Second Life Versus Sansar: Why Linden Lab Can’t Win, No Matter What They Do

Second Life Versus Sansar

Will Burns of the Andromeda Media Group has written a blogpost about a recent visit he paid to Linden Lab, which is pretty much required reading for anyone who’s interested in Second Life or Sansar (Wagner James Au of the New World Notes blog alerted me to this).

It’s very clear from reading his blog that Will thinks that Linden Lab, or at least Linden Lab’s CEO Ebbe Altberg, is focusing on Sansar at the expense of Second Life. Will says:

Why Linden Lab is so hellbent on pushing Sansar while effectively ignoring Second Life, or treating it like the wicked red-headed step-child internally, is anybody’s guess…

While I was at Linden Lab, I definitely got the feeling that Sansar was the main focus with a near total avoidance of discussing Second Life or its future. It’s technology evangelism at its peak.

As far as Ebbe is concerned, he’s all-in for Sansar while Second Life is … somewhere in the basement level with the engineers.

On one side of the equation I can see why Ebbe would be all-in for Sansar. I’d assume Linden Lab spent a stupid amount of money developing it and couldn’t afford to pull the plug, and so he was likely told to produce an ROI come hell or high water.

Welcome to the board of directors world.

In a way, I’d assess that [former Linden Lab CEO] Rodvik [Humble] made a mess and Ebbe is still trying to clean up and/or salvage things…

As a CEO, Ebbe has a choice to make – He is the captain of the Linden Lab ship, but he also decides what sort of captain he wants to be: Captain Picard or Captain Ahab.

Right at this moment, he’s showing qualities of Captain Ahab, in the blind pursuit of Sansar (Moby Dick). But I believe he’s intelligent and an overall great guy. Smart enough not to sabotage his own efforts and company.

After all, Second Life is still the goose that laid the golden egg. It didn’t die, it’s just being actively starved and strangled by the aforementioned organizational changes and CEOs.

Which is really unfortunate, because I also believe Linden Lab also has some brilliant and creative people there with their hands tied, and who absolutely love Second Life and want to make it better.

My opinion?

I think that Ebbe Altberg and his team at Linden Lab can’t win no matter what they do. If they continue to throw too much time and money at Second Life, Sansar will suffer and they’re betting the future on Sansar. (I’ll bet you anything that none of the dozen people LL recently laid off were working on Sansar.) Yet if they try to promote Sansar, as Ebbe clearly did with Will on his visit, folks who are wedded to Second Life get upset. Or people will say that SL is “being actively starved and strangled”.

Face it: Second Life’s glory days are now behind it. Its heyday was approximately from 2006 to 2008, a decade ago. Its fervent fans absolutely hate to hear people say it, but SL is now merely coasting along, not growing but slowly declining over time, the recent Bento-inspired mesh avatar renaissance notwithstanding. You can see vast tracts of abandoned land when you fly over the continents. It’s still profitable—very profitable—to Linden Lab, but it’s having trouble attracting new users, and the now-dated technology of the platform can only be extended so far. In the general news media, SL is being portrayed as quaint but outdated, and attractive only to those somehow lacking in their real lives, as this painfully-titled recent article from The Atlantic makes clear. (Ouch.)

I can also predict pretty confidently that Sansar’s glory days will lie ahead. I think it’s off to a good start. It only makes sense for Linden Lab to put the focus, the time, and the money on a product which (hopefully) will become the next successful virtual world, the next Second Life.

Virtual reality will only gain greater consumer market share over the next decade (it’s definitely arrived now with the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, and it’s not going to go away), and Sansar is being built from the ground up to support VR. Ebbe’s right when he says that he needs to design Sansar for VR first because that’s the hardest bit to get right. That doesn’t mean that desktop users (still the majority of Sansar users) are going to be ignored. It just means that LL has to work that much harder to try and provide feature parity between desktop and VR headset users.

Maybe it’s inevitable that Second Life adherents feel hard done by. Their world is starting to shrink. People are starting to move on. It’s only natural to feel that Linden Lab should be pouring all their resources into keeping SL going forever. But, for better or worse (and I believe it’s for the better), Ebbe Altberg and his team from Linden Lab have made their decision to move boldly ahead with a new, VR-capable platform that will hopefully have a much longer lifespan.

Everybody cross your fingers. We’re in for some interesting times ahead. And no matter what Linden Lab does from this point onwards, somebody’s going to be upset.


