Editorial: Linden Lab, Sansar, and Steam

UPDATE 7:35 p.m.: I screwed up. Since I wrote this editorial, I have discovered that Linden Lab has, in fact, been responding to at least a couple of the negative reviews on Steam since January 1st, 2019. (Also, I learned that thumbs-down reviewers can disable comments and follow-up on their reviews.) So I am just going to say, thank you and bravo, LL! I was wrong, I will admit it, and I stand corrected. But what I said below about LL needing to promote Sansar via advertising still stands. And Linden Lab needs to keep on top of the negative reviews on Steam! Some of them raise valid points that need to be addressed.

I have really, really not enjoyed writing this particular editorial, and I’m not looking forward to being painted (again) as a Sansar basher by a certain percentage of my blog readers. Just to make it perfectly clear, and deflect that criticism before it starts again:

I want to stress that this is only one person’s opinion, not an official Sansar spokesperson’s point of view. I still remain a strong Sansar supporter, but I would be neglecting my duties as an independent social VR/virtual worlds blogger if I simply posted nothing but “good news” about Sansar, as some people want me to do.

There are indeed many truly wonderful things about Sansar, and I want Sansar to be a success! And please keep in mind that Sansar is still a BETA platform, and in constant development. There has been much good progress over the past two years. But I still feel—STRONGLY—that Linden Lab should have waited six months to a year before releasing Sansar on Steam. And I stand by my statement, and I feel I have supported it with my arguments. 

However…

It’s time to address a few issues relating to Linden Lab’s launch of Sansar on Steam. This move was supposed to invigorate the platform, and bring in lots of new users, right? And I quote:

Why is Linden Lab pushing to release Sansar on Steam before the end of this year, rather than wait another six months to a year to further polish the platform and add new features?

We want to get more people in, to help refine the product and make it better. We want to start building a community on Steam.

Re: dealing with any negative feedback on Steam, Eliot will pass that along to the appropriate people to deal with and respond to.

Well, here’s the latest statistics on Steam usage of Sansar:

Sansar Stats 8 Jan 2019

We haven’t seen anything like that initial crush of curious users seen in the first few days. And I’m not the only blogger to notice this, either.

And that’s not the only bad news. I don’t know if you’ve looked at the Sansar page on Steam lately, but there are now 34 negative (thumbs down) reviews to 46 positive (thumbs up) reviews, which is the highest ratio of negative-to-positive reviews to date:

Sansar Steam Reviews 8 Jan 2019.png

The review which was voted “most helpful” by Steam users is by 1029chris:

I’m reviewing this from the perspective of a VR user.

It certainly has potential. The engine is absolutely gorgeous, and runs decently. Some of the worlds blew me away with how nice they looked. But I cannot enjoy them.

Sansar has horrible controls in VR. It is very uncomfortable to use. The feeling of embodiment that I can get in other social VR platforms does not happen here. Your virtual hands noticably lag behind your real ones, they have some sort of weird smoothing. Doing any fast body movement in VR detaches your head, and you can watch your decapitated avatar walk up you. They seem to have designed it with more concern regarding how your avatar looks to other people, rather than how it feels to use. It really takes away from the experience. Immersive VR demands the least latency possible, and they’ve deliberately added a lot of latency so that other people see you move more smoothly. It’s very uncomfortable.

Sansars avatar system is also super restrictive. They don’t let you move any bones on their skeleton, and they do EVERYTHING through bones. I can’t rig my hands since they’re too big, and I can’t rig my head since my avatar has a beak. Sansars face animations are all done through bones, but I can’t rig my beak to human face bones. They need to allow more freedom with their avatars. They say that it’s so restrictive because they want marketplace clothes to fit to avatars, but they don’t allow you to put clothes on custom avatars anyways. All of the avatars that I use on other platforms are cartoony with bigger heads, so none of them can have face animations on Sansar. No face animations means it’s less immersive to talk to me. This strictness stifles creativity for everyone, demanding you to conform to their proportions.

Sansar has a lot of potential, and I wish it the best, but I cannot recommend it in its current state.

