UPDATED! Ample Coverage on Sansar Avatars: “We’re all peacefully witnessing the sansarship”

Jesus H. Christ.

Is there a full moon? That’s the only possible explanation of the levels of craziness I have been witnessing in the past 24 hours on various social VR platforms.

First was the three-ring circus around High Fidelity’s Virtual Co-working Island Cam. And now all holy hell seems to have broken loose in the avatar creation community over on Sansar.

Apparently, a Linden Lab employee has flagged several custom female avatars for sale on the Sansar Store for lacking “ample coverage” (i.e., having enough of their breasts, vagina, and ass covered, as per Linden Lab guidelines banning totally nude avatars. I’ve already written an editorial about this overly-strict policy and what I think about it.

Furthermore, the Linden Lab staff member then issued 24-hour deadlines for the avatars to be fixed, or have them removed. This edict has gone over about as well as it could be expected. One creator who is quite upset about it, Medhue, told me:

Of course, I complained to Ebbe that all the female avatars on the marketplace don’t have enough ample coverage. So, today, all the female avatars or most [were flagged], including Fabeo’s. Fabeo tried to make an announcement about it all, in a funny creative way, and [LL staff member] removed the comment, and banned him from the Discord. In fact, the whole Avatar channel was blocked for any posting for a number of minutes, twice. You could get quotes from Bagnaria and Fabeo about it all, and dealing with [LL staff member]. They are truly a tyrant.

It’s one thing to enforce the rules, but it is another to dictate how much time you have to do it. One day isn’t even remotely reasonable. The craziness in the Discord though, is a whole other level of craziness, by a Lab employee trying to justify their tyranny.

For Bagnaria and I, it is just super demotivating to know [LL staff member] is watching us closely, for any missed step. I only complained to Ebbe to show how they are targeting us alone. All those other bodies were posted a good week before ours. So, [LL staff member] is either targeting us, or they just didn’t do their job for a week, and then chose to hit us first.

(UPDATE: Apparently, Medhue was wrong, and Fabeeo Breen was not banned from Discord. However, “slow mode” was enabled, which meant that you could only post once every five minutes on the #avatar channel. I apologize for my role in reporting untrue information. I should have checked with Fabeeo before posting that, and I didn’t. Also, I screwed up in the use of the proper pronouns in referring to the LL staff member in question. They have all been changed to they/them/their.)

For her part, Bagnaria said:

Let me just say, have never felt less motivated to continue to work on anything in Sansar.

Fabeeo Breen reported on the message he received from Linden Lab:

Hi Fabeeo, Announcing the replacement of the Daphne avatar is fine, but please make sure that your announcement does not contain language that might fall under our Community Standards against Disturbing the Peace.

Medhue retorted:

It is quite funny now that the Lab is using Disturbing the Peace as their reason for removing things posted by their CUSTOMERS. Ebbe, I read the post, and it was entertaining, and creative. Quite enjoyable actually. The only people being disturbed by it was Lab employees. Crap! This could fall under Disturbing the Peace too…

We were the first to get hit by the censor hammer. As Bag pointed out, we were contacted yesterday, and given 24 hours to fix it, as if we are just sitting around doing nothing and actually have the time for this sillyness. If they wanted a specific coverage, then they should have given that to us, instead of being VAGUE. They vagueness created this. I asked them several times at meetings exactly what was required, and instead of taking that question seriously, they laughed it off and said AMPLE COVERAGE. Again, they created this situation, by being vague.

I have complained in the past about the sometimes heavy-handed moderating of the official Sansar Discord. And I have blogged about how we need a return to etiquette, manners and civility in our online forums, too.

Frankly, both sides in this dispute need to take a step back and re-examine how they are approaching this situation. I am not impressed by either side’s behaviour today. Linden Lab needs to stop being so heavy-handed. And, for their part, the content creators need to be a little less thin-skinned.

But all this patent ridiculousness over “ample coverage” could easily be addressed by letting avatars be naked, like Barbie and Ken dolls. Then, custom avatar creators wouldn’t have to guess if the painted-on underwear is too revealing or not. I mean, for God’s sake, the default system avatars and the most popular mesh body avatars in Second Life are sold naked. Why is that such a big deal in Sansar? Is Linden Lab that scared of Sansar being tarred with the brush of X-rated content that they have to police this sort of thing, and go to these ridiculous extremes? Are we going to have an Ample Coverage Police Force?

