The Bridge to Project Sansar
Linden Lab is breaking out of their walled garden by devoting their efforts toward a new product, currently code-named Project Sansar. As high-tech product development efforts go, this one has all the secrecy and mystery of a good CIA Plot or a bad spy novel. Either way, without knowing any particulars of the project itself, we can make some very solid evaluations of their efforts and their chances of success. Perhaps even so far as to estimate how big any success might be.
The Goals of Project Sansar
No company undertakes a project willy-nilly. If they do, they quickly dissolve into nothingness. Linden Lab has very good reasons for taking on Project Sansar. Over the lifetime of Second Life, the company has periodically undertaken other projects in an effort to diversify their income. Smart thinking. But unfortunately they’ve not been able to replicate anything near the success and magic of their flagship Second Life product.
There are of course multiple opinions as to why all of their previous efforts failed, but for this essay I’ll pick out one in particular and discuss it in greater depth. It would appear that Linden Lab has a difficult time identifying the “Magic” that is built into Second Life. Their efforts have either taken a section of the organic beast and tried to build an entire product around just that bit, or they have derived their own (ultimately incorrect) opinion on the success and tried to lean the company in that direction.
Regardless of their past success rate though, the company is in a critical situation of needing a “Win”, they need a check in the W-column … Linden Lab needs to break out of their walls and score a success in a different direction. Well, sort of a different direction.
Project Sansar and Company Resources
Basic common sense time: In order to make something new, you have to devote resources to the making. It has been said that Linden Lab has hired a number of new people, presumably to lend their skills to Project Sansar. This is a good thing as it requires fresh blood to strike off in a new direction. But there is also some overlap with the old blood too. Linden Lab would be remiss to leave all existing SL-dedicated personnel in place. There are some damn good brains on the SL Staff, and their experience should be extremely valuable. Why not use them?
There is also the issue of money. Second Life probably creates more income than it consumes. But I strongly doubt (as do many other company watchers and bloggers) that the extra is sufficient to fully capitalize something as far-reaching as Project Sansar. That means you must, at some point in the process, rob a little from Peter in order to pay Paul. As the CEO, you must make a decision to redistribute money in order to keep the important things alive. Right now, one of the most important things is Project Sansar.
Of course that also means that Second Life will be contributing, albeit unwittingly, to the development of Project Sansar. It’s just basic corporate economics. If they are not 100% funded by completely independent capital then some of the expenses will be coming from the Second Life side of the balance sheet.
The Focus of Project Sansar
Much like Philip Rosedale did all those years ago, Ebbe Altberg has thrown the flag a long way down the field. He has chosen the realm of Virtual Reality (VR) and immersive experiences as the place to be in the upcoming years. That’s a very forward-looking and visionary goal. As a fellow techie, I can appreciate wanting to be in the lead when the swarm starts to form. VR is shaping up to be a technology with a massive income potential. Just being near the front can be a hook into success that is hard for a company to pass up. When you already have a product that is based on immersive experiences and a form of virtual reality, it would just be foolish to sit on the sidelines and do nothing. So Ebbe is doing something.
Project Sansar is currently very poorly understood. Its focus is more a giant blur than a clearly defined spot. But among the blur some details have come into focus. One of the most disconcerting though is the target product and the audience for that product. Even though we really have no set of rules or criteria, we can surmise that the first level consumer of Project Sansar will be primarily Creators, people with sufficient skills and initiative to serve as the Settlers … the bleeding edge folks that thrive on finding and exploring new things. We also know that their own resources, expressed both in skills and hardware, will be much higher than the run-of-the-mill internet platform user.
In other words, Project Sansar will initially focus on attracting a customer base with above-average computer equipment, above-average design and development skills, and above-average creativity and imagination. Oh, and above-average tolerance for hiccups, system malfunctions and total loss of everything they’ve been doing. (Hey! Stuff happens. Sorry!)
A Change of Focus
This marks a radical departure for Linden Lab. The Second Life product was originally imagined simply to be a place where people could congregate, socialize, and build stuff to their heart’s content. The idea that micro-economies would spring to life around the exchange of stuff and around the sales/rental of Virtual Land … that was an idea that hadn’t really been figured into the Second Life equation. It has only been through the actions of the community that Second Life became a giant money-pump. Perhaps that is why Linden Lab has had so much trouble understanding the magic formula; the economy that sprang up is not something they ever foresaw and something they don’t really trust.
When it came time to throw the flag downfield, Mr. Altberg made the decision not to imbue the product with the Linden Lab watermark, but instead to put that duty back onto the first-level consumer. Considering that is one of the vital parts in Second Life’s success, that’s a wise decision to make. Whereas previous products and efforts locked the end-user into just the limited tools embodied within, the focus of Project Sansar is to simply provide a set of competent tools and let the customer make what they want. It’s a good change of focus, unless …
A slight detour if you don’t mind. There is a fairly successful platform called “Facebook”. One of its hallmarks is that it provides hooks for other content developers to make a buck. Several spin-off companies have begun in Facebook, met with good measures of success, and grown up to become standalone companies of their own. The sheer size of the Facebook user-base makes it a reasonable risk to invest the resources required to make something just for Facebook. In short, it takes a lot to enter, but it has the potential to make a lot too. The only thing stopping the entire planet from making Facebook content is the size of the investment required, both in time and money.
There is also a platform model on the other side of the scale called “WordPress”. It grew out of the blogging community’s desire to have competent tools, easy access and capabilities above the average. The people behind WordPress began by making a Free-To-Play software package that anyone could install, and later they moved to a commercial platform that can be used by anyone even if they don’t have web space of their own. They recognized that their customer base was too small owing to the initial resource requirements, and they made a business of providing easier tools to a wider audience.
Bridging the Gap
But now we have Project Sansar. It seems to have a good goal of putting Linden Lab’s eggs into another basket. But it has also chosen to exactly straddle the gap between two very successful platform models. Project Sansar seems to have settled on demanding a resource investment that is very much higher than the normal user, while at the same time expecting that eventually they will host and serve a customer base as broad as the casual internet computer user.
Linden Lab cannot just “assume” that their first-level customer will know how nor even be able to build that bridge for them. In Second Life, they have adamantly and continuously refused to offer any support or help to their first-level creators and customers. They block advertising, do not offer viable marketing opportunities, and absolutely refuse to share even the slightest details that are required to build a truly successful and smartly-operated second-tier business. They not only have abandoned the market makers, they actively discourage them.
Project Sansar cannot repeat that same philosophy and be successful. Linden Lab must recognize that they are asking … no, depending on the first-level highly skilled and deeply invested customer bridging the gap into a wider customer base. That wider customer base will be much lower in skills, resources and time. If Linden Lab does not actively support the Creators needed to bootstrap Project Sansar then the result will be a fractured, confused and ultimately failed endeavor.
Support from Linden Lab
As it stands now, Linden Lab has done nothing of any value to begin that support process. In fact they are actively shutting out the massive pool of interested customers by the simple act of keeping everything hidden. This most valuable time during the initial development stage is passing without the benefit of bringing their hoped-for customers up to speed. For some reason they are hoping that when they turn on the lights and start letting people stream in the doors, everyone will magically understand everything they’ve done and intended to do, and start being productive immediately.
Linden Lab has to support the people they plan on using. To date, they have not once shown any interest in that effort. Sadly I think that is the one primary reason that Project Sansar will fail. And when it does ultimately close down in defeat, my personal belief is that it will drag their only success … Second Life … right along with it.