Editorial: Gamification, Second Life, and Sansar

Jim: You playing that game again?

Dwight: Second Life is not a game. It is a multi-user virtual environment. It doesn’t have points or scores. It doesn’t have winners or losers. 

Jim: Oh, it has losers.

The Office

This well-known clip from the American TV sitcom The Office perfectly illustrates a long-running debate about Second Life: Is it a game or not?

The issue is raising its head again after yesterday’s Sansar Product Meetup, where Linden Lab staff announced several new, game-like features would be added to Sansar, such as XP (experience points), a Nexus, a Codex, and a Prime Portal. Is Linden Lab trying to turn Sansar into a game?

Some users welcome these changes, and others are adamantly opposed to the gamification of Sansar. On the official Sansar user Discord yesterday, after the Product Meetup, several users on both sides weighed in with opinions (this is just an anonymized sample):

A: Well, I see a big problem though. The hub will be slower than the Atlas, which is just an UI [user interface]. There is a new UI, which lists recently visited places. It’s as fast as the Atlas. People will be very likely to just use the history to quick travel, not everyone, but many. And these people are then far less likely to even be aware of new experiences. They’ll mostly stick to the experiences they already visited before…

B: Been to NeosVR Nexus like… place , massive , massive wall of places to go, tools for adding your world, but frankly/honestly after 20 minutes of hoping, so to speak, it was a place you had to go, to go somewhere else, from the place you were. I am hoping it turns out to be more than that. Anxious to understand the vision behind it.

C : I just wanted to throw my two cents in. I absolutely love the idea of the way exploration and questing will work going forward. I was on the fence about jumping back into Sansar and this pushed me over. This is definately the way things need to go to grow interest in the platform. Bravo!

D: What I’m wondering, is how the Lab can give us the same Atlas, when it is not a UI element. How can it be a UI element, when it is specific to the Nexus experience. No UI in Sansar is specific to an experience. So, this means, the Atlas is not a UI element, and is a clickable element. Now think about how bad it will be to navigate thru the Atlas by clicking buttons.

E: I’m a bit upset right now… I imagine LL talking with potential business partners. They want to meet in Sansar to get the feel of it. They create an account, and they are thrown into a tutorial experience with stupid quests to complete . Blank stare. Questioning look. “it will take only 30 seconds”, says Greeter Linden. If I were the would-be partner, I think I’d walk away at that point.

And I myself have concerns about people spawning in the New Nexus as opposed to their private home space, as I have written in an update to my blogpost yesterday.

Let’s provide a bit of history to give some context to this topic. Most SL users probably don’t remember that the earliest version of Second Life had many game-like features. Wagner James Au of the blog New World Notes, who has been writing about Linden Lab and Second Life since its very earliest days, noted in a tweet today:

Second Life had a ranking system and leaderboard up until about 2005, and the company considered The Sims Online to be a direct competitor. The “It’s not a game” messaging was concocted by Linden Lab’s marketing department to (unsuccessfully) sell it as an enterprise platform.

In a blogpost he wrote yesterday, Wagner also commented on the upcoming changes to Sansar:

Smart additions to Linden Lab’s new social VR world, which is starting to see some traction, at least during special live music events from artists on the Monstercat label. Adding an XP system should do much to encourage returning users and more deeply engaged users.

From a corporate perspective, this also represents a major reversal for Linden Lab: Since roughly 2005-2006, the company’s marketing department and executive leadership positioned itself as not making games (even though virtual worlds are themselves a game genre) and pushed the messaging “Second Life is not a game!” so much that many veteran users still accept the statement to be true. (And not market positioning that’s become harder and harder to justify). Since then, the company has resisted adding game systems to Second Life  — or rather, re-adding them, as they existed at launch — and it’s a key reason why Second Life has failed to grow its userbase. But with Sansar still not anywhere near to getting viral growth, it’s past time to junk that marketing strategy.

And I do find myself somewhat in agreement with what Wagner has said here. In particular, the old business-as-usual way of marketing Sansar, which relied heavily on tactics which might have worked for Second Life a decade ago, has has lackluster results so far. Ebbe Altberg and his team are to be commended for thinking outside the box and trying out new things in order to entice new users—and to keep them coming back. As Ebbe himself said on the Discord, in response to the many users questioning the direction Linden Lab is taking with these new features:

Retention retention retention people.

So, we shall see exactly how all this works when the latest update to the Sansar client software arrives, hopefully for next week. Keep your fingers crossed!

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No Man’s Sky Now Supports VR

Of course, the big news today (unless you are living under a rock or in a cave somewhere) is that No Man’s Sky, a fantasy science-fiction game set in an infinite, procedurally-generated universe, has issued a major update that, for the first time, supports players in VR headsets (Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, and Valve Index). It’s all gamers are talking about today on places like the No Man’s Sky subReddit.

