Second Life recently hit a milestone in the MMORPG industry: eight years in service. This is ancient in MMO terms, and yet the game has shown continued growth. How would you explain such success, especially when the game... er, world... is such an enigma? Even the players are not sure how to describe it.
Well, we called out the big guns and sat down with Rod Humble, CEO of Linden Lab, the maker of Second Life. He was kind enough to not only do the interview but allow us to embed the audio in the article for you to hear! Don't worry; we've also written up much of what was said, so you can choose to listen, read, or both!
Click past the cut and let's get right to the interview with Rod as he talks about success, explaining Second Life and some of the surprises he's met with along the way.
First of all, how does Rod explain what he does at Second Life? Everyone knows what a CEO is, but the company itself is harder to explain. The game is described by him as a "shared creativity tool" or creativity space. Many people who hear that are surprised at the description, especially when they hear the phrase Second Life. Often we would picture something like The Sims or another virtual family type of game, but to any Second Life player, the differences would be huge. Do new players get that the game, or world, is considered to be a creativity tool?
Possibly, but the learning curve is there, always. Second Life is a complicated... thing. Even Rod, when approached to take the job last year, had a bit of a time figuring out what to do after logging in. One of the first changes he wanted to make was to add a friendlier experience for the new player. Of course, that newer experience was not exciting for everyone. Many older players thought that the shiny new "Linden homes" -- homes that were pre-fabricated and came with a subscription -- were going in the opposite direction of what Second Life was all about: creative freedom. Rod assured me that the new homes have not had any "meaningful" impact on the land market. The worry was that players who bought chunks of land and rented smaller sections to players would feel the pinch from the presence of these new Linden homes.
I had some time with a Linden home a while ago, and while they were very nice -- especially for a brand-new player or a player who did not want to mess with creating a home -- they were no substitute for buying or renting your very own land, land that can be manipulated or created upon. One of the main problems with a game or world like Second Life is that it is complicated. Easing players into such a world is not only needed but possibly mandatory. Linden Lab is attempting to lessen the confusion that a new player feels when first stepping into the world by offering such items as a free home. Of course, we veteran players might laugh at that notion or might even claim that the confusion we felt when we first played forced us to communicate and to seek out other players. This is true, but we have to remember that not all of those who started out in Second Life those years ago stuck around -- because of the confusion. This need for basic explanation resulted in the newer "basic mode" of Second Life. A new player can now choose an avatar from several pre-crafted avatars. Moving around is easier, as well, so players will simply get in and start playing. The idea is to eventually marry this new player experience with a more advanced mode.
Land fees have always been a sore spot for certain memebrs of the community. Have land fees gotten out of control? Rod was only able to comment on the prices since he had taken the position, and he said that land fees have not risen since then. Still, over time the prices have gone up, but generally you will have the same experience now as you would have back then (that is, if you are renter or small land owner). If you are into the business of buying entire sims (the largest chunks of land that reside on their own servers), then you might have a completely different experience.
"Are users staying? How many visit? How many become premium members? Considering how many sign-ups they are not experiencing -- somewhere around 16,000 per day -- we find there is plenty of information to absorb and analyze."
When looking at the market, Linden Lab considers three main areas. One is the user-to-user economy, which includes items and land. The second would be Linden Lab's financial health, which should be an obvious concern to a new CEO. The last, and most important one, is user health. Are users staying? How many visit? How many become premium members? Considering how many sign-ups Linden Lab is experiencing -- somewhere around 16,000 per day -- we find there is plenty of information to absorb and analyze. One of the other major issues that Linden Lab has had to deal with over the years is players who were OK with adult content vs. players who wanted nothing to do with it. Back in our day you simply had almost no choice in the matter. If Joe Schmo wanted you to see his giant, inflatable body part, you were going to see it. Adult areas abutted (no pun intended) PG areas, so they would often bleed into each other. Wonderful, family-friendly builds could be right next door to a giant sign that advertised a sexy dance club. Now, most mature content is secluded into its own area, a central island called Zindra. A player can go through a small check list and indicate what kind of material he would like to avoid, and the system will steer him clear of that content.
Linden Lab continues to stand behind its choice of allowing players to see that adult content, especially considering that much of the term "adult" could simply mean artwork or creations that are not meant to offend... a nude painting, for example, or a scultpure. While I have asked before, it was nice to hear from the CEO himself that Linden Lab takes the free expression of its playerbase very seriously. Why not just do away the adult content and avoid the controversy? Linden Lab does not want to sanitize or belittle the artistic process. It might sound like an excuse for allowing deviant behavior, but once in-game, any player could see the results of this policy; there are amazing art shows and photography exhibits, many of which could easily be classified as "adult" without being classified as "offensive" or "x-rated." It should be noted that trademark violations or any illegal images or behavior are prosecuted and taken down. "I actually embrace the fact that as a company we're going to be daring enough to say, you know, we're a real creativity tool and we're not afraid of letting people enjoy whatever content they want to make," Rod said.
But how will Linden Lab maintain any sort of presence as an advanced creativity tool in this modern market of new peripherals and mobile devices? It's good to hear that Linden Lab will also be doing something with "the mobile tablet space" as well as rolling out the mesh capabilities in July. Both of these new technologies not only will help keep Second Life current but can help to insure its place in the future of creative, social spaces.
The real question is this: Can Second Life last for another eight years? Linden Lab is betting on it. In fact, this last quarter marked the company's best quarter in its history. That's pretty amazing, especially when we consider the age of the game. The long-term success of the company might have a lot to do with the fact that it was one of the very first Western developers to adopt a free-to-play model. (It also helps that the game has no real significant competitor in the space.)
It might be surprising to find out that Second Life is very nearly 50/50 when it comes to male and female players. Also, many of those women are, for lack of a better word, power-players. It surprised Rod to find out how hard the varied Second Life community was on itself on the outside. Yet, within the game, its members are busily helping each other and having a lot of fun. If this negative self-image comes from an older, veteran playerbase that might be suffering from a bit of burnout or from the sometimes tightly wound community, it's hard to tell. Still, it was obvious that Rod felt good about the truth.
In closing, Rod wanted potential players to know that Second Life is now easier to use than before. The team has a goal that, by the end of the year, the newbie experience should be even more robust and fun. So will Second Life last eight more years? It's easy to see that it could. It's an adjustable platform, and as Rod hinted during our interview, it might be making its way to other, more modern devices.
We'd like to thank Rod for taking the time out of his day to talk with us, and we'd especially like to wish Second Life a happy eighth anniversary!