Editorial: The Rapidly Changing Face of the Music Industry—What Sansar Is Doing Wrong (and Fortnite Is Doing Right)

Earlier this year, after an extended break, I rejoined the official Sansar Discord server, and while I have not nearly been as active there as I used to be, I still lurk from time to time. I had a good laugh at this snippet of conversation from the day before yesterday (and yes, I do have both Medhue’s and Vassay’s permission to quote them, and to post this image here on the blog):

Medhue: Literally, Ryan Schultz does more marketing for Sansar than Sansar does.

Vassay: Funniy (sadly) enough, that’s true.

Medhue: IMHO, we have a bunch of people who live in the past, when music was a 50 billion dollar industry. It is not anymore, and likely won’t ever be again. Gaming has always been growing and there are really no signs of it slowing, grabbing more and more of the entertainment market each year.

Wookey has been strangely silent since its purchase of Sansar, and their team have been largely absent from the Sansar Discord. And yes, it is indeed true: even though I barely write about Sansar at all now on this blog, I still do more promotion of Sansar than Sansar does! This relative lack of marketing activity is frankly baffling to me. After all, the often ineffective marketing of Sansar by Linden Lab contributed to the difficulties it encountered in enticing people to visit the platform—and keep them coming back for return visits, a key indicator of success.

As you might know, the money-losing Sansar was recently sold by Linden Lab to Wookey. Many Linden Lab staffers who worked on Sansar moved over to Wookey, including Sheri Bryant, who was Vice President of Strategic Business Development and Marketing and then General Manager at Linden Lab, and is now President of Wookey Technologies (LinkedIn profile). She is widely credited with saving Sansar by setting up its sale to Wookey, and it is under her management that Sansar has significantly shifted its primary focus from a VR-enabled platform for world builders and content creators (i.e. a second-generation Second Life), to a VR-enabled live events venue.

An example of the recent shift in emphasis in Sansar (from the Sansar website)

While a quick glance at the Sansar Events calendar shows that the deal Linden Lab previously struck with Monstercat to bring live musical events into Sansar has continued now that the platform is owned by Wookey, the company is going to have to do a lot more work to attract musical artists to give virtual concerts in Sansar.

Let’s contrast the modest success that Sansar has had with Monstercat with what has been happening on other virtual world and game platforms in recent years:

In addition, both Microsoft-owned AltspaceVR (which has recently announced a pivot to live events) and the ever-popular VRChat (which is already home to popular talk shows such as ENDGAME, and many other regular live events) are no doubt eyeing the possibility of hosting live concerts on their platforms. And let’s not forget the upcoming Facebook Horizon social VR platform, where Facebook will probably take what the company has learned over the past couple of years with Oculus Venues, and where they will want to sign their own exclusive deals with musical performers to entice people to visit their platform after it launches.

And this is the important point: some profitable companies with very deep pockets—Epic Games (the makers of Fortnite), Microsoft, and Facebook to name just three examples—are going to want to get into this potentially lucrative market. Smaller companies like Wookey, trying to shop around Sansar as a live events platform, are going to find themselves outbid by companies like Epic Games to bring in top talent, which of course brings in more users to Fortnite. It’s a vicious circle; the big players get bigger, while the small ones fight each other for the leftovers.

Following on from Medhue’s point in the quote above, the music industry has already seen many changes and gone through many wrenching shifts in how it operates and how it makes money in the past (notably, the shift away from physical media like CDs to the now-ubiquitous music streaming services). But now the gaming industry is bigger than both the music and movie businesses combined!

The coronavirus pandemic has shuttered real-world concert arenas for the foreseeable future, which has only increased the economic pressure on the management representing the artists to sign deals with various metaverse-building companies in order to host virtual concerts and events. There’s probably already a lot of activity going on behind the scenes that we can’t see, but I expect we shall see quite a few announcements for virtual concerts with major musical artists, as well as many smaller artists, over the next six months.

Where Fortnite is already running circles around Sansar, even at this very early stage of the game, is their ability to sign deals with the highest level of talent (using all those billions of dollars of profit earned from their games like Fortnite), and their ability to host massive live events for millions of attendees (again, leveraging off their technical know-how to build and maintain the necessary infrastructure to support millions of Fortnite players playing the game simultaneously all around the world).

One thing that Wookey could be and should be doing for Sansar is promotion—and yet they are leaving it to bloggers like me to talk about the product. Where is the marketing? If they are holding off on marketing, waiting until they land some big-name events, I think that would be a tactical error.

Wookey needs to get Sansar’s name out there; many people in our attention-deficient society still have no idea that the platform even exists. Yet everybody and their grandmother has heard of Fortnite by now. That is no accident. Epic Games did a masterful job of fanning the flames of user interest. Wookey should be taking notes.

