If you visit the Sansar homepage (and you’re not already signed in with your Sansar account), you will see a brand new, revamped homepage for the five-year-old social VR project:
One noticeable change is the “18+” logo prominently displayed, something which I do not remember seeing before. Wasn’t the age limit formerly 13+? I can’t recall, but I was pretty sure that teenagers were allowed onto Sansar, back in the days when naked base humanoid avatars were forbidden (you had to have baked-on underwear, or your avatar would be removed from the Sansar store).
So, it would appear that the new owners of Sansar are going to allow adult content. This would probably give them an advantage, in that few other social VR platforms currently allow adult content. Let me disgress by explaining how Second Life (Sansar’s predecessor in many ways) handles adult content.
BACKGROUNDER: In Second Life, they have a system where a sim (the basic parcel of virtual land) has one of three ratings:
General: “A region designated General is not allowed to advertise or make available content or activity that is sexually explicit, violent, or depicts nudity. Sexually-oriented objects such as “sex beds” or poseballs may not be located or sold in General regions.”
Moderate: “Second Life’s Moderate designation accommodates most of the non-adult activities common in Second Life. Dance clubs, bars, stores and malls, galleries, music venues, beaches, parks, and other spaces for socializing, creating, and learning all support a Moderate designation so long as they do not host publicly promoted adult activities or content and do not use adult search tags.”
Adult: “The Adult designation applies to Second Life regions that host, conduct, or display content that is sexually explicit, intensely violent, or depicts illicit drug use.”
While generally, Second Life is meant for people age 18 and up, in special cases, those age 13-17 can get in. Those 16 and 17 years old are restricted to sims rated General, while those age 13-15 “can access Second Life through an affiliated organization and will be restricted to the private estate of that organization.” Also, for those 13-15, older SL users won’t be able to access these private estates, except for pre-approved adults affiliated with the organization (e.g. teachers). This is intended to create a safe space for young teens, separate from adult areas.
So, it will be interesting to see whether Sansar will hold to a firm 18+ age rating, as I suspect, or if (like Second Life) they will set up some sort of system to gate-keep adult content, thereby allowing those users under the age of 18 some limited access.
Back in 2019, I wrote an entire editorial about adult content and social VR, which you can read here. Much of what I wrote then still applies today, particularly that adult content can be a double-edged sword! However, if managed properly, it can add life ( and longevity) to a metaverse platform. Whether you like it or not, sex sells!
What do you think? Please sound off in the comments, or join us in the RyanSchultz.com Discord, where over 700 people representing various social VR platforms (and flatscreen virtual worlds, too!) meet to discuss, debate, and argue about the ever-evolving metaverse and the companies building it. More information here.
UPDATE Oct. 5th, 2022: I have been informed by a Sansar staff member:
Just a small clarification, we are adult only but without NSFW content, so it’s still safe for [a] professional or academic setting.
So it would appear that I was wrong in assuming that Sansar will permit adult content. I stand corrected! The staff member, EvoAv, goes on to tell me:
A lot of other things fall under [the] 18+ category, and mixing adult users with teenagers/kids has potential issues of its own. Our users have been predominantly adults throughout Sansar’s history, so we do not see this as a limitation, but more of a safeguard that will allow us to introduce content geared towards adults, just not NSFW, or at least give us the option to change our minds later if we want to allow NSFW content with some moderation in the future.
Definition: Handfasting is an ancient Celtic ritual in which the hands are tied together to symbolize the binding of two lives. While it is most often included in Wiccan or Pagan ceremonies, it has become more mainstream and pops up in both religious and secular vows and readings.
One certain thing that I have learned in writing the RyanSchultz.com blog over these past five years is this: no matter what the metaverse platform, and no matter how obscure or popular it might be, there is always a committed community of die-hard fans associated with it! And the small but active fanbase of the social VR platform Sansar (built by Linden Lab and since sold to Wookey) is the perfect example of that truth. Despite the almost total absence of marketing by Wookey, the userbase continues to create worlds, meet up, and hold various events. It’s heartwarming.
