Editorial: Shifting Gears

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

Yesterday’s blogpost (and its response) has got me thinking, in the wee hours of this morning, about other people’s expectations, and trying (or failing) to live up to them. Not to mention the expectations which I, knowingly or unknowingly, place upon myself as a blogger. Every blogger has his or her own biases and quirks; God knows I have many. And even a cursory inspection of my output shows how often I have gone off on tangents in my three-and-a-half-year blogging journey.

My writing about social VR, virtual worlds and the metaverse on this blog has been an unusual combination of broad-brush strokes about as many different platforms as possible, combined with a geeky deep-dive into specific worlds (Sansar the first couple of years, and now Second Life). One example of such a deep dive would be my recent month-long coverage of Advent calendar freebies in Second Life, something which my many faithful SL readers no doubt appreciated, but which probably left some of my regular, non-SL audience out in the cold, scratching their heads.

As I have written before, I consider Second Life to be the perfect model of a fully-evolved, mature metaverse platform, where we can see hints of what will happen to newer platforms over time (such as the implementation of an in-world economy where players can buy and sell user-generated content).

But I also expect that 2021 will be the first year where other metaverse platforms (notably VRChat and Rec Room, but also other products) will begin to consistently outpace Second Life, both in terms of monthly active users (MAU) and in terms of user concurrency figures. Over New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day, VRChat shattered its previous user concurrency figures, reporting over 40,000 users online at the same time. Last weekend, Rec Room hosted 45,000 concurrent players. In other words, depending on the day and time, you can find more people in Rec Room and VRChat than in Second Life.

Both VRChat and Rec Room are now very well positioned to finally snatch the mantle of Second Life for the title of “most popular metaverse platform” (as hard as it is to define what that means). This might not have happened as quickly as some observers had originally predicted, least of all the PR pitch-boys at the corporations building these platforms, but it will happen nonetheless. It’s inevitable. Yesterday’s boasts become tomorrow’s reality, in some cases.

And it is not that Second Life is bleeding users, or that it is in any imminent danger of being shut down; I estimate that SL still attracts anywhere between 600,000 and 900,000 active monthly users (that is, people who sign onto SL at least once a month). It is still a highly profitable platform with a highly committed userbase, and under its new management, the Waterfield investment group, it is likely to remain a profitable cash cow for many years to come. Second Life is not going anywhere.

But, now that Linden Lab has finally shut down its physical server farms and moved Second Life entirely to the cloud, I don’t really foresee a lot of changes or improvements being made to what is already a winning formula—and I don’t see many of SL’s users clamouring for any major changes, either. Over time, competing platforms will no doubt offer advantages which the aging SL codebase cannot be tweaked to provide (the most obvious one being support for users in virtual reality).

And, over time, some of Second Life’s user base will migrate to other platforms, little by little, bit by bit. This SL diaspora will continue to enrich multiple metaverse platforms, much as it already has over the past decade. The seeds first planted by Philip Rosedale and his peers will continue to root and grow in various places, some probably quite unexpected!

All of this preamble is my very roundabout way of saying that I will be significantly reducing my coverage of Second Life in 2021. I will be putting that time and energy into writing about other metaverse products instead. Yes, I know I keep saying that, only to get pulled back by the latest fabulous freebie! Second Life is great fun, and I have enjoyed being your Freebie Queen. But frankly, SL is not where most of the interesting new stuff is happening. It’s happening in places outside of Second Life, and it’s high time I turned my attention to them.

It’s time for me to re-shift my focus to the newer platforms which are seeking to become the next Second Life. It might be an iteration of something that already exists, or it might be something brand new that seems to come out of nowhere and take everybody by storm. Whatever happens, I want to report on it!

I’m sure many of my Second Life readers will be sorry to hear this news. I will still be around, and I will still be visiting various places in-world, but I will largely leave the writing and reporting about SL to the hundreds of bloggers who do a much better job with their focused, deep-dive coverage! And I will continue to take as wide a view as possible—a big-picture perspective—of the constantly-evolving metaverse of which Second Life is a part.

Whichever camp you find yourself in, thank you for sticking along for the ride! No matter what happens, it promises to be an exciting adventure.

2021 promises to be a wild ride!

