Editorial: High Fidelity, Sansar, and the Sin of Hubris (and why Second Life Users’ Hatred of Sansar Contributed to Its Downfall)

One evening last week, I decided to take a break from the Educators in VR conference sessions, and I did something I had not done in at least two months—I loaded up an anonymous alt and I paid a visit to Sansar.

Like most other worlds in Sansar, the Galleria shopping mall I visited was utterly deserted, despite showing up at the top of the Popular list in my Codex. (There were certainly no more than forty avatars total in all of Sansar on this particular evening.) After half an hour of morose window-shopping, I signed out again, feeling even more depressed than when I signed in.

I find it almost inconceivable that a mere eleven months ago, we had not one but two social VR platforms, into which their respective companies had poured years of software development work and millions of dollars, throwing splashy, well-attended events in an effort to outdo each other. Today, both of those companies have laid off dozens of staff, one platform has shut down completely, and the other is actively shopping around for someone to take it over, or it will probably shut down too.

Sansar user Zero Cheese posted the following three-minute recording of the most recent Sansar Product Meetup to his Twitter, where the users took to the stage instead of the Linden Lab staff, and instead of cheering me up, all it did was break my heart:

Throughout my three-year journey as a beta tester and blogger, one of the most special things about Sansar has always been its intrepid community of users and content creators, who may have been small in number but mighty in spirit.

There was always the feeling that the next wave of users would be just around the corner, that the next update with its shiny new features would be just enough to entice people to come in, to pay return visits, to move in, to set up homes and stores, and to build a new world.

It never happened. Why?

There will be no shortage of onlookers (armchair quarterbacks) who will speculate on what they think High Fidelity and Linden Lab did wrong, but I would suspect that many of their answers would revolve around one word: hubris.

To the ancient Greeks, hubris referred to extreme pride, especially pride and ambition so great that they offended the gods and led to one’s downfall. Wikipedia says:

Hubris (/ˈhjuːbrɪs/, from ancient Greek ὕβρις) describes a personality quality of extreme or foolish pride or dangerous overconfidence, often in combination with (or synonymous with) arrogance.

Simply put, it was that the people who ran High Fidelity and Linden Lab thought they already knew very well what people wanted, largely based on their shared past corporate experience with Second Life. Oh, they still sought input from the users, from time to time, but overall, they went ahead and did exactly what they pleased, confident that (to borrow a line from the 1989 movie Field of Dreams) if they built it, people would come.

Well, they built it (or, at the very least, they made a good solid start of building it). But the people didn’t come. Why?

Nearly two years ago, I wrote in an editorial called Second Life Versus Sansar: Why Linden Lab Can’t Win, No Matter What They Do:

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…Yet if they try to promote Sansar…folks who are wedded to Second Life get upset. 

Wagner James Au of the long-running blog New World Notes received a torrent of comments from Sansar haters when he reported on the current uncertain status of the Sansar project last Friday. It would appear that many Second Life users are still extremely upset at what they feel were all the resources that Linden Lab put into Sansar—time and money that they feel strongly should have been invested into improving Second Life. (Note that we do not know, and will probably never know, what outside investors put their money into Sansar, if any.) That visceral hatred fed into the perfect storm of events that has put the Sansar project in the position it is now in, being shopped around by Linden Lab in hopes of finding investors, lest it pull the plug completely.

Reading through all the comments in Wagner’s blogpost got me to thinking: how could Linden Lab have handled this situation better? Hindsight is 20/20, but to me it seems clear that the company could have handled its messaging about Sansar to Second Life users a lot better than it did.

The message from Linden Lab was clear: Sansar was not intended to replace Second Life; they were meant to be two separate platforms. While that might have allayed the many initial fears by Second Life users that their beloved virtual world was imminently going to be shut down, it also sidestepped the bigger question: how was Linden Lab going to move users from Second Life to Sansar? Because it rapidly became obvious that most Second Life users, in fact the overwhelming majority of them, were very happy with SL, thank you very much, and nothing and nobody was going to entice them to move.

Galen, in his most recent guest editorial, was right: Linden Lab should have built some bridges between Second Life and Sansar, in order to make it easier to gently encourage SL’s userbase to begin to explore Sansar. Expecting users to give up their inventories and start over again from scratch in a new virtual world was probably a tactical error. Why couldn’t we have used the Linden dollar in Sansar, for example?

I do remember that, at some point in the past, I read that Linden Lab was going to “reserve” all existing Second Life usernames in Sansar, so they could be assumed by SL folks who wished to migrate over and keep their identities. What happened to that plan? What happened to any plan to make it easier to Second Life users to migrate?

Linden Lab’s mismanagement of communication with its Second Life users with respect to Sansar and their intentions was, I believe, a key factor in their downfall. We will probably never know what Linden Lab’s big game plan was with Sansar vis-à-vis Second Life. Perhaps they didn’t even know themselves. But it’s clear that they felt they knew how to repeat that early success with Second Life. And they have been proven wrong.

