Steam Powered Second Life

In case it escaped your notice, Linden Lab very quietly announced that they will soon make the Second Life Virtual World available via the online gaming portal known as Steam. If you’re not familiar with Steam and its slice of the internet-enabled population then it would be wise to take a few moments to wander around their site and get an idea of what they offer and more to the point, what they feature.

Welcome To Steam – Click to open the Steam Home Page

 steam-home-page

Steam 101 – Who Uses Steam

Steam got its start in the internet world by offering custom versions of popular gaming platform titles for the PC. They initially had a custom “wrapper” application that ran a simulator of the gaming platform on the user’s PC .. sort of. You installed the Steam application then purchased and downloaded their customized versions of a game. Depending on the title, you either “rented” it (paying a small monthly fee to continue using it) or you purchased a one-time license that allowed you to keep playing the game as long as you wished. The primary benefit they offered was bringing popular titles to PC users without forcing them to leave their PC and move to their gaming system. Before the advent of internet-enabled gaming systems, Steam offerings also usually added some form of networking or cooperative play to the title.

They had good ideas overall, and in the rapidly shifting landscape of digital gaming, Steam demonstrated a nimbleness and insight that gained them a good measure of respect … and business. In fact, over time they’ve adapted and adopted new technology, new paradigms of gaming, and a keen sense of what the community wanted to stay popular. They also developed a good reputation among their target customers for reliability and decency. Even though some of their products turned into massive boondoggles, they kept their offerings varied and always on the cutting edge. They not only did good by themselves, they did good for their customers, and that gained them a valuable “In” with the very fickle gaming customer.

What Is A Game?

If you noticed, the above two paragraphs use one term a lot. Gamer, gaming, games … over and over again. That’s because the real focus of Steam is the customer wanting to spend a little money to get their hands on … a Game. Yes, even though the first concept that springs to mind when encountering the term “Game” is something that lets you shoot at, be shot at, engage in conflict and battle .. the so-called “Shooter” .. the Gaming genre is much more varied and incorporates everything from Mah-Jong to Portal.

But what really distinguishes a “Game” from a Virtual World environment like Second Life? What are the key attributes of a Game, and are those attributes found in Second Life in the same manner as they are found in a traditional game?

The Guts of a Game

Without dipping my toes into the “Is Second Life just a game” arguments (which are still unresolved despite years of discussion), I think I can safely address the issue of the “Think” behind a game and how that might fit into the structure of Second Life.

Games by and large are designed to provide an environment of rules, goals and interactions that surround the player from the time they enter the starting point and all during their time playing. Any time the player is “let loose” .. left uncontrolled or without a clear goal .. that’s a failure in a game and is carefully weeded out during the development process. Even though there may be pauses in the action or moments where the player feels like they are idling, those moments are specifically engineered to serve as strategic interludes in the furtherance of game play. Even turn-based games have very clear steps or actions which can come next. Thus the concept of “flying wild” in a game is just something that won’t ever be found. Well, at least not in the successful games anyway.

Flying Wild in Second Life

On the contrary to the above, the essence of Second Life is that almost nothing is actually controlled or choreographed. From the moment a “player” logs into the SL Platform, their next steps are completely without structure or guidance. There is never a “plan” behind the scenes that attempts to direct the user in any specific direction. Just like real life, the choice of what to do, what comes next, and how to go about it are totally within the control of the user. In fact, if anything is true about this point, efforts to direct or guide the Second Life user toward a specific goal are often ignored or at least begrudgingly tolerated; they generally are not successful and most often find the user purposely avoiding or abandoning the instance as rapidly as possible.

I believe this one glaring difference is what distinguishes “Second Life Residents” from “Gamers”. Even though there is a large crossover between the two (a lot of people in Second Life also love playing online and standalone games), the feel of the two environments is totally different. My experience with people that bridge both is that they find themselves in the “mood” for one or the other. When they want a structured environment and want to succeed at achieving goals imposed from an outside source then they fire up Steam or some similar platform and engage in game play. But when they want to cut loose from all the expectations and just “live”, they fire up their SL Viewer and dive into the 3D immersive environment.

Meeting Expectations

This is very important for any successful package. Careful use of graphics, teasers and the myriad bits of information about a specific game combine to build within the target player an accurate picture of what to expect should they “play the game”. If they’re looking for a specific type of game play, they need only wander the various offerings at Steam to find something that fits their immediate desires, fire it up and dive in. Because of the very nature of the Steam platform .. and to an extent the common internet paradigm .. it’s vitally crucial that the expectations formed in the intended player’s mind accurately reflect the play they will experience.

But this is where Linden Lab has had the most trouble in the past .. creating expectations in the intended user’s mind as to what they will find when they land in Second Life. In fact it’s a horribly difficult thing to create too. I mean, how do you go about building a specific expectation about a platform where absolutely everything is possible and nothing is expected? What can you say about it? “It’s like real life, but with arrow keys”?

