Why I Am Really Taking a Vacation from the RyanSchultz.com Blog

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Photo by Mohamed Ajufaan on Unsplash

You know, I said I was taking a vacation from this blog. And then, of course (like I usually do), something cool comes up—someone mentions a new virtual world, Altamura releases another free mesh avatar body—and I get all excited and I break my word.

Tonight, while driving home from supper at my mother’s, I realized:

I really don’t have a clue. 

Here I am, blissfully and blithely assuming that I am actually going to be making a living in some way from “social VR, virtual worlds, and the metaverse” (the tagline of my blog) when I finally do decide (hopefully, at some age before 65) to take my retirement.

And I don’t have any sort of game plan. I talk about becoming a virtual fashion designer, and I haven’t touched my copy of Marvelous Designer since February. I’m not going to get very far (or make very much money at it) if I don’t work my way up the learning curve.

I’m also trying, with my producer Andrew and his cameraman Carlos, to launch the Metaverse Newscast show. My cancer scare pushed everything back; we’ve only got two-thirds of the first episode in the can so far (interviews with Solas and Galen).

The theologian Frederick Buechner once wrote about finding your calling in life:

There are all different kinds of voices calling you to all different kinds of work, and the problem is to find out which is the voice of God rather than of Society, say, or the Super-ego, or Self-Interest.

By and large a good rule for finding out is this. The kind of work God usually calls you to is the kind of work (a) that you need most to do and (b) that the world most needs to have done. If you really get a kick out of your work, you’ve presumably met requirement (a), but if your work is writing TV deodorant commercials, the chances are you’ve missed requirement (b). On the other hand, if your work is being a doctor in a leper colony, you have probably met requirement (b), but if most of the time you’re bored and depressed by it, the chances are you have not only bypassed (a) but probably aren’t helping your patients much either.

Neither the hair shirt nor the soft berth will do. The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.

—Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking

I’m a very lucky man; not once, but twice, I have found that place where my deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.

The first time was discovering the joys of libraries as a child, and eventually becoming a librarian.

The second time—this time around—I accidentally discovered my deep gladness when I first set foot in Second Life back in 2007. And then (much later, and again by accident!) I discovered that I also had a talent for writing this blog, for explaining and elucidating how the metaverse works, and talking with and interviewing the personalities that make it happen.

I hate to say this, but I really do need to put the blog on hold so I can make some proper plans.

How long? I’m thinking, for the rest of November, maybe longer. But I really do need to stop, catch my breath, and figure out where the hell I am going with all this.

I do hope you understand. Thank you for being such faithful readers! When I do decide to resume my blogging, you’ll all be the first to know.

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Photo by Pablo Heimplatz on Unsplash
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Guest Editorial by Galen: Taking a Break from Sansar

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It’s been a fun ride so far, but I’m ready for a break. I’m not the first and probably won’t be the last to do so. Early stages of growing ventures almost always experience changeovers in membership, owing largely to changes in the ventures themselves. In my case, I think I’m going to have to chalk it up to a lack of significant change in Sansar so far.

Sansar’s glacial pace of development is a strength in that it is being careful not to introduce too many bugs. And Linden Lab is acting strategically instead of tactically in introducing features and policies. But I would argue that that glacial pace is also Sansar’s greatest weakness at present.

Allow me to present a sampling of aspects of Sansar that I consider good and bad and also speculate a little on its future.

I’m not leaving Sansar entirely, but I have effectively halted new development of my products and services for now.

Some gratitude

Let me start with a little gratitude. My experience with Second Life since 2005 gave me a very clear impression that Linden Lab exists on a high mountain far away from the average user. I rarely reached out for help and thought it best to mostly avoid LL. Sansar gives the opposite impression. If you have ever heard the stories from SL’s alpha and beta era users about how fun and helpful LL was in those early days and been envious, I encourage you to join Sansar now. You’ll get regular chances to talk to some of LL’s most important people and influence the direction Sansar takes.

Linden Lab’s staffers have been professional, friendly, and helpful to me all along the way. And as far as I can tell, to pretty much everyone. It’s hard to overstate how rare and valuable this is in a technology platform provider. I hope LL will keep this spirit alive as Sansar grows.

Will Sansar grow?

Some might say that this is the most important question on the minds of everyone in Sansar. And among its competitors. Although I can’t know for sure, my current best guess is that it will not grow appreciably in the near future. This is a key reason that I’m taking a break.

What would it mean for Sansar to grow appreciably? I’ve been collecting gross usage data for many months now and have made some of it publicly visible. The rates of visitors make it clear that it hasn’t been growing this year. The peak number of visitors online at a time tops out each month at about 40 to 50 people. That means that there’s never been more than 50 people online at one time since April 2018, when I started collecting the data. And the individual days of each month have a peak concurrency typically from 20 to 50. While it should be fairly easy for LL to get that peak consistently up above that, I don’t think I would consider anything less than a tenfold increase (peaks of around 500 concurrent users) to signify real growth. I think we should consider targets of 1k, 10k, and 100k concurrent users per day as genuine milestones for the growth of Sansar or any of its competitors to reach.

Why hasn’t Sansar grown, then? Key people within LL will publicly and privately tell you that they haven’t tried hard to reach a mass audience yet. Their focus has understandably been on “going deep instead of going wide”, meaning adding the features content creators need to power their experiences before worrying about mass adoption by end consumers. While I agree with this strategy, I don’t think that’s the full answer. It’s not like LL is pushing back against hordes of people waiting to come in.

I’m going to argue in the following sections that Sansar isn’t growing because it is not yet ready to grow and won’t be anytime soon.

Why a new game engine?

Many people have asked why Linden Lab chose to create a brand new game engine from scratch. One simple answer is: Because that’s what worked with Second Life. But back when SL came out, there arguably wasn’t a solid off the shelf game engine available to build SL on top of. It made sense back then to roll your own.

