Guest Editorial by Galen: A Tale of Two Sansars

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

Charles Dickens – A Tale of Two Cities

This is what it feels like sometimes to be a creator in Sansar, the Social VR platform being built by Linden Lab (LL), creator of Second Life (SL). It seems like everyone considering Sansar is at a polar extreme about its prospects for eventual success. The only thing it seems we can all agree on right now is that Sansar is pretty cool, but nowhere near “done” enough to grow its nascent community of residents.

Not that LL hasn’t tried. LL has fostered several deals to tie existing popular media properties into Sansar in hopes of drawing people in. The prime example was the combined Intel CES and Ready Player One project. Also noteworthy are the popular Twitch streamer UmiNoKaiju, the Art of Drew Struzan gallery, and Mission Log, complete with a reproduction of the original Star Trek Enterprise bridge.

And not that we residents haven’t tried. My colleagues and I have worked very hard to create and foster the HoverDerby team sport. Alfy has been working hard on his live music events and new Voices of Sansar live competition. Longtime SL bloggers Draxtor Despres and Strawberry Singh have teamed up to bring us their weekly Atlas Hopping YouTube show and more than a few other broadcasts about Sansar. The nearly 1000 experiences listed in Sansar’s Atlas speak to the attempts of many of us to draw people in.

New World Notes blogger W. James Au recently broke the story about Sansar’s low concurrency rates using data collected by Sansar resident and scripter Gindipple, creator of The Combat Zone paintball experience. Gindipple started collecting data from Sansar’s own API in mid-February. The most prominent conclusion one can draw from his data is that the number of people visiting publicly listed experiences in Sansar rarely exceeds 50 people at any one time. And that the per-day peak has not been growing in the past 3 months that Gindipple has collected this data.

This is a sensational conclusion, you must admit. It leads more than a few people within Sansar and outside to draw very pessimistic conclusions. Maybe Sansar will never grow. Or maybe it will be overtaken by other social VR platforms like High Fidelity or VRChat before it ever gets off the ground. Maybe the poor stats of all the social VR platforms means that the world isn’t ready for social VR yet. Maybe it never will be.

But I’m an optimist. I think it’s too soon to sound the death knell for social VR, and certainly for Sansar or any of its other promising competitors. I’ve been collecting data from the same source as Gindipple since March. When I study it more closely I see a different picture.

First, a word about data. I get one very small three-dimensional lens to look through: head-count in each listed experience at this current moment in time. I take a snapshot every ten minutes of all this right-now data and add it to my database. Looked at over time, you start to get a very rich picture of where Sansar is today. Let me give some examples of what I see.

Experiences

This first graph is striking:

Fig01

Figure 1 – Number of listed experiences since the start

Starting from my first day of recording (3/25/2018), I have kept track of how many experiences are listed each day. Thankfully, every experience listing comes with the date it was first created, so I was able to back-fill my data with an estimate of how many there were on each day going back to the beginning of Sansar. Please note that any experiences that were deleted or delisted along the way would not be represented in this historical view; hence the early history is a slight underestimate.

The very first experience added to Sansar and still around when I started collecting data was Midgar, created 12/20/2016. The data says it has not been updated since 3/2/2018, but I suspect that the owner hasn’t meaningfully worked on it since last year. And since each resident gets to create and maintain up to 3 experiences without paying a subscription fee, it probably will be around and unchanging forever.

Since then, you can see an explosion in the number of experiences listed. But the growth doesn’t follow a simple exponential or linear pattern as you might expect. There are pronounced upticks in growth along the way. One big one starts around 6/30/2017. At a product meetup that day, then Community Manager Jenn announced an experience building contest was beginning with a top cash prize of $10k and other awards. That jump in experiences tapers off just after the 7/25 submission deadline.

The second big jump begins around 7/29/2017, right as Sansar finally opened to the public. Looking past that jump, from 8/22/2017 to 5/22/2018, at least 380 new experiences have been created and listed at a fairly steady rate of about 1.4 new experiences each day.

