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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