The next-most-helpful review states:

Are you a fan of Second Life? Do you like the idea of Virtual Reality becoming a literal virtual world? Do you want to Shop, Explore, Build, And Socialize? Then this game will be a massive let down!

Pros: Explore small empty worlds filled with disappointment! Watch your framerate tank lower than Fallout VR! See a massive amount of effort spent on photogrammetry and the passion of SL’s best artists put to waste~

Cons: If you feel socially awkward around groups of people larger than 1 you might run into issues on a couple of the maps. There seems to be an issue with higher graphics settings not buying you the 2080ti you need to run them. I’m trying to get a hold of LL for that.

Non sarcastic review: It was touted as SL 2.0 during its creation and it’s nothing more than a sponsorship friendly ghost town. aka what all of google/facebook’s companies are becoming in 2018. If you wanted to make your own avatar or build something amazing you will be let down by the restrictions and lack of in world tools. This is an oversimplification of SL’s worst attributes wrapped in a bow and **** out onto Steam in a last ditch effort to get people to look at ads.

Edit: I’d like to warn you all the top positive reviews are from people selling things in app. 😛

However, what’s even worse than scathing, sarcastic reviews like this is Linden Lab’s (almost total lack of) response to them. I understand why you can’t properly respond to vitriolic garbage like what the last reviewer wrote. Another reviewer even went so far as to unfavourably compare Sansar to IMVU (really? really?!??).

But at least in the first few weeks, Linden Lab tried to respond to some of the criticism directed at Sansar, like Lacie’s response to 1029chris:

Sansar Steam 3 8 Jan 2019.png

And this example from early December:

Sansar on Steam 8 Jan 2019.png

And then, Linden Lab stopped responding as the negative reviews increased. As far as I can tell, there have been no responses since mid-December. Why?

Linden Lab really needs to get their PR game in gear here, and get someone to respond to at least some of the most recent negative reviews, to show that they are listening. It might still be a losing battle, but at least they would be fighting back.

And where in blazes is the “significant ad spend” promised at one of the Product Meetings last November, when the launch on Steam was first announced? And I quote:

What steps are you going to take to promote Sansar once it launches on Steam?

Eliot: expect some significant ad spend, expect some original assets. Linden Lab wants to build a community on Steam.

If Linden Lab wants to build a community on Steam, the time to start tending to that community and building positive word of mouth is NOW.

LL seems to be missing in action, while Sansar is drowning in an increasing number of thumbs-down reviews. Do something! Don’t just leave it all up to your users! Start promoting Sansar! Start responding to at least some of these negative reviews on Steam!!!

As I said before, it gives me no pleasure at all to write this. I love Sansar, and I want to see it succeed. But Linden Lab absolutely needs to step up to the plate here.

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Editorial: My Social VR/Virtual World Predictions for 2019

Have you joined the RyanSchultz.com Discord yet? Come join 170 avid users of various metaverse platforms, and discuss social VR and virtual world predictions for 2019! More details here


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Time to peer into that crystal ball and make some predictions!

First: Second Life is going to continue to coast along, baffling the mainstream news media and the general public with its vitality and longevity. It will continue to be a reliable cash cow for Linden Lab as they put a portion of that profit into building Sansar. And I also predict that the ability to change your first and last names in SL will prove very popular—and also very lucrative for Linden Lab! Remember, they’ve got seven years of pent-up demand for this feature. (I have a couple of avatars myself that I’d like to rename.)

Second: An unexpected but potentially ground-breaking development in OpenSim was the announcement of the release of a virtual reality OpenSim viewer to the open source community at the 2018 OpenSim Community Conference. There’s still lots of technical work left to do, but if they can successfully pull this off, it could mean a new era for OpenSim.

Third: I confidently predict that one or more blockchain-based virtual worlds are going to fold. Not Decentraland; there’s too much money tied up in that one to fail. But several cryptocurrency-based virtual worlds are starting to look like trainwrecks of epic proportions (and I’m looking at you, Staramaba Spaces/Materia.One). Somebody still needs to explain to me why people will want to pay to hang out with 3D-scanned replicas of Paris Hilton and Hulk Hogan. The business model makes absolutely no sense to me. Another one that I think is going to struggle in 2019 is Mark Space.

