Linden Lab, Xstreet SL and OnRez: designing the future economy

Friday, January 30, 2009 / by

Linden Lab announced their acquisition of Xstreet SL and OnRez (and plans of consolidating them under Xstreet SL brand), and immediately a wave of criticism swept through the SL blogosphere. I've read a few positive opinions about this move but they vanished in the sea of accusations, gloomy predictions and conspiration theories. The announcement came a bit sudden, which may explain the negative response, but I'm sure many residents will change their tune over time. People, especially when surprised with something, tend to look at things from one perspective, and that is from their own perception of the situation. I think you should look at things from three perspectives: your own perception (what effect the situation has on you), the opposite side of the argument (why they have a different opinion and what effect the situation has on them) and the perspective of a person who is not involved in the situation at all (a passive observer). Only then you have a full picture of the situation and your judgement is more fair and balanced. So, if you look at this acquisition objectively, it perfectly makes sense. It brings good to each company involved and to the residents of Second Life as well. How is that?

Linden Lab, Xstreet SL and OnRez

First: OnRez would be shutdown anyway. It's not a big secret that the Electric Sheep Company (who ran OnRez) is slowly pulling out of SL. This was a perfect opportunity to say 'bye' gracefully and to make some extra money on it. Second: It seems Jay Geeseman (more known by his avatar name, Apotheus Silverman), the founder of Xstreet SL, was looking for some capital to expand the company. So Xstreet SL gets the needed capital, and since Apotheus and key members of his team will continue to work on Xstreet SL at Linden Lab, and will be integrating the platfrom into SL, I don't think the quality of service will change, except for better. Third: Linden Lab is a company, and a company should make profit off their business activity. Remember that proft for Linden Lab is your assurance that tomorrow you'll be able to log in to SL - perhaps with faster and more reliable asset servers or improved graphics. But you need money to invest, non? It's only natural they wanted to involve into web-based Second Life e-commerce. They could have decided to create a new web solution for SL merchants, but instead they chose a better way - not uncommon in business world - acquire a trusted and successful company in the field they want to expand to. It's better, because a company that already operates in certain field has got experience and know-how, which otherwise would need to be gained in more difficult and much more time-consuming way.

But what are the benefits for the residents?
  • Less work to do
    Once things are integrated, there will be no need to do the same work three times when releasing a product (set up in-world, set up on OnRez, set up on Xstreet SL). Doing the listings is boring and time consuming. I'm sure many of you would agree it's the most tedious task of a designer. In fact, I know people who don't list their products on SL e-commerce websites because they find it too tiresome. They just prefer to have smaller sales than dedicate their time and energy to putting up merchandise on these platforms. I own three brands in-world and I still don't have all my products listed - it's just too much to do. I don't know how deep and broad the integration will be, but I'd love to see deliveries straight from avatars' inventories and listings done by right-clicking the product and choosing 'Send to marketplace' option, or perhaps by moving the product to a special inventory folder. I'm so tired of Dropboxes and Magic Boxes. But even if they stay, there will be just one! Until a new marketplace opens, that is ;)

  • More customers
    Currently a lot of people are not aware they can shop for SL items through web (T Linden says this number is around 80% for residents who are economically active, and around 97-99% for other residents). As the integration process advances, more people will use the service, which means better visibility of products to SL community and higher sales.

  • More fair and equitable competition environment
    Thanks to web-based shopping little businesses (especially those who don't have an in-world store at all) will be able to compete with big brands on same level. It's true they can list their products on e-commerce sites now, but only after the integration these products will get similar exposure as big brand products in-world. It won't matter that much whether you own a full region or a small store - if your products are of same quality, you'll compete on equal terms. I think competition in general will become more intense but I consider this positive, since it can drive development and lead further into more vibrant SL economy.

  • Bigger choice of products
    At the moment there are a lot of brands who operate in-world only. If the web shopping service gains popularity, and perhaps have some kind of impact on in-world search results, these businesses will most probably enter shopping sites to compete more effectively and to gain a new stream of profit. Also, when people become more aware of web-based shopping and realize they can sell their creations without the need of finding money to open an in-world store, a lot of talented residents might decide to try their hand at running a business. This might also mean a flood of 'beginner products', but hey, we all had to learn at one time, and you can always sort your search results by popularity or rating.