The only truly funny thing to come out of this godawful mess was Silas Merlin’s comment:

We’re all peacefully witnessing the sansarship…

Perhaps it’s time to re-examine the content guidelines for the Sansar Store again, maybe even loosen them up a little. Either that, or explicitly mandate exactly how much of the avatar needs to be covered.

After all, even children are allowed to play with Barbie and Ken dolls.

May I leave you all with some sage advice from Taylor Swift?

UPDATE, 5:00 p.m.: Well, this blogpost has sparked a wide-ranging discussion on the official Sansar Discord server, and I learned quite a few things that I didn’t know before, such as the fact that the “ample coverage” guidelines Sansar has now are the result of the adjustments they’ve made to accommodate content creators over a period of years, and that the 24-hours rule (while being reviewed, internally, in response to this episode) is also a compromise to the original policy, which was to remove such content immediately without notice.

So, the message I get from Linden Lab is that these rules are not made up arbitrarily or on the spot. Mind you, Linden Lab has historically not been very good at providing the context in which those rules are formulated and updated. And, to be fair, the users and content creators often assume the very worst of intentions on the part of Linden Lab, often leaping to conclusions without evidence. Both sides can improve.

But I do apologize to Linden Lab and their staff the part I played in this. In particular, I jumped the gun and published this blogpost without getting all sides of the story. That was clearly not the best way to handle this situation, and I’m sorry.

SECOND UPDATE, Sept. 18th: I have replaced the original illustration at the top of this blogpost with this wonderful tongue-in-cheek image supplied by Silas Merlin, who told me his own stories of “sansarship”, but requested that I do not repeat them on the blog. Thanks, Silas!

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UPDATED Editorial: Moving from Avatar 1.0 to Avatar 2.0 in Sansar—A Look at the Gains and Losses, and Why I Think Linden Lab Has Made A Mistake with the New Default Female Avatar 2.0

Let’s make one thing very clear: I am not a happy camper. My first two blogposts I made very early this morning about the most recent update to Sansar (here and here) were bouquets to Ebbe Altberg and his team for a job well done, but this third blogpost is about a major beef I have with the new Avatar 2.0 system, specifically the new female avatar.

I first had inklings that something was wrong when people were complaining about the female avatar proportions on the Sansar Discord. I wrote up a blogpost about it, Cara Linden responded and I posted her response, and then I promptly forgot about it.

But today. TODAY….

I decided to load up my Vanity Fair avatar to see what kind of impact the move to Avatar 2.0 would have on her inventory. I already knew that I would lose all the old custom avatars, as well as any rigged clothing and hair, but I wanted to see what I was left with, and how I could work with what was left.

The change was actually pretty wrenching for me. I hadn’t anticipated that I would lose EVERY. SINGLE. F***ING. PAIR. OF. SHOES. I had ever bought! I was left with one pair of tan boots and that was it. I would have thought that at least shoes could have been carried over from Avatar 1.0 to Avatar 2.0!

And, as expected, all my old hairstyles were gone, replaced by the six default female hairstyles, none of which I liked. *sigh*

Another very unpleasant surprise was that Linden Lab removed all their previous default clothing from my inventory, except for the futuristic Nexus top, pants, and shoes I was wearing! What the hell, Linden Lab?!?? Couldn’t you have offered us some NON science-fiction outfits? Are we supposed to be an all-science-fiction, all the time, now?!??

I am not a fan of any of the preset face shapes, or the choice of skin tones and eye colours. Would it have killed Linden Lab to give us a few more options in these areas, especially since we have to wait for custom skins and eyes? This is the best I could come up with on short notice, without touching any of the sliders or the face deformation buttons:

Vanity Fair, Avatar 2.0

A little boring, but a perfectly serviceable starting point.

Now to get to the main reason I am so upset. The default basic female body shape is absolutely ridiculous. She’s too elongated, her shoulders and hips are too narrow, and her arms look like they have no muscles at all! I honestly cannot believe that we have been given such an unrealistic starter female avatar. What the hell was Linden Lab thinking?!?? I consider this to be a definite step backwards, and the sooner that Linden Lab implements proper body sliders and body deformations, the better.

