Editorial: Sansar, Sovietology, and Reading the Tea Leaves

In the days of the old Cold War, American spies, historians, and Sovietologists would spend hours poring over published pictures of Communist party gatherings (such as the annual May Day parade rostrums) with magnifying glasses, trying to figure out who was in and out of favour among the ruling class: who was a new and rising star, and who had fallen from power, perhaps even banished to the Gulag.

And, given how Linden Lab has refused to comment publicly on their most recent round of layoffs, bloggers like Inara Pey and I rely on not dissimilar techniques to read the tea leaves, and figure out who’s in and out at LL. (For example, Inara has pointed out that Landon McDowell, Linden Lab’s Chief Product Officer, seems to have survived the layoffs, as she could still find his Second Life account. Yes, such are the straws we are currently clutching at. Of course, until such time as Landon actually pops up to say something, we’re just guessing.)

A tried-and-true tactic (used to parse previous Linden Lab layoffs in the past) has been to check the ratings and stories of recently-laid-off employees posted to the Glassdoor website. One such review, posted Oct. 31st, 2019, states:

I worked at Linden Lab full-time for more than 5 years

Pros: Some hard working people who were trying to do the right thing and ship a compelling project.

Cons: Exec leadership is inept beyond belief. No clue about the product they’re in charge of or the industry they’re a part of. Sansar had a chance to shine, but leaders who were too scared to make important decisions, constant pivots, and wasting too much time building unnecessary tech spelled it’s doom. CEO was an old friend of the chairman of the board who got the job due to nepotism. CPO was useless.

Advice to Management: Fire yourselves.

Yee-ouch! Well, if I were suddenly and unexpectedly laid off, I would be probably be that bitter too. But the overarching complaint here is one that is often lobbed at Linden Lab: that the company has had great difficulty explaining exactly what purpose Sansar was intended to fill.

(Also a note: of course the board of directors is going to rely on their existing social network to find and hire a CEO! That is hardly a crime. And overall, Ebbe Altberg seems to have done a much better job as CEO of Linden Lab than many of his predecessors, as far as I can tell.)

So, all the hue and cry is pretty much over now, and the people who have been let go have packed their boxes and left the premises. Now what?

Well, now that the marketing people (as opposed to the engineers) are firmly in control of the Good Ship Sansar, I think that we can expect what we were clearly told at the Friday Product Meetup: the new focus will be on live events, with a secondary focus on socialization and communication tools, and providing a better on-boarding experience to new users. Anything that does not support those primary and secondary foci, such as further avatar customization and gamification/questing options, will likely be pushed back, or taken off the software development roadmap completely.

Frankly, a new focus on live events is a pretty canny move for Linden Lab. It also helps define more clearly the purpose of the platform (which, as I have said above, is a core problem Sansar has had from the very beginning).

And Linden Lab wouldn’t have to look very far afield to find talent; it is right under their noses in Second Life! SL has been a fantastic incubator for countless musical performers, some of whom have gone on to achieve real-life success, stepping out from behind their avatar.

If I were Sheri Bryant, I would set up a formal program to try and encourage many of the talented live performers who entertain audiences in various venues in Second Life, to consider using Sansar as a new platform to attract a whole new audience. We have already seen this happen to a limited degree with events that Alfy and others have organized in Sansar; why not pull out all the stops and take it a step further?

Of course, I expect there will also be a big push to bring in small, medium, and big-name artists from the real world. Sansar was already off to a good start in that department; I’m quite sure they already have plans in the works for many future concerts and events.

And, as I have said before, I expect that Linden Lab will continue to cultivate selected social media influencers in an effort to get the word out. It’s the best bang for their advertising dollar in this digital age, in my opinion. Like it or hate it, social media is here to stay, and influencers have power.

So, what do you think will happen next? What do you see in the tea leaves for Sansar? Please feel free to leave a comment on this blogpost. Also, there’s the RyanSchultz.com Discord server, the world’s first cross-worlds discussion forum! I’d like to extend an invitation to have you join us and participate in the many discussions and debates that take place there.