The Assumed Expectation

When you put a title in the Steam Catalog, if you’re not super clear as to what it is and what it brings to the user, that user will arrive at certain expectations on their own. Since most people these days spend about enough time to blink .. twice .. understanding a title, they arrive in the “game” with one specific assumption about the experience. They assume it’s some sort of game with the attendant rules, goals and interactions. They “expect” it will feel and act a certain way, so when they rez in, the first thing they start doing is looking for their first clue as to what comes next. But guess what? There aren’t any.

The first point of frustration with anyone landing in Second Life while operating on the assumed expectation that it’s some sort of game play is that despite their intense efforts to find that first clue .. they just can’t. No one comes up and gives them a quest, no signs or environment items give them a clue which way to go .. nothing they can see leads them toward anything specific. So immediately upon landing they quickly come to the realization that their assumed expectations are wrong. However they will more than likely assume the game is just too complicated for them to figure out, or it’s so poorly designed that a reasonable person can’t figure it out .. and they exit the “game” never to return.

In short, the user’s expectations are not met .. and they’re not met in a glaringly annoying manner. Tsk tsk tsk!

Shaping Expectations

What can Linden Lab do to avoid this conflict between expectations and reality? For starters they will have to very carefully craft the graphics, description and instructions on Second Life so that their “Message” overcomes the strong expectations that result from the use of Steam to access it. As pointed out above, absent a user’s lengthy investment of time and focus to understand what Second Life is really all about, they will simply assume that Second Life is yet another game. Even with a very carefully crafted set of “expectation shapers” about Second Life, the majority of people landing in Second Life through the Steam platform will arrive with the expectation that it’s a new game .. and they will quickly be turned off when it doesn’t line up with those expectations.

My opinion though is that no matter how successful Linden Lab is in creating material that accurately describes Second Life to the uninitiated, the mere fact that people don’t actually read or study before they click will doom their crafted material to the “didn’t bother” dustbin. The majority of people launching Second Life because it’s on the “New Releases” list at Steam will not have bothered to read anything about it first. They’ll see the neat pictures (with stodgy avatars or vampires or alien lifeforms) and at the very best assume it’s something like The Sims.

To put it plain and blunt … the mere fact that people use the Steam platform to access Second Life will inevitably lock them into a specific expectation .. and no amount of copy, glitz and pizzazz will alter that expectation in the least.

Accurately Describing Second Life

As I mentioned above, the task of accurately describing Second Life is a tough one. So tough in fact that to date I’ve never seen a description that was less than a few thousand words … AND got it right. Even the various TV focus pieces done about Second Life come up short in their image forming detail. (And of course there’s the few “fiction pieces” such as the episode of “CSI: NY” that totally butchered Second Life in the name of storytelling.) So if you’re in charge of a company that lives and dies by its skill at accurately describing its product, how do you go about accomplishing that goal? What can you do from the helm to accomplish something that none of your predecessors could?

You change the product!

Morphing Second Life

I believe this is what is at the heart of Rodvik Linden’s (AKA Rod Humble) current roadmap for Second Life. Rather than waste more time trying to accomplish something no one before could do, he’s taken the approach of morphing Second Life into something he can understand, and he feels he can accurately describe to the potential customers out there. Since he comes from a background at EA .. and since he thoroughly understands games like The Sims .. he’s gone on the quest to transform Second Life into a goal oriented, game-style interaction package. In addition to such features as Pathfinding and Mesh (although Mesh predated him, he did lock down the developers into turning it loose, so it can be argued that he’s responsible for making Mesh happen), Rodvik has started adding on-ramps into Second Life from the more traditional access points such as Steam.

Previous leaders did identify that they needed to open new entry ways into Second Life, but they focused on the “Big Dogs” on the Internet at the time (such as Facebook) and thus tried to wrestle Second Life into that mold. It’s a matter of history now that they failed horribly, but that ultimate failure was assured from the first day of the effort and thus never had a chance in Hell. However Rodvik has decided that instead of chasing the monster bucks flowing through platforms like Facebook, he would rather chase the slightly smaller bucks being generated by gaming platforms. I can’t really fault him for doing what he understands best, it’s just a shame that Second Life is not now and won’t ever be a “Game” in the sense of the expectations of potential paying customers.

Will the Steam Partnership Succeed?

This is, of course, the crucial question to answer. My personal opinion is that ultimately the success or failure of this new direction will be based on how one measures success. If they put the yardstick up to the traditional “New User Signups” metric then I’m pretty sure this venture/partnership will be branded a massive success. Once they’ve tallied a few month’s numbers and officially announced that it has been a success, they will white wash the true numbers of how many stayed and how many brought money with them. They will inevitably ignore the fact that total income from new customers is down .. again .. and go on trumpeting the wisdom of their decision. We can then expect similar type “strategic marketing partnerships” to dominate the press releases.

