Editorial: Lessons Decentraland Can Learn from the 15-Year History of Second Life

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Carl Fravel (whom I first met in Sansar, but who has since moved on to become a sort of unofficial ambassador for Decentraland), responded to me when I commented on the Cryptovoxels Discord this week that the creators behind Decentraland have not really paid attention to the history of Second Life, and the problems and scandals that SL has encountered in its 15-year history.

He asked me to give him some more details, which he has promised to pass on to the founders of Decentraland. Instead of a direct message to Carl, I decided to make this blogpost, in case other people were interested in my opinions. As you know, I have written extensively, and with a critical eye, about the Decentraland project in the past.

So, what can the folks building Decentraland learn from Second Life?

First, casinos. Linden Lab shut down the casinos in Second Life in 2007 after an FBI investigation into gambling in SL. I have already written about this on my blog:

I posted a comment to the busy Decentraland Reddit channel, reminding them that the FBI investigated gambling in Second Life, which had led to them shutting down online gambling a decade ago, and asking if anyone had stopped to think about whether the U.S. federal government would step in to stop Americans from gambling using cryptocurrency in Decentraland’s Vegas City district. That Reddit post was taken down by the moderators less than an hour after I posted it. I can only assume I was censored because they didn’t want to spook investors in their platform. I’m not impressed.

Now, Decentraland may be able to skirt around this by setting up in a jurisdiction where online gambling is allowed. However, you can bet that the FBI will get involved again if it is found that American citizens are gambling in Decentraland. They’re probably going to have to set up some sort of system to block users from certain countries; have the developers (and the people who contributed virtual land to the Vegas City district) stopped to consider this?

Second, “banks” and get-rich-quick schemes. Linden Lab was forced to ban “banks” in Second Life after reports of scammers making off with people’s investments (for more details, see number 10 on this list). Originally, Linden Lab’s excuse was: hey, we just host the software, and residents should avoid deals that sound too good to be true. But then, they were essentially forced to implement a ban after a story appeared in the MIT Technology Review. And, if Decentraland does not take steps to ban financial get-rich-quick schemes on its platform, it is likely that scammers with lofty promises will also descend upon it and set up shop. The world of blockchain/cryptocurrency is full of stories of people taking advantage of other people’s greed and ignorance. Remember what happened with BitConnect?

Third, ageplay. Linden Lab was forced to confront a public relations disaster when the news media reported that pedophiles were using the platform to engage in sexual roleplay with child avatars (see number 4 on this list for more details). The resulting scandal led Linden Lab to enact and enforce a strict ageplay ban.

To this day, when “Second Life” is mentioned, sexual roleplay tends to be the first thing that the general public thinks of; Second Life’s reputation has been pretty much tainted by that association ever since. Decentraland needs to think about this before a scandal hits, and set up similar bans, and a means of enforcing them.

Fourth, intellectual property and copyright issues. I have already written about this at length here and here. Go read those blogposts. I suggest that Decentraland put a report mechanism in place, as well as a procedure for dealing with DMCA filings. It will happen.

This is just a start. I suggest that the Decentraland founders and investors read through my list of the top 20 controversies in Second Life, and see what else they can learn from it.

Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

George Santayana, The Life of Reason, Volume 1

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Editorial: Fasten Your Seatbelts, It’s Going to Be a Bumpy Night!

Yesterday’s announcement that Sansar is moving to Steam was a big shock, but it should not have been so unexpected. It’s clear that Linden Lab is under increasing pressure to show a profit from Sansar, after plowing years of work into the platform without getting much back in return. They simply can’t keep relying on the profit from Second Life to build Sansar indefinitely. Eventually, Sansar has to pay its own way.

Some people will say (in fact, they are already saying) that Sansar is not yet fully-featured enough to be on Steam. High Fidelity made the mistake of putting its product up on Steam well before it was ready, and it got savaged in the user reviews. Is Linden Lab really ready to take this fateful step now, rather than wait another six months or a year to further polish the platform? Why the sudden pressure to do this now, before the end of this year?

What surprises me is how quickly and easily Linden Lab is jettisoning its SandeX exchange. The delicate and intricate balancing of the Sansar economy was something that LL staff put a lot of time, effort and energy into (even going so far as to create a subsidiary called Tilia, which focused on payments and the compliance work associated with operating virtual economies). All of that work, or at least a good chunk of it, gone.

Obviously, integration with Steam was considered to be a higher priority than the SandeX, which was considered a key component of Sansar. Which leads to the question: What other major changes to Sansar are going to be required before its launch on Steam? 

Yesterday’s announcement has probably raised more questions than answers. Several content creators have already announced on the official Sansar Discord channel that they are taking a break, cashing out their profits, and watching from the sidelines as all this plays out over the next few months. Which is exactly what Linden Lab doesn’t want.

And, of course, the even bigger question is: What happens if moving to Steam doesn’t bring a significantly larger audience to Sansar? (You could argue that High Fidelity’s launch on Steam has so far had very little impact on its usage levels, aside from the monthly spike of users attending regular stress testing events.)

As Bette Davis says, “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night.” A bumpy night not only for Sansar, but for all the competing metaverse platforms in this overcrowded and uncertain marketplace.