You can’t really argue that anymore. Unity alone boasts over 100 engineers working daily to expand their game engine. New features seem to pour out of Unity constantly. How could Sansar hope to keep up with their pace?

I’ve started learning Unity using the many free tutorial videos online and by creating demonstration projects myself. Earlier this year you could have argued that Sansar’s rendering engine gave experiences a certain polish that was hard to come by with stock Unity, but with the beta release of their High Definition Rendering Pipeline, that slight edge has vanished. See Unity’s Book of the Dead technology demonstrator for an example of what’s possible now, even for a realtime game:

Arguably, all Sansar is doing now is trying to catch up to the basics of what is available via Unity, Unreal, Cryengine, and other mature and evolving platforms. So what is it that Sansarians are getting from this effort, which is probably consuming most of Sansar’s development budget and time?

The most significant benefit I’ve heard presented is consistency. LL argues that content we create for Sansar today will still be available tomorrow. However, I don’t think history bears that out. Most of the code I’ve written has become broken or badly performant as the platform has developed. I’ve kept ahead of this problem by frequently reinventing my product lines and encouraging my customers to keep upgrading. I’ve closed almost every experience I’ve ever created because they have broken down a little more with each passing update.

You might argue that that’s a problem limited to scripting, given how new and active this area of development is in Sansar. I don’t think so. We have repeatedly seen examples of changes to physics, rendering, and other aspects of the game engine that have broken old content.

You might argue that’s all because Sansar is in beta now. Eventually, LL will get to a point where they are happy with the platform as it is and never introduce breaking changes again. If only that were true; but I don’t believe it.

Moreover, I’m not even sure that’s a good thing. What good is a game engine that does not occasionally introduce huge improvements over time that make you want to abandon your old content? SL is replete with examples of this. Who wants to buy a car made of “prims” (cubes, spheres, and other basic shapes) now when you can get a mesh version that’s better in every way? And look at how much Bento has effectively outmoded almost all the older ways of creating and outfitting avatars. Sansar should actually plan to break things sometimes if they want to keep up with advances in technology.

The only other cogent argument I’ve heard about why it’s good for LL to create its own game engine is that doing so allows Sansar to have an easy to use interface for creating experiences. Well, it’s true that Sansar’s interface is simpler. But again, I’m not convinced that’s entirely a good thing. Moreover, if that’s the best argument, then Sansar may turn out to be in a race to the bottom, almost always favouring simplicity over features and performance. That strikes me as a losing strategy in the long term.

My own conclusion is that choosing to create a new game engine from scratch was probably a fundamental strategic error. At this point, I don’t think I could see LL backing away from this choice and starting over with an off-the-shelf alternative, which means that they have an enormous amount of work ahead to try to catch up and keep pace with the industry. Sansar’s experiences look beautiful, but that’s easy enough to achieve in other platforms already.

You are a precious snowflake

Following the successful model of Second Life, Sansar offers users the chance to create a customized avatar and identity. But I think it would be overselling Sansar to say that it has really achieved that.

One key to SL’s success is the mix and match approach to avatar construction. SL may drive new users crazy just trying to understand all of its terminology or even how to put on your pants like everyone else. But at least you can do it all your own way. In Sansar, you have two basic roads you can take. You can create and import a whole avatar or buy it from the store and look like everyone else with that avatar. Or you can use one of the basic male or female avatars, to which you can make minor tweaks. And then, you can buy clothes and accessories. It’s not awful, but it’s clear from so many complaints by visitors to Sansar from SL, and from many requests from Sansarians, that this isn’t a level of customization that is sufficient for users who view their appearance as a critical part of their identity. Sansarians just don’t feel like they can personalize their avatars enough yet.

Sansar will no doubt improve. Eventually we’ll be able to change “skins” on the default avatars. We’ll have many more adjustments we can make to the basic human avatars. We’ll be able to add custom animations and blend them with VR inputs. There are all kinds of great avatar things coming. Eventually. And slowly.

What is social VR, anyway?

One key assumption I’ve been making is that social VR is a separate animal from games. What I didn’t give much thought to is that Sansar is a game platform. I have been creating games and other interactive experiences in Sansar all along and treating it as one. And it is, technically. But as described above, it’s very limited.

Social VR is supposed to be about platforms for social experiences. Yes, interactivity is part of that, but the main thrust is supposed to be creating friendships and finding common reasons to meet and coordinate in a virtual world. But actually, at this point, I’m not even sure what the heck social VR really is, to be honest. There are already other games where people work together and make friends. There are tools for people to work together and socialize, including Discord, which Sansar’s community uses to great effect. I can go with friends and watch a custom VR concert by Imogen Heap in TheWaveVR. What remains that isn’t already covered by other offerings? Or is it just an amalgam of those things?

One thing a social VR platform can offer is a way for you to craft your own avatar and use it in all experiences. You don’t have meaningful portability of your identity across other multiplayer games right now, so that’s a benefit.

Another thing a social VR platform offers is a market for assets, including avatar fashions and objects like houses and trees for building experiences with.

It’s hard to overstate the value of having a well-crafted currency for microtransactions. That is what should power Sansar in the future as business-minded creators that make products, spaces, events, and other services get motivated to earn money for their work.

But what if none of this matters? What if people find most of what they want out of social VR in the fragmented alternatives to Sansar and other social VR platforms? Will users seeking games really come to Sansar to play HoverDerby if they can get more compelling games directly through Steam or other platforms? Will they bother coming for slick Sansar lighting when it’s easier to create a refined avatar on SL? Moreover, will they come to meet people here when SL and VRChat offer more compelling alternatives?

It’s all about multiplayer

Until recently, I bought into the idea that what separated Sansar from Unity and other game platforms was multiplayer. It’s one thing to make a game that you download and play by yourself at home. It’s another to be able to interact with other people in real-time to battle, cooperate, talk, flirt, and so on. My world was rocked when I learned that Unity, in fact, supports multiplayer games. Moreover, they are on the cusp of releasing a totally new version of multiplayer support, complete with a dedicated hosting option so you can focus just on creating and maintaining your game and customer base.