What can we conclude from this one graph? Sansar’s user-generated content is steadily growing now and showing no sign of slowing yet. At this rate we should hit the 1000 listed experiences mark by the time this post gets published. Second, LL’s first big content creation contest worked very well. With about $36k in prizes, Sansar’s contest triggered the creation of up to 192 new experiences for an average cost to LL of $188 per experience. LL clearly could not have created that much new content by paying its own staff or outside contractors that rate. Third, the new experiences were perfectly timed to greet the flood of newcomers to Sansar when it opened up. Fourth, it’s clear that the opening did bring in a bunch of new talent, given the steady growth of new content since then.

Overall concurrency

Take a look at our next series of graphs:

Fig02

Figure 2 – Minimum, maximum, and average daily concurrency

The top line represents the peak concurrency (number of people visiting experiences at one time) recorded that day. I take snapshots every 10 minutes of concurrency, so these are approximate. The bottom line represents the minimum concurrency. Not surprisingly, this is nearly zero most days. The real surprise is that there are some days when it is not, a reflection of the fact that Sansar’s residents are global. And the middle line represents what I’ll call “traffic” from now on. I compute this by averaging the concurrency in each 10-minute snapshot over one whole day.

Figure 2 shows a fairly clear pattern: no real growth of traffic in the past 2 months. Figure 3 shows the same thing smoothed out by week instead of by day:

Fig03

Figure 3 – Minimum, maximum, and average weekly concurrency

It’s difficult to glean much from this, other than that how many people visit and how long they stay on average have stayed steady each day. Right now Sansar’s traffic hovers around 10, which is equivalent to having 10 people logged into Sansar all day with no variation. The daily (and weekly) peaks reflect the events that occur each day.

Events

Let’s dig a little deeper. Let’s pick one single day —  Tuesday, 5/15 — and analyze it. Here’s what the concurrency was during each 10-minute snapshot across all experiences:

Fig04

Figure 4 – Concurrency during all of 5/15/2018

Here’s where it becomes apparent that the traffic (average concurrency) value of 9 for the day does little justice to understanding this particular day. The real question is: what was happening on 5/15? Was everyone at one place? Was there a big event that day for over half the day?

In fact, the data lets us find out what was going on along the way.

Fig05

Figure 5 – HoverDerby’s concurrency during 5/15/2018

Figure 5 shows the same top line (blue) with Sansar’s total concurrency, but also shows the concurrency specifically for HoverDerby, one of my own projects. Here are concurrency numbers from some other experiences from that day:

Fig06.PNG

Figure 6 – The Beach (by C3rb3rus) during 5/15/2018

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Figure 7 – eSports Hangout (by Aleks) during 5/15/2018

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Figure 8 – RPO: Aech’s Garage (by Sansar Studios) during 5/15/2018

When we combine all 4 of the above experiences together, it becomes apparent that they explain most of the day’s traffic:

Fig09.PNG

Figure 9 – All 4 above experiences’ concurrencies combined during 5/15/2018

Yes, there were other experiences that had events and visitors that day. 33 of them had at least 2 simultaneous visitors at least once that day and 93 of them had at least 1 visitor. Here’s the top ten popular experiences for that day:

Fig10.PNG

Figure 10 – Top 10 experiences during 5/15/2018 sorted by average concurrency

Note the occupancy rates, which indicates what percent of the day that experience had at least one visitor present. And the number of people who favorited each experience. The “At” column represents the (first) time when the experience saw its peak concurrency for the day, which typically represents when some event was in full swing. The “Pct of Total” column reflects how much of the total traffic for all of Sansar went to that experience that day. The Beach, for example, gobbled up 31% of Sansarians’ online time that day. And these top 10 experiences represent nearly 80% of all visitors’ time spent in Sansar that day.

30% of the day’s traffic went to experiences with peaks of 1 or 2 visitors. Arguably, this was mostly individuals and couples exploring 80 of Sansar’s roughly thousand listed experiences.

Looking back at figures 5 – 8, you can see the events that occurred in each experience. HoverDerby had its two daily practice sessions. The Beach had an all-day party. The eSports Hangout hosted the daily Community Meetup event. I don’t believe Aech’s Garage had any particular event, but it had a 6-hour bump in visitorship. I suspect two people were there greeting visitors, who are almost always Sansar newbies.