Editorial: Linden Lab Needs to Fix Sansar’s User Forums and Blogs


Photo by Daniel Páscoa on Unsplash

Inara Pey, in her most recent blogpost report of last Friday’s Product Meetup, says this:

Sansar forums, blogs, etc: it has finally been recognised that the current tool used for these – ZenDesk – is not well suited to the task (YAY!), although fixing this is not a high priority. There have been internal discussions at the Lab about using the platform and tools employed in creating the Second Life forums, blogs, etc., to build something for Sansar – potentially more as a cost saving opportunity then for the sake of functionality. Frankly, I’m still stunned that this wasn’t the route taken from the start given the Lab have the tools and the experience to use them, which could have been easily leveraged, rather than going for a tool entirely unsuited to the task and which presents information in a very unfriendly – and dare I say amateur – manner.

AMEN. I am in 100% agreement with Inara on this. I am going to add my strong opinions on this matter, which I have shared already with everybody (including Linden Lab staff) on the official Sansar Discord forums.

I know that at the casual meetup he attended last week, Ebbe Altberg (Linden Lab CEO) said he wants to have a “consumer launch” of Sansar sometime in 2018 (as opposed to a “creator beta”). But BEFORE they do that, Linden Lab really, really needs to reconsider the software they are using for their community forums/blog/documentation. I mean this truly ugly and uninspiring thing with the too-small font:

Frankly, it looks terrible and it projects a bad image for Sansar, which in so many other ways has a professional look and some design appeal to it. They already have a fully-functional, attractive-looking community forums/blog/announcement system in place for Second Life, why don’t they use that? Their official blog in particular really looks TERRIBLE, and it has a HORRIBLE URL to boot: (hate to say it, but it’s true). Linden Lab should fix this before they kick off any campaign to attract consumers/end-users into Sansar.

I hate Zendesk, it is unattractive and Linden Lab can certainly do better. Look at the Second Life community forums page: and their knowledge base: and their blogs: Much better than what Sansar currently has!


Look at what High Fidelity has, it is much more visually appealing and functional: High Fidelity uses Medium (a free solution!) for their blog: Let’s compare that with the official Sansar blog:

High Fidelity Blog 8 Jan 2018
High Fidelity’s Official Blog
Sansar Blog 8 Jan 2018
Sansar’s Official Blog

I rest my case!

Editorial: Lessons for Sansar from the Failure of Blue Mars

Remember Blue Mars? The following link is to a short Google+ video, which I made in 2012, that shows my Blue Mars avatar being taken on an automated orientation tour of an architectural recreation of the pavilions of the 1915 San Francisco Panama-Pacific Exposition. (This build was later successfully ported over to Sansar, and it can be visited here.)

Blue Mars was based on Crytek’s CryEngine 2 game engine, which allowed for much more realistic graphics at the time than Second Life could offer. It’s hard to see in this rather grainy Google+ video, but the render quality in Blue Mars then still compares favourably to the Sansar of today. In 2012, I was quite impressed.

Blue Mars was a virtual world created by Virtual Realty, a company based in Hawaii. Arguably, it was probably the one virtual world which came the closest to Second Life in terms of functionality. For a short time back in the early part of this decade, Blue Mars looked like it could even become the next big virtual world. Instead, they essentially shut down production in 2012, granting all the technology rights to Ball State University’s IDIA Lab. What went wrong? Why did Blue Mars fail to take off?

Watching the whole arc of the Blue Mars story as an interested spectator, it became clear to me that launching a new virtual world is a much, MUCH more complicated process than at first thought. The developers have to juggle a large number of different variables in order to succeed, a daunting task for any new company. I believe a combination of four factors led to the failure of Blue Mars development, and that there are lessons that Linden Lab could learn from that failure.

1. The developers worked on non-core technology projects at the expense of key critical features of Blue Mars. For example, much work was done on bots (automated avatars with artificial intelligence) at a time when even such basic features as being able to change default animations, or to modify the avatar’s physical size and shape, were lacking. (See one poorly-thought-out example of Blue Mars bots in the picture at the bottom of this blogpost. Yes, this nonsense was a priority!) There was too small a pool of default standing and walking animations to choose from, and the female avatars’ animations, in particular, were seen by some as too anime-like, and borderline offensive.

2. Virtual Realty made a key decision not to cater to the adult market and to keep Blue Mars at a G/PG13 rating. Whether you agreed with it or liked it or not, one of the segments that kept (and continues to keep) Second Life going are adult activities. (This is the part the news media has tended to harp on, to the point that whenever people hear about Second Life nowadays, they automatically assume everybody is busy having pixelsex.) The harsh fact is, pornography drives the development and uptake of technology (the link is to a 2002 article from The Guardian, and don’t worry, it’s quite safe for work!). By deciding not to support the adult role-play communities, many potential developers simply walked away. Technically, it would have been relatively easy to create separate worlds for adult content in Blue Mars, completely separate from all-ages worlds.

