A change is as good as a holiday, they say. Seriously, I don't actually know anyone who says this other than myself; though I'm assured that there are some folks out there who do.

With that tragically underutilized platitude in mind, then, last week I posed a question to a spread of well-known virtual environment users (at least to those that I felt would actually respond) and collected the responses.

The question put to the respondents was "What's the single thing that the operators/developers could do to make you feel more satisfied with their virtual environment offering; what thing would help an operator keep you as a customer, or that would make some other operator more appealing than the one or ones you already have?"

Desmond Shang, operator of the highly successful steampunk subcontinent, Caledon in Second Life; Shang has also started a new community in Blue Mars:

What I'd like to see more of, are operators that don't squeeze their economies to the point that users suffer.

No game company would ever dream of changing the quantity of gold pieces that your character has. This would be considered terrible! "I had 150 gold pieces today, but now I have 136." I'm sure many people would quit the day that happened.

Yet there are a lot of factors that do essentially the same thing in virtual worlds ~ for instance, offering too much player land at auction could cut the value of player land in half... or by 90%... or even worse.

Sure, there are many things that a platform operator can't control ~ a brand new flying horse might hold phenomenal interest on one day, but seem prevalent, tiresome, slow and outmoded later on. But there are other things that they can control. Land printing, game currency selling, price points, policing content infringement and so forth.

I always want to feel like a platform operator has a common purpose with me as a user, and when I win, they win. I mentioned economy, but it doesn't necessarily have to be about money. If I'm holding a book club discussion, I don't want to find out that the platform has sponsored their own bigger, better book club discussion. I want them just to be a reliable platform, doing what they do best, so I can do my best.

Gentle Heron, founder of the Linden Prize winner, Virtual Ability Inc, a non-profit corporation that supports people with disabilities, their friends and families:

At the risk of sounding like a one-trick pony, I'd say increasing attention to the accessibility of their offering.

Research by PopCap in 2004 shows that one in five casual gamers reports having some type of disability, with more than a tenth having had game play prescribed for them as part of their treatment plan. This means we are a significant audience segment.

It would be wonderful if the accessibility tools (and hooks for our real world assistive technology) we need were part of the original game design, not late-addition add-ons or ignored entirely.

Gwyneth Llewelyn, European Business Manager of metaverse development-and-marketing consultants, Beta Technologies:

Compatibility. In the sense of interoperability...
"One Protocol to rule them all, One Protocol to find them,
One Protocol to bring them all and in the Metaverse bind them"
With apologies to J. R. R. Tolkien.

Ignatius Onomatopoeia, notable virtual environments educator and director of the University of Richmond's Writing Center (Department of Rhetoric and Communication Studies):

Being able to have out-of-world backups for what we create would be near, if not at, the top of my list. Educators are accustomed to having our IP on our machines, even if we then share it.

It seems that Linden Lab wants to keep us from porting our stuff over to competitors' worlds.

I'm actively looking at OpenSim because of this issue – I have a large project in SL that I cannot back up because a student builder helped make it, and even though she gave me full-perm copies of her creations, I cannot bring them out of world for backup.

Marianne McCann, community leader, kid avatar and Bay City advocate:

You can make the prettiest world in, well, the world, put the coolest features in it, make the most intelligent, intuitive interface, and all that, but unless you have community, you have nothing. This is what I see Blue Mars struggling with right now, and what helped make SL what it is today – and what it will become tomorrow.

Blue Mars wants to be a platform for other things. It doesn't really want to be a place of community, but a place where developers come into the world and create nice games. As a result, it is struggling with relevance in spite of its features.

Second Life began its rise in popularity due to its community. It's "pioneers" as Mitch Kapor once put it, who saw the vast increase in population starting in October 2007 and continuing well into 2008 and beyond. But along the way, Linden Lab began to focus away from community, turning the world into a product, and began to look at community as a liability more than a benefit. It remains to be seen where it will go from here.

So in this roundabout way, to answer your question. It's the community -- Second Life and other systems need to show me that they're serious about fostering their communities. With Second Life specifically, this can be expressed with advanced group, contact, and instant message capabilities, taking an antiquated and overburdened system known for its limitations and failures, and replacing it with one that can truly scale with the service and which features modern tools and abilities.

Beyond the software, it can mean reinvesting in the community team, making them more visible in the world at large and increasing their roles as both "cruise director" and "ombudsmen." There is a great deal to be said for even the smallest amounts of community involvement, even if it is just listening and acting on the needs of the community, or using the talents of your community to improve your product and world overall.

This would make me feel like there is a future there, that this is something more than a retelling of the America Online story. [Hey, that's us, incidentally. Massively is an arm of the AOL behemoth, for those of you that may have forgotten -- Tat]

Ordinal Malaprop, widely acclaimed and respected thinker and steampunk content-creator:

If Virtual World Operators could do one thing that would both make me happy, and improve their own chances of Continuing To Exist Once Venture Capital Is Exhausted, it would be to understand what the "content" is that people might come to the world to experience, and also understand who it is that produces it, and why.

If a company cannot answer the "what" question at all they need to stop and think until they can. If they can, they need to stop and think as to whether they are concentrating on "asset content" - clothes and toys and houses, easily understandable by developers - and whether they are ignoring why people might want clothes and toys and houses - to improve their experience of social content.

One question, six perspectives. If the question were put to you, would you agree with one of the six respondents here, or do you have your own take? What's the top-of-the-list item that a VE operator/developer could do to keep you as a user, or to gain you as a user?

This article was originally published on Massively.
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