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
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Daisy Winthorpe Launches the “I Love Sansar” Campaign

In an effort to promote Sansar, dauntless Sansar user and content creator Daisy Winthorpe has launched a social media campaign. Here are some of the images that are already being circulated:

Daisy Winthorpe’s Avatar

I also learned from Daisy today the the COMETS program set up by Linden Lab staff to host and promote events in Sansar (which I had originally reported on here) is no longer operational. That is concerning to me, but not a total surprise. Daisy tells me:

It’s not a big secret. We are still “alive” but not getting any missions [from Linden Lab].

Daisy is to be thanked and commended for her promotional efforts!

Editorial: High Fidelity, Sansar, and the Sin of Hubris (and why Second Life Users’ Hatred of Sansar Contributed to Its Downfall)

One evening last week, I decided to take a break from the Educators in VR conference sessions, and I did something I had not done in at least two months—I loaded up an anonymous alt and I paid a visit to Sansar.

Like most other worlds in Sansar, the Galleria shopping mall I visited was utterly deserted, despite showing up at the top of the Popular list in my Codex. (There were certainly no more than forty avatars total in all of Sansar on this particular evening.) After half an hour of morose window-shopping, I signed out again, feeling even more depressed than when I signed in.

I find it almost inconceivable that a mere eleven months ago, we had not one but two social VR platforms, into which their respective companies had poured years of software development work and millions of dollars, throwing splashy, well-attended events in an effort to outdo each other. Today, both of those companies have laid off dozens of staff, one platform has shut down completely, and the other is actively shopping around for someone to take it over, or it will probably shut down too.

Sansar user Zero Cheese posted the following three-minute recording of the most recent Sansar Product Meetup to his Twitter, where the users took to the stage instead of the Linden Lab staff, and instead of cheering me up, all it did was break my heart:

Throughout my three-year journey as a beta tester and blogger, one of the most special things about Sansar has always been its intrepid community of users and content creators, who may have been small in number but mighty in spirit.

There was always the feeling that the next wave of users would be just around the corner, that the next update with its shiny new features would be just enough to entice people to come in, to pay return visits, to move in, to set up homes and stores, and to build a new world.

It never happened. Why?

There will be no shortage of onlookers (armchair quarterbacks) who will speculate on what they think High Fidelity and Linden Lab did wrong, but I would suspect that many of their answers would revolve around one word: hubris.

To the ancient Greeks, hubris referred to extreme pride, especially pride and ambition so great that they offended the gods and led to one’s downfall. Wikipedia says:

Hubris (/ˈhjuːbrɪs/, from ancient Greek ὕβρις) describes a personality quality of extreme or foolish pride or dangerous overconfidence, often in combination with (or synonymous with) arrogance.

Simply put, it was that the people who ran High Fidelity and Linden Lab thought they already knew very well what people wanted, largely based on their shared past corporate experience with Second Life. Oh, they still sought input from the users, from time to time, but overall, they went ahead and did exactly what they pleased, confident that (to borrow a line from the 1989 movie Field of Dreams) if they built it, people would come.

Well, they built it (or, at the very least, they made a good solid start of building it). But the people didn’t come. Why?

Nearly two years ago, I wrote in an editorial called Second Life Versus Sansar: Why Linden Lab Can’t Win, No Matter What They Do:

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. 

Wagner James Au of the long-running blog New World Notes received a torrent of comments from Sansar haters when he reported on the current uncertain status of the Sansar project last Friday. It would appear that many Second Life users are still extremely upset at what they feel were all the resources that Linden Lab put into Sansar—time and money that they feel strongly should have been invested into improving Second Life. (Note that we do not know, and will probably never know, what outside investors put their money into Sansar, if any.) That visceral hatred fed into the perfect storm of events that has put the Sansar project in the position it is now in, being shopped around by Linden Lab in hopes of finding investors, lest it pull the plug completely.

Reading through all the comments in Wagner’s blogpost got me to thinking: how could Linden Lab have handled this situation better? Hindsight is 20/20, but to me it seems clear that the company could have handled its messaging about Sansar to Second Life users a lot better than it did.