Fourth: I also predict that one or more adult/sex-oriented virtual worlds are going to fail (yes, I’m looking at you, Oasis). I’ve already gone into the reasons why even the best of them are going to find it hard to compete against the entrenched front-runner, Second Life.

Fifth: High Fidelity and Sansar will continue their friendly rivalry as both social VR platforms hold splashy events in the new year. (I’m really sorry I missed the recent preview of Queen Nefertari’s tomb in HiFi, but it looks as though there will be many other such opportunities in 2019.) And High Fidelity will continue to boast of new records in avatar capacity at well-attended events (it certainly helps that they’ve got those venture-capital dollars to spend, to offer monetary enticements for users to pile on for stress testing).

Sixth: the Oculus Quest VR headset will ignite the long-awaited boom in virtual reality that the analysts have been predicting for years. There; I’ve said it! And those social VR platforms which support Oculus Quest users will benefit.

Seventh: Linden Lab’s launch of Sansar on Steam will likely have only a modest impact on overall usage of the platform. I’m truly sorry to have to write this prediction, because I love Sansar, but we’ve got statistics we can check, and they are not looking terribly encouraging at the moment. And where is the “significant ad spend” that was promised at one of the in-world product meetups back in November? Now that they’ve pulled the trigger and launched on Steam, it’s time to promote the hell out of Sansar, using every means at Linden Lab’s disposal. Paying bounties to Twitch livestreamers is not enough.

And Facebook? If they thought 2018 was a bad year, I predict that we’re going to see even more scandals uncovered in 2019 by news organizations such as the New York Times. And more people (like me) will decide that they’ve had enough of being sold to other corporations and data-mined to within an inch of their lives, and jump ship. The public relations people at Facebook are going to face a lot of sleepless nights…

And, still on the same topic, we might yet see the launch of a new social VR platform backed by Facebook, after they decide to ditch the lamentable Facebook Spaces once and for all. Maybe it will be based on Oculus Rooms; maybe it will be something completely different. But despite my negative feelings about the social networking side of Facebook, they still have the hardware (Oculus), the money, and the reach to be a game-changer in social VR. (Just not with Facebook Spaces. At this point, they should just kill the project and start over. Any improvements will be like putting lipstick on a pig.)

Finally, I predict that the RyanSchultz.com blog will head off into new and rather unexpected directions (that is, if the past 12 months’ activity is any indication!). I never expected to cover blockchain-based virtual worlds, or Second Life freebies; they just kind of happened.  Expect more of the same in 2019, as various new topics catch my interest.

Are Freebies Hurting The Second Life Economy?

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Photo by Don Agnello on Unsplash

I still find it somewhat ironic that I have done a complete, 180-degree change of direction in this blog: going from swearing that I would never cover Second Life at all (because hundreds of other bloggers do it already, and do a much better job than I ever could), to actively carving out a niche for myself, blogging about the various steals, deals, and freebies in SL.

My Second Life freebie coverage actually brings a fair number of readers to my blog, probably the biggest percentage of viewers overall when compared to my other categories of blogposts. In fact, my blogpost about free and inexpensive mesh heads and bodies for female Second Life avatars has now had a whopping 1,598 visitors—my third most-popular post ever.

So, I guess you could call me a freebie expert, or a freebie fashionista if you prefer. And this December has been the usual bountiful bonanza of advent gifts and hunt prizes. But sometimes I stop and ask myself: this is steady rain of freebies actually hurting the Second Life economy, and the livelihoods of SL content creators? In other words, are people not making as much money as they could and should be because of the abundance of free and inexpensive items in-world and on the SL Marketplace?

At first glance, the answer would appear to be “yes”. There has been steady rumbling from various quarters that many vendors are not earning the income that they used to. But are freebies really to blame for this?