I can look at any particular day and figure out roughly what was going on with Sansar’s community using this same analysis. Almost every day I do this, I find there are several events going on that represent most of the day’s traffic.

Here’s another interesting graph reflective of the community’s daily activities:

Fig11.PNG

Figure 11 – Number of experiences each day with at least N peak visitors

The top line (blue) is the number of experiences that had a peak of exactly two visitors each day. The line below it (red) is those that had a peak of 3 to 4 visitors. And so on down to a peak of 30+ visitors. Let’s smooth the data out a bit:

Fig12.PNG

Figure 12 – Number of experiences each week with at least N peak visitors

This is the same graph, but per week (ignoring the current incomplete week). It still looks a bit like spaghetti, but look more closely. The 5-9 (orange) line shows a clear trend upward. So does the 3-4 (red) line. Even the 10-19 (green) line is generally trending up. Experiences with peaks of 20 or more are generally flat or trending downward over time.

What can we conclude from this? There are more events going on and people are going to them in smaller clusters. If the average concurrency isn’t changing much over time, this means that each person has more event options to choose from. One can conclude that Sansar culture is growing in diversity.

Case study: HoverDerby

There are lots of interesting questions that can be answered with the basic experience concurrency per snapshot time in aggregate, but it helps to consider single cases. I’ll take HoverDerby because it’s of personal interest to me, as one of its owners. And because I have additional data available. Consider a first graph:

Fig13.PNG

Figure 13 – Min / max / average weekly concurrency at HoverDerby

This period starts from the week before HoverDerby’s premiere episode on YouTube. Naturally, the opening saw a lot of traffic. It’s important to point out that this combines traffic from both the main arena experience and the viewing lounge where we prefer non-players to be during our shows. Let’s take a closer look at the traffic (average concurrency) from day to day:

Fig14.PNG

Figure 14 – Min / max / average daily concurrency at HoverDerby

The first thing that jumps out is that every Sunday, our YouTube-broadcast game days, get the highest traffic. The vertical grid lines in the above graph all fall on Sundays.

The second thing that is apparent from these two graphs is that, like Sansar as a whole, HoverDerby isn’t seeing much growth yet in our own traffic. However, it would be a mistake to assume that the people seen in these graphs represent a stable, unchanging population.

Since 5/10 I’ve started collecting data on individual visitors to the main HoverDerby arena. Here’s a first look at unique visitors:

Fig15.PNG

Figure 15 – Unique vs regular visitors to HoverDerby per day

Almost every day lately we are getting 20 – 60 different people visiting. The blue line is the total number of uniques. The red line represents our regulars. That is, people who have visited before. That leaves everyone between the red and blue lines as first-time visitors to HoverDerby, or 10 – 30 first-timers most days, or around 140 first-timers per week. When I attend practices, I almost always personally welcome 2 – 4 newbies to Sansar and help at least one with basic how-to advice. Some of them eventually become regulars.

Conclusion

I don’t want to weave a fiction here. The reality is that Sansar’s concurrency numbers are not really growing. There is a fairly persistent core of active residents. Some fade out while others join to take their place. The concurrency story at High Fidelity is very similar:

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Figure 16 – High Fidelity’s peak concurrency per day vs Sansar’s (source: SteamDB)

The blue line is HiFi’s peak and the red line is Sansar’s. To help untangle these, HiFi’s average peak is 13 and Sansar’s is 11. Both are lackluster.

However, I don’t think these numbers tell the whole story of either platform. The data I’ve laid out shows that content is growing, events are becoming a prominent part of daily life, and more experiences are capturing at least small crowds each day.

Perhaps most significantly, Sansar has a steady stream of first-time visitors each day. Concurrency numbers say nothing about this fact. People are finding Sansar and giving it a try in healthy numbers. Clearly, most of them are choosing not to stay. Why they aren’t is a critical question for both LL and Sansar’s residents to try to answer better. My current estimate is that maybe 200 first-timers are showing up each week. We need to convince more of them to stay.