It turns out that Unreal offers some multiplayer support, too. So does Amazon’s Lumberyard. Which makes sense, given Amazon’s massive cloud service, which hosts Sansar and will soon host Second Life, too.

Why would this change anything for me? Because I thought this was something only social VR platforms like Sinespace were able to offer. To me, the server side was where the real magic happened. But at this point you have to ask yourself whether you would be better off creating your social experience from scratch using a game platform like Unity instead of Sansar.

Should I create my social experience in Unity?

The short answer for right now is: Probably not. I’ve done enough work so far in creating technology demonstrators of multiplayer VR games to know that it is eminently possible, but you’ll have your work cut out for you. If you don’t mind investing in solving some of the tough basic problems, such as synchronization of players and creating an avatar editor, the sky is the limit on what your game can do, compared to Sansar. But if all you want to do is buy some stuff in a store to play with and get your friends coming to visit, Sansar is the better bet for now.

But this still matters. I’m going to make a prediction now. It won’t be five years before there will be cheap or even free turnkey solutions available for Unity, Lumberyard, and other popular gaming engine/platforms that let you just start building an experience immediately without having to solve those basic problems. It will probably happen over the next year or two and in a gradual progression of features. But as that happens, people really will be asking themselves what the point is of having a social VR platform when they can use a DIY solution to create one from scratch and even host it practically for free.

I suspect some companies will also figure out a way to offer identities, including avatars, as a service to game makers. Imagine crafting your avatar in a separate program and being able to use it in 100 different games without having to recreate it or work with design programs to create compatible import files. That’s actually what Morph3D’s Ready Room service is launching into, starting with an integration to High Fidelity.

There’s no reason to imagine that someone won’t also figure out how to bring cross-game micropayments to many games to make creating internal economies easier and encourage greater asset portability.

Yes, some of this is speculative, but it’s worth considering a world where social VR is essentially miscellaneous to creating social experiences. A needless middleman.

Is High Fidelity the right way to go?

I’m convinced it is not. It may sound like the pipe dream I described above fits High Fidelity‘s model to a T. After all, you can host your own experiences (“domains”) on whatever server you wish. They have a blockchain-based currency that works across their distributed world. And you can modify their open source client and server software to suit your particular needs.

But nope, HiFi isn’t the same at all. It isn’t a popular gaming engine. Like Sansar, it is a proprietary technology geared primarily toward social VR. It largely replicates Second Life’s overall model, but without the centralization of servers and assets.

Is centralization good? There are some benefits to owning your own VR server, such as choosing how powerful a computer you need based on your expected usage. In October, HiFi managed to get up to 423 visitors packed into a single domain for a load test. This impressive feat required provisioning some really beefy servers that are more expensive to run than most people would care to pay for their own domains. Sansar’s experiences all run on identical servers.

But consider intellectual property (IP) rights, especially copyrights. You can go to Cubebrush or any number of other asset stores and buy models that you can then easily misuse beyond the terms of the sale. Asset creators face the very real prospect of copyright violations that are very difficult to prevent. This is the same problem High Fidelity faces. I would argue that their blockchain-based certificates of authenticity are at best a fig leaf that won’t really protect IP rights. Controversies have already arisen in HiFi and VRChat over copyright violations.

At least Sansar offers content creators the possibility of having their IP rights protected by having assets sold in the store kept behind the Great Wall of Sansar.

But ultimately, HiFi is going to face the same competition as Sansar from outside alternatives. We need to stop thinking that social VR is a truly distinct thing that won’t be affected by ongoing encroachment by popular game engines like Unity. We must factor them into our comparisons.

Is VR dead again?

No. Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) usage are steadily growing, especially in Asian markets. Although the pace of innovation of the hardware seems slow for now, customers are already eagerly awaiting many new technologies in 2019, such as the Valve Knuckles controllers, the Oculus Quest stand-alone system, and Magic Leap One headset.

Content creators in VR platforms like Sansar should seriously consider focusing on creating VR-centric experiences, and not worry about making them desktop friendly. Why would I say that, given that most Sansarians don’t have VR equipment? Because there are already oodles of desktop (and even mobile) virtual worlds to choose from, including SL. If that’s all Sansar is, don’t expect it to take off. Recognize the “VR” part of “social VR” and create experiences that can’t be enjoyed in any way other than in an embodied first person point of view with hands and eventually more. I hope that the success of Beat Saber has hammered that point home by now.

What if Sansar fails?

It’s a bit sad that there are many vocal Second Life users who are hoping for this outcome in the belief that Linden Lab will use the money saved to improve SL faster. Personally, I’m not ready to predict Sansar’s imminent or future demise. I still think Sansar has the best shot of success among all the social VR platforms right now.

But let me just speculate for a moment what would happen if LL were to give up on Sansar development and essentially shut it down. I’m going to imagine it from the perspective of what I would do if I were at the helm of Linden Lab and not make an actual prediction, per se.

What would cause me to shut down Sansar? Most likely, this would result from a series of very visible signs that people are preferring some alternative to Sansar and that doom Sansar to have a small niche audience. If, for example, someone made a YouTube video showing how you could create your own multiplayer VR social experience from scratch in Unity in 15 minutes, that would be a solid sign. Or if HiFi’s rendering engine was as good and their typical daily concurrency peak was over 10k and growing, while Sansar’s remained flatly under 1k. It wouldn’t be one single thing. It would be several devastating signs like these that would do it.

Assuming I just shut down Sansar, what would I do with the remaining staff, budget, and experience gained from Sansar? The obvious answer is: Improve SL. I would probably take a big gamble that would still be bold but not as dramatic as Sansar. In particular, I would turn SL into a “hybrid grid”. Let me explain what I mean.

SL is a fossil. Yes, there’s plenty of room to improve it, but the gradual improvements to it are always supposed to be backwards compatible with content going back to 2002. That hinders SL’s potential immensely. That’s why LL took the big leap into the Sansar project as a totally new world to begin with: for a fresh start. I think they know that Second Life’s days are numbered and that something will eventually draw most of SL’s population away.