  • Better shopping experience
    Believe it or not, there are still a lot of residents who don't have new fast computers. Possibility to browse items on a website let them avoid lag and enhances their shopping experience. People with slow computers will naturally choose to shop on a website (as Gwyneth Llewelyn nicely puts it, lagfree shopping), which means less people in a sim and less lag for those who like to buy items in-world. Take Armidi for example. Their sim was always extremely laggy due to a high number of avatars shopping. It took an awful lot of time to load and moving from one place to another was really slow, even on fast computers. As a solution they introduced, an online shop for their creations. Now residents can conveniently shop online or go to a lag free sim (still full of avatars but not packed with them to the extreme). And all of them get a nice experience. I think something similar is going to happen after integrating Xstreet into SL, but this time it will be a grid-wide process.

  • Easier gifting
    Currently you can't send gifts to people who are not registered with Xstreet SL and OnRez. With web shopping integrated into SL you'll be able to send gifts to any avatar you want. And with easy gifting process, I guess more people are going to buy gifts on impulse, which means higher revenue for merchants.

  • Linked Linden balance
    Hopefully the in-world Linden balance will be integrated with web shopping platform and there will be no need anymore for additional money operations. This means no more depositing money, no more withdrawing, no more searching for terminals or wallets. Just sell and buy.

  • Easier searching within Second Life
    I'd say the majority of people who shop at SL's online marketplaces use them because of powerful search engines. It's much easier and faster to look up something you need on the web, and then, if needed, follow the SLURL to the shop (to see the item in person) than to try to find that item through in-world search engine. Acquired websites, especially Xstreet SL, allow for more convenient browsing and comparison of products (sorting by price, by rating, by popularity etc.), not to mention descriptions, presented in more readable form than a notecard. If this search engine was integrated into Second Life, I'm sure in-world search experience would significantly improve.

  • Other
    Sharable wish lists, gifting to non-residents, scheduled deliveries - these few were mentioned by T Linden.
It all doesn't look all that negative now, does it? Personally I'm hoping Linden Lab will do their best to integrate all the top features of each acquired site into one comprehensive, effective, user-friendly platform. We'll see over time how all the integration goes, but I'm guessing in the long term it will have a positive effect on SL economy and on SL in general.

A trip to another world(s)

Saturday, January 24, 2009 / by

It all started in the Forbidden City

Imagine yourself in the middle of Beijing, China. You're standing in front of The Meridian Gate - the largest gate of The Forbidden City, built around XV century. Behind it a magnificent complex of characteristic traditional Chinese imperial buildings spreads out. The sky is perfectly clear and the rays of sunlight cast your shadow on the clean cobblestone square. Nice eh? Well, it would be, if not for the loud Chinese zither music that you can't turn down or off. The music would probably blend in well if it was RL, but the place I'm refering to is the Virtual Forbidden City, which I visited together with Uzi and Sql (the originator of the trip). We've been on Skype conference together and the music effectively prevented us from communicating with each other. But first things first.

The Forbidden City: Beyond Space and Time is an initiative by IBM and Palace Museum in Beijing 'to provide the means for a world-wide audience to celebrate and explore aspects of Chinese culture and history'. Basically, it is a virtual world dedicated to educational purposes. The project launched on October 10th and is pretty fresh, which probably explains the technical difficulties we've encountered. I don't like to pour cold water on new projects, so I'm not going much into details, but the situation looked more less like this: when we logged in as guests, things worked quite OK, but we couldn't use some of the features of the software. We were also scattered on different servers, so even when we were in the same place we couldn't see each other and we couldn't explore together. On the other hand, when we logged in as registered avatars, we could easily find each other and had nice avatars, but game menus were missing or were entirely transparent except for some captions. So basically we couldn't explore the world neither as guests nor as registered avatars. After 2 hours we grew tired, closed the viewers and went to SL to find the Forbidden City in there.

We came back, though, to give the project another chance, since we figured out these:
  • You can bring Options menu by pressing Ctrl + O, and you can turn off the music from there. Once the music is turned off, The Virtual Forbidden City becomes a very peaceful place, full of balance and harmony, and continuous sound of Chinese wooden shoes against the cobblestone (which later becomes irritating too and I'm sure sooner or later you'll turn down the volume of sounds as well).
  • The solution to transparent menus is quite hilarious: you need to change decimal separator in your OS regional settings to decimal point (we use decimal comma in Poland, and most of Europe actually). I'm not sure why the menus work fine when you're a guest. This might be the first case where a user of a virtual world can do more as a guest than as a registered avatar. Nonetheless, this is failing to fulfill a part of project's mission statement ('for a world-wide audience').
Once the technical difficulties are resolved, the place gets more interesting. You can explore the city on your own or follow one of the numerous tour guides, who will show you the highlights of the Forbidden City. These tours are really interesting with my favourite being 'Feng Shui in the Forbidden City' - be sure to check it out if you visit the place.