Now, I must confess that I’m really not that much of a gamer, although I did manage to get to level 20 in Lord of the Rings Online (mainly because I was a such a Tolkien fan). But the lure of exploring an infinite, seamless universe in VR was just too much. So I bit the bullet and bought the game (it is on sale on Steam for 50% off until August 21st).

Wish me luck! I am off to milk some aliens and explore new worlds…

Cyan Launches Crowdfunding Campaign for Firmament, a New VR-Capable Open-World Exploration and Puzzle Game

As I wrote about earlier, I have decided to branch out a little bit from my usual coverage of multi-user, social VR platforms and virtual worlds, and I’m going to start to look at some non-combat, open-world exploration and puzzle games such as Eastshade, which really caught my attention recently with its beautiful scenery and refreshing, non-combat-focused gameplay.

Of course, the first truly popular and successful game of this nature was Myst, first released by Cyan in 1993, which became the best-selling PC game of all time until it was eclipsed by The Sims in 2002 (source: Wikipedia). Cyan has an impeccable pedigree when to comes to building and releasing these type of games. It’s a niche market which they basically created from scratch with their evocative, mind-bending puzzle games that were so different from all the first-person shooters out there. Their games have attracted quite a following over the past 25 years!

Well, guess what? Today, Cyan launched a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign to raise the necessary funds to create a brand new, open-world exploration/puzzle game, called Firmament. It’s being designed from the ground up to support users in VR headsets (Oculus Rift and HTC Vive), as well as Windows desktop users. Here’s their promotional video:

Cyan’s desire is to raise US$1,285,000 in only 31 days, a very ambitious goal! But if any company has the talent to pull this off, it is Cyan. I truly enjoying playing Myst, Riven and the other games in the Myst series back in the day, and I have also worked my way through their previous VR-capable puzzle game, Obduction, in 2017, which was extremely challenging and rewarding to play! So signing up for this Kickstarter is almost a no-brainer for me.

Here’s an earlier teaser trailer issued last March, which gives a bit more of the backstory:

This is an All-or-Nothing Kickstarter, meaning that Cyan has to meet their fundraising target in order to collect all the money. If they fail, everybody keeps their original pledged amounts. But I don’t think Cyan will fail. It’s actually been quite entertaining to watch as the live update of the total number of backers and the total dollar amount pledged inch their way up over the course of the day:

Raising the first 15% of your goal in less than 24 hours is a truly remarkable and enviable achievement! At this rate, they will reach their goal in a week!

So, if like me, you have fond memories of playing Myst and Riven, you might want to consider making a financial pledge to support this project. There are various levels of support, ranging from a small contribution of US$7.00 towards keeping the development team in coffee and donuts, all the way up to the highest-level full-blown prize package for a US$5,000 pledge:

You’ll join us for the 20th anniversary of Mysterium, the fan-based Myst-Con held at our headquarters in Spokane this year. Spend a day (Thursday, August 2nd) at Cyan with the team as an honorary Cyantist. Tour the studio, get a look behind the scenes, ask questions of the team, then join Rand [Miller, Cyan’s CEO] for an exclusive private group dinner! This package includes dinner, airfare (up to $800), and four nights’ lodging. We’ll also add your likeness to the game (but we can’t tell you where)!

Here’s a link to their Kickstarter where you can get all the details.

Firmament art by Joe Perez of Cyan, Inc.

PokerStars VR: A Social VR Platform Based on Poker

PokerStars VR is a social VR poker game which was released late last year in Early Access on both Steam and the Oculus Store:

Based on the trailer alone, it sounds as if the closet thing to PokerStars VR which I’ve already reviewed on this blog is VR Trivia Battle (formerly known as Kiss or Kill). PokerStars VR would appear to have the same kind of simplified, head-and-shoulders avatars with disembodied hands.

PokerStars VR is a free-to-play game, so I decided to download it and give it a spin, just to check out the social aspects of the game. (I should add that I am not a card player at all, so don’t expect any sort of reviews as to the level or authenticity of poker gameplay.) You start off in an opulent casino lounge, where you can spin a large prize wheel to win in-game currency to gamble with, once every eight hours:

After that, you have the choice of joining an existing poker game, or hosting your own (in one of several different settings such as Macau 2050 or The Monte Carlo Yacht). Each game can have up to 8 players. I did notice that some games required you to know a passcode in order to join.

Like I said, I know zero about card games in general, and I’m particularly clueless about poker in particular. So I can’t really comment on the gameplay in PokerStars VR. I’ve had people tell me on the RyanSchultz.com Discord server that they’ve found the game very social and that they’ve made new friends. I have added PokerStars VR to my ever-growing list of social VR/virtual worlds. Note that you do need to have a VR headset (Oculus Rift or HTC Vive) in order to play. 

PokerStars VR is a good example of a niche social VR platform, which is limited to one thing only (poker), and which it seems to do well (at least, according to all the positive reviews on Steam and the Oculus Store). Since I don’t plan on learning how to play poker, I am going to leave it at that.