Did you also know? Even within the relatively small user community of Sansar, since its launch in 2017, there have been at least five couples who first met up in Sansar and then connected in real life (and in some cases, even got married!). Actually, it might be six by now…I have lost track! We learned this lesson back in the days of Second Life; the metaverse brings couples together. ❤️
Recently, Sansar ambassador Bluebell (whom I know well from my earliest days in Sansar, and who is a tireless promoter of the platform) and her beau Moggz held a handfasting ceremony on March 3rd, 2022, attended by all their friends who, in real life, were scattered all across the globe. When I asked about having a handfasting instead of a marriage ceremony, Bluebell told me, “Yes, we prefer the old rituals.”
Bluebell was kind enough to share some pictures with me which were taken at the event (unfortunately, I could not be there). Please click on each thumbnail picture in this gallery to see it in a larger size:
Photos provided by Bluebell, Wolfen Howeller, and Mijeka Munro; thank you!
Have you joined the RyanSchultz.com Discord yet? You’re invited to be a part of the first ever cross-worlds discussion group, with over 600 people participating from every social VR platform and virtual world! We discuss, debate and argue about the ever-evolving metaverse and all the companies building it. You’re welcome to come join us! More details here.
There will be a major scandal or controversy around one of the blockchain/NFT-oriented Metaverse platforms.
With NFTs beset by scams and NFT/blockchain-oriented metaverse platforms seeing low user numbers but extremely high investment and speculation, this is only a matter of time.
It’s only January 12th, 2022, but I have already written about a number of questionable NFT projects which at best are crazy schemes, and at worst are outright scams! MetaWorld springs to mind as the perfect example of the latter (ALLEGEDLY, I hasten to add, although IN MY OPINION, I don’t believe there is any actual MetaWorld platform, aside from a prototype which was created years ago by someone who has since left the company to work for Somnium Space).
Despite all the negative press from the Engadget exposé and my series of blogposts about MetaWorld, Dedric continues undeterred. Someone joked to me via Discord DMs that Dedric Reid is the Elizabeth Holmes of the metaverse, and I laughed out loud because it’s such an apt, concise description! Harsh, savage, but accurate.
But on to other topics; I am tired of talking about Dedric Reid and MetaWorld (and frankly, whoever falls for his ALLEGED scam at this point is simply not doing their proper due diligence, IN MY OPINION). There’s a lot of actual progress being made by many legitimate metaverse companies building social VR/AR platforms and virtual worlds!
Meta is facing such a never-ending litany of complaints, scandals, and even legal actions that this is, once again, a very easy prediction to make for 2022.
Next prediction: there’s going to be a lot of activity this year in the fuzzy overlap area between games and virtual worlds, what I like to call the “metaverse-adjacent” space. Both games (e.g. Fortnite, Minecraft) and game platforms (e.g. Roblox, Core) will continue to add new features in an effort to become more like social VR/AR apps and virtual worlds. And, given their immense popularity, especially among children, tweens, and teens, many people will get their first taste of the metaverse via these games and game platforms, in much the same way as an entire generation got their start in the metaverse via Second Life.
Second Life will continue to be successful and profitable—but it will face increasing competition from newer platforms such as VRChat, and it will no longer be the most popular virtual world.
My first prediction is a no-brainer. In my predictions for 2019, I wrote that Second Life would “continue to coast along, baffling the mainstream news media and the general public with its vitality and longevity”, and that still holds true.
And, indeed, 2021 was the first year in which VRChat began to consistently surpass Second Life in user concurrency figures (Rec Room did too, I believe). VRChat has been breaking new user concurrency records, leading up to and including New Year’s Eve 2021, as Johnny Rodriguez tweeted:
Last night, 88,700 people put on a VR headset and decided to join the VRChat New Years event to countdown [to] the new year. For reference, this is Husker’s Memorial Stadium [at the University of Nebraska], which fits around 86,000 people when completely full. VR is here to stay.
Turning back to Second Life, the coronavirus pandemic caused a temporary surge in usage (and the current Omicron wave might well prompt people to dust off their avatars and give it another try, too). I still estimate that SL has somewhere between 500,000 and 900,000 active users per month (that is, people who sign in at least once in the past thirty days). I really wish that Linden Lab would regularly release statistics like this, but if they are declining (slowly or quickly), I can also understand why the company would be reluctant to do so.