To breathe new life into SL, I would engineer a significant and only partially compatible version of the Second Life viewer and servers. Let’s call the current technology “SL classic” and the new part “SL next-gen”. The next-gen part of SL would take advantage of many of the lessons learned and technologies pioneered for Sansar. Picture having a new SL client that supports both classic and next-gen sims. Those sims could live alongside one another, as though two grids in one. Your account would be good for both. So would your money. But maybe you would have to create a new avatar in the new grid. Or maybe there would be some conversion utility. And some assets you own in the classic grid wouldn’t be fully compatible with the new one. And assets made specifically for the next-gen grid would be largely incompatible with the classic one. The overarching goal would be to gradually migrate everyone over to the newer platform and eventually retire the old.

Why do this? Because there’s a lot of good ideas in Sansar that can only be brought to SL if they are willing to break some things. For example, there really is no reason to run a sim 24/7 when nobody is using it. I estimate that LL has 5,000-10,000 beefy servers now running over 20,000 sims. With peak concurrency around 50,000 users, that amounts to about 5 people per expensive server, with actual people concentrated in larger numbers uncomfortably on only a few of them. If there are around 22,000 sims presently active now and only 10% of them have at least one person on them at a given time, that’s about 2,000 sims active and averages out to 25 people per active sim at peak concurrency. You could trim those 5,000-10,000 sim servers to more like 1,000-2,000. And in the process, you could potentially cut total sim server costs to 1/5 what they are today. Pass those savings along to SL residents and renting an entire private sim could average out to US$50 per month instead of $250. Imagine paying $5 a month to rent a 1/16 parcel with over 2,000 prims budgeted instead of for $22 and up.

But let’s be realistic. There are going to be some sims that need to be open 24/7. So maybe it would make more sense to charge sim owners based on uptime. Practically speaking, it would be more like people with popular sims continue paying about $300 a month, while those who have unpopular parcels on relatively inactive sims pay zero or just some small maintenance fee; maybe a dollar. I think most SL residents would agree that a move to demand-based uptime fees would totally change the equation. People who just want to create something for fun or are just getting started with their venture would love the idea of having effectively free land. Moreover, this would shake up the land market, because sims would have genuinely differing value based on how popular they are and thus how much they cost. That was the case in the early days of SL and it drove the development of SL’s most lucrative private market early on: land sales and rentals.

It is entirely possible that this drastic change to the way land fees and uptime work would result in many residents choosing to rent whole sims instead of small parcels. Rarely used sims could effectively cost nothing, so why bother choosing a smaller parcel?

Moving to demand-driven uptime will require a change to the scripting model. You wouldn’t be able to put a “server” type object on a piece of land and expect it to be available 24/7 unless you were willing to pay for that uptime. For this and other reasons, I might choose to go with a C# based scripting language for the next-gen grid. Sansar’s script API features a number of approaches that encourage scripters to budget server resources carefully that is very different from the approach taken with LSL. And the new land pricing model may encourage people to pay small rental fees for tiny parcels that are online 24/7 just to house their server objects.

One key reason we can’t use VR equipment with SL is that SL has a relatively low framerate for sims, maxing out at 45 frames per second (FPS). That’s true even if your own video card purrs along in SL at 300 FPS. LL chose to standardize Sansar’s servers to 90 FPS and targets that minimum for VR clients. So that would be something worth changing in the next-gen sims in this hybrid grid. This would need to be true for scripts, too. But this could bring the real-time dynamic systems I got used to creating in Sansar to SL. Right now, using scripts to animate objects in SL is woefully limited, making many interactions clunky at best. Running a next-gen sim and scripts on it at 90 FPS would be a genuine game-changer and make SL a relevant player in the social VR sphere.

PBR is here, even if SL doesn’t truly support it yet. This would be a great candidate for a next-gen SL client. Just getting designers to stop manually baking shadows and faking things that PBR materials handle easily would be a massive change. Introducing something like Unity’s HD rendering pipeline would give content creators a chance to start over and years of new capacity to chew on. And PBR-centric content would be readier for the advent of mixed raytracing and PBR rendering that is on its way.

A next-gen grid would give LL the chance to realign its pricing model with reality. The gradual introduction of land impact (LI) to replace the older prim counts was a good move. But SL still does not let content creators and users feel the real cost of large textures. And certainly does not properly make end users bear the cost of resource-heavy avatars. It is not unusual for a single avatar visiting a sim to have more polygons and texture memory usage than the entire sim. If anything, this creates perverse incentives that keep SL from growing to allow more than around 80 people to comfortably be together on a sim. Metering the resource usage of avatars and allowing parcel owners to limit access or charge varying fees based on that would alone encourage a significant growth of venues that can be popular. But more generally, a more comprehensive computation of storage, network, and rendering costs and incorporating them into usage constraints and upcharge fees would be a smart move for a next-gen grid.

Possibly offering an instancing model, wherein thousands of players can exist on parallel instances of the same sim, may be just the thing for attracting mainstream musicians and other content providers back to SL. This may be a step too far away from SL’s model, but it’s worth considering. Another possibility would be offering upgraded server hardware for those that wish to provision for larger on-sim populations or heavily interactive games.

There are many possibilities that would open up if I were in damage control mode after Sansar had died and I wanted to know what to do next. But I would likely favour doing some sort of hybrid grid as described above and seeking to gradually migrate SL’s residents and ventures into the newer technology platform. That’s what would make SL’s population grow again and give SL many more years of life ahead.

Not dead yet!

But Sansar is not dead. It’s still going and growing. Nevertheless, it seems to be in my best interest to take a break from it.