If no action is taken, Sansar is going to continue on its downward trajectory, slowly circling the drain, and eventually will fold. Linden Lab has already made many grievous errors in trying to effectively promote the platform; Will Wookey continue making the same mistakes?

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Editorial: Could Fortnite Become the Next Second Life? A First Look at Fortnite Party Royale

Watching the sun rise on Party Royale Island in Fortnite

I am not a gamer. The only possible exception to this ironclad rule are puzzle games, such as Cyan’s Myst, Riven, and Obduction, and the truly wonderful Eastshade).

I’m simply not that interested in most shoot-em-up, combat-and-killing-focused games and MMOs (although I did get as far as level 20 in Lord of the Rings Online, only because I am such a Lord of the Rings fan).

To give you one example, I succumbed to peer pressure when No Man’s Sky released a VR-compatible update, and I bought the game. I think I played No Man’s Sky a grand total of three hours, maximum, and that was in desktop mode! Since then, it has been quietly gathering dust in a corner of my hard drive.

So I came to Fortnite as a clueless newbie with pretty much zero previous computer game experience.

I have written about the phenomenally successful battle royale game of Fortnite several times on my blog already. I blogged about Marshmello’s concert in Fortnite back in February 2019, and in November of that year, I even went so far as to actually download and install Fortnite on my computer, just so I could visit, explore, and report on the groundbreaking decision by the Royal Canadian Legion (Canada’s military veterans’ association) to create a custom-built Remembrance Island within Fortnite to celebrate Remembrance Day on November 11th (which I blogged about here and here). I thought it was such a cool way to reach out to an audience that the Legion probably would have otherwise had difficulty connecting with (namely, children and teenagers).

Remembrance Island in Fortnite (November 2019)

I then promptly uninstalled the game and pretty much forgot about it.

Oh, and I also reported on Tim Sweeney’s SIGGRAPH talk in July of 2019, in which the founder and CEO of Epic Games, the maker of Fortnite, mused about the future of the metaverse. At that time, I wrote:

I must confess that…I am rather skeptical that Fortnite, as it is right now, would form a useful model for the future metaverse. Games are designed to be focused more on linear play-through and set objectives, while virtual worlds are meant to be more open-ended and less goal-oriented in nature (although you can certainly have games within virtual worlds). As well, you can have thriving social communities in MMOs like World of Warcraft and Lord of the Rings Online, so there is a somewhat fuzzy boundary between games and virtual worlds.

Well, today I am going to eat those words.

I have decided to start covering Fortnite on this blog. Why? Well, it’s because of something new in Fortnite, called Party Royale: an open-ended, non-combat extension of the game.

Image taken from the Fortnite Party Royale website

Marshall Honorof of the blog Tom’s Guide writes:

Party Royale went live in Fortnite on April 29th, 2020 as part of the game’s most recent update. The mode has no weapons and no crafting — the two hallmarks, one would think, of the Fortnite experience. Instead, an in-game message invites players to “hang out with friends, play games, perfect your skydive and more.” Also noteworthy: Unlike normal Fortnite games, Party Royale mode is not limited to 100 players.

Here’s the slickly-produced official trailer for Fortnite Battle Royale:

On May 8th, 2020, Fortnite held its first big event in Party Royale, dubbed the Fortnite Party Royale Premiere: an epic concert featuring not just one, but three top-tier, internationally-known DJs: Deadmau5, Steve Aoki and Dillon Francis. I’ll be writing more about that in another blogpost later, but if (like me) you missed all the fuss, here’s a replay of the one-hour event:

And you can bet that Epic Games has been busily signing deals with the representatives of various big-name musical performers for future concerts to be held in Fortnite Party Royale. They’re only just getting started.

And their reach (over 250 million Fortnite players as of March 2019) means that they have a huge potential audience for those future concerts, 85% of whom are aged 18 to 34—a highly-desired advertising target market that makes corporations salivate, and which is significantly younger than the userbase of more established virtual worlds like Second Life:

Fortnite user statistics (source)

So, it’s time to firmly put Fortnite on my radar.

I am adding Fortnite Party Royale to my List of Non-Combat, Open-World Exploration/Puzzle/Life Simulation Games, instead of my much longer Comprehensive List of Social VR Platforms and Virtual Worlds, because it seems to fit in bettter among the games on the first list. However, you could argue that Fortnite Battle Royale is the first tentative step for Epic Games to expand Fornite from just a game to a full-blown, open-ended virtual world like Second Life.