I’d love to see Linden Lab publish some of their own data and summaries. In the meantime, I’m grateful for them sharing the small trickle of very useful data that I’ve been able to harvest and mine for insights. Sunshine is good. Some recent feature enhancements are making it possible to collect and summarize even more information. I have collected only two months of data so far. Expect more insights very soon. And I hope to see more of the same kinds of analyses for other social VR platforms soon, too.

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UPDATED: Why the Ready Player One Movie Tie-In Did Not Give Sansar a Boost

Wagner James Au 1 May 2018.png
Wagner James Au’s “scoop”

Last week, Wagner James Au of the long-running virtual worlds blog New World Notes, wrote a blogpost about Sansar, using user concurrency data collected by Gindipple, who is runnning a program which automatically scrapes data from the publicly-accessible Sansar Atlas listings sorted by popularity. Wagner wrote a blogpost citing Gindipple’s data, underscoring the fact that Sansar had less than fifty concurrent users at any one time. It was the first time any sort of user concurrency figures for Sansar had been publicly released, and some people were surprised at how low they seemed to be.

This is partly my fault. Wagner first reached out to me via Facebook Messenger, saying that he had heard that someone had some Sansar user concurrency figures, and if I knew how to get them. I told him that I didn’t have any, but I did mention Gindipple’s work. I then referred Wagner to Gindipple directly, who decided to share his data with him, thus Wagner’s blogpost last week.

I must confess that I feel very conflicted about the role I have played in this, even though Wagner very kindly thanked me publicly for making the connection. Gindipple has, quite rightly, pointed out that his figures are accurate and truthful. But Wagner’s coverage of Sansar has always been somewhat negative (at times unfairly so, in my opinion). In a sense, Gindipple just gave Wagner another really good and valid reason to bash Sansar.

Wagner went and cross-posted his blogpost to various Second Life communities prefaced as follows, which really made me grind my teeth in anger:

Wagner James Au

I get a very definite whiff of schadenfreude here. If Wagner had wanted to make a fair comparison, he should have compared Sansar’s concurrency with Second Life’s user concurrency nine months after it was first released in 2003, not with today’s SL user concurrency figures. And it doesn’t help that he is sharing his news specifically with SL communities who might already feel aggrieved (rightly or wrongly) that Second Life is suffering by comparison as Linden Lab continues to put resources into Sansar. This is just like pouring gasoline on a raging fire, in my opinion. It makes a big flash, it sure gets attention, but it’s not going to put the fire out, or help the situation overall.

But Wagner does make a valid point in his blogpost based on Gindipple’s data: the fact that the official Ready Player One movie tie-in really did not make much of a difference at all in the overall level of usage of Sansar (the following is a screen capture of the section of Wagner’s blogpost where he discusses that):


Sansar User Figures 1 May 2018.png


If Linden Lab had been hoping for an uptick in Sansar usage as a result of the Ready Player One tie-in, they must be feeling rather disappointed by now. So why didn’t that happen?

I am going to compare the RPO movie tie-in with a similar situation over a decade ago when Linden Lab also had a media tie-in, this time with the popular TV crime drama CSI:NY. (The episode was called “Down the Rabbit Hole” and it aired October 24th, 2007.)

Recently, there was a discussion thread in the popular Second Life Friends group on Facebook, asking people to share their stories of how they got involved in SL. And a surprising number of those people stated that they started SL due to the CSI:NY TV show tie-in. So why did that one work so well for Linden Lab and Second Life, where the Ready Player One tie-in failed to ignite user interest in Sansar?

CSINY
One of the Virtual CSI:NY sims in Second Life (from my archives, 2007)

First, Second Life was an integral part of the storyline in that particular CSI:NY episode. Second Life was mentioned by name throughout, and there were also several in-world video segments showing television viewers what SL looked like and how it worked. By contrast (as far as I am aware), there was no mention of Sansar in Ready Player One, and no in-world footage of Sansar in the movie. (I’m not 100% certain of this, because I haven’t gone to see the movie in the theatre yet.) People could come in, watch the movie, enjoy it, and leave without ever hearing about, or knowing about, Sansar. There was never a definite link between the two properties in people’s minds.