So now it’s time to try on some of the Marvelous Designer-created clothing which survived the transition from Avatar 1.0 to Avatar 2.0, to see how well it fits and how much adjusting is needed. The first thing I tried on was a simple white top, which by default fit far below her actual shoulders:

Using the new Transform Item button on the Worn Items window, I tried to adjust the top to fit my new, overly-elongated body:

You can now edit clothing using tools which will be familiar to users of other virtual worlds such as Second Life: translate, rotate, and scale:

The fourth button allows you to adjust all three at the same time:

So, after a bit of fiddling, here is what I was able to come up with:

So yes, the tools are there for you to be able to make your old clothing fit the new avatars, but you are going to have to do a lot of fiddling and tweaking and adjusting. Even worse, you are going to have to do all that fiddling and adjusting all over again if you take the item off and then put it back on from your inventory, because when you put it back on, it will automatically go to the same spot on your avatar body.

It also means that any clothing originally designed for Avatar 1.0 avatars will be a pain in the ass to use, because it will not fit the new avatars well by default. Most clothing makers will probably land up just removing older items from the Sansar Store completely, since they won’t fit as neatly and automatically as any new clothing specifically designed for Avatar 2.0 avatars will.

At this point, I’m a really very glad that I have so few items in my store on the Sansar Store, since I now am pretty much forced to redo them all. And yes, I am angry about that.

And keep in mind that this sort of fiddling, tweaking and adjusting of old clothing designed for Avatar 1.0 will be a major stumbling block to new users of Sansar, who will not understand why their clothing “doesn’t fit right”. I can only imagine how much work that somebody has to do now, who has already put dozens, or even hundreds, of items of clothing on the Sansar Store, in order to make them work better for the Avatar 2.0 avatars. It’ll be like starting over from scratch. This is very clearly NOT going to be the smooth process that was originally promised by Linden Lab. If I were a clothing maker who invested a lot of time and money into making clothing to date, I would be furious at Linden Lab for making such major changes to the avatar. Why was such a drastic change necessary? Why wasn’t an effort made to keep at least some sort of backwards compatibility?

And finally, and most damning of all…

I put on my VR headset and looked down myself as Vanity Fair, and I was HORRIFIED! My forearms look like toothpicks, and my hands are much too small! I look like someone with a wasting disease or a small child, not a grown woman!

The difference between Avatar 1.0 and Avatar 2.0 is so jarring that it is immersion-breaking. It’s also a complete deal-breaker for me. This is just a truly horrible default female avatar and at this point, I don’t think I will even bother to design clothing for it until it is replaced or improved. I’m that unhappy with it.

What the hell was wrong with the much more realistic proportions of the default female Avatar 1.0? Why did Linden Lab f*** this up so badly?? What were they thinking?!?? Let’s do a direct comparison, wearing the same outfit, between Avatar 1.0 and Avatar 2.0:

Vanity Fair, Avatar 1.0: This is what a real woman looks like
Vanity Fair, Avatar 2.0: Way too tall, hips too narrow, too thin, hands too small, looks like a Barbie doll

If you can’t see that there is something seriously wrong with the default female Avatar 2.0 just by comparing them side by side, then I give up. There were clearly drastic design decisions made that were NOT communicated by Linden Lab effectively to the users. This is NOT what we asked for. This is NOT what we wanted.


UPDATE: O.K. I’ve had a chance to calm down and think this over.

I think it is highly unlikely that Linden Lab is going to roll us back to Avatar 1.0, but I really disagree with the direction they decided to go for the female avatars. Landon Linden reported from the official Sansar Discord in response to this blogpost:

We’re working to get body morph in before the end of the year. It is a top priority for us, too.

And this is a bit of comfort. I keep forgetting that this is a beta, and that things like this will happen. We all take part in the beta knowing that something could come along and break everything for us, and we have to start over again. That’s part of the deal. I made the assumption that things would not change, and when they did change, and that change potentially impacted an avatar clothing business that I would very much like to get off the ground, I got upset.

I’m sorry.

SECOND UPDATE: Market forces to the rescue! We now have some good interim solutions to the new default female avatar proportions, and I’m much happier!

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!

Editorial: Will Social VR Companies Have to Turn to Influencers to Promote Their Products?