My main reason for me leaving, for now, is the glacial pace of development. If Sansar does die, it probably will simply be because one or more competitors outpaced it. But in the meantime, Sansar’s pace of innovation is too slow for me. I’ve spent the past 15 or so months creating value for Sansar’s residents, but it isn’t paying off yet. I suspect I have had more financial success than most in Sansar, but until money starts flowing from end consumers for goods and services, content creators like me will have to keep waiting. Sansar’s feature deficit is arguably the main thing standing in the way of that. I predict that Sansar is at least another year out from being a ready enough platform with which to create compelling content and avatars; enough to start drawing a mass consumer audience. And even when those features are there, it will take time for the back and forth process between early adopter creators and early adopter consumers to create the feedback loop that inspires masses of creators to start investing and thus drawing masses of consumers.

In the meantime, I’ve taken on two separate projects outside Sansar. One is in Second Life and will start paying right away. The the other involves Unity and is speculative.

I plan to keep an eye on Sansar and continue to support my customers there. I’m not completely leaving. But I am chastened by my own career needs and by the realization that Sansar isn’t going to be ready for “prime time” for those who want to make a career of working here within the next few months.


Ryan: I want to take this opportunity to publicly thank Galen for all the hard work he has done to date to help build Sansar. He has been a key player in making Sansar what it is today. I consider him a scholar, a gentleman and a friend, and I wish him the greatest success in whatever work he chooses to undertake in the months and years ahead, on whatever platform (SL, Sansar, or something else).

Editorial: Fasten Your Seatbelts, It’s Going to Be a Bumpy Night!

Yesterday’s announcement that Sansar is moving to Steam was a big shock, but it should not have been so unexpected. It’s clear that Linden Lab is under increasing pressure to show a profit from Sansar, after plowing years of work into the platform without getting much back in return. They simply can’t keep relying on the profit from Second Life to build Sansar indefinitely. Eventually, Sansar has to pay its own way.

Some people will say (in fact, they are already saying) that Sansar is not yet fully-featured enough to be on Steam. High Fidelity made the mistake of putting its product up on Steam well before it was ready, and it got savaged in the user reviews. Is Linden Lab really ready to take this fateful step now, rather than wait another six months or a year to further polish the platform? Why the sudden pressure to do this now, before the end of this year?

What surprises me is how quickly and easily Linden Lab is jettisoning its SandeX exchange. The delicate and intricate balancing of the Sansar economy was something that LL staff put a lot of time, effort and energy into (even going so far as to create a subsidiary called Tilia, which focused on payments and the compliance work associated with operating virtual economies). All of that work, or at least a good chunk of it, gone.

Obviously, integration with Steam was considered to be a higher priority than the SandeX, which was considered a key component of Sansar. Which leads to the question: What other major changes to Sansar are going to be required before its launch on Steam? 

Yesterday’s announcement has probably raised more questions than answers. Several content creators have already announced on the official Sansar Discord channel that they are taking a break, cashing out their profits, and watching from the sidelines as all this plays out over the next few months. Which is exactly what Linden Lab doesn’t want.

And, of course, the even bigger question is: What happens if moving to Steam doesn’t bring a significantly larger audience to Sansar? (You could argue that High Fidelity’s launch on Steam has so far had very little impact on its usage levels, aside from the monthly spike of users attending regular stress testing events.)

As Bette Davis says, “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night.” A bumpy night not only for Sansar, but for all the competing metaverse platforms in this overcrowded and uncertain marketplace.

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Mark my words; there are going to be winners and losers, and it will not be pretty. I predict that one or more of the blockchain-based virtual worlds will be among the first to fail, given the current grave state of the cryptocurrency markets, but really, anything can happen at this point.

Oh, and by the way, in response to those people talking about how Linden Lab tried—and failed—to get Second Life on Steam way back in 2012, Eliot, Sansar’s Community Manager, said on Discord today:

I also saw some people commenting that trying to get SL on Steam didn’t work out. Well we’ve learnt from that experience. The announcement we made comes after months of negotiation with Valve. We have an active dialogue with them on this :thumbsup:

So, it would appear that this move has been in the works for quite some time, and it’s not an impulsive decision by any means. But no matter how well they plan, it’s still going to be a bumpy ride. Stay tuned. And fasten your seatbelts!

Editorial: Crypto/Blockchain is Becoming a Cesspool

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Image by TheDigitalArtist on Pixabay
Ever since I encountered my first blockchain-based virtual world, Decentraland, back in February, I have been watching the marketplace closely. Many companies have announced social VR platforms based on the blockchain; either they are selling a cryptocurrency for use in their virtual worlds, or are using blockchain technology in some another way, such as registering ownership of virtual land. I have joined the Discord and Telegram channels for the various metaverse-building companies and avidly followed the discussions and arguments taking place. I have scanned their websites. I have read through all their white papers.

The hype surrounding blockchain technology has now reached unprecedented levels. Some of the claims made by companies (or their cheerleaders) for blockchain-based virtual worlds have been misguided at best and deluded at worst (here’s just one example). Bold promises are being made for virtual places which you cannot even visit yet, or which only exist in skeleton form.

In some cases, the use of blockchain is a solution where there wasn’t a problem in the first place, as someone else recently pointed out when commenting on one product. In other cases, companies may be feeding the impression that their blockchain-based coin/token/land will only gain in value, without making the risk clear. Investors who have not done their proper due diligence have jumped on board many recent ICOs and ITOs, hoping to score huge profits similar to those who were early investors in Bitcoin and Ethereum.

Frankly, one of the few companies I have encountered in this area that actually has some substance behind all the hype is Virtual Universe, and I have given video proof as to why I am looking forward to their product launch. But the often-misleading and sometimes-shady statements of some blockchain-based virtual world companies are tainting the entire marketplace, including VU. If I were an investor, I wouldn’t touch any of them with a ten-foot pole.

As I have stated before, I am part of the Virtual Universe (VU) Initial Coin Offering Partner Program (I’m currently number two on their VU Token Leaderboard). The main reason I am participating in that program is that it’s the only legal way I can earn VU tokens before the social VR space launches later this summer (as a Canadian I cannot buy tokens). But I refuse to put one cent of my own money into any cryptocurrency at this point, and I advise anybody who wishes to do so, to do every single scrap of their homework before investing in any product or service. It’s simply too risky.