Apart from exploring you can also watch 'Scenes' depicting everyday activities of Qing dynasty and join 'Activities' which teach you further aspects of Imperial family customs. All in all, it's worth checking out - it's not everyday that you get a chance to visit Imperial Palace in China ^^

As I stand in the Imperial Garden, admiring the scenery and pondering over the possibilities the Internet provides, a man comes from across the alley. Before he walks past me, he stops for a while and bows politely in front of me. There is something about this place that makes you immerse into the imperial atmosphere. Try it.

The Forbidden City 01
The starting screen

The Forbidden City 02
From left to right: random avatar (in green), me as Imperial Consort, Sql as Imperial Guard and Uzi as Imperial Woman; in the background the view on Golden River (note the transparent menu bug on the top left of the screen)

The Forbidden City 03
Following one of the Tour Guides

The Forbidden City 04
One of the scenes: Court Painting

The Forbidden City 05
One of the scenes: The Emperor Having Dinner

I'd probably finish my blogpost here, if not for Sql. About two days after the trip to the Forbidden City he innocently mentioned he's going to check out Entropia. I said I always wanted to check out Kaneva. One word led to another, and before we realised we ended up checking other worlds and MMORPGs throughout the next few days. That was the time I decided to write a short review of each one, and that's what occupied my 'blogging' time through last several weeks.

Rave it if it's cool

We chose Kaneva as our starter. The adventure begins in a tutorial world, where a nice male voice says: 'Welcome to the world of Kaneva where you and your friends will experience a totally new way to hang out and share media together'. Well, remember these words, cause it seems there's not much else to do in Kaneva (more on that later). The tutorial is really well done and guides you through the basic aspects of Kaneva, i.e. how to walk, how to interact with things, how to chat with people etc. It's short, concise and easy - you just follow the yellow brick road... erm... I mean the green arrows. What I miss though are other newbies trying to find their way in a new world, as it is in SL. I always find conversations in starting areas of SL cute, but in Kaneva you're completely alone at that point. In this case (and many other actually too) SL wins, as you can help each other and start social interaction with fellow avatars from the very beginning.

During the tutorial you also collect coins scattered around on your way. Not that someone told you to collect them but they're gold and shiny, and if you ever played Mario Bros you just know you should collect them for some reason :) The coins give you Rewards - Kaneva money. There's also another currency - Credits - which are required to buy some of the available products. The only way to acquire Credits is either to purchase them with your credit card or earn them by selling clothes. I'm not sure if you can exchange Rewards into Credits, or Credits into RL money. Seems like you can't, and so, in this case, creating content in Kaneva doesn't bring RL money. To earn more Rewards you go to a club and play Dance Party Game, and this is one of the first things we did in Kaneva with Sql.

The dance game is fun in the beginning, but then it becomes boring. And I feel most of the things in Kaneva are this way, even though the tutorial seems to be promising a really interesting experience. The thing is everything becomes very repetitive. You always start from your home, and from there you either go dancing, shopping or chatting with friends. Visiting a new location always result in a progress bar ('Downloading Zone') appearing on your screen, making you wait before entire place is downloaded - and despite that, some things still aren't downloaded once you enter, so you need to wait even more. I definitely prefer SL's real time download on the go. Not to mention all those locations and hangouts are very limited as to what you can do in there. But if you find something you like, you can rave it. Raving another player, location, community etc. is a way of saying you think they are cool. The idea is quite similar to profile ratings that used to function in SL. The more raves, the better reputation.

You get your own apartment for free in Kaneva, which is something we don't get in SL, but that's not enough to keep the user in, right? I decided to look into content creation in Kaneva and I find the possibilities very limited, because the only thing you can actually create are clothes. The process is very similar to the one in SL. You download a template and you use your graphic program to create the clothing item (players can try them on before buing; pretty cool, we need that in SL ;)). But you can't create new furniture or other in-world objects. You can only re-texture the content provided by Kaneva creators - something that SL resident would find very limiting, non?

So I think Kaneva is all about people. If you make friends there, you'll probably want to come back to chat with them. Kaneva can be fun, but since it doesn't offer anything unique to me (I can do the same and more in SL), I don't think I'll be logging in regularly. I might check in from time to time, though, to see if anything changes.

