Free for All: Second Life, the little 75 million-dollar engine that could

Second Life
Do not call Second Life a game. If you find yourself in the position of describing the game at all publicly, be prepared to be corrected: Second Life is not a game; it's a world. Let me amend that: Second Life is an experience, a world, a game, or whatever the players, residents, and consumers want to call it. In fact, the Linden Lab baby is whatever you want to make of it, and I have seen many, many sides of it over the last eight years since I joined the experience.

Don't worry; this column will not be a fanboy rehash of the successes of Second Life and will not be a recount of my favorite memories. Instead, we'll focus on facts to prove just how incredible this latest ninth anniversary is.

Second Life screenshot from 2004
Social medium before social media

As you read this, I am in the middle of Public Parts, a great book by writer and blogger Jeff Jarvis. So far it is an argument for and explanation of the pros and cons of living publicly, meaning joining social media and participating in the greater internet ecosystem. I bring up the book because it talks a lot about social media as a tool. If I look back eight years ago, when I first joined Second Life, it's neat to think just how ahead of its time it was. While the insiders of Second Life were participating in a smaller, self-contained social medium, the way they shared and collaborated was much the same as how we participate in worldwide social media now.

One of my favorite (and seemingly most primitive) tools in the Second Life toolbelt is the SLurl, a link that can be shared anywhere and that opens up the client, prompts the potential new player to download the client, or works with the currently active client. Next, the link will teleport the receiver to the location in-world. It's one of the very few instances I can think of that allow someone to follow a link to visit a literal, three-dimensional idea -- a thought in the form of an explorable piece of content. While I enjoy clicking on a friend's Twitter link and checking out a picture of her favorite dog, I can click on an SLurl and instead find artwork inspired by her furry best friend or a virtual dog that I can interact with. Before Google made easy collaboration in documents, Linden Lab created the ability to create almost anything with your friends, chat via voice while doing so, and even possibly sell the creation for real life cash.

Second Life is a moldable, social experiment that can do things Twitter or Facebook cannot. Granted, its saddled with the performance issues that come with a world of streaming, three-dimensional material, but Linden Lab has already experimented with embedded players that shine light on a possible browser-based future. As PCs become cheaper and the magical tubes that carry our internet become fatter and more affordable, Second Life will benefit by becoming much more accessible.

Second Life modern day screenshot inside a piece of art
Trying to fail

I didn't coin this, but I'm fond of saying that "if you do not fail, you're never trying anything new." I've said it particularly about SOE, but it can also be applied to Linden Lab. The author I mentioned earlier also wrote about Google, a company that is not proud of its failures as much as it's happy to learn from its mistakes. (Does anyone remember Google Lively?) From the CopyBot scare to the infamous Linden homes (optional pre-built homes that essentially stifle the creative freedom that Second Life is known for) to the closing of the teen version of the title (which was offset by tighter controls on content), Linden Lab has kept trying new things. Many residents would argue that the devs ignore player feedback, but surely the good must outweigh the bad?

In a March 2012 interview, CEO Rod Humble said this: "I was taken aback by just how big Second Life was. To be honest, it had fallen off my radar until I got the call offering me the position. And I looked at their numbers; this is a world that has got one million people logging in every month, generating well in excess of $75 million a year -- it's extremely profitable."

Linden Lab could not operate its hundreds and hundreds of servers without that money coming in. It's hard to know exactly where the money comes from -- hardcore roleplayers, math-brained creators, sexual explorers, or (most likely) land ownership -- but it must be coming in. Second Life is no flash-in-the-pan startup; it's been going on for nine years now. Even if it ended tomorrow, it'd be hard to call it a failure. Linden Lab has learned from its mistakes and does continue to make more, but surely the whole thing would fall apart without any satisfied customers? I do not need a chart to illustrate that something is being done correctly. Of course, as long as the world has been around, the title's critics say that there is a sort of scam going on underneath the surface of land fees and monthly charges, but if that were so, wouldn't someone have exposed it by now?

Second Life mesh screenshot
What will mesh do?

As Linden Lab looks forward while celebrating this ninth anniversary, residents question how mesh will affect the current builders and collaboration that goes on in-world. Mesh is basically a high-quality, three-dimensional model that can be built and later imported into the world. This raises the question of whether mesh will devalue the current in-world created objects. I asked about the issue several weeks ago and was relieved to hear that not only can mesh help with performance, but mesh creators can hang on the the rights to their works because they were created outside of Second Life. This means that a creator can make something awesome, back it up, import it into Second Life, and continue to use it outside of the world.

Collaboration isn't doomed, at least not until mesh creation becomes as cheap and simple as using prims in-world. There will always be a demand for instant creation; prims have allowed the creation of some amazing items in world, so that's not likely to change. Mesh will just be another tool in the social medium that is Second Life.

Congratulations to Linden Lab on this anniversary, and here's to many more!

Each week, Free for All brings you ideas, news, and reviews from the world of free-to-play, indie, and import games -- a world that is often overlooked by gamers. Leave it to Beau Hindman to talk about the games you didn't know you wanted! Have an idea for a subject or a killer new game that no one has heard of? Send it to!
This article was originally published on Massively.