I was part of Sansar since I was invited into the closed beta in 2016/2017, and I was there for the whole crazy ride. Sansar is now on life support (the company that bought it from Linden Lab, called Wookey, furloughed all of its staff recently, and I believe that they could shut down at any moment without warning). Being there from beginning to end, I still marvel at how Linden Lab thought they could build a new virtual world/social VR platform and just put it out there, and expect it to sell itself in this competitive marketplace for metaverse platforms. “Build it and they will come” might have worked for SL in 2003 but it sure ain’t gonna work nowadays. You have to PROMOTE yourself to get noticed.
Also, Linden Lab could have done a lot of things to try and entice SL users to a) visit Sansar and b) make them want to stay, build worlds, create content, and form a new community. Instead, what happened is that Second Life folks (rightly or wrongly) saw Sansar as something which distracted LL from its work on SL, and as a result most SL folks hated Sansar and refused to have anything to do with it, hastening its downfall in my opinion. It also didn’t help that Linden Lab made a bet that many people would be owning high-end VR headsets tethered to high-end PCs with good graphics cards, and instead the Oculus Quest wireless headset took off.
I still shake my head and wonder “what if?”. Say a prayer for Sansar, it needs it.
Right now, Sansar’s best hope for survival in 2022 is for another company who wants to enter the metaverse marketplace to buy the platform from Wookey, much the same as Microsoft stepped in at the eleventh hour to snap up AltspaceVR.
Another prediction: we are going to see an increase in the number of companies providing services to metaverse platforms. Wagner James Au mentions the Linden Lab subsidiary Tilia, which provides financial services, in his blogpost which I linked to up top; I predict that they will land a few more clients this year. Another example of a company doing well in this niche is Ready Player Me, the avatar system currently in use in VRChat and over 1,000 other apps and games on VR, mobile, desktop, and web. Expect this nascent business-to-business sector to explode this year!
Well, that’s it for me, for now. I might update this blogpost with other predictions for 2022 as they come to me.
And I ask you, my faithful readers: what predictions are you making for the next twelve months? Feel free to leave a comment, or use the feedback form on my blog if you’d prefer to contact me directly. You’re also welcome to join the RyanSchultz.com Discord server, a cross-worlds community where over 600 people, with experience in various metaverse platforms, welcome you! Just click the button on the left-side panel of my blog as shown (image right). If you are connecting via a smartphone or tablet instead of your computer desktop, just click the three-bars menu button in the upper-right hand corner, then scroll down until you see the Discord widget displayed.
If you really want your platform to become the seed for “The Metaverse”, then you need to give it away.
Lars Doucet is an independent game developer and consultant for various multi-million dollar game projects (through his company, Level Up Labs), as well as a games industry analyst, commentator, and blogger at Fortress of Doors.
On July 1st, 2021, Lars wrote a Fortress of Doors blogpost titled So You Want to Compete with Roblox, which is primarily directed at those companies who desire to become the next billion-dollar-valued metaverse platform (Roblox, as many of you already know, obtained a market valuation of UA$41.9 billion when the company went public this past March). However, much of Lars’ wisdom also applies to any social VR platform or virtual world that wants to break into the big leagues, especially if they are competing against an entrenched front-runner in a particular market segment, so I decided to write up this blogpost as an introduction to Lars’ ideas for my regular readers (if you’re not interested in my thoughts, just click over to read Lars Doucet’s blogpost in full; I have links to other content of his at the tail end of this post).
Lars starts off by dashing any dreams of would-be Roblox competitors, saying that they are too late to try and overtake something which has been building for years:
I used to get so many pitches from startups eager to knock PC gaming powerhouse Steam off its block, that in 2018 I wrote one big standard response called So You Want to Compete with Steam, with a follow-up a year later. The dust has now settled and the result is clear: all of the new contenders failed but Epic, and even they have a long upward climb ahead of them.
Flash forward to today, and my inbox is stuffed with pitches from start-ups wanting to compete with Roblox, that plucky Lego-ish multiplayer game-creation platform currently valued at 41 billion dollars.