The message from Linden Lab was clear: Sansar was not intended to replace Second Life; they were meant to be two separate platforms. While that might have allayed the many initial fears by Second Life users that their beloved virtual world was imminently going to be shut down, it also sidestepped the bigger question: how was Linden Lab going to move users from Second Life to Sansar? Because it rapidly became obvious that most Second Life users, in fact the overwhelming majority of them, were very happy with SL, thank you very much, and nothing and nobody was going to entice them to move.

Galen, in his most recent guest editorial, was right: Linden Lab should have built some bridges between Second Life and Sansar, in order to make it easier to gently encourage SL’s userbase to begin to explore Sansar. Expecting users to give up their inventories and start over again from scratch in a new virtual world was probably a tactical error. Why couldn’t we have used the Linden dollar in Sansar, for example?

I do remember that, at some point in the past, I read that Linden Lab was going to “reserve” all existing Second Life usernames in Sansar, so they could be assumed by SL folks who wished to migrate over and keep their identities. What happened to that plan? What happened to any plan to make it easier to Second Life users to migrate?

Linden Lab’s mismanagement of communication with its Second Life users with respect to Sansar and their intentions was, I believe, a key factor in their downfall. We will probably never know what Linden Lab’s big game plan was with Sansar vis-à-vis Second Life. Perhaps they didn’t even know themselves. But it’s clear that they felt they knew how to repeat that early success with Second Life. And they have been proven wrong.

Philip Rosedale, the founding CEO of Linden Lab and creator of Second Life, also thought he knew the secret to creating a successful, popular successor to Second Life. And he, and the team he led, were also proven wrong.

It has been a rather spectacular downfall for both companies.

Where does everybody go from here? Hell if I know. I just report on the events; I have long given up trying to predict them. My track record is crap. For example, I predicted Cryptovoxels would fail, only to see the platform thrive. I predicted Virtual Universe would be a success, only to see it fail and fold. And I was completely taken by surprise at both High Fidelity’s and Sansar’s layoffs over the past twelve months.

It remains to be seen whether the newer crop of social VR platforms and virtual worlds will learn from what happened to High Fidelity and Sansar, or even what the lessons to be learned are. More remains to be written, but I will leave that to another day.

P.S. Yes, I know; I said I wouldn’t write about Sansar. I changed my mind.

Helios Welcomes New Users from Sansar, and the First User-Created Worlds

Helios, a new social VR platform by SubLight Games that I first wrote about last month, appears to be attracting interest from Sansar users. According to a post made to their official blog today:

I’ll say it again. This has been an amazing week. We have had the first (and second) player created worlds. A record breaking eight concurrent players participating in the weekly Discord Community Test. Daily impromptu player hangouts also reaching up to eight participants. Players helping players make maps. Players helping players make avatars. Rareden was also able to get the Documentation page (work in progress) set up. At the request of a community member, we also added a third person camera to desktop mode. More functionality to come.

The Sansar community has planted its flag firmly in Helios this week as most of our recent Discord members are Sansar alumni. They are bringing with them a passion for creation that is truly remarkable. In fact, both player-created worlds added to Helios this week were from recently joined members.

The newly-created worlds are by Zod and C3rb3rus (who appears to have recreated his Sansar world Cerb’s Lounge within Helios, complete with flying dragon!).

Cerb’s Lounge, recreated in Helios

While the company has handed out 120 early-access Steam keys, going forward they are changing how they are handing out keys:

We’ve handed out over 120 Steam keys. With this in mind and after a good deal of internal debate, we have decided to move to a referral system when handing out keys. This is to make sure that Alpha participants are going to be active members of the community, whether that be showing up at organized tests or bringing their own content into Helios. If you don’t know someone already in the Alpha and still want a key, feel free to ask for one in the request-a-steam-key channel in the Helios Discord. Once we re-open our Alpha to the general public, keys will be handed out on a first come, first serve basis. It is entirely possible that hanging out in the Discord and being an active member of the community will get you a key before that.

If you are interested in following Helios as they grow, you can visit their website and their Steam page, or follow them on YouTube or Twitter. They also have a Discord server, as well as a Patreon page.