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.)

Ebbe Altberg Talks About Social VR as a Platform and Economy for Entrepreneurs in an Interview for ZDNet

Ebbe Altberg, the CEO of Linden Lab (the makers of Second Life and Sansar), recently gave an interview to Tonya Hall of ZDNet:

A couple of quick facts from the fifteen-minute interview:

  • Ebbe Altberg’s previous employment history includes stints at both Microsoft (12 years, working on Microsoft Office) and Yahoo! (where he was a senior vice president);
  • Last year, Second Life users cashed out $64 million in earnings;
  • Second Life has had over 200,000 virtual marriages in its lifetime!

Ebbe spends the bulk of the interview discussing the in-world economy of Second Life and Sansar (which Linden Lab is currently building based on the lessons learned from the 16 years of experience the company has gained by operating Second Life). He also talks about recent corporate branding partnerships in Sansar, such as Monstercat, Sanrio (the brand behind the Hello Kitty phenomenon) and Levi’s.

It’s clear that Ebbe wants to pursue more corporate partnerships and branding opportunities with Sansar. One thing that puzzles me is that this video, posted on Sept. 24th, 2019, had only had 22 views so far on YouTube! So please give it a watch, and spread the good word. Thanks 😉 perhaps we can send a few more companies Ebbe’s way, to strike a few more deals!

Editorial: Why Second Life Is the Perfect Model of a Mature, Fully Evolved Virtual World for Newer Social VR Platforms to Emulate

You might have noticed that recently, even with all the different social VR platforms and virtual worlds I could choose from, I am still visiting—and blogging about—Second Life a lot lately.

There’s a good reason for that. I still love Second Life, and I still find lots to bring me back, time and again. For all the bells and whistles of the newer social VR platforms, I find myself coming back to SL for more.

Some people speculate that the evolving metaverse is going to look a lot like popular games like Fortnite. But I think that successful social VR/AR/XR platforms of the future are going to resemble Second Life.

In fact, I am going to make the argument that Second Life, at sixteen years old, is the perfect model of a mature, fully-evolved virtual world. Whether through design, luck, or accident (and really, it’s a combination of all three), founding CEO Philip Rosedale and his team at Linden Lab created something that hundreds of thousands of users still use regularly, despite Second Life routinely being ignored or derided by the mainstream media.

In fact, just a couple of days ago, Philip tweeted:

He said:

Looking right now at the live Steam concurrency stats, if Second Life were listed there it would be in the top 10 games, between Rocket League and TF2. And we’ve been at that concurrency level for more than 10 years.

Much credit lies both with Philip Rosedale for his original, pioneering vision of what a virtual world could be (and some very smart early decisions, such as allowing people to create and sell their own content to other users). Much credit must also go to the current CEO of Linden Lab, Ebbe Altberg, who has capably and competently led his team through many changes in recent years, building on Philip’s foundation. (There were a few CEOs in between, too, but we don’t talk about those. 😉 )

We can take a look at where Second Life is now, today, for a glimpse at the future of social VR/AR/XR platforms and virtual worlds.

What lessons can we take from SL? I can list four off the top of my head.

First, having a well functioning in-world economy is CRITICAL. Once people realized that they could actually make money in Second Life by creating and selling content to other users, SL took off like a rocket. And you can bet that the newer platforms like Sansar, High Fidelity, Sinespace, Decentraland, and Somnium Space have all been busily taking notes based on that early success. Even VRChat, which lacks an in-world economy, effectively proves this point, by having a booming off-world economy centered around the making and selling of custom avatars. The lesson here is simple: either build a marketplace and an economy into your virtual world, or your users will build one around it anyway, in spite of you!

We can expect that newer social VR/AR/XR platforms will develop highly detailed working economies and marketplaces for user-generated content (including comprehensive item permissions systems), whether or not they embrace blockchain and cryptocurrencies. Second Life proved that this is a key, vital ingredient to virtual world success.