Kaneva 01
Kaneva Dance Party Game

Kaneva 02
Testing emotes in my apartment

Kaneva 03
The basics of objects edition

Kaneva 04
Kaneva map

Kaneva 05
People dance in Kaneva all the time, even in malls

Beware the Young Combibo

I'll be honest with you - I don't get Entropia Universe at all. Neither does Sql. We visited EU a few times, but we didn't manage to understand 'the purpose'.

We started the adventure in a tech room where we customized our avatars' looks. I must say there's a lot of options to choose from - however, you can't change anything later without paying, so make sure you're happy with what you see before moving on. Once we finished, we were teleported to planet Calypso, to a place called Port Atlantis. Dressed in tight jumpsuits and cute sneakers, we set off to explore the area.

There are three main activities you can do in-world: mining, hunting and sweating... yup, sweating, but not in the sense you're thinking now. Actually, it's worse :P You collect sweat from animals called Young Combibos (there are probably more species, but we didn't come across them). Supposedly the sweat is then used to 'create Mind Essence used in Mindforce', but we didn't manage to discover how to convert sweat into Mind Essence, neither to find out what Mind Essence and Mindforce actually is. Also, we didn't try hunting and mining, since you need some tools, which, as I understand, are only available for money. It seems to me you can't do anything in Entropia without PED - Entropia's currency. The PED (Project Entropia Dollars) can be exchanged for real money, as in SL, but PED's value is higher relative to the US dollar than Linden Dollar's value and the exchange rate is fixed (10 PED = 1 USD).

As I said, there's not much to do without investing real money first, though 'investing' is a bit exaggerated word here - for me it seems more like a 'hidden subscription'. Not only do you need money to have an interesting gameplay, but you also need it to pay maintenance fees for objects and equipment you acquire, since they wear with use. So while Entropia trailer looks quite enticing, almost none of what's shown is available to non-paying players. I say 'gameplay' and 'players', cause Entropia generally seems to be more like an online game than a virtual world, more MMORPG than MUVE.

Content creation aspect was disappointing. It looks like it's the Entropia designers who add new content, not the users. As far as I know, users are only limited to setting up their venues using items already available in-world. And with design possibilities so limited, I don't think MindArk (Entropia developer) should use advertising phrases like 'a real economy, which offers a complete alternative to the real world'.

Sure, Entropia can be fun to non-paying players - as a chatroom or a meeting place, if you learn how to get around. But if you're looking for more, Entropia might not be your choice. But here's the thing. Sql and I had a slight presumption we might not have gotten outside Entropia's equivalent of SL's orientation island. My presumption got stronger during one of my many visits in-world. As I was chasing Combibos, someone attempted to steal my shoes. A minute later the ground shaken a bit and I saw a man in white underwear, running around and detonating bombs. That looks a bit similar to SL welcome areas, non? So all I have written here might not be very accurate and I suggest you visit Entropia yourself, and once you figure it out, explain it to me :)

Entropia Universe 01
The starting screen

Entropia Universe 02
The interface (note our cute sneakers)

Entropia Universe 03
Avatars close-up

Entropia Universe 04
Exploring the world

Entropia Universe 05
Young Combibos!

Space pirates and asteroids

EVE - a world far away in the future, whose history goes back to the discovery of a natural wormhole in space. Since the wormhole lead to a new astral system (New Eden), the discovery raised new hopes and new dreams of then society. Millions of explorers transported through the portal and started new colonies. One day though, the wormhole collapsed, separating new colonies from Earth's galaxy that supplied them. Among those who managed to survive five races emerged: the Amarr, the Minmatar, the Gallente, The Caldari and the Jovians. After generations of war between the nations, a truce was declared, and now these five empires are looking for prosperity and wealth in the farthest depths of space, in the times of uneasy peace.

Luckily, it's not a prediction of the future. It's the storyline behind one of the most popular MMORPGs in the world - EVE Online. I visited EVE with Sql and Uzi almost everyday of the 14 days of free trial. Sql became the captain and took me and Uzi under his wings, on our way to rule the space :)

EVE is definitely not a virtual world, but a game, and quite a good one for those who are into space, universe, planets and all that jazz. That's why Sql and Uzi were more fascinated by EVE, than I was. I never liked 'space stuff', except some great book series like 'Dune' and 'Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy'. But EVE was fun to me as well.

After completing the tutorial, you start with some amount of money and a ship. As you finish successive missions, you get better ships and equipment, as well as money rewards. You can develop your avatar's skills in order to use more advanced items. The missions are fun and quite narrative, and it seems the game is endless. If not for paid subscription, we all would probably continue playing EVE, develop our corporation and eventually rule the game ;) And then I'd talk them into becoming space pirates.