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Mark my words; there are going to be winners and losers, and it will not be pretty. I predict that one or more of the blockchain-based virtual worlds will be among the first to fail, given the current grave state of the cryptocurrency markets, but really, anything can happen at this point.

Oh, and by the way, in response to those people talking about how Linden Lab tried—and failed—to get Second Life on Steam way back in 2012, Eliot, Sansar’s Community Manager, said on Discord today:

I also saw some people commenting that trying to get SL on Steam didn’t work out. Well we’ve learnt from that experience. The announcement we made comes after months of negotiation with Valve. We have an active dialogue with them on this :thumbsup:

So, it would appear that this move has been in the works for quite some time, and it’s not an impulsive decision by any means. But no matter how well they plan, it’s still going to be a bumpy ride. Stay tuned. And fasten your seatbelts!

Could We Finally Be Getting Official Mobile Clients (iOS and Android) for Second Life?

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Virtual worlds like IMVU and Avakin Life, which are highly popular with tweens and teens, have one strong advantage over Second Life; they can be played on mobile devices (tablets and smartphones), which are now ubiquitous technology in modern-day society. Although Linden Lab has made a few half-hearted forays into mobile clients for SL in the past, these projects never went very far before they were shut down. Second Life is still, after all these years, primarily a virtual world played on a computer desktop (Windows, Mac, and Linux), which limits its potential audience somewhat.

Wagner James Au of the long-running Second Life blog New World Notes was the first to notice that Linden Lab is hiring a senior mobile engineer for Second Life. According to the position description:

Linden Lab is looking for an innovative mobile app engineer to deliver a compelling, responsive mobile interface into Second Life. If you’re passionate about the latest cross platform mobile technologies and would be psyched to wake up every morning knowing that your efforts will enhance the largest, most successful virtual world on the Internet then we want to hear from you!

Responsibilities

  • Expand and enhance access to Second Life – the most successful user-created Virtual World ever with tens of thousands of concurrent users.
  • Collaborate with other engineers in an iterative, agile development environment with a passionate commitment to improving the Second Life experience.
  • Participate in design and code reviews and discussions both within the web team and with other parts of Second Life development.

Knowledge, Skills, Abilities

To perform this job successfully, an individual must be able to perform each essential duty satisfactorily. The requirements listed below are representative of the knowledge, skill, and/or ability required. Reasonable accommodations may be made to enable individuals with disabilities to perform the essential functions.

  • Results-oriented attitude and dedication to the user experience.
  • Demonstrated proficiency working in a geographically distributed team.
  • Experience developing consumer-oriented mobile applications for Android and IOS.
  • Experience with distributed version control (git or mercurial).
  • Experience with automated testing.
  • Experience with AWS or other cloud-based deployment models, especially streaming cloud-based rendering.
  • Demonstrated ability to accurately scope projects and negotiate deadlines within a flexible team structure.
  • Deep familiarity with and enthusiasm for Second Life is a HUGE plus.

It would appear that they are interested in building Second Life mobile apps for both Apple (iOS) and Android devices, which is good news!

Wagner adds:

Also notable: Based on this job requirement, it looks like the company is planning to create a cloud-streaming version of SL for mobile:

Experience with AWS [i.e. Amazon Web Services] or other cloud-based deployment models, especially streaming cloud-based rendering.

Back in 2014, Linden Lab partnered with the now-defunct OnLive to do just that, so it’s good to know they’re going in that direction again.

[The] job is remote and “deep familiarity with and enthusiasm for Second Life is a HUGE plus”, so this could be a dream gig for SL’s many talented community developers. My recommendation, of course, is to hire Alina Lyvette, whose Lumiya viewer for Android has already sold well over 100,000 copies.

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Lumiya client on the Google Play Apps Store

Along with High Fidelity’s recent announcement of an alpha version of an Android client for the platform, it looks like we’re going to see some interesting times ahead!

Does Sansar Need an Independently-Run Discussion Forum?

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Discussion and debate are the lifeblood of any community (photo by rawpixel on Unsplash)

It seems ludicrously early to be even talking about the possibility, but given the sometimes heavy-handed moderation happening lately on the official Sansar Discord server, perhaps this is an idea that merits some discussion now.

I have noticed that usage of the Sansar Discord server has dropped a fair bit over the past year, especially when compared to the early days, when there were many free-wheeling discussions on a variety of topics, of interest to many people. At times, it was a bit of a free-for-all, but it was always entertaining to watch (and participate in). It was fun!

But lately, it feels like you can’t go more than a few sentences into a conversation on Discord without Harley or Eliot stepping in to ask the participants to take it to another channel, or to direct messaging. Frankly, it’s dampening the spirit of the place, and I do not like it one bit.

The long-running (and still popular) SLUniverse.com is an example of an independently-run discussion forum where people can safely vent on any number of topics related to Second Life, OpenSim, and other virtual worlds, without fear of official reprisal from Linden Lab. Is it time to set something like SLUniverse up for Sansar? Maybe it is.

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SLUniverse Discussion Forums

Or maybe we should all move wholesale over to SLUniverse, they do already have a Sansar forum (although it’s not heavily used).

What do you think? Sound off in the comments!