I would argue that freebies, if handled properly by the store, can be an extremely effective way to promote a brand. For example, an attractive, well-made free item placed at The Free Dove (which usually includes a SLURL in the package) will often prompt my visit to the mainstore location to see what other products are for sale. In fact, I first learned about the store Alaskametro through their mini hunt at The Free Dove last summer (sadly, I have learned that The Free Dove has decided to stop having designer mini hunts as of January 2019). I had never heard of Alaskametro before, even though I had been an avid consumer in Second Life for over a decade at that point!

You could argue that the reason that powerhouse Second Life brands like Scandalize, Addams, and Blueberry became so well known is via freebies and inexpensive hunts, like the current reindeer hunt currently taking place at various stores on the Scandalize sim. (Technically, it’s not really a “hunt”; some store owners like Scandalize didn’t even bother to hide their reindeer.)

SCANDALIZE SIM ! -CHRISTMAS HUNT

You pick up one colour of an item of clothing for only L$15, try it on, and like it so much that you land up going back to the store later to buy more colours, maybe even the whole fatpack! I’ve done it. You’ve probably done it too. Admit it.

Savvy marketers know that freebies and cheapies can effectively drive traffic to their stores, and increase overall sales. True, many of the people who pick up a free item won’t (or can’t afford to) buy a full-price item. But enough do so to make it worth the store owner’s time and trouble to create and promote freebies. Why else would a store like Alien Gizmo’s regularly offer free L$200 gift cards to their customers?

So, no. Freebies are not the reason for an economic downturn in the SL economy. If anything, freebies are helping content creators get the word out about their brands, and thereby earn more money.

In fact, I seem to remember a closed (i.e. not Hypergrid enabled) OpenSim-based virtual world (I believe it was Avination) which strongly discouraged vendors from offering freebies, thinking that the policy would lead to more people actually buying goods and leading to greater vendor profits. Well, I’m not sure if that was the main reason that Avination eventually closed (they had a couple of fraud scandals, and OpenSim grids tend to be rather precarious enterprises at the best of times), but I’m pretty certain that a ban on freebies didn’t help with user retention any.

My point here (and yes, in a very roundabout way, I am trying to make one!) is that freebies are a good thing. Freebies promote brands, encourage newbies to become full-fledged consumers, and lubricate the SL economy. So get out there and pick up some freebies today! Tell’em Ryan sent you 😉

UPDATED! Editorial: Linden Lab Launches Sansar on Steam—Will It Entice More People to Use Sansar?

Sansar Steam

Note: I woke up very early this morning to write this editorial. Once Linden Lab makes their announcement (which is expected today), I will make a new blogpost with that information. UPDATE: It’s now official—Sansar has launched on Steam.

Today I also am getting feedback from many Sansar users that I have been way too harsh and negative in this particular blogpost, so…

***Please READ THROUGH MY ENTIRE BLOGPOST, INCLUDING THE SECOND UPDATE, thank you!***

Linden Lab has a problem (although they won’t label it that). Fewer people than they probably expected by now are using their social VR platform, Sansar. They’ve tried a few things (like partnering up with esports leagues and popular Twitch livestreamers), in an effort to ignite the fire that made VRChat suddenly so popular earlier this year. Frankly, they’ve had very little success so far. And they’re probably scratching their heads and wondering what it’s going to take to get people to try Sansar—and stay.

So, on October 29th, 2018, Linden Lab made a major surprise announcement:

Sansar has come a long way since we started the project. In 2018 we have devoted an enormous amount of effort to improving the end-user experience, and will continue to do so.

Given those improvements, we believe we are quickly approaching the point where we want to start bringing a large number of users onto the platform. This is an important milestone for us and especially our creators. One of the foundational principles of Sansar is that creators must be able to profit from their creations. For us to make that a reality, we need to give our creators a large audience of customers.

The cornerstone of our growth effort will be to put Sansar on Steam. Steam is where more than half of the VR market goes to find software. It also is a huge pool of users who are interested in our space and are likely to have the hardware required to run Sansar.

Why has Linden Lab decided to take this step? Well, as they said above, they want to get more customers for Sansar, and they know that making the platform available through Steam is going to put it in front of a lot more eyeballs. People who might not have known about Linden Lab or Sansar before. And (most importantly) people who are more likely to have an Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, or Windows Mixed Reality VR headset than the general population. These are the hardcore gamer crowd, who tend to be early adopters of technology. Linden Lab wants these people.