The only thing I didn't like was too much flying around. I'm probably used to teleports in SL, and going through all those stargates to get where I wanted was a bit irritating. So, when I needed to fly somewhere, I'd turn on the autopilot on my ship and switch to my web browser to do something constructive while the ship was on it's way to the target destination. The stargates, though, do remind of SL's telehubs in the past, don't they?

All in all, the game is worth checking out if you're looking for something fun to do online.

Eve Online 01
My avatar in EVE (you get to choose face, hair, clothes, background and lighting, but you can't change them later)

Eve Online 02
Character sheet

Eve Online 03
Home base

Eve Online 04
One of the many docking stations

Eve Online 05
Fighting the enemy: me and Sql on the front, and Uzi at the enemy's backyard

The wastelands

I must say I was very curious about HiPiHi. I read over at Torley's blog that it's very similar to Second Life and I wanted to check it myself. I wondered what my reaction would be. I had thought I'd either be critical for so much copying or I would really enjoy it, since it resembles the virtual world I like. Sql joined me as usual and well... here's how it was.

We somehow navigated through HiPiHi Chinese website and found English client to download. But then, when we installed it, it wasn't English at all. It was still Chinese. We googled for some guides but trust me - don't use these. They tell you to install Chinese fonts or change some of your OS language settings, but it's not needed at all. Just go to your HiPiHi folder UIData LocalSetting, find LocalSetting.xml file, open it in Notepad, change 0 to 1 and save. Easy. The interface is not fully translated into English, so there are some options in Chinese, but at least you can get around.

As we logged in, our avatars appeared on a meadow. After a short study of the interface, we decided to teleport somewhere and maybe see what other people are doing. But there are almost no people in HiPiHi. Perhaps it's because it's still in the beta stage. That's possibly the same reason why HiPiHi is so empty, like huge wastelands. On the other hand, we had a feeling things are not downloading properly, as if a lot of content was blocked for some reason. The locations we visited looked as if someone stopped working on them half way through. The emptiness is even more weird, when you find out that users can claim land for free in the beta stage (it will be taken from them once the official version of HiPiHi is released). And it's basically impossible to find land that's free to claim. Everything is occupied, yet empty.

As to the similarity to SL, it is the most visible in the content creation system. Almost everything looks the same, except HiPiHi has a few more prim types to choose from, and a built-in tool to add 'sitting' to chairs and other objects (though I didn't figure out how it works). And even though things look almost the same, I find SL content creation tools much more intuitive than those of HiPiHi. The similarity is also clearly visible when editing avatar's appearance. While the layout and the options are a bit different, avatar settings in HiPiHi bring SL to mind immediately. But you know what they say... If you copy, you'll never be ahead. However, they do have some stuff I'd like to see in SL, meaningly built-in swimming (which activates when you fall into water) and flexi skirts that don't get split into pieces when you walk or jump.

Generally speaking I expected more of HiPiHi. Maybe things will change over time - more people will come, the tools will become more intuitive, the translation will be better. But for now there's nothing unique in there that would keep me entertained. However, when I visited HiPiHi once again before uninstalling the client, I found a location that convinced me to try it again in future. It finally wasn't a wasteland, but a nice grungy urban location, built with attention to details. So I am planning to come to HiPiHi once again. I think, though, it will be more of curiosity than the willing to become a regular user.

HiPiHi 01
HiPiHi avatars - me and Sql

HiPiHi 02
Gestures - called 'actions' in HiPiHi

HiPiHi 03
Learning how to create content

HiPiHi 04
Someone's learning, someone's being lazy ;)

HiPiHi 05
Nice grungy urban area

As you probably noticed, my views on the reviewed MUVEs/MMORPGs are mostly critical. You might think it's because I'm so much into Second Life, but it's not like this. Actually, I was very open minded because I was thinking of becoming a regular visitor to one of these, if I get to like it. Not that I'm bored with SL - it's rather out of curiosity. Of course I did compare the worlds I explored to SL as they would need to give me something unique, different and interesting enough to draw my attention for a longer time.

I must say I understand SL popularity better now that I visited other places and I know why those who claim they're leaving SL almost always come back. SL offers better and more diversified experience in all fields: social, educational, creative etc. It just provides more possibilities, more things to do, more things to learn, more things to find out about and more things that can be useful in RL. And it looks better too. There's no alternative to all that. At least not yet.

Well, for now I'll be more often in good ol' SL :)

As always I'd love to hear your opinion, and if, by any chance, you're a regular user of any of the reviewed worlds, I'd love to hear about your experiences and your reasons for liking that particular one.