I’m not the only one who thinks so. Forbes reporter Paul Tassi is convinced that Fortnite will indeed become the next Second Life. In a recent artcle titled ‘Fortnite’ Party Royale Will Become ‘Second Life’ On Its Way To Being The Metaverse, he writes:

Last night I attended yet another concert in Fortnite’s Party Royale mode, the combat-free zone where everyone just hangs out and doesn’t kill each other. It’s a small island and an early experiment, and yet as I witnessed live sets performed by Dillon Francis, Steve Aoki and deadmau5, all world-famous DJs, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was yet again witnessing something pretty significant and incredible.

I’ve talked a lot about the Metaverse with Fortnite, the grand virtual world that may end up replacing the internet someday, and in fiction, often appears in immersive VR form, and is full of brands and companies vying for their place among users. And you can definitely feel a significant step in that direction from Fortnite, especially last night as I, controlling X-Men’s Psylocke as my Avatar, danced with John Wick and Harley Quinn and dozens of other player avatars during the hour-long show.

When I posted the clips online, many of my followers remarked that this looked like Second Life, and honestly, while the Metaverse is still ages away in its “true” form, it does feel like Fortnite is gearing up to start with something more akin to Second Life or PlayStation Home instead.

Fishing rod in hand, scanning the seashore

Paul continues:

Second Life operates as a virtual world where players are not killing each other, but rather building homes, trading goods and services with each other, and attending events (Second Life was doing concerts a decade before Fortnite).

Now, it seems like Fortnite is on that path, but in a more attractive package. These days screenshots of Second Life unintentionally make it look like some sort of porn sim (though plenty of naughty stuff can and does happen in Second Life), while Fortnite’s Pixar-like animation and brand deals with Marvel, DC, Star Wars and more are combining different intellectual properties in one place in a way that no other game has before in a better-looking world.

Fortnite has pretty much all the pieces it needs for its own version of Second Life. With Party Royale, it has a combat-free hub where you can’t destroy anything and you just hang out playing minigames and attending events. With Fortnite Creative, you have an infinite hub of user-generated content that could be used to populate expansions to that initial world.

Combine those two together, and what do you have? Really, all the building blocks you need for a virtual world in the Unreal engine. How long until Epic starts letting players build their own houses in an expanding Party Royale zone? How long until creators can sell their custom works to other players, creating an in-game economy? My guess for both, not long.

Fortnite already has its own in-world currency, V-bucks
Shopping (and a fashion market!) are already an established part of Fortnite

Second Life had better be looking over their shoulder. A new competitor has appeared in the race. And they have deep pockets: Epic Games made a profit of $3 billion over 2018 (source). Fortnite has the potential to steamroller over Second Life, particularly as SL’s significantly older user base begins to decline. And you can bet the youngsters are flocking to Fortnite and other games in droves. While Second Life still has its relatively small but intensely passionate fan base, it is widely seen as outdated, faintly quaint technology among the general public (remember this recent article in The Atlantic magazine?). That’s why Linden Lab embarked on the ultimately disastrous Sansar project in the first place; they knew that Second Life could only be extended so far, and they could see that the writing was on the wall.

Marshall Honorof of Tom’s Guide (link up top) summarizes the potential impact of Fortnite Battle Royale quite nicely:

What’s interesting about Party Royale mode is not necessarily the feature itself, but that Fortnite is beginning to establish itself as a digital alternative to the “third place”: a location where people feel at home that isn’t their house, or their office. For a lot of people, this is often a bar, or a gym, or a coffee shop — places where it’s basically impossible to go right now. Party Royale could encourage people to mingle digitally in the long run, or it could just be a stopgap until things get back to normal in the physical world. We’ll know for sure in (hopefully) a few months.

Hang gliding over Party Royale Island in Fortnite

The line between what is a virtual world and what is a game has always been a somewhat blurry one. For example, virtual worlds such as Second Life have always been home to games, for example, But the launch of Party Royale in Fortnite is the clearest signal yet that the game companies want to move into the open-ended virtual worlds market, too. The game companies might not actually refer to them as “virtual worlds”, but that is essentially what they are.

So, last night, I went and reinstalled Fortnite on my personal computer. Things are about to get very, very interesting, and I want to be there when it happens! And expect expanded coverage of Fortnite Party Royale on this blog in the future.

Setting foot in a brand new, open-ended virtual world

Linden Lab Launches New Viewer to Broadcast Live Video Events to Virtual Audiences with Screening of Adult Swim’s The Shivering Truth on Friday, May 8th, 2020

The ongoing global public health crisis that is the coronavirus pandemic has forced many media companies to rethink how they promote their content and attract eyeballs. Flashy, crowded launch parties (with the requisite celebrities and attendant social media influencers) are simply out of the question, and savvier metaverse platforms are neatly stepping into the newly-created marketplace for virtual events.