This change in focus will take effect immediately. Buckle up and keep your arms and hands inside the vehicle at all times! 😉

VRChat Hits New Record of 24,000 Concurrent Users Over Halloween

Photo by David Menidrey on Unsplash (edited in PhotoShop to add the VRChat logo)

The Road to VR website reported that social VR platform VRChat reached a new user concurrency record over Hallowe’en:

Following a big spike in usage in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, social VR app VRChat has reached a new record of 24,000 concurrent users. Its creators say the surge was driven in part by the launch of Quest 2 and virtual Halloween festivities.

Indeed, with more users joining VRChat from Quest and now Quest 2, the app reached a new record of 24,000 concurrent users over the Halloween weekend, CEO Graham Gaylor tells Road to VR. This eclipses the previous record of 20,000 concurrent users in early 2018 when the app went viral on Twitch.

It would appear that a great many people, who would normally socialize in person at parties and bars at Hallowe’en, chose instead to stay home and strap on their VR headsets, due to social gathering restrictions imposed by the pandemic. One poster on the Coronavirus subReddit commented:

Extrovert here and struggling. Thankfully buying a Quest 2 has ACTUALLY been quite the pleasantly surprisingly alternative for me. Especially the VRChat clubs which remind me of my nightlife. I know not everyone can do it but I wish my friends still travelling and partying would give it a shot too.

This new user concurrency figure smashed a two-year-old record, when VRChat suddenly and unexpectedly went viral back in 2018 (largely due to the influence of livestreamers and YouTubers such as PewDiePie), reaching a peak of 20,000 concurrent users on Steam.

You might be surprised to learn that only half of VRChat’s current users access the app via VR headset. Road to VR reported:

Of course it’s worth noting that VRChat is not exclusively a VR game; it supports VR and non-VR modes. Interestingly, Gaylor indicates the app’s share of VR users has actually grown significantly in the last few months. Earlier this year in April around 30% of VRChat users were using VR; in October the share of VR users was up to 43%.

Among the 24,000 concurrent users specifically, Gaylor confirmed that an even larger share of users—52% or 12,500—were in VR.

Wagner James Au of the blog New World Notes also reported on the event, including statistics from Steam and a quote from his source for the news, Adeon:

Adeon isn’t surprised: “Confirms a lot what I see too. I have lots of friends that have an Oculus Rift, but still choose to run the Steam version on it, just because of Steam’s social features, and Oculus requires Facebook to have Oculus friends. That’s one major oversight for Facebook. People don’t want to use the platform if its social features aren’t cross-play with their friends’ setups.”

It’s an oversight—and a paradoxical one: The main point for requiring Facebook log-in, an Oculus developer recently told me, was to encourage users to interact more in VR with their Facebook friends. (Data harvesting for ads being a secondary goal.) But because so many gamers have strong social connections apart from Zuckerberg’s social network, the Facebook log-in requirement can actually disconnect them from many of their friends.

That to one side, VRChat’s usage growth is impressive. I would not be surprised if its monthly active user numbers have also surpassed that of Second Life as well.

I also would be very interested in seeing a head-to-head comparison in monthly active user figures between VRChat and Second Life (although I think SL would probably still be the winner here, as they too have reported an increase in usage because of the pandemic).

Addressing the Elephant in the Room: Social VR Sustainability

Photo by David Clode on Unsplash

I have been enjoying my self-imposed vacation from the blog. It’s given me an opportunity to step back, enjoy the all-too-brief Canadian summer, and reflect a little bit. I’m going to start easing back into blogging over the next week. There’s certainly no shortage of things to write about!

Yesterday, Gindipple shared his most recent compilation of Sansar user concurrency statistics, and while they do show a slight increase in the average number of users over time, it’s clear that users have not exactly rushed to embrace Sansar in the way that Linden Lab has been hoping:

Inara Pey has done her usual excellent job of summarizing last week’s Sansar Product Meeting, and she shares the following item from the discussion:

It’s now almost two years since Sansar opened its doors to the public, and general user concurrency is still only in or around the mid-20s level. This has raised questions of Sansar’s sustainability, and whether the Lab have set any goals for the platform that need to be achieved in order for it to be continued, etc.

Landon McDowell, the Lab’s Chief Product Officer, and the person most directly in charge of Sansar’s development, responded thus to one of these questions:

I am not going to put any date on the board. I think we’re taking this day-by-day, week-by-week, month-by-month, release-by-release, and we want to see what is happening and what is resonating and what isn’t … I believe steadfastly in the future of virtual worlds, that what we’re doing here is really important … Are we happy with the result? I’m not happy with the result; I would want a million people in here today, and we’re obviously not there.

