UPDATED! Editorial: So, What Is It Going to Take to Get People to Visit Sansar—And Keep Them Coming Back?

Star Trek Mission Log 22 May 2018

At this week’s Star Trek Mission Log Live event, something was nagging me in the back of my mind while I was mingling and chatting with the other people present, and watching the broadcast.

It was the thought that this event, as fun as it was, was probably not getting the attention—or the audience—that Linden Lab was hoping for. The number of people present was less than 30, if I remember correctly. (I must confess that I got bored, and I left the event early, before the podcast hosts showed up in Sansar’s recreation of the bridge from the original Star Trek.)

And the deal to set up game-watching experiences within Sansar for the Overwatch League appears to have fallen through. Wagner James Au of the blog New World Notes was the first to report the bad news:

Thanks to a sharp reader, I just noted a belated (and curious) update to the original VentureBeat post announcing the Overwatch team partnership:

Update: Sansar does not have a formal partnership with the teams or the Overwatch League. Sansar conducted preliminary discussions with the San Francisco Shock and Houston Outlaws to create VR watch spaces, but the previously announced activities are not moving forward at this time as there was a misunderstanding.

Hat tip: Wurfi. Apparently something fell apart after the press release was published…

In the same blogpost, Wagner notes that user concurrency figures for Sansar have only gone up very slightly from before, citing the statistics that Gindipple keeps:

At best we can probably say there’s been a very small growth in usage since these gamer outreaches. I’m personally surprised by this, because I expected growth of at least a few hundred. That may still happen if the gamer personalities do more to ramp their fans into Sansar, but so far, sadly, that’s not happening.

I’ve also had some misgivings about Linden Lab’s deal with UmiNoKaiju, which I doubt has had much impact so far on user concurrency figures, either. And the Ready Player One movie tie-in did little to nothing to attract new users, from what I can tell.

So, what is it going to take to get people to come visit Sansar? I honestly don’t know. I wish I knew. Frankly, I am starting to get worried. I’ve already been prodding Linden Lab to think outside the box in terms of promoting Sansar. But I don’t have any new ideas myself as to how they should go about doing what appears to be an increasingly difficult task: attracting new users to Sansar and keeping them coming back for more.

And I worry: what happens, if another year goes by and the user concurrency figures for Sansar have not budged? Will Linden Lab decide to pull the plug, and refocus on Second Life, which is the cash cow that is currently funding Sansar’s development? How long will Linden Lab continue to plough money into a project with (so far) limited success? Is there some future date in Ebbe Altberg’s mind when, if usage figures do not improve, he’s going to cease development on Sansar, some point where he decides that he’s simply throwing good money after bad? The thought terrifies me.

There’s a small, but highly active and engaged user community already in Sansar, which is a joy and a delight to me. But it doesn’t seem to me that we are attracting a lot of new people to Sansar events and experiences. Yes, there’s usually one or two new faces every Saturday at Atlas Hopping. But so far, there hasn’t been a flood of new users, despite efforts to create engaging new in-world games like the Combat Zone and HoverDerby.

We might—just maybe—have to steel ourselves to the possibility that Sansar will not be a success on the same level as Second Life. And that’s a highly unpleasant thought to me.

What do you think? Please sound off in the comments…let me know what you think.

UPDATE May 25th: I cross-posted this blogpost to various VR-themed groups on Facebook, and I got quite a few comments back. Summarized, they fall into three broad categories:

  • Make Sansar available via Steam or Oculus Home: “How about starting by putting it in a store people actually shop at, like Steam or Oculus for one. Many probably don’t know it exists or what it is.”
  • Make Sansar run faster/better: “It takes forever to download a world, and half the time it either crashes or just says it can’t join while loading. They need to fix those bugs.”
  • Allow adult content: “Adult content. That’s the only way it’ll have a shot. SL would’ve been 6 feet under years ago without the adult stuff.”

2nd UPDATE, May 25th 3:37 p.m.: Ebbe Altberg, CEO of Linden Lab, left this comment on the official Sansar Discord channel:

And, we are still in beta. We are trying things with various partners and learn and iterate. We are not yet piling on for growth. But each revolution things get better. But we also discover issues and iterate again.

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My Predictions For The Next Two Years

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Photo by Wyron A on Unsplash

I’ve been hanging around virtual worlds of one kind or another for over a decade now. I’ve seen them come and go. Some were spectacular failures that provided lessons for other companies. Others just kind of meander along, not attracting very many users or ever becoming very big (like the multitude of OpenSim-based grids).

What usually happens in today’s hyper-competitive computer applications marketplace, is that one or two players in a particular market segment get big (e.g. Microsoft, MySpace, Facebook, and yes, in its own way, Second Life), and then continue to grow like a juggernaut, based on the network effect, while the smaller players in the marketplace fight each other over the leftovers. The ones who get big are usually, but not always, the early entrants into the field (Second Life is a prime example of that, although there were notable virtual worlds which were founded before it, like ActiveWorlds).

But social VR and virtual worlds are not a zero-sum game. Many consumers are frequent visitors to a number of different metaverse platforms, and many creators build and sell products in various virtual worlds. Right now, success in one VR-capable virtual world (e.g. VRChat) generates interest in other social VR spaces. As they say, “A rising tide lifts all boats”.

It’s still not clear where all this is going, but I’m willing to polish my crystal ball and make a few predictions of what will happen over the next two year period, from now until April 2020.

What I predict will happen, over the next two years, is that one of the Big Five computer companies:

  • Alphabet/Google
  • Amazon
  • Apple
  • Facebook/Oculus*
  • Microsoft

Is either going to launch their own social VR/virtual world/metaverse product, OR is going to buy one of the Big Four metaverse-building companies:

  • High Fidelity
  • Linden Lab (Second Life and Sansar)
  • Sine Wave Entertainment (Sinespace)
  • VRChat

(We’ve already seen this happen with Microsoft’s purchase of AltspaceVR.) We could also see a company buy out a virtual world, just to grab the programming talent, and then shut the world down completely (as Yahoo! did with the promising Cloud Party).

Now, there’s no guarantee that any of the Big Four companies WANT to be bought out by the Big Five. Perhaps instead of a buyout, a strategic partnership deal will be inked. But I bet you anything that it’s tempting for the bigger companies to buy their way into the evolving metaverse marketplace, rather than design something from scratch.

I also predict that a LOT of the new virtual world/social VR startups we see popping up are going to fail over the next two years. There’s a lot of virtual-reality-related (and especially blockchain-related) hype taking place, and some people are investing in startups that are risky. Some smaller companies have jumped into grand virtual-world-building projects without realizing the sheer magnitude of the work involved in creating a fully-featured, viable metaverse. I’m afraid that some investors are going to get burned.

I also predict that Sinespace and VRChat are going to pull ahead in terms of features, simply because they decided to build on top of the popular Unity game engine, and they can use all the cool Unity development tools that are popping up. By comparison, feature development on Sansar will be slower as they continue work in-house on their own engine.

And finally, I expect that Second Life’s 15th anniversary celebrations will entice some former users to dust off their old accounts and revisit the platform to see what’s new. It may well herald a renaissance for SL! At the very least, it will help stave off a slow decline in SL’s user concurrency figures.

*Sorry, but as I have said before, Facebook Spaces is not a palatable social VR/virtual world product. It can’t even come close to competing against what High Fidelity, Second Life, Sinespace and VRChat are currently doing. But I bet you anything that Facebook has other plans up their sleeve. They can still try to leverage off their 2-billion-plus Facebook network (not to mention 800 million Instagram users) to become a potential major disruptor in the evolving metaverse marketplace. I’m not counting them out yet!