So I guess we’re gonna do this again. Here’s how you can build a successful business that competes directly with Roblox: DON’T.
I say this out of love: the vast majority of you are going to fail. I admire you and your hard work and dedication; I’m pessimistic simply because your task is incredibly hard.
First of all, you are late to this party. Roblox first launched in 2006, a full fifteen years ago – that’s five years before Minecraft, if you can believe it. They have a massive head start and are playing by an entirely different set of rules. Your only chance is to flip the entire problem on its head.
Lars outlines three components which absolutely must be in any product that tries to make a dent in the ever-evolving metaverse, they are:
High quality multiplayer support for user creations out of the box
High performance servers with excellent reliability
Powerful, user friendly, and joyful creation tools
Note a couple of the words he uses very carefully. “Multiplayer” support for user creations out of the box means the ability to support collaborative creation of user content (an example of this are the user creation toolset in NeosVR, although I would argue that they are not particularly “user friendly”, as they are powerful, but also have a rather steep learning curve). Many social VR platforms still lack collaborative building tools, or any sort of in-world building tools, forcing content creators and world builders to use external tools like Blender and then import 3D models.
Note also Lars’ reference to “joyful” creation tools—in other words, make it FUN to create something. From what I understand, one of Horizon Worlds’ strengths is its content creation tools, which are apparently easy and fun to use. Do this part especially well, and you will empower your userbase to create wonderful worlds, which attracts new users, who then also become content creators—it becomes a virtuous circle.
He then talks about how Roblox spends a lot of money on hosting and network infrastructure, and how cloud provider costs (e.g. AWS) can eat up a significant chunk of cash as your platform grows. He then discusses what he sees as the three big problems you’ll face as a metaverse platform creator:
• You need players • Players won’t show up without content, so you need creators • Creators won’t show up until you have players
Joel points out that you can’t expect this deadlock to solve itself – instead you need to just go out there and deliver a truckload of chickens or a truckload of eggs. Typically this means spending a lot of money. Anyone able to rely on organic growth alone started ages ago and that door is now closed to you.
Note particularly that last sentence, which I am going to repeat in bold for those of you who still don’t get it: ANYBODY ABLE TO RELY ON ORGANIC GROWTH ALONE STARTED AGES AGO AND THAT DOOR IS NOW CLOSED TO YOU. I have repeated versions of this statement on my blog until I was blue in the face, and few of the newer social VR platforms have been paying any attention.
Linden Lab’s fatal mistake with Sansar (one of many) is that they 100% expected that they would be able to build a high-end social VR platform with a in-world currency and an integrated marketplace for user-generated content, just put it out there, and expect it to sell itself! What worked for Second Life in 2003 most assuredly did NOT work for Sansar in 2017. A last-minute, hail-Mary pass. pivoting from social VR to a live events platform, essentially failed, and Linden Lab landed up selling Sansar to Wookey. At present, Wookey has suspended all development and furloughed all its staff. Millions and millions of dollars† were sunk into a platform which is currently on life-support, hanging on by a thread, and could be unplugged at any moment. Say a prayer for Sansar; it could use one.
Lars Doucet advises:
Seed your platform with awesome material by paying your own employees to build beautiful creations. Hire contractors and independent content creators and then pay your staff to train them in your tools. Pay these people to make tutorials and guides and videos and post them all over the internet and don’t stop. Set up an affiliate system with creator and influencer rewards. And that’s just the obvious stuff – you need to be thinking about new and innovative solutions to this problem 24/7. Pay any and every price to get high quality content onto your platform.
Second Problem: Platform Dynamics
Here Lars differentiates between different kinds of platforms, from open to closed:
On one end you have open platforms like the World Wide Web where each of the five aspects is owned by no one but the commons.
Towards the middle you have different kinds of closed platforms like Windows and Steam where certain components of the stack are proprietary, but others are unowned; the owner either refrains from (or is simply unable) to capture most of the value that creators produce on the platform.
On the far end are digital company towns, proprietary platform stacks privately owned from top to bottom. In the physical world company towns are communities where a single corporation is not only the sole or principal employer, but also owns all the housing and stores – the company is your boss, your landlord, and even your grocer. Total ownership grants the company power over not only every aspect of their workers’ lives, but also their families and the entire local economy. Digital company towns likewise squeeze as much value out of creators as possible.