For example, I am currently a member of the Staramba Spaces Telegram community, and I has been watching with increasing dismay over the past week as numerous people report that scammers are trying to steal their money by impersonating Staramba staff and direct-messaging potential customers, posing as agents for the Staramba initial token offering. The entire Staramba ITO has been a shambles, with the company having to hurriedly suspend the buying of tokens by credit card until a later date. (And why would you choose to go deeper into debt to buy a blockchain token in the first place? It’s insanity.)

The actions of a few bad apples (both individuals and companies) are threatening to spoil the entire barrel. Also, greed is driving investors into ill-informed and risky speculation, and currently, there is a crypto feeding frenzy that is starting to remind me of Shark Week. I fear that this is a financial bubble that will hurt many investors when it implodes. Caveat emptor!

Guest Editorial by Galen: A Tale of Two Sansars

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

Charles Dickens – A Tale of Two Cities

This is what it feels like sometimes to be a creator in Sansar, the Social VR platform being built by Linden Lab (LL), creator of Second Life (SL). It seems like everyone considering Sansar is at a polar extreme about its prospects for eventual success. The only thing it seems we can all agree on right now is that Sansar is pretty cool, but nowhere near “done” enough to grow its nascent community of residents.

Not that LL hasn’t tried. LL has fostered several deals to tie existing popular media properties into Sansar in hopes of drawing people in. The prime example was the combined Intel CES and Ready Player One project. Also noteworthy are the popular Twitch streamer UmiNoKaiju, the Art of Drew Struzan gallery, and Mission Log, complete with a reproduction of the original Star Trek Enterprise bridge.

And not that we residents haven’t tried. My colleagues and I have worked very hard to create and foster the HoverDerby team sport. Alfy has been working hard on his live music events and new Voices of Sansar live competition. Longtime SL bloggers Draxtor Despres and Strawberry Singh have teamed up to bring us their weekly Atlas Hopping YouTube show and more than a few other broadcasts about Sansar. The nearly 1000 experiences listed in Sansar’s Atlas speak to the attempts of many of us to draw people in.

New World Notes blogger W. James Au recently broke the story about Sansar’s low concurrency rates using data collected by Sansar resident and scripter Gindipple, creator of The Combat Zone paintball experience. Gindipple started collecting data from Sansar’s own API in mid-February. The most prominent conclusion one can draw from his data is that the number of people visiting publicly listed experiences in Sansar rarely exceeds 50 people at any one time. And that the per-day peak has not been growing in the past 3 months that Gindipple has collected this data.

This is a sensational conclusion, you must admit. It leads more than a few people within Sansar and outside to draw very pessimistic conclusions. Maybe Sansar will never grow. Or maybe it will be overtaken by other social VR platforms like High Fidelity or VRChat before it ever gets off the ground. Maybe the poor stats of all the social VR platforms means that the world isn’t ready for social VR yet. Maybe it never will be.

But I’m an optimist. I think it’s too soon to sound the death knell for social VR, and certainly for Sansar or any of its other promising competitors. I’ve been collecting data from the same source as Gindipple since March. When I study it more closely I see a different picture.

First, a word about data. I get one very small three-dimensional lens to look through: head-count in each listed experience at this current moment in time. I take a snapshot every ten minutes of all this right-now data and add it to my database. Looked at over time, you start to get a very rich picture of where Sansar is today. Let me give some examples of what I see.

Experiences

This first graph is striking:

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Figure 1 – Number of listed experiences since the start

Starting from my first day of recording (3/25/2018), I have kept track of how many experiences are listed each day. Thankfully, every experience listing comes with the date it was first created, so I was able to back-fill my data with an estimate of how many there were on each day going back to the beginning of Sansar. Please note that any experiences that were deleted or delisted along the way would not be represented in this historical view; hence the early history is a slight underestimate.

The very first experience added to Sansar and still around when I started collecting data was Midgar, created 12/20/2016. The data says it has not been updated since 3/2/2018, but I suspect that the owner hasn’t meaningfully worked on it since last year. And since each resident gets to create and maintain up to 3 experiences without paying a subscription fee, it probably will be around and unchanging forever.

Since then, you can see an explosion in the number of experiences listed. But the growth doesn’t follow a simple exponential or linear pattern as you might expect. There are pronounced upticks in growth along the way. One big one starts around 6/30/2017. At a product meetup that day, then Community Manager Jenn announced an experience building contest was beginning with a top cash prize of $10k and other awards. That jump in experiences tapers off just after the 7/25 submission deadline.

The second big jump begins around 7/29/2017, right as Sansar finally opened to the public. Looking past that jump, from 8/22/2017 to 5/22/2018, at least 380 new experiences have been created and listed at a fairly steady rate of about 1.4 new experiences each day.

What can we conclude from this one graph? Sansar’s user-generated content is steadily growing now and showing no sign of slowing yet. At this rate we should hit the 1000 listed experiences mark by the time this post gets published. Second, LL’s first big content creation contest worked very well. With about $36k in prizes, Sansar’s contest triggered the creation of up to 192 new experiences for an average cost to LL of $188 per experience. LL clearly could not have created that much new content by paying its own staff or outside contractors that rate. Third, the new experiences were perfectly timed to greet the flood of newcomers to Sansar when it opened up. Fourth, it’s clear that the opening did bring in a bunch of new talent, given the steady growth of new content since then.

Overall concurrency

Take a look at our next series of graphs:

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Figure 2 – Minimum, maximum, and average daily concurrency

The top line represents the peak concurrency (number of people visiting experiences at one time) recorded that day. I take snapshots every 10 minutes of concurrency, so these are approximate. The bottom line represents the minimum concurrency. Not surprisingly, this is nearly zero most days. The real surprise is that there are some days when it is not, a reflection of the fact that Sansar’s residents are global. And the middle line represents what I’ll call “traffic” from now on. I compute this by averaging the concurrency in each 10-minute snapshot over one whole day.

