SL users never use voice, anyways)
  • UPDATE 11:36 p.m.: Animesh (animated mesh) creator Medhue tells me that SL Premium members can attach two animesh items (e.g. pets such as Medhue’s delightful animesh cihuahua), while Basic members can only attach one.

Basically, I have three Premium accounts, with two lovely Linden Homes between them (which I think is the major benefit of a Premium membership). More group space and priority access to overcrowded sims are also perks I tend to use a lot.

Sansar

Sansar offers three levels of premium subscriptions (unchanged from when Linden lab owned the platform), which give you:

  • A 45-day free trial of the Marvelous Designer software (used to create avatar clothing in Sansar)
  • Purchase discounts on Marvelous Designer for when you do decide to buy it
  • An increase in the number of Sansar worlds you can create (frankly, I’m not sure most people bother beyond the free Basic account, which lets you create up to 25 worlds)
  • Expedited user support options

Sinespace

The Unity-based Sinespace virtual world/social VR platform, created by Sine Wave Entertainment, offers a truly overwhelming number of Premium levels to choose from:

Premium users can create larger regions/worlds, have a larger number of regions active at one time, and get priority support and user-created content processing and approval, among other benefits.

AltspaceVR

Surprisingly, Microsoft-owned AltspaceVR doesn’t seem to offer any premium accounts (that may change in the future, though).

VRChat

VRChat Plus offers you the following perks (with more promised soon):

  • A nameplate icon: With VRChat+, you can personalize your nameplate with an icon you create! Snap a pic in VRChat or upload your own image on our website.
  • You can send a picture with an invitation to a friend to join you at your location
  • Free slots for up to 100 favourite avatars (as opposed to 25 for basic users)
  • “A limited edition VRCat Badge to display on your profile” (Really? Really?!??)
  • A higher trust ranking in VRChat’s Safety and Trust System

As I said up top, this list is a bit sparse, especially compared to what Second Life offers (and yes, you can be an anime girl in SL, just as easily as you can in VRChat!), but of course, there’s zero VR support in Second Life.

Rec Room

Rec Room offers something called Rec Room Plus at US$7.99 a month, which includes the following benefits:

  • You get 6000 tokens (r6000) monthly, delivered in installments of r1500 per week
  • One four-star gift box per week
  • A 10% discount in Rec Room stores that accept tokens
  • Exclusive access to the RR+ section of the item store
  • 100 saved outfit slots
  • The ability to sell premium inventions/keys for tokens

NeosVR

NeosVR uses Patreon levels to hand out perks to various levels of paying users (more info). For example, at my current “Blade Runner” level ($6 per month), I get:

  • Access to private channels on the official Discord Server
  • Patreon supporter badge in Neos
  • Early access to Linux builds
  • Early Access to Patreon only content (exclusive experiences, work in progress experiences before they’re public)
  • A Neos Mini account with 25 GB of storage
  • Your name in the stars! (your name will appear in the sky in the Neos hub)
  • 30 Neos Credits (NCR) monthly, accumulates

(Note that there is an even less expensive level, the “Agent Smith” level, at just $1 a month. Please check out the NeosVR Patreon page for more details.)

ENGAGE

The ENGAGE educational/corporate/conference social VR platform offers a free, “lite” version, and a premium, “plus” version for €4.99 a month, which gives you space to save your presentations, among other benefits. (They also offer enterprise and educational rates on request.)

Blockchain-Based Virtual Worlds (Cryptovoxels, Decentraland, and Somnium Space)

Of course, the various blockchain-based virtual worlds sell everything using whatever cryptocurrencies they support (for example, a custom, non-randomly-generated avatar username in Decentraland will set you back 100 MANA, Decentraland’s in-world cryptocurrency (which is about US$36 at current exchange rates). It’s just a completely different model than the “freemium” ones offered above.


Thanks to Kent Bye for giving me the idea for this blogpost!