As I have said before, Linden Lab has made it very clear that they do not intend to repeat the early mistakes that were made that marred Second Life’s reputation in many minds. Ebbe Altberg has said that they are not allowing adult content in Sansar until they have strong controls in place that restrict access to that adult content. LL is not stupid, and they know that sex sells. They just don’t want to open the gates until they’re ready. I understand that, and by and large, the Sansar creators understand that. But we aren’t going to wait forever. Adult content has to be somewhere on the development roadmap.

Secoond Life Marketplace 2 Jan 20173. There was an unacceptable bottleneck for developers to get content into Blue Mars. Everything had to be vetted by Blue Mars first, as I understood it. You couldn’t simply put an item up in the store like you can in Sansar, mark it for sale, and be done with it. In fact, there was no online marketplace for Blue Mars content at all, you had to set up an in-world store like you did in Second Life. I constantly wondered at the lack of in-world stores in Blue Mars, and the paucity of offerings on display. I do remember that someone had spent the time and money to build a huge, cavernous shopping mall in Blue Mars, and in the end, they only ever had four items of clothing up for sale! Compare this to the over 6,100 items on sale in Sansar already, only five months after its public launch. Linden Lab has well learned not to put unnecessary roadblocks in the way of potential creators, and the dizzying array of items for sale in Second Life (see image, right) is proof positive of that concept.

It is interesting to note that High Fidelity has proposed a fee of US$10 per item as a PoP listing fee for their new marketplace. (PoP stands for Proof of Product? Proof of Provenance? No one ever got back to me on what that acronym actually stands for.) High Fidelity CEO Philip Rosedale is quoted from this thread:

If we are going to be serious about protecting creators content, that means we need to carefully check for duplication of existing work as well as other rights violations at the time that we issue a certificate. We’ll conduct a manual search as well as put proposed registrations on public display for a few days. So the process of putting things into the market will be like registering a trademark or filing a patent. The long term cost of that can be whatever level of protection/search makes sense to the community – we don’t intend to make money there. We set it to $10 rather arbitrarily to start, with the idea that we would see how much it costs to do the work and how much we can automate it.

But the key point here is that we need to do a search for similar items, and that search is inherently hard. Otherwise people will copy each other’s stuff and register it (this has already happened in Sansar, btw), and that will make everyone unhappy.

While I think that it is highly admirable that Philip wants to protect creators, the PoP checking system he is proposing is going to set up is exactly the same sort of regulatory bottleneck that eventually throttled Blue Mars development. What’s wrong with simply setting up a system where users can flag an item on the marketplace, as you can in the Sansar Store or the Second Life Marketplace?

4. Blue Mars was extremely poorly promoted. There was zero (and I mean, zero) press. (I know, because I was searching for it at the time.) Very few people outside of the virtual worlds community had ever heard of it. What few events Blue Mars did have were poorly promoted and sparsely attended. They badly needed capable boosters and promoters—raving fans. The potential for something that was a next-step Second Life was indeed there, but few people got to see it and experience it for themselves and figure out how they can take a part in its further development, so it remained moribund and eventually died completely.

I was rather sad when Blue Mars failed to penetrate the virtual world marketplace, but it also underscored just how complex a job it is to create and promote such an enterprise. Frankly, Second Life was just lucky enough to be in the right place and the right time to become the 800-pound gorilla of virtual worlds. Linden Lab is going to need a repeat of that luck in order to for Sansar become the next big thing. Hopefully, the company has learned some lessons from the failure of previous virtual worlds such as Blue Mars.

Blue Mars_ Quiplash and the Suzette Groupie-bots.png
I always laugh when I see this old picture from Blue Mars. The tone-deafness of this automated bot “welcoming” system was staggering. Obviously, someone at Blue Mars thought that this sort of work was a high priority! I just wish I had taken video of this travesty!

Editorial: Linden Lab CEO Ebbe Altberg Responds to the Overwhelming Number of Requests for Various New Features for Sansar


Photo by Mubariz Mehdizadeh on Unsplash

Linden Lab is in a tough spot. They often get lambasted by their users for not doing things right. They’re a relatively small company with limited staff resources, trying to set priorities and facing an overwhelming number of requests from an admittedly demanding audience. (And let’s face it, users of virtual worlds are a very, very demanding bunch and they’re not shy about criticizing Linden Lab and its products. You only have to read some of the unending negative commentary about Sansar on SLUniverse and the official Second Life user forums to see that.)