Linden Lab is betting that, if can get sufficient numbers of Steam users to try out Sansar, that a significant number of them will become regular users: exploring, socializing, building experiences, and shopping for items from the Sansar Store. It’s a risk, but it’s a calculated risk. And Linden Lab is willing to get into bed with Steam to do it (even if it means closing down their SandeX Sansar dollar exchange, which happened yesterday).

However, there’s absolutely no guarantee that simply putting Sansar on Steam is going to be enough. For example, the statistics clearly show that High Fidelity’s launch on Steam in late 2016 has, so far, had very little demonstrable impact on its usage levels, aside from the spikes of users attending the monthly stress testing events and the recent FUTVRE LANDS virtual reality festival.

Whether or not Ebbe Altberg and his team at Linden Lab want to call it that is a moot point, but essentially, what we have here is the “consumer launch” of Sansar I had blogged about back in April 2018. My major concern then was that Sansar did not yet have enough features to attract and retain new users. So let’s take a quick look at the 12 things I thought that Sansar should have before a “consumer launch”, according to that April editorial:

  1. Better avatar customization features. We have a few facial sliders, zero body sliders, and no custom avatar skins. The avatars look good, and there are plentiful clothing options, and you can dye your hair any colour under the sun, but you really cannot customize your avatar to the extent you can in other social VR platforms like Sinespace. Nope.
  2. More and better avatar animations: OK, here at least we now have custom emotes, plus a few more dances and the ability to sit down on the ground. Still needs work. Half a check mark (and I’m being generous here).
  3. Particle effects: Fire? Water? Fog? Smoke? Nope. Just kludgy workarounds. High Fidelity already has this feature, and builders such as Noz’aj are using it to great effect in domains such as Beyond.
  4. More interactive content: At the moment, there isn’t nearly enough interactive content in Sansar, although the situation is slowly improving as the scripting abilities are built out over time. But note that two of the most popular Sansar games to date, Galen and Jasmine’s HoverDerby and Gindipple’s Combat Zone, have both shut down because of the developers’ deep frustration with the current scripting limitations and user interface issues in Sansar. At this point, we seem to be going backwards, not forwards. I’m not even going to give this half a check mark. UPDATE: Please see Bagnaria’s comment below.
  5. One or more community hubs: Nope. Linden Lab’s position is that the users can create their own hubs, and some have tried, like David Hall’s Avalon experience.
  6. Greeters: Nope. Other virtual worlds like Sinespace and High Fidelity have paid greeters whose job it is to welcome guests, answer their questions, and make them feel comfortable. As I said before, it’s a business cost. You can’t just rely on volunteers. Hire people. Put them in your community hubs. Pay them (in Sansar dollars, if you prefer).
  7. The ability to pay an avatar directly: Finally, something we do have! Check mark.
  8. Paypal support: Still no Paypal support.
  9. More functional and attractive user forums and blogs: We are still stuck with Zendesk, which is butt ugly and makes Linden Lab (and Sansar) look bad. The Sansar blog is especially horrible. FIX IT. Fail.
  10. Better communication and collaboration with livestreamers and other potential promoters like bloggers and vloggers: This has had mixed results. The UmiNoKaiju thing was a total bust, as far as I can tell. And so far, I am still one of the few people blogging about Sansar. Linden Lab has failed to gain much traction with livestreamers, vloggers, and bloggers when it comes to Sansar. Fail.
  11. More contests: (sound of crickets chirping) Fail. Linden Lab needs to have more contests (and have more and better prizes for those contests), in order to encourage and reward the creativity of Sansar’s userbase. Period.
  12. More regular events: OK, this is another area where things have much improved since April. The Sansar Events calendar is starting to look pretty good. Check mark.

FINAL SCORE: 2½ out of 12 (numbers 2, 7, and 12). In my books, that’s a failing grade. Now, do you see why I wanted Linden Lab to wait another six months to a year before launching on Steam?