Second, it’s ALL ABOUT THE PEOPLE. One of the reasons that Second Life has had such extraordinary longevity and success is that people have made an investment in the communities that they belong to. Whatever you are—a Gorean, medieval, steampunk, or science fiction roleplayer; a furry, a tiny, a Na’vi or a Bloodlines vampire—you have likely already found your tribe in Second Life! And that community is what brings people back, time and time again.

Also, Second Life has proven that people will spend a significant amount of time and money on customizing their avatars to their liking. There’s a whole industry built up around avatar customization, as even a brief glance at the SL Marketplace, with its hundreds of thousands of items for sale, will attest.

One of the reasons that OpenSim-based virtual worlds have struggled so much (with so many grids closing unexpectedly, like the rather sad InWorldz saga) is that they attract so few people compared to Second Life. You don’t make too many return visits to a grid when you can’t find anybody else to interact with. And this is where the network effect comes in: the more people who use a platform, the more people it draws in, and the more valuable that network becomes. Often (but not always), these successful growing networks were earlier entrants into a particular marketplace, like Second Life was.

And obviously, Facebook hopes that they can leverage their massive existing social network to give their upcoming social VR platform Horizon an advantage over competitors. If Facebook can get even a tiny percentage of their Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp users to move to Facebook Horizon and use it regularly, they will be more successful than any other social VR platform to date (even VRChat). Facebook has the resources to dominate markets and crush competitors, and they will not hesitate to use every tool and tactic at their disposal. However, as I have said before, innovative social VR platforms will still be able to survive, if they can offer something that Facebook Horizon cannot.

Third: The early adopters of the various social VR/virtual worlds are the best ambassadors and promoters of the platforms. Engaged, raving fans are a virtual world’s best and most effective advertisement! Savvy metaverse companies court these early adopters with varying levels of success.

And you alienate those raving fans at your peril! High Fidelity is unfortunately learning this lesson the hard way. The current level of ill-will surrounding the project, spread by former users who are highly critical of the various mistakes and failings of the company, is an additional hurdle that the company will have to surmount in order to succeed.

Fourth, don’t be too quick to judge or dismiss a platform based on early impressions! I love to share the following video with people who just assumed that Second Life started off as an instant success. It dates from 2001, two years before SL opened to the public, and before it was even called Second Life (back then, it was called Linden World):

It took Philip Rosedale and his team at Linden Lab years and years and YEARS of hard work to get to the point where it finally took off (around 2006-2007).

And likewise, don’t be too quick to dismiss newer platforms that still might be a bit rough around the edges. (And yes, I am as guilty of this as the next person.) Some platforms might not look like much right now, but they will likely also take several years of concerted effort (by the companies behind them and their early users), before they reach a point where they become successful, profitable products.

I have noticed in covering the social VR/virtual world marketplace on my blog that here is such intense pressure on metaverse-building companies to become “the next Second Life”. Platforms are often judged harshly if they do not immediately get high concurrent users figures right out of the starting gate. That is completely unrealistic. The smarter companies are playing the long game here: building a quality social VR/virtual world slowly and methodically over time, and slowly but steadily attracting an audience. That’s what happened with Second Life!

A perfect example of this strategy at work is NeosVR, which is doing some insanely creative things, like this most recent example: an actual working portal gun! I mean, just how freaking cool is that?

NeosVR is still not on a lot of people’s radar yet, but they are attracting more and more users who are very impressed by what they can achieve on this platform. In many cases, these are features that other social VR platforms are not even close to matching! That’s why I believe that NeosVR will have a bright future. As Ralph Waldo Emerson apparently said, build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door.

So these are just a few thoughts. Examine Second Life carefully, and you too will gain valuable clues into what the mature, fully-evolved social VR/AR/XR platforms of the future will look like. You can count on it!

Picture by Yorkie