And he makes the point that Roblox is a company town, controlling the creation tools (Roblox Studio), the playback engine (the Roblox app), the discovery methods (the Roblox discovery portal), and the marketplace (items can only be bought and sold using Robux through the Roblox Marketplace, with all financial information managed by Roblox). While it might look tempting to set up wannabe Roblox competitors using the same model, Lars makes it very clear in his article that this is a tactical error:
Look, I know some of you as customers actually like company towns from giant companies like Apple precisely because they’re locked down and you trust the platform holder. Good for you, sincerely! You are more than welcome to continue liking them as a customer. But this article isn’t addressed to you; it’s addressed to startups who think they can deploy this kind of vertically integrated stack without already starting from a position of strength.
Simply put, if you’re trying to build a Roblox competitor in 2021 under the company town model, you’re delusional. You should not build a company town for two very good reasons:
1. Company towns are bad, and you shouldn’t do bad things* 2. It’s way, way, way too late to succeed with this strategy
So, if you can’t rigidly control everything in order to compete against the entrenched front-runner(s), what can you do? Lars suggests giving something away:
Give people a reason to build on your platform. Make them owners, not tenants.
What should you give away? Well, that depends on your specific situation, but I recommend “as much as you possibly can.” Recall the five components of a platform:
• Creation tools • Playback engine • Discovery methods • Marketplace / transaction engine • Relationship with the customer
Platforms tend to follow a certain kind of life cycle, and there’s no better primer than Dan Cook’s Game of Platform Power. In it he outlines how platforms transition through “Growth” and “Engage” phases where they are friendly and generous to the creators who produce value on their ecosystems, before maturing into the “Extract” phase where they leverage their size and power to lock-in users and capture as much creator-produced value for themselves as possible.
A classic example of this is Second Life, which is now merrily coasting along, collecting fees for the sale of in-world land and currency, still going strong at the ripe old age of 18 with a locked-in, relatively small but highly passionate userbase who resist leaving their friends and communities behind to join other virtual worlds. For example, it’s hardly a surprise that Linden Lab, now owned by the deep-pocketed Waterfield Network investment group, has recently raised its fees for buying Linden dollars. Second Life is a cash cow, and they are rightfully milking it!
And Lars makes what I think is a somewhat counterintuitive, very nervy, and potentially game-changing suggestion on how to build that trust with content creators: make it easy for them to pack up and leave!
No matter how generous your platform is today, content creators aren’t dumb, they know how this works, and they’re being exploited right now by company towns like Roblox. Words are cheap. What they want is assurance. Trustless assurance. And no, I’m not talking about blockchain.
You really want to shake things up? Give content creators a loaded gun pointed at your platform’s head.
Another word for this is “exit rights.” If you want creators to come over in the first place, give them the power to leave anytime they want.
Mind. BLOWN. I can see how Lars Doucet is a highly-paid and in-demand consultant, just for these few paragraphs of advice alone! However, I would also add that we need to see some metaverse interoperability and standards before we can really put this into action. However, Lars makes a rather compelling case for doing at first what sounds like corporate suicide, using companies such as Substack as an example of how and why such an approach works.
Lars wraps up by dispelling some common myths about what is the “metaverse” (for example, that the metaverse cannot and should not be owned by any one person or company). And he wraps up by saying that anybody who wants to become the next Roblox is embarking on a wild, crazy, risky venture—but that “simply the riskiest thing to do is to play it safe.”
As I said in my blogpost title, this is some harsh advice that many commercial social VR platforms probably don’t want to hear, but should definitely read through at least once.
*As an aside, Lars wraps up his Fortress of Doors blogpost with the following highly-accurate-but-snarky observation:
That’s not to say someone fundamentally can’t craft a “Dark Metaverse” under the company town model. It’s just that their name is Facebook, it will be a dystopian hellhole, and you don’t have a chance of competing on those terms.
This is the first time I have shared this figure on my blog. Mark and his V.P. are currently the only two Wookey employees left on the payroll; as I have said above, all the rest of the Wookey staff have been furloughed.