However I think the ultimate fallout from this venture will be a further erosion of the Resident Population. As more and more “gamers” come rushing into Second Life intent on playing and winning at this new “game”, the overall direction of the platform itself as well as the myriad devices and solutions built and sold by the REAL population will slowly move more toward game play and further away from the “My World, My Imagination” ethos that is at the core of Second Life’s real success. We will see more and more packages and Sims designed to capitalize on Pathfinding and related features, and less amazing builds, live talent venues and exhibitions of the artistry and creativity that is one of the human species’ most valuable assets.

Final Thoughts

I am forced to conclude that this partnership with Steam to attract new customers will have one of the more destructive consequences on Second Life. When the BoD is presented with the ultimate “success” of this bold brave direction, they will have no choice but to approve and fund more of the same. As time marches on we will see the Second Life platform turning into a poor reproduction of a well-crafted 3D online game. As such, Second Life will be further locked into being 3rd rate at everything it attempts to become .. all at the sacrifice of the one thing it has always been best at .. bringing to life the limitless beauty of its resident’s imagination.


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Comments

6 Comments on Steam Powered Second Life

  1. Crap Mariner on Fri, 17th Aug 2012 3:11 PM
  2. I fear that you may be right.

    Oh well. Until the next platform(s) becomes apparent, we are the Lords Of The Last Days of this one.

    -ls/cm

  3. Bay Sweetwater on Fri, 17th Aug 2012 8:06 PM
  4. People say I wear rose-colored glasses but what about this instead: Once LL ramps up the graphics in SL to meet Steam standards, I grab a few other adventurous machinimists and we crank up our machines with gaming graphics cards and crazy bandwidth and we go “marauding” in Steam? By marauding, I mean we find some awesome storytellers with some bonkers imagination and we tag some content makers in SL to start making some totally sick, amazing, fantastic builds like we can only dream about now. And how about me and my machinimist buddies go into those brave new SL lands and make some movies that will be so kickass awesome compared to what we do now (and they won’t have hulks, guns, or bad-ass robots) that when the Steamers come rolling in they won’t even be able to catch their breath. They’ll come for the game and stay for the life. Maybe they’ll invent their own games there. Or some SLifers will. That’s OK. We’re losing about a thousand sims a year now. There’s room to pick up a few (thousand) gaming sims. And boost the economy. And give machinima.com some superfly movies to show ’em machinima ain’t in Kansas anymore. Anyone wanna come with? I’m MidnightPixel on Steam, looking to pick up my marauding team. And before you dismiss this as a onceuponatime, take a look at stuff like this already on Steam (and there’s a lot more like it if you look) http://steamcommunity.com/sharedfiles/filedetails/?id=89241976&searchtext And then imagine this kinda storytelling going on in SL, instead of in the prison of some video game. If we build it, they will come. You just watch.

  5. Darrius Gothly on Fri, 17th Aug 2012 9:30 PM
  6. So call me a Luddite. I like that Second Life isn’t just like every other 3D game platform. I like that it’s totally unique among the 3D universe and I like that it’s designed to let me build and script and experience what others build and script without having to encounter rampaging bands of juggernaut robots or demonstrating my mastery of the WASD quad at finger-melting speeds.

    It’s a place to live and explore and share and create and dream, not a place to thump my chest or high-five my teammates because we’re covered in gibby-gore and the poor muck-suckers that dared challenge us didn’t know their BFG’s from their hand grenades.

    But hey, that’s me .. Luddite to the core. And I’m not the least bit apologetic that I want the place I found and love to stay pretty much the way I found it and fell in love with it. And always will.

  7. Cerebrus on Sat, 18th Aug 2012 9:52 AM
  8. I believe that SL is far from ready for Steam. As you say, new players will be expecting a game. Structured, with goals and rewards. This is not to say that they will never be ready. The addition of the newer tools (and hopefully many more advanced tools to come) will enable those structured experiences to exist.
    The beauty of SL is that we will still be able to continue our own existences on our own sims if we wish without the need to hit giant aliens with sticks. There is plenty of room for skilled content creators to build these “gaming” sims.
    But they must exist, many of them, for LL to get past it’s new player retention issues. As things stand, those coming in from Steam with the mindset of a gamer will be sorely disappointed.
    I do not think that it will hurt SL. I can’t see that the current residents will quit for reasons related to this, but I do believe it may damage future prospects. A single bad word-of-mouth review spreads like wildfire among communities.
    So a thousand new players sign up, see that SL doesn’t currently offer what they are expecting and tell all their friends. That’s ten thousand people who once were potential customers that now believe SL isn’t worth playing.
    Given a lot of time and much more content this could be a good thing. But not yet.

  9. More Steam, Cap’n! : DGP4SL Blog on Thu, 23rd Aug 2012 1:11 AM
  10. […] catalog of titles. (If you haven’t already, it might help some to go read that post first. Steam Powered Second Life) Since that post, I have been reading many comments and blog posts from others regarding the […]

    […] of the feedback has been downright thoughtful and thought-provoking, as with Darrius Gothly’s take on things. Others have been the expected doom-laden […]