My worst nightmare is that we are going to have a repeat of Sansar’s open creator launch, when dozens of people trooped in, looked around, declared themselves dissatisfied, and left, never to come back. And even worse, told their friends how bad Sansar was. Linden Lab cannot afford to make a bad first impression with a brand new bunch of Steam users. And Steam users can be truly brutal in rating their experiences if they feel a product is not up to their standards, as High Fidelity has already learned: 

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A selection of negative reviews of High Fidelity on Steam

And, if you think that user reviews are not important, think again. I read user reviews for new apps on the Oculus Store all the time, and if they are mixed or bad, I don’t buy. The same applies to Steam. A recent Queen’s University research study showed that Steam users left negative reviews more quickly than positive ones, and that boring games were reviewed worse than buggy games:

Lin and the team also found that while most reviews are written after around 13 hours of play, “the majority of negative reviews” are posted within the first seven hours. Additionally, free-to-play games see a spike in reviews after just one hour of play.

Linden Lab better have a SWAT team on call to handle unhappy reviewers on Steam! This is part of the new landscape, and they’d better be responsive.

So cross your fingers and say your prayers. We are entering a new era.

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Image by peter67 on Pixabay

UPDATE: Bagnaria has taken me to task for saying that scripting is “going backwards instead of forwards”. I have decided to post her comment in full in this blogpost, since people often skip the comments and what she has to say is important:

While I agree that Linden Lab should have waited a few months longer, I do not agree with what you are saying here regarding interactivity : “At this point, we seem to be going backwards, not forwards.” Here is why:

We have seen a large influx of new interactive experiences since Linden Lab introduced Simple Scripts about two months ago. Simple scripts have enormous potential. The best example I can give is Scurry Landia which is one of the most interactive experiences in Sansar right now. We made much of its game logic simple script compatible. Also many of it’s individual games can be completely wired up using nothing but the Linden Lab provided simple scripts. The Lab also provides the source code of all their simple scripts. FullSpectrum and many other creators are releasing dozens of additional simple script compatible add-ons that we created for everyone to use without having to code. That includes some more complex animation controllers, the ability to add puzzles, digit displays and very soon weapons and relatively soon vehicles. The key point is that any coder can add more script functionality in a way that can talk to other simple scripts. 98% of what one can do in Scurry Waters right now will be possible without writing any additional code.

When more people discover that simple scripts are like LEGO blocks that do not require writing any code, they will realize just how powerful that is to create interactive experiences.

The other part to that is that Sansar engine can not only host stunning visuals. It is doing a phenomenal job at handling all the scripts and animations we are throwing at it. Scurry Waters uses hundreds of scripts. Everything is moving and it just proves that it is possible to create engaging interactive experiences at this point and we are really just at the beginning of that accelerating evolution.

We are in the early stages, but I continue to be willing to invest my time in Sansar because I know how much is possible already and we creators are barely able to keep up utilizing all the new features we are given. In regards to interactivity Sansar is a very short distance away from becoming truly amazing and I do believe this will make enough difference to finally create a WOW.

So, as a result, I hereby give Linden Lab another check mark for item 4 on my list from last April…which brings it to a final score of 3½ out of 12.

SECOND UPDATE: I am getting feedback from various Sansar users today, who feel that I have been way too harsh and negative in this particular blogpost.

I want to stress that this is only one person’s opinion, not an official Sansar spokesperson’s point of view. I still remain a strong Sansar supporter, but I would be neglecting my duties as an independent social VR/virtual worlds blogger if I simply posted nothing but “good news” about Sansar, as some people want me to do.

There are indeed many truly wonderful things about Sansar, and I want Sansar to be a success! And please keep in mind that Sansar is still a BETA platform, and in constant development. There has been much good progress over the past two years. But I still feel—STRONGLY—that Linden Lab should have waited six months to a year before releasing Sansar on Steam. And I stand by my statement, and I feel I have supported it with my arguments. (Perhaps the tone was a little too sarcastic.)

When Linden Lab makes their official announcement, I will either update this blogpost, or (because this is getting ridiculously long as it is) I will start a new one.