Thursday, August 23, 2007

A Long Walk

SL is going to hit some rough times soon. It is increasingly drawing bad PR for its instability and difficult interface. Also, competitors are looming on the horizon.

SL has always had competition in the Three Dimensional Universe department, the most notorious of these being World of Warcraft and There. The former isn't really similar at all, the only relation is that it hosts people on servers. WoW does not allow content creation or land ownership. But we have to remember the First Rule of the Universe: People are stupid. They will believe whatever they want to believe and they will believe what they are told. SL and WoW are only similar in the sense that English and Korean are similar because they both use your voice box to make sounds.

WoW does have one thing SL does not, and that is stability. I've never played it myself, but I've yet to hear of massive gridwide failures in there, so I assume it is either very rare or very localized. You also have to pay to play, pay for the game itself and then for a subscription. As a non-paying SL user, I'm not too enthused about that, but it again tops SL in that WoW's eight million pay massive amounts of moolah. SL has eight million accounts, but the often heard refrain is, only three percent of those are active accounts (probably half are alts), and only ten percent of that three percent are subscribing customers to LL. There is no doubt WoW has a slightly smarter business model.

But does it really have the edge? Sure, it's too easy to flog SL for being glitchy and crashy, barely profitable and hard to discern any clear goals. But in WoW, we have... quests that you finish and then you're done. I'm sure there are probably more than you could ever do, else it would quickly get boring. There's also groups in it that band together to destroy dragons/other players/themselves. And once you're bored of that, then what? Any WoW players out there care to tell me what then? SL has a certain kind of freedom, where I'm never finished. If I finish building, say a streetlight, then I move on to the next thing I'd like to create. Or I could go hang out with some friends at a bar. Or maybe explore the supposedly 6,000 islands out there. Or maybe I'll go play around with someone's head. Perhaps I feel like blogging about and telling the SL world about it. Here is the beauty, it never gets old as long as you have the imagination.

There comes close. There has the same type of idea and concept of 'your world, your imagination'. But it felt claustrophobic and less immerse. I had to clear my builds with someone to make sure it wasn't anything risque or harmful. The interface was more stable than SL's, but occasionally refused to start at all for reasons unknown to me. It would start and say "loading please wait", and then hang there for hours. I left my computer on for ten hours while I went to work, and when I came back it was still hanging there. It was intermittent. A friend suggested that I log into their website and then run the program, but to no avail. It was supposedly free, so it's not like I had to pay for their service. It's just as well, because I probably would not have stayed long, when it did work it felt cartoony and distorted although that could just be a newbie's complaint.

Kaneva is another, although it hasn't really taken off as far as I've heard. Part of this is due to the fact that you have to start a myspace page of sorts, and befriend a few people and get involved and then you're allowed to access their universe, which while it allows you to create it also cuts off exploration to specific rooms, giving a very claustrophobic feel to it. I'm still waiting to 'enter' their universe, apparently I'm not 'involved' enough yet. From what I've heard, though, I don't think I'll like it too much there either.

MTV ran a 'Laguna Beach Simulator' that has to be a self parody. You can't really do anything in there, you just stand around and chat. In fact, this is becoming the template of the metaverse, you pick an avatar and a setting and you just chat. Nothing else to it, no exploration, no creativity, no nothing. IMVU is also like this. I couldn't care less for either. If I wanted to chat I'd either stay in SL with its extras or go on AIM or Yahoo or Gmail. It's silly, and nothing more than a gimmick to stand out from the current crop of IM machines.

A few others have died. Anyone still play The Sims? ActiveWorlds? Anyone? Let's be fair and honest, I haven't been to either so perhaps I'm out of the loop regarding these, but across the internet lay the scattered bodies of other virtual worlds, all of which enjoyed their moment in the sun and then fell into obscurity, never to be seen again. Who says SL will be any different?
So, right now we have a crop of very limited universes with limited abilities. SL seems to come out on top. After all, it gives the most freedom and while not as profitable as WoW certainly has held long enough to last for three or four years.

But this is where SL's Achilles heels come into play. SL IS buggy, and laggy, and crashes often, and when it doesn't crash it destroys something (perhaps your inventory, perhaps your friends list, or maybe it eats your money or whatever you've placed out on your land). The point is that a bad crash or a faulty restart on LL's part, and you're screwed. It's very unforgiving, and LL offers no help besides consoling you. Some pin this on griefers, but I don't see any evidence to support that. The M.O. of most griefers nowadays is to attack a specific target or group rather than the grid at large. At most, they might be slowing it a little, but nothing on the scale that the typical SLuser is used to. LL has put up precautions against the kinds of grid attacks that occurred during the dark dark days of July-November 2006 (the last I can recall occurred on November 20th), with the infamous grey goo plastered about.

No, this problem is far far deeper and complex, more likely due to a multitude of bad decisions and ad hoc infrastructure. The thing is held together by a wing, a prayer, some gum, and duct tape. This cannot last long. And this, ultimately, is why SL is still not the dominant beast it should be. When there is so much lag that I cannot move, then things like IMVU and MTV Laguna Beach look attractive. When I can't access my inventory and thus cannot finish a build, There with its (relatively) stable grid looks like heaven. If SL can only just hold its own against these lame competitors, then how is it expected to perform against the new kids on the block? How will its aging and increasingly dilapidated software compete when others offer the same experience?

The short answer is it can't. At the rate it is going, it will limp along for a year, maybe a year and a half but no longer, before it finally drains of players and collapses under its own costs. The number of premium accounts being signed up is dropping, and their sheer numbers are dropping too. People are becoming somewhat dissatisfied with being promised that this update will ease grid problems and then having it worsen them instead (on at least one occasion, as I recall, LL offered the opportunity to 'back'-date to an older client version as the then-recently released update was so horrendously full of bugs even Torley noticed it).

We can also see this in the outside world. Recently Forbes and Times whipped SL a new one, and they're not alone. The trend is turning against SL and it is going to get ugly. The above described issues generate most of this hate. Why should they endorse something that hardly works? Apologists are already dismissing these among other articles as "hate pieces written by those who know not what they speak of". Should we really be dismissing them out of hand? Shouldn't we investigate their arguments? Even a lie has a grain of truth at its center, like a pearl. It surely couldn't hurt to have a small team work to bring stability back to SL, and on the side check out these issues being brought up and discussed. Do we really need all 250 Ls working on bringing Voice to stability? Do we need 250 Ls working on Windlight?

I love SL. It is the best virtual world I've visited by far. But it pains me to watch it fall and turn into a hideous and bloated beast. About nine months ago, I regularly crossed sims on vehicles, and I used to fly across the SL scape on vehicles I made myself. There was about three seconds of delay as SL processed that you were indeed crossing into the next sim, and if you were walking it took no time at all. The other day, I was stuck inside a sim, I couldn't rezz things and when they did appear I crashed each time I tried to cross into the next sim. Even walking resulted in horrible crashes about eighty percent of the time. I should not have to TP into the next sim over to meet a neighbor, I should be able to walk there.

And until SL makes it easier for everyone to walk there, they'll be walking somewhere else.

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