When it comes to the software development roadmap for Sansar, Ebbe Altberg has been quoted as saying that he wants to focus on those new features which will positively enhance user attraction, engagement and retention. Linden Lab is fielding so many different requests from so many different corners: Mac users really want a Mac client, Windows MR headset users desire a Windows MR client, Paypal users are demanding the ability to use Paypal, etc.

That’s why I wanted to highlight something that Ebbe said on the official Sansar Discord channel, in response to a long and wandering conversation about credit cards vs. Paypal:

PayPal will happen some day. It’s on the list of things. Please be patient while we focus more on retention and engagement of those who can participate before we expand to enable more people to participate. Whether that is additional platforms like Mac or Windows MR devices or other payment options etc.

In other words, Ebbe wants to go deeper before he goes wider. Obviously, Paypal is still considered critically important by Linden Lab, but as Sansar’s Lead Community Manager, Jenn, has said on the official Sansar Discord forums:

I can only make my personal guess at this, since I have not touched base with product specifically on this in the last month or so. My thinking is that since we are talking about money every integration ( Paypal, [credit card], debit, other methods), [that] is going to have a timeline that requires a series of vettings, paperwork, contracts, and all kinds of red tape and processes. It is not as simple as saying “we want to work with this, so voilà now that works!” These things have got to take a lot of time and energy to set up in a way that is compliant and secure. [It’s] one of those situations where you have to be patient.

Note a key word from both Ebbe and Jenn’s statements: “patient”. We, the impatient users, seem to forget that Sansar has only been open to the public since July 31st, 2017. That’s less than five months total! Compare that to the over fourteen years that Second Life has been in existence. It’s common, but not really fair, to compare the two Linden Lab products.

One thing you can do to help influence Linden Lab in their future Sansar software development is to create (and vote up) items in the Feature Requests section of the Sansar Community forums. For example, I very much want to have the static display of Web pages on media surfaces in Sansar (a.k.a. “Web on a prim” like what Second Life already has), so I created a Feature Request for that. (By the way, it only has 5 votes, and it could use some more up-votes, please. Thanks!)

Here’s an example of a free product on the SL Marketplace that allows a university to put a webpage, plus some other images/posters, all together into an attractive and useful display for visitors:


Having this one particular feature in Sansar would allow for the easier integration of Web-based information into Sansar experiences, which makes Sansar more useful for creators, and therefore, end users.

For example, as a research project in 2018, I plan to create a user-navigable, three-dimensional version of the Mathematical Atlas website (a guide to the mathematics literature for undergraduate and graduate students) using Sansar as a platform. (I’ve already hired Maxwell Graf to help me build this experience.)

Why do this? In order to answer the following research questions:

  • What hurdles do academic libraries face in providing access to a pre-existing reference/research tool in a virtual reality environment to students?
  • Are the software tools currently available (for example, those in Sansar) sufficient to build effective, efficient VR experiences for reference? If not, then what else is needed? This research project would be among the very first library and educational uses of the Sansar platform. We could well be pushing against the upper limits of what Sansar can handle (e.g. how many interlinked scenes can you have in one Sansar experience?).
  • How will patrons use reference and research tools in VR? In the specific case of the Mathematical Atlas, will the use of a three-dimensional landscape model help users better grasp the various areas of modern mathematical research and how they relate to each other, as opposed to a traditional flat, two-dimensional webpage? Or will the 3-D model simply get in the way of imparting useful information?

Obviously, the ability to link directly to a static webpage from the Mathematical Atlas website, rather than having to cut-and-paste text from a webpage onto a flat plane in Sansar, would enable me to build my 3D experience much more easily.

But this feature could be applied to many other uses, too. For example, how about a showroom with mannequins wearing avatar fashion, each next to a panel showing the static webpage listing in the Sansar Store, providing all of the vendor’s information about that article of clothing? It’s much easier to update a webpage and link to it, than it is to re-edit text on a flat plane. Also, having multiple versions of the same information means that they will eventually get out of sync.

To get back to my original point, Ebbe’s goals are very clear:

  1. Increase the number of people visiting Sansar (user attraction);
  2. Keep those people coming back into Sansar again and again (user retention); and
  3. Increase the length of time they spend in Sansar overall (user engagement).

So don’t just sit on your asses and complain about how Linden Lab isn’t listening to you! Put your thinking caps on, and let’s see some activity in the Feature Requests section! Let’s see some cool ideas!!


Photo by Diego PH on Unsplash