Decentraland Scam Warning

Many people who have accounts on the blockchain-based virtual world Decentraland (DCL) have received the following direct message from Discord this afternoon. It claims to be an official bot called Decentraland Announcement, informing users that there is a brand new version of the DCL client which can be downloaded. THIS IS A SCAM! DO NOT VISIT THE ASSOCIATED WEBSITE, OR INSTALL ANY SOFTWARE. Decentraland remains a web browser-based app; there is no separate client for you to download.

Here is what the scam notice looks like, so you will recognize it:

This is a prime example of how scammers use social engineering tricks to try to separate you from the cryptocurrency in your wallet. Be warned and stay safe! It took me about half a minute of reading to realize that this was a scam (the website URL, which I have blurred out in the image above, was a major red flag to me).

I leave you with the final, authoritative word on the matter from DCL employee Sam Hamilton, a.k.a. toonpunk, who posted to the official Decentraland Discord server:

Decentraland News is a scam, they have been banned but if you have a message from them do not click any links.

Here is a website from the U.S. Federal Trade Commission with tips on how to spot and avoid cryptocurrency scams, which unfortunately are proliferating.

UPDATED WITH AN APOLOGY— Futurist Conference Taking Place November 11-12 in Decentraland

Please note: I have updated this blogpost with an apology (see the second update at the end).


Writing about Cryptovoxels, Somnium Space, and Decentraland on this blog over the past couple of years, I have found that the blockchain and cryptocurrency marketplace tends to be a bit of an echo chamber, a reality-distortion bubble, where the crypto enthusiasts are all excitedly talking to each other, but not really speaking to the average, non-crypto people outside the hype bubble that they need to reach in order to grow the space, and mature the market.

(And yes, just for the record, I still feel that blockchain is a solution that is looking for a problem to solve. I remain a cryptoskeptic, and I refuse to invest a penny in any cryptocurrency. I just blog about and am interested in blockchain-based virtual worlds from a virtual worlds standpoint.)

A good example of this is the Futurist Conference, which apparently is currently taking place today and Thursday “in” the blockchain-based virtual world, Decentraland. (You’ll see why I put “in” in quotes in a moment.)

The Futurist Conference is described as follows in the Decentraland Events Calendar (here’s a link to the actual event listing itself):

Futurist Virtual Conference November 11-12, 2020 | Toronto, Canada Canada’s Largest Blockchain & Emerging Technologies Conference

Untraceable’s third annual Futurist Conference is the largest blockchain and emerging technologies event in Canada. It will bring together thousands of people online to discuss emerging industries that are going to disrupt our future.​This year the conference will be held from the comfort of your home. We will be bringing you an immersive experience to gamify the virtual event leading up to and including the conference days. Listen and interact with the world’s leading experts that are changing the technology landscape.

So I decided to pop into Decentraland, and pay a visit to the Crypto Valley Conference Center, where the Futurist Conference takes place today and tomorrow:

Only to find the conference centre essentially deserted, with only a handful of avatars present, and a YouTube livestream of Futurist Conference sessions playing on a large screen:

One of the conference sessions playing on a large screen in the essentially empty Crypto Valley Conference Center in Decentraland: Why bother?

And my first thought is? Why bother?

Listen and interact with the world’s leading experts that are changing the technology landscape.” Listen, perhaps, but interact? No.

This whole thing reminds me of nothing so much as the PornHub Games event which “took place” in the adult virtual platform Oasis, which turned out to be nothing but watching the six episodes of the PornHub Games on a screen within Oasis (this link is safe for work):

Basically, you’re sitting in a movie theatre, watching the individual weekly episodes of the “Pornhub Games” on a screen. It’s boring as hell, and why you would need or want to be in Oasis just to watch a video is beyond me. Why impose an extra layer of unnecessary technology to do something that can easily be done on the desktop?