Second, the Second Life tie-in to the CSI:NY episode was an interactive game where avatars were expected to work to solve a puzzle (see image above). The only level of interactivity in the two Ready Player One experiences that Sansar Studios created, were clickable icons with audio clips of Aech describing various artifacts. The experiences were beautifully done and skillfully assembled, but after you visited them once and listened to all the audio clips, you were essentially done. There was really no reason to return, unless it was to show someone else the experiences.

Linden Lab may have won the jackpot in getting an official movie tie-in for Ready Player One, but that win has not translated into increased attendance in Sansar. They’re now hoping that the tactic of signing up with some popular livestreamers like UmiNoKaiju might attract people (hey, it worked for VRChat). It’s becoming really clear that simply offering people beautiful experiences is not enough to retain users. You need to give them something to get involved in, something for them to do. And a “soft” movie tie-in is simply not enough to bring people in nowadays. You need more.

Wagner James Au may be more on the negative side of the fence about Sansar, and I may be more on the positive side. But we do agree on one thing. Linden Lab, unfortunately, is going to have to go back to the drawing board when it comes to drumming up interest in Sansar, and promoting the platform effectively. The old playbook, used in the days when Second Life was pretty much the only game in town (and pretty much sold itself based on its merits) doesn’t seem to be working like it used to. They’re going to have to think outside the box.

And, especially after my guided tour of Virtual Universe last weekend, I realize that the marketplace for compelling social VR experiences/virtual worlds is going to be extremely competitive. I can now pretty much guarantee you that not every virtual world product currently on the marketplace is going to survive. The days of a virtual world like Second Life having the market essentially to itself are done and over. Every company is going to have to try harder to get the consumer’s attention, and keep it.

As Bette Davis said in the movie All About Eve“Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.”

UPDATE 8:48 p.m.: Galen made such a great comment that I wanted to add it here to the blogpost. He said:

Nice essay, Ryan. I especially appreciate the distinction you draw between the CSI:NY tie-in and the RPO tie-in, which helps explain the different outcomes.

I don’t actually think that the NWN blog post was all that bad. I thought it was relatively fact-based and not really slanderous. And I think the world and even LL benefit from some transparency. I don’t think there’s any reason for LL or the Sansar community to be ashamed of the relatively small persistent population here right now.

Gindipple’s pioneering work in collecting data from Sansar inspired me to finally get around to doing the same a bit over a month ago. Not surprisingly, my data generally agree with his. But one conclusion I draw from the data I see is that there is a very steady stream of new people coming to Sansar every day. From a few fuzzy indicators I would estimate it’s around 50 first-timers each day. That translates to maybe 1,500 first-timers each month. At HoverDerby, we usually see 1 – 5 newbies each weekday during just one practice hour.

The important take-away from this is that Sansar may be new, but it is fresh and growing. And the work we residents are doing to capture the attention of those daily newcomers, combined with the new features LL is regularly adding to Sansar, are slowly yielding fruit. Stay tuned.

Second Life Infographic: Some Statistics from 15 Years of SL

Both Daniel Voyager and Wagner James Au have posted an infographic that Linden Lab shared with them, giving some statistics on the occasion of Second Life’s upcoming 15th anniversary. (Somehow, I seem to have been left off the list of bloggers to receive this graphic…. hello, Ebbe? Remember me? I’m over here! *waves frantically* I know you read this blog! Could you pull some strings and get me on the secret blogger mailing list?)

Anyway, I thought I would share it, and a similar graphic from SL’s 10th anniversary for comparison purposes (both of which I took from Daniel Voyager’s blog, which I do recommend you follow):

sl15b_infographic

Keep in mind that of those 57 million accounts created since 2003, Wagner James Au estimates that only about half a million accounts are active users. He says:

Despite 57,000,000 total accounts and 350,000 new registrations per month, the active Second Life userbase remains around 500,000-600,000:  Over 10 years ago, SL’s active userbase reached a plateau of around 500,000 monthly active users, and despite continued new user sign-ups of around 350,000 every month, the number of returning users stubbornly refuses to grow much more than that — and just as mysteriously, stubbornly refuses to shrink much, either.

And here’s the infographic from the tenth anniversary of Second Life:

sl10b_infographic