One such event is taking place in Second Life on Friday, May, 8th: Adult Swim is the first media partnership to use the new limited-release Second Life Viewer. In a press release, Linden Lab reports:

Be among the first to experience live video streaming inside Second Life at an exclusive Adult Swim screening event, held this Friday, May 8 at 4:00 p.m. (SLT/Pacific)/7:00 p.m. (ET). 

Watch two classic episodes and two all-new unreleased episodes from the forthcoming second season of “The Shivering Truth” at this special event, to be held in-world at a new venue created exclusively for this screening.

During the event, you can chat with fellow fans of the show and other special guests as you experience the show together for the first time in the virtual world. Free limited-edition virtual gifts and mementos will also be distributed during and after the show — just look for the “Free Gifts” kiosk near the front entrance. 

The event also marks the first media partnership utilizing the new limited-release Second Life Viewer, which enables content creators and entertainment companies to broadcast live video events to virtual world audiences. In the future, you may see several new forms of entertainment including movie and TV premieres, live concerts, and artist/fan meet-and-greets. We’re very excited to partner with Adult Swim for the debut of this new feature, which we plan to integrate into the main Second Life Viewer release in the coming weeks.

Those of us who have given up the default Second Life viewer, in favour of more fully-featured alternatives such as Firestorm, will need to download and install the special view from SL before visiting the suitably spooky venue (at this SLURL). I expect that this will be the first of many such media events in future, and no doubt Linden Lab hopes to attract more users to Second Life via these initiatives.

Engadget Interview with Ebbe Altberg: Why Linden Lab Decided to Sell Sansar

On March 27th, 2020, the Engadget website published what is probably the most detailed interview yet with Linden Lab CEO Ebbe Altberg, in which he explains the thinking behind the company’s decision to sell their fledgling social VR platform, Sansar, and focus on Second Life.

It’s clear that one of the strong messages that Ebbe wanted to send out with this high-profile industry interview is that Linden Lab is now in a strong, profitable position as a company. Here’s an excerpt from that interview, which I would encourage you to read in full:

So why did Linden Lab sell the platform? In short, the company wanted to be profitable and Sansar wasn’t making enough money. “We incubated Sansar,” Altberg explained. “We got it up and going. It’s fantastic technology, but it’s still [got] quite a way of runway [before it can] become a cash-positive.”

Altberg said it was ultimately a “strategic decision” to sell Sansar and give the development team a chance to branch out on their own. “I’m super stoked that we’re able to find a way for them to continue the journey,” he explained.

First, though, the company needed to find a buyer. It considered “a bunch of different paths,” according to Altberg, which included some larger owners. In the end, it settled on Wookey Project Corp., a little-known startup that wants to create “a new generation of online AR/VR experiences,” according to a Linden Lab press release. Altberg describes the company as a “really scrappy investor type of player” who wants a challenge and is prepared to let the Sansar team drive its own agenda. Wookey’s CEO also lives in the same town as Altberg, which probably helped seal the deal.

And (yes, I have to say it), I first drew attention to Linden Lab’s essential dilemma in a blogpost I wrote two years ago:

I think that Ebbe Altberg and his team at Linden Lab can’t win no matter what they do. If they continue to throw too much time and money at Second Life, Sansar will suffer and they’re betting the future on Sansar… Yet if they try to promote Sansar…folks who are wedded to Second Life get upset. Or people will say that SL is “being actively starved and strangled”.

Linden Lab was trying to juggle two completely separate projects, at completely separate stages of development, and was finding the juggling to be a bit much. Like Philip Rosedale found with High Fidelity, Linden Lab discovered that all the time and money they had poured into a social VR platform, in hopes that users would flood in, was a cash drain that put the entire company in danger. In the end, something had to give, and that something was Sansar, which, under the circumstances, makes perfect sense.

Sansar now has a “really scrappy investor type of player” who will try to turn the platform into a profitable endeavour, and Linden Lab can go back to what they do best: keep Second Life humming smoothly along as the reliable cash-cow it is, at almost 17 years of age. I’m quite sure that Philip Rosedale and his original team at Linden Lab back in 2003 never dreamed that SL would enjoy the long, successful life that it has had!

However, I will put on my prognosticator’s hat and issue a prediction: Wookey will go all-in on Sansar, and they will do their absolute damnedest to aright the Good Ship Sansar, which has been listing badly of late. (Go ahead. Call the metaphor police. I dare you,)

But Wookey isn’t going to stick around forever if Sansar fails to take off a second time. The number crunchers at Wookey already have a deadline in their head. I give them two years, max. If they haven’t turned a profit by then, Wookey will sell Sansar in turn, or shut it down.

Clock starts now.

Image from the brand new Wookey website