And so I ask the same pertinent question: Why impose an extra layer of unnecessary technology to do something that can easily be done on the desktop? As far as I can see, Decentraland is not adding anything extra to the Futurist Conference, other than bragging rights that they are “associated” with the event, in much the same way as the PornHub Games were “associated” with Oasis.

Why bother advertising a blockchain conference as taking place in Decentraland when it’s not really happening in Decentraland? What’s the advantage of holding this in a virtual world when you can watch the whole thing on YouTube, and the primary means of interaction appears to be a web-based app that is not associated with Decentraland at all (other than it mentions DCL and tells you where to teleport to get to the Crypto Valley Convention Center)?

I mean, I am pretty sure that many of the speakers participating in the YouTube livestream didn’t even know or care about Decentraland; DCL was just piggybacking on the conference, for bragging rights. (Okay, so there was also some sort of crypto game taking place in DCL before the conference event itself.)

After half an hour, bored, and surrounded by only four or five other avatars in the Crypto Valley Convention Center who were watching the same livestream broadcast, I signed out of Decentraland and just watched the damn thing on YouTube, without the slightly delayed, slightly degraded audio and video quality due to the livestream being passed through Decentraland, without having to set up a DCL account and create an avatar, and without having to set up a cryptocurrency wallet. If you are going to make people jump through all these extra hoops, just to watch a YouTube video, where is the added value that the virtual world is supposed to provide?

If you are interested in the Futurist Conference, which runs all day today and tomorrow, here is their website and their web app (which requires you to set up an account separate from your Decentraland account, if you already have one).

UPDATE 10:12 p.m.: Artur Sychov, the founder of rival blockchain-based platform Somnium Space and a speaker at the conference, confirmed that the Futurist Conference was NOT actually taking place in Decentraland, other than the livestream at the Crypto Valley Convention Center. Artur tells me that a livestream of the conference is also happening in Somnium Space (which, of course, would be easy enough to do, since it’s a public YouTube livestream; all you would need is a proper video display panel). I couldn’t find any mention of it in their events calendar, though. And, once again, I ask myself: why impose an extra layer of unnecessary technology when all you have to do is open YouTube on your desktop or mobile device? Where’s the added value to this?

UPDATE: Nov. 12th, 2020: Well, I did get some feedback on this blogpost from the community on the official DCL Discord server, and a possible explanation as to why I found the Conference Center so empty.

Matty of DCLBlogger told me:

You got kicked to a different realm that had 3 people because the main one was full with 100. I was approached by Tracy from Futurist and we’ve been organizing it to be in DCL, it’s not exclusive but it definitely was not piggy backing. Right now, yes, mostly the appeal is the crypto crowed but as this space moves out I’m sure there will be better onboarding to the non crypto crowed. Getting there.

So, yes, Decentraland supports instancing to handle larger crowds of avatars, and yes, Decentraland worked with the Futurist Conference.

So I am going to apologize: first, to the staff and users of Decentraland for being so negative, and second to Artur Sychov (for quoting/paraphrasing what he told me on this blog without his prior consent, as I had previously promised him).

I fucked up and wrote a blogpost when I was feeling cranky yesterday, I admit it, and I’m sorry.

Editorial: The Licensing of Wearables in Decentraland Could Lead to a Creative Bottleneck

Watching the various blockchain-based virtual worlds evolve, and comparing and contrasting their decisions on how they wish to operate with longer-established, non-blockchain-based virtual worlds such as Second Life, has proven to be quite interesting.

Many of the eager cryptoinvestors who have bought NFTs (non-fungible tokens) such as virtual land, avatar names, and avatar wearables in places like Cryptovoxels, Decentraland and Somnium Space like to tout that their possessions cannot be taken away from them, or censored, revoked or restricted by any central authority, even by the companies running the platform.

For example, they point out that if a user runs afoul of Second Life’s Terms of Service, they can have their account suspended and lose all their virtual possessions. In contrast, the adherents of blockchain-based virtual worlds claim that they can evade such restrictions by simply selling their items on the open market (one such example is the popular OpenSea collectibles marketplace).