Photo by Diggity Marketing on Unsplash

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Recently, I have become fascinated by a particular kind of celebrity: the YouTube influencer. Yesterday, I watched a video by the successful YouTuber and real estate agent Graham Stephan, who is currently pulling in US$100,000 per month from his YouTube channel alone:

These are people who have been able to attract significant numbers of subscribers to their YouTube video content, and earn hundreds of thousands—even millions—of dollars a year with advertising and endorsement deals. For example, the 28-year-old Swedish YouTuber Felix Kjellberg (a.k.a PewDiePie) earned US$15.5 million last year, according to Forbes.

Now, you might remember that PewDiePie was one of the YouTubers who devoted coverage to the social VR platform VRChat in late 2017 and early 2018, which led to a surge in the number of concurrent users (here is a chart from Steam showing the number of concurrent users of VRChat over time, with an arrow pointing to that surge):

Now, I’m pretty sure that PewDiePie did not sign an endorsement deal with VRChat; he probably just stumbled across it and thought it was entertaining enough to share with his audience of 98.6 million viewers. VRChat was probably just as surprised as everybody else by this sudden spike in users. I remember how they struggled to keep their servers running smoothly to deal with this unexpected onslaught over the Christmas holidays in 2017, and they were eventually forced to implement a detailed safety and trust system to cope with the resulting tidal wave of harassment and griefing on the platform. (Be careful what you wish for, because you just might get it!)

But obviously, PewDiePie and his fellow livestreamers on Twitch and YouTube were a powerful, free promotional tool for VRChat. (The Ugandan Knuckles meme helped a lot, too, by becoming a self-perpetuating cycle that helped popularize VRChat.) While the platform peaked at 28,500 simultaneous users, it has since settled down to around 6,000 concurrent users in recent months, which still makes it the most popular social VR platform so far.

It’s no secret that most social VR platforms are struggling to attract users. According to a statement made by Linden Lab CEO Ebbe Altberg to Forbes about the Monstercat 8th anniversary concert event in Sansar:

Monstercat: Call of the Wild Experience is a VR space where the music label will host artist meet and greets, giveaways, and more. Altberg didn’t give me exact numbers but over a thousand people watched the show in VR via Sansar.

“Tens of thousands of people watched the concert across Twitch, Mixer, and Huya, and over a thousand people around the world attended the event in Sansar – across 6 continents, 65 countries, and 675 cities.  Fans feel more connected and immersed in the music they love, while artists, in turn, effectively reach more people and places in a single day than they’d reach on a real-life tour. “

Now, while I am slightly suspicious at that “675 cities” figure (I always knew you could determine country by IP address, but I wasn’t aware you could pinpoint IP addresses down to the city level), the fact remains that 1,000 users in one day is seen as a major success for Sansar. But compare this with the estimated 600,000 regular users for Second Life. And compare this with the estimated 7,500 users of the adult virtual world 3DX Chat, which, as one commenter noted (here and here):

… 3DXChat. It started as just a sex sim. Then they added building. Then users started building and visiting each others places, instead of paying for sex like they were supposed to.

It’s more successful than High Fidelity, Sansar, and Sinespace put together. About 7,500 paying users.

So, although 1,000 users in one day for one event in Sansar is a significant achievement, it still doesn’t take the platform to the next level, where Linden Lab can really start making money off it.

Which leads to my question: will Linden Lab and other social VR companies eventually have to pay YouTubers and other influencers to promote their platforms to a wider audience and attract more attention? The experience of VRChat was an instructive lesson on the advertising power of influencers like PewDiePie.

Linden Lab has already taken some tentative steps in this direction already, with links to Twitch livestreamers like UmiNoKaiju (which, as far as I know, went nowhere). It would appear that companies would get more of a bang for their buck if they entered into partnerships with people with much bigger followings on Twitch and YouTube. And frankly, that is not cheap. Viral Nation, one of the top influencer marketing agencies, which represents hundreds of successful influencers using Instagram, Vine, YouTube, and Snapchat, is only interested in customers who have a advertising budget in the range of $10,000 to $10,000,000.

Linden Lab and other social VR companies may decide that slower, organic growth is best. However, the pressure to attract a lot of users more quickly using high-profile influencers must be sorely tempting. Will Linden Lab, High Fidelity, Sinespace, and other social VR platforms eventually bite the bullet and sign deals with popular influencers? Only time will tell.

UPDATE Aug. 16th: I have been told that it is, indeed, possible to identify cities by IP address, which I did not know before!