Figure 2 shows a fairly clear pattern: no real growth of traffic in the past 2 months. Figure 3 shows the same thing smoothed out by week instead of by day:

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Figure 3 – Minimum, maximum, and average weekly concurrency

It’s difficult to glean much from this, other than that how many people visit and how long they stay on average have stayed steady each day. Right now Sansar’s traffic hovers around 10, which is equivalent to having 10 people logged into Sansar all day with no variation. The daily (and weekly) peaks reflect the events that occur each day.

Events

Let’s dig a little deeper. Let’s pick one single day —  Tuesday, 5/15 — and analyze it. Here’s what the concurrency was during each 10-minute snapshot across all experiences:

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Figure 4 – Concurrency during all of 5/15/2018

Here’s where it becomes apparent that the traffic (average concurrency) value of 9 for the day does little justice to understanding this particular day. The real question is: what was happening on 5/15? Was everyone at one place? Was there a big event that day for over half the day?

In fact, the data lets us find out what was going on along the way.

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Figure 5 – HoverDerby’s concurrency during 5/15/2018

Figure 5 shows the same top line (blue) with Sansar’s total concurrency, but also shows the concurrency specifically for HoverDerby, one of my own projects. Here are concurrency numbers from some other experiences from that day:

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Figure 6 – The Beach (by C3rb3rus) during 5/15/2018

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Figure 7 – eSports Hangout (by Aleks) during 5/15/2018

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Figure 8 – RPO: Aech’s Garage (by Sansar Studios) during 5/15/2018

When we combine all 4 of the above experiences together, it becomes apparent that they explain most of the day’s traffic:

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Figure 9 – All 4 above experiences’ concurrencies combined during 5/15/2018

Yes, there were other experiences that had events and visitors that day. 33 of them had at least 2 simultaneous visitors at least once that day and 93 of them had at least 1 visitor. Here’s the top ten popular experiences for that day:

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Figure 10 – Top 10 experiences during 5/15/2018 sorted by average concurrency

Note the occupancy rates, which indicates what percent of the day that experience had at least one visitor present. And the number of people who favorited each experience. The “At” column represents the (first) time when the experience saw its peak concurrency for the day, which typically represents when some event was in full swing. The “Pct of Total” column reflects how much of the total traffic for all of Sansar went to that experience that day. The Beach, for example, gobbled up 31% of Sansarians’ online time that day. And these top 10 experiences represent nearly 80% of all visitors’ time spent in Sansar that day.

30% of the day’s traffic went to experiences with peaks of 1 or 2 visitors. Arguably, this was mostly individuals and couples exploring 80 of Sansar’s roughly thousand listed experiences.

Looking back at figures 5 – 8, you can see the events that occurred in each experience. HoverDerby had its two daily practice sessions. The Beach had an all-day party. The eSports Hangout hosted the daily Community Meetup event. I don’t believe Aech’s Garage had any particular event, but it had a 6-hour bump in visitorship. I suspect two people were there greeting visitors, who are almost always Sansar newbies.

I can look at any particular day and figure out roughly what was going on with Sansar’s community using this same analysis. Almost every day I do this, I find there are several events going on that represent most of the day’s traffic.

Here’s another interesting graph reflective of the community’s daily activities:

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Figure 11 – Number of experiences each day with at least N peak visitors

The top line (blue) is the number of experiences that had a peak of exactly two visitors each day. The line below it (red) is those that had a peak of 3 to 4 visitors. And so on down to a peak of 30+ visitors. Let’s smooth the data out a bit:

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Figure 12 – Number of experiences each week with at least N peak visitors

This is the same graph, but per week (ignoring the current incomplete week). It still looks a bit like spaghetti, but look more closely. The 5-9 (orange) line shows a clear trend upward. So does the 3-4 (red) line. Even the 10-19 (green) line is generally trending up. Experiences with peaks of 20 or more are generally flat or trending downward over time.

What can we conclude from this? There are more events going on and people are going to them in smaller clusters. If the average concurrency isn’t changing much over time, this means that each person has more event options to choose from. One can conclude that Sansar culture is growing in diversity.

Case study: HoverDerby

There are lots of interesting questions that can be answered with the basic experience concurrency per snapshot time in aggregate, but it helps to consider single cases. I’ll take HoverDerby because it’s of personal interest to me, as one of its owners. And because I have additional data available. Consider a first graph:

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Figure 13 – Min / max / average weekly concurrency at HoverDerby

This period starts from the week before HoverDerby’s premiere episode on YouTube. Naturally, the opening saw a lot of traffic. It’s important to point out that this combines traffic from both the main arena experience and the viewing lounge where we prefer non-players to be during our shows. Let’s take a closer look at the traffic (average concurrency) from day to day:

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Figure 14 – Min / max / average daily concurrency at HoverDerby

The first thing that jumps out is that every Sunday, our YouTube-broadcast game days, get the highest traffic. The vertical grid lines in the above graph all fall on Sundays.

The second thing that is apparent from these two graphs is that, like Sansar as a whole, HoverDerby isn’t seeing much growth yet in our own traffic. However, it would be a mistake to assume that the people seen in these graphs represent a stable, unchanging population.

Since 5/10 I’ve started collecting data on individual visitors to the main HoverDerby arena. Here’s a first look at unique visitors:

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Figure 15 – Unique vs regular visitors to HoverDerby per day

Almost every day lately we are getting 20 – 60 different people visiting. The blue line is the total number of uniques. The red line represents our regulars. That is, people who have visited before. That leaves everyone between the red and blue lines as first-time visitors to HoverDerby, or 10 – 30 first-timers most days, or around 140 first-timers per week. When I attend practices, I almost always personally welcome 2 – 4 newbies to Sansar and help at least one with basic how-to advice. Some of them eventually become regulars.