Limited-edition wearables (i.e., avatar clothing) which are bought and sold on the blockchain are already proving quite popular both in Cryptovoxels and Decentraland, but the two platforms are taking distinctly different approaches in their implementation. While Cryptovoxels is using the open market approach already proven as successful in places like Second Life, Decentraland seems to be opting for a more restrictive licensing approach, which at first glance seems rather at odds with its “open, decentralized” advertising.

Forcing creators to sign licenses to be allowed to make and sell content, and having investors vote on who will and will not be allowed to create content, stifles the creativity of an free and open marketplace, and seems to go against the “decentralized” nature of Decentraland.

According to an announcement made Monday on the official Decentraland blog:

The creation of wearables for Decentraland is a complicated process requiring a lot of support. To ensure user-generated wearables look great and function properly in Decentraland we will need to make the tools to support this process.

It will take time to develop the workflow and build the equivalent of an SDK and Builder tool for wearables so during this process we will work with small teams of developers from the community that we are confident can deliver quality products and the feedback and communication we need.

Once the workflow is in place and the quality at the high level you’d expect, we’ll implement Stage 2 of the initiative.

This involves opening up the application to create wearables to the entire community. It will take the form of licenses being granted to teams and individuals by the community, through the DAO.

The DAO (short for Decentralized Autonomous Organization) is a relatively new mechanism to allow Decentraland’s investors to vote “on the policies created to determine how the world behaves: for example, what kinds of wearable items are allowed (or disallowed) after the launch of the DAO, moderation of content, LAND policy and auctions, among others.” (More information on the DAO can be found here.)

I have seen a lot of virtual worlds come and go in my time, and one thing that I can tell you is this: imposing any kind of licensing on the creative process can lead to a creative bottleneck, and potentially drive away content creators.

One reason that Second Life continues to be the most commercially successful and popular virtual world, is that Linden Lab had, very early on, decided to create a free and open market, where creators could set up stores and sell their content to whoever was willing to buy it, retaining the rights to their creations and earning income.

Linden Lab has never licensed stores or creators in Second Life, and never will. The workload associated with such an enterprise, in a market with many millions of items for sale, would be impossible to scale upwards as the economy grew. Yes, Linden Lab will step in if a DMCA copyright complaint is received from a competitor, and they will also shut down stores which sell illegally-copied content when it is pointed out to them, but otherwise, they very wisely stand aside and let the market decide what people want.

And while stores open and fold with astounding regularity in Second Life, the fact that they have approximately 900,000 regular monthly users means that they must be doing something right (even if it was all a happy accident which to date still has not been replicated by any other platform). Those virtual worlds that look on with envy at SL’s success, and wish to snatch that mantle of success for themselves, need to pay attention to what works, and what doesn’t.

It would appear that, going forward, Decentraland will be focusing on a licensing process for all avatar wearables, letting its investors vote, instead of letting anybody who wants to, simply create and sell avatar clothing and accessories for the DCL marketplace. While some see this as a necessary effort to impose and refine a high-quality workflow, others see it as a means to restrict market access, and reward those who have the deepest pockets and the best connections. (Some commentators have complained about the opaque process by which the initial five wearables creators were chosen.) Time will tell who’s right and who’s wrong here.

As I see it, Decentraland already has some daunting obstacles which stand in the way of attracting and retaining your average, non-crypto virtual world user to their platform: the many steps required to set up a crypto wallet and purchase ETH and convert it to MANA; the need to purchase even things as basic as a username; and the prohibitively expensive virtual land, its price driven up by speculators. Placing licensing restrictions on who can create items such as avatar wearables could become another such obstacle.

Decentraland should study the history of its competitors carefully, to glean a few pertinent lessons on how to run and grow a virtual world. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel here, folks.

Photo by Jon Cartagena on Unsplash