Philip Rosedale, the founding CEO of Linden Lab and creator of Second Life, also thought he knew the secret to creating a successful, popular successor to Second Life. And he, and the team he led, were also proven wrong.

It has been a rather spectacular downfall for both companies.

Where does everybody go from here? Hell if I know. I just report on the events; I have long given up trying to predict them. My track record is crap. For example, I predicted Cryptovoxels would fail, only to see the platform thrive. I predicted Virtual Universe would be a success, only to see it fail and fold. And I was completely taken by surprise at both High Fidelity’s and Sansar’s layoffs over the past twelve months.

It remains to be seen whether the newer crop of social VR platforms and virtual worlds will learn from what happened to High Fidelity and Sansar, or even what the lessons to be learned are. More remains to be written, but I will leave that to another day.

P.S. Yes, I know; I said I wouldn’t write about Sansar. I changed my mind.

Lab Gab: Strawberry Linden Talks with Linden Lab CEO Ebbe Altberg about Sansar and Second Life (and the Winners of the Second Life Name Changes Contest Are Announced!)

Ebbe Altberg and Strawberry Linden

Strawberry Linden has continued on with Lab Gab, a regular talk show on Second Life, hosting solo now that Xiola Linden (a.k.a. Jenn in Sansar) has left Linden Lab. Her guests today were Linden Lab CEO Ebbe Altberg, and Grumpity Linden, the Vice President of Product for Second Life, and she did a absolutely wonderful job as host, asking her guests many questions raised by Second Life’s customers.

Strawberry started off the conversation by asking Ebbe to talk about the current status of Sansar. He said (and this is a paraphrase I transcribed directly from the livestream video) that Linden Lab decided that they could no longer sponsor the project financially, so they are looking for a “Plan B”, and are having conversations with interested parties. There is as yet no deal to announce, however. Moving forward, Linden Lab will focus entirely on Second Life and the Tilia online payments business. He hopes that he can be more specific with details of a deal in a couple of weeks or so.

UPDATE 7:49 p.m.: If you are looking for an exact, verbatim transcript of Ebbe’s words (and an audio clip), Inara Pey has what you need. Thanks, Inara!

Ebbe said that in the process of rightsizing, Linden Lab lost a number of staff, but some “heavy-hitters” were transferred from the Sansar project to Second Life. He said Linden Lab is now in a very healthy financial position, but it was sad to let so many good people go, and they were doing everything they could to help them find new jobs. Out of respect for the people who were laid off, the company will not name the people who were let go, although the laid-off staff could let others know if they wanted to, themselves. (And although I did receive a list of the names of Linden Lab staff laid off in the most recent layoffs from a well-placed source, I will not be sharing it.)

Strawberry (bless her heart!) also asked Ebbe about the rumour that Philip Rosedale, Linden Lab’s founding CEO, was coming back to Linden Lab, and Ebbe said that that was not true. He and Philip do keep in touch regularly, though.

The rest of Lab Gab was about Second Life, and the conversation involved VP of Product Grumpity Linden. Work is proceeding on a large endeavour called Project Uplift, which involves moving much of Second Life’s infrastructure from server farms into the cloud (the hosting of sims, etc.), which Linden Lab expects to complete by the end of this year.

Development is underway on a companion mobile app for Second Life (not a 3D viewer) for chat, customer support for merchants, etc. The idea is to provide a tool for SL users to stay connected with their friends even if they are not on a desktop computer. They expect to have an alpha/beta user test at some point in the future, hopefully within a couple of months. The iOS Apple app will be released before the Android app.

Grumpity Linden’s
colourful avatar

The launch of Premium Plus accounts (essentially, super-premium user accounts with even more features and benefits) is “close”, according to Grumpity, but she would not commit to a release date yet. Premium Plus users will pay about US$20 less for the upcoming avatar name change feature than current Premium users. So, you might want to wait for Premium Plus accounts to launch before deciding to change your avatar name.

Grumpity also announced that the cost to transfer a buy-down or grandfathered sim will be cut in half, from US$600 to US$300. There are no other land price change announcements at this time.

Finally, Keira Linden, the Product Manager for the Name Change Project, made a special announcement. Over 2,400 submissions were received for the Second Life Name Changes contest. Eight last names were chosen as the contest winners, instead of just five as they had originally planned. Keira reported the winners here:

  • Conundrum
  • Dismantled
  • Huntsman
  • Littlepaws
  • Nova
  • Ravenhurst
  • Wumpkins
  • Yeetly

All the winners will be emailed, and they will get a free avatar name change when this feature becomes available. (Note that there will be a whole bunch of last names available to choose from at launch, not just these eight.)

There were many other topics discussed that I am not covering here, but you can watch this episode of Lab Gab on YouTube:

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.)