Conclusion

I don’t want to weave a fiction here. The reality is that Sansar’s concurrency numbers are not really growing. There is a fairly persistent core of active residents. Some fade out while others join to take their place. The concurrency story at High Fidelity is very similar:

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Figure 16 – High Fidelity’s peak concurrency per day vs Sansar’s (source: SteamDB)

The blue line is HiFi’s peak and the red line is Sansar’s. To help untangle these, HiFi’s average peak is 13 and Sansar’s is 11. Both are lackluster.

However, I don’t think these numbers tell the whole story of either platform. The data I’ve laid out shows that content is growing, events are becoming a prominent part of daily life, and more experiences are capturing at least small crowds each day.

Perhaps most significantly, Sansar has a steady stream of first-time visitors each day. Concurrency numbers say nothing about this fact. People are finding Sansar and giving it a try in healthy numbers. Clearly, most of them are choosing not to stay. Why they aren’t is a critical question for both LL and Sansar’s residents to try to answer better. My current estimate is that maybe 200 first-timers are showing up each week. We need to convince more of them to stay.

I’d love to see Linden Lab publish some of their own data and summaries. In the meantime, I’m grateful for them sharing the small trickle of very useful data that I’ve been able to harvest and mine for insights. Sunshine is good. Some recent feature enhancements are making it possible to collect and summarize even more information. I have collected only two months of data so far. Expect more insights very soon. And I hope to see more of the same kinds of analyses for other social VR platforms soon, too.

UPDATED! Editorial: Why I Want to Leave My Second Life Avatars to Other People When I Die

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Meeting the Angel (screen capture from Second Life of me and an alt; picture taken in 2007)

Don’t misunderstand me…I plan on living a long and healthy life and dying a very old man. But when I do pass on, I want to leave some of my Second Life avatars to other people in my will.

Over the past eleven years, my passionate hobby has been creating and outfitting SL avatars. I have created many avatars over the years, and it has been a creative and deeply satisfying endeavour:

Some avatars lasted only a couple of days before I deleted them; others have been with me since the very beginning of my adventures in Second Life. Witches and wizards and wolves, pirates and painters, sergeants and satyrs, barbarians and ballerinas, harlequins and hippies, gladiators and geishas… my hobby has given me endless hours of pleasure and escape. Some were exclusively for role-play purposes; others were just a means to live inside somebody else’s skin for an hour while strolling the grid. Others were created specifically to evoke reactions from passers-by. I could be whatever I wanted, and I was: an angel, a fairy, a goth girl, Elvis, Queen Elizabeth the First, Lady Gaga, Santa Claus, a supermodel, a hobo, a spaceman, a Na’vi from the movie Avatar, a medieval minstrel.

Here is a photo mosaic of all the avatars I had created during my first five years in Second Life. (I created this photo mosaic back in 2012, as a sort of ceremonial way to wean myself off SL and move on. Of course, that didn’t really happen! I took a long break and came back in 2016.) Many, if not most, of these avatars I have since deleted, but I have kept the rest of them.

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I understand that it is currently against the Linden Lab Terms of Service (TOS) to give your SL avatar to another person. I believe that we need to make an exception. I would take great pleasure from knowing that some of my Second Life avatars, on which I lovingly spent so much time and money, would live on after I die. It would be a kind of digital immortality.

Of course, I understand that Linden Lab does not want avatar accounts to become a commodity, something that is bought and sold on the marketplace. I was surprised to find that there are even some places online where people actually sell their old avatar accounts, especially those legacy accounts created with a proper first name and last name; this might even be one of the reasons why LL is bringing back avatar last names.

I would never want to sell one of my avatars; I find the very idea repugnant. But it would give me great pleasure to be able to freely give one of my avatars as a gift or a legacy to a friend or family member. And I want Linden Lab to explicitly allow this.

Second Life is soon turning 15 years old. I’m certain that this sort of thing has happened in the past. And I’m quite certain that some of the people driving an avatar in SL are not the original creators. As more of SL’s original userbase starts to die off, this will be a perfectly natural thing for some avid SL users to want to do.

And no, I don’t think it’s creepy at all. The people to whom I would leave my avatars would be free to do as they please with them, redesign them, or give them on in turn.

This is my heartfelt plea to Linden Lab: please allow this (if you don’t already), and update your Terms of Service accordingly. Thank you!

UPDATE 5:48 p.m.: Well, what do you know? Ask, and ye shall receive! Somebody just told me that Linden Lab already has a posted policy on exactly this topic on their user wiki:

How do I bequeath my Second Life account and its assets in the event of my real life death?

In your will, you must include the legal (real life) name of the person who you want to inherit your Second Life account and assets in the event of your death.

Pursuant to Section 4.1 of our Terms of Service:

You may not sell, transfer or assign your Account or its contractual rights, licenses and obligations, to any third party (including, for the avoidance of doubt, permitting another individual to access your Account) without the prior written consent of Linden Lab.

I need to notify Linden Lab of the real life death of a Resident; what documentation does Linden Lab need?

The Second Life support team requires the death certificate and may require other additional testamentary letters or orders, as may be required by law. Additional verification of any party’s identity, including the deceased, may also be required.

In general, the team requires:

  • Copy of the death certificate
  • Copy of the will
  • Copy of a government-issued ID sufficient to identify you
  • Testamentary letter or other appropriate order (as appropriate)

If I die in real life, can you let my Second Life friends know?

Maybe. Linden Lab can only act on instructions that are part of a legally-recognized document such as a valid will. You would have to specify in your will that you want this action performed (for example, notifying everyone in your friends list), and we would need a copy of the will and any other verifying documents we deem necessary.

You can read the whole page over on the Second Life wiki for more questions and answers. This page was last updated on February 12th, 2016, so the policy is up-to-date.

Well, I guess I better start drawing up that list of names and contact information for my will… thank you for alerting me, Oobleck Allagash of the Second Life Friends group on Facebook!