But in terms of sustainability, I think we know what our limits are, and we are proceeding accordingly. If we have 50 people in here in a year then yeah, I’m going to be really massively disappointed. I think everybody here is working hard to make this an absolutely monumental success … I feel that everyone that’s here is here because they’re digging something about what we’re doing, and I want that to spread like wildfire quite frankly. So we definitely have hopes and ambitions.

But again, I’m not going to put a dot on the board of, “this date and this time, this number of users”. I think we want many more users in, and we want them relatively quickly, and we go from there.

While it is good news that Linden Lab appears to have no internal make-or-break date for Sansar, the fact remains that the company is putting time and money into a platform that, so far, is not attracting a lot of use.

The elephant in the room of social VR, not just for Linden Lab but for all companies in this marketplace, is sustainability. Many companies are pouring resources into various social VR platforms, in hopes that they will be able to relight the same spark that ignited over a decade ago with Second Life. Most projects have not had a great deal of success yet. The few social VR platforms which have attracted some attention to date (VRChat and Rec Room) face a daunting transition to an in-world economy, plus a slew of technical problems trying to shoehorn their experiences into wireless VR headsets like the new Oculus Quest in order to reach the broadest possible potential audience. Add to that rumours that Facebook is reportedly working on a major social VR initiative for all its Oculus VR hardware users, which will likely upend the current marketplace. The road ahead is rocky indeed.

Given the significant compromises that have had to be made to VRChat in order to get it to run at all on the Quest, and the rather disappointing results, it seems Linden Lab’s decision to not support an Oculus Quest version of Sansar is a wise one. Inara reports:

Oculus Quest support:  As has been previously indicated, this is not currently on the cards. The Quest processor and general capabilities are seen as being unable to handle to quality of content LL want to provide without massive amounts of auto-decimation, which can be problematic. However, as the capabilities of emerging VR systems continues to improve and Sansar improves in terms of performance limits, the hope is that the two will converge at some point in the future.

And that convergence may come sooner than you think. It is interesting to note that at least one eager early adopter has reported that he is able to use the PC streaming app ALVR to play Sansar on the Oculus Quest. (“PC streaming” refers to the use of sideloaded Quest apps to enable your desktop computer to stream VR games directly to your Quest. You’ll have to sideload the app onto your Quest, and then install a coordinating PC program before you can start playing. These programs, such as ALVR and VRidge, are new, highly experimental, and currently require a certain level of geek skills to set up and use. But they will no doubt become easier to use over time.)

Image by Pexels from Pixabay

However, as Landon McDowell says, I’m still a fervent believer in the future of virtual worlds. I still believe it’s a question of when and where, not if, social VR takes off and virtual worlds have a renaissance. High Fidelity’s recent pivot towards business users is just one example of a social VR company adjusting its sails to meet evolving conditions. Expect more such shifts as the market grows and changes.

Stay tuned! As I often say, things are getting interesting!

Sansar User Concurrency Statistics: Has Launching on Steam Made Any Difference?

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The short answer is “yes, but barely”. Gindipple was kind enough to share his statistics with the official Sansar Discord channel.

The first diagram is one year’s worth of statistics, showing the daily and monthly average of concurrent Sansar users. There is a noticable spike in users around the time of the Steam launch on both graphs:

Gindipple also shared the following graph, saying:

Of particular interest is this graph that shows the last 2 weeks. The spikes are the comedy event and a product meetup.

Let’s compare with the stats collected by Galen on his Metaverse Machines Live Sansar Statistics page, which displays both average and peak figures:

The news from both sets of graphs is about the same. Both show a noticeable spike in Sansar usage due to the Steam launch, but unfortunately, many of those users did not seem to stick around. However, there does seem to be a small uptick in the total number of simultaneous Sansar users overall, comparing the periods before and after the Steam launch.

Also, both Galen’s and Gindipple’s statistics show that Sansar is now hitting up to 80 concurrent users at a time, mostly due to events such as the stand-up comedy series. This is a definite improvement, although I’m quite sure that Linden Lab wants much higher numbers than that.

So, the struggle continues. And Linden Lab is far from alone in trying to figure out the magic formula that will bring users in—and make them come back. The only social VR platform which is still consistently packing the users in is VRChat (with Rec Room a distant second).