That Was The Equation!

I may be dating myself with this reference, but the original Star Trek had an episode in which a giant android named Ruk (played by the same guy that played Lurch on the Addams Family) recalls and then acts on an event that occurred many eons ago. After much prodding by Captain Kirk, Ruk is able to access the events … and comes to the realization that Kirk and team (and the week’s guest star, Dr. Korby) must all be eliminated because they are inferior and illogical.

Well, the recent announcement by Linden Lab and LittleTextPeople has had roughly the same emotional recoil in me. No, I’m not looking to phaser the ST Team into randomly scattered atoms, but I am suddenly understanding some of the events of the past couple years. If you’re into reading one of my “Wall O’Text” psychological rants, dive in and maybe you’ll see the pathway through the forest the same as me.

The Past Two Years

Over the past two years (roughly) one of the activities that has occupied a rather sizable sliver of my contemplative think time has been trying to understand what Linden Lab is doing. Not only what, but why? And also a healthy dollop of why not? The rumors that flew around have been … educational … but not really helpful nor logical. It has seemed at various odd times that Linden Lab has been doing things specifically for the purpose of killing off Second Life. Some have suggested that LL was just dusting the shelves and tidying up the offices in order to ready Second Life to be sold off. Various prospective buyers have been suggested ranging from Microsoft to Google. But none of the suggestions “Fit” because I just didn’t see LL as readying itself for a sale. It also made no sense to me that LL would be screwing up so badly, in actuality degrading or diminishing Second Life if they planned to sell it off. So what exactly have they been doing?

The LittleTextPeople Announcement

The Press Release is posted on the Linden Lab website. Basically LittleTextPeople (LTP) is a game studio that has specialized in Guided Fiction games for those that like their RPG game play to be fairly structured and littered with AI. If you’ve been reading my posts for a while, you may recall that I’ve talked about those type of “Fence Me In” games before; specifically to contrast them with what Second Life is … a totally unstructured environment. The sort of games that LTP creates are those with a carefully scripted and structured “Flow”, leaving the game player to work out and follow the correct pathway through the goals and quests to arrive at the end. However Second Life is a beast so completely on the other side of the game play spectrum that you don’t find a lot of people that are addicted to both. (Yes, there is some crossover. But you seldom see anyone that is a pure SL Addict and also a total Guided Fiction Addict.)

Probably the best way to illustrate this is by reading the blurb under the heading “About LittleTextPeople” in the Press Release:

“Founded by Emily Short and Richard Evans, LittleTextPeople explores the gameplay possibilities of nuanced social interaction. The company’s core technology is a simulator able to model social practices and individual personalities. Combine the simulations with the expressive freedom of fiction and the result is gameplay that more closely resembles the rich emotional dialogue of a novel, rather than a fight scene in an action movie.”

The phrase of prime importance here is the bit about “… the rich emotional dialogue of a novel”. In essence, they are saying that LTP creates games the are akin to a fiction novel with the exception that each decision point is a multi-path gateway to the next level/challenge/quest. By creating a simulator capable of modeling social practices and individual personalities, LTP’s games give the player hints or clues about which way they are supposed to go, but the player is not restricted to following that one only.

Second Life is …

One of the things about Second Life that holds the most appeal for me is that it is more like a book of blank pages … and a box of crayons, pens, pencils, scissors and glue. What I make, draw, create and breathe life into is totally up to me. From the moment the Viewer finishes loading the world and my Avatar appears before me, I am in complete control. Every decision point isn’t just a multi-path intersection, it’s a freaking infinite path intersection. I’m not limited to exploring the tunnels and scripts the developers laid down in code, I can go dig my own tunnels … or just sit and contemplate my toenails. There is no “end” and really no beginning either. Every moment is completely at my whim.

Without dragging you through the benefits and drawbacks to a “Game” with no end, I’ll simply say that IMHO it’s the single attribute that makes Second Life so hard for many to comprehend … and also makes it completely impossible to leave (if you’re a true SL Addict). Since you are never done, you never want to stop. Even if you have set a project or a personal goal and then reached it, it’s a pretty safe bet that during the process of reaching it you also thought up (and possibly started working on) a few other personal goals.

That’s never true in a Guided Fiction game like LTP creates. There is an end and a point where you can conveniently stop and go do something else. It’s also true of such games that you can “finish” the game; play it so much that you’ve exhausted all the pre-programmed possibilities and now are bored with it. In order to stay on top of such games and maintain your customer base, you must continually release new versions, new expansion packs, new stuff. And every bit of that new stuff has to come from inside your development team. Fall off that horse, stop for a minute or, even worse, turn out some stuff that fails to hit the mark with your customer base and … POOF! They gone on down the road to the next shiny thing.

The Big Hairy Scary Thing

Way back in the dark ages (that would be when Mark Kingdon was in charge) it was pretty much obvious that Linden Lab was aiming SL at the same audience that pollutes inhabits Facebook. A lot of us SL Addicts raised up in loud warnings that trying to shove the amorphous mass of Second Life into the precut hole shapes provided by Facebook was a quick and sure way to alienate the core customer base of SL. Eventually the BoD at Linden Lab decided that M was not “getting it” and cut his strings loose. And then came Mr. Humble (AKA Rodvik Linden).

But now we have a new case of “not getting it.” (Sorry Rod but … it’s true!) Rodvik has been gently and very carefully nudging SL into the Guided Fiction RPG path that he’s most familiar with. The acquisition of LTP proves it. The problem is, I also understand exactly why he’s taking us down this road. Except he’s trying to solve the wrong problem.

New User Retention

One of the biggest problems identified early on in Rodvik’s tenure at LL is the poor retention rates of new users. During the hand-off (honeymoon?) period, a common question put to the brains around SL was “what can we do to keep new users playing Second Life?” It’s a very logical question to ask. Most new users load up the viewer, look around and immediately ask “What are you supposed to do here?” Obviously those that left and never came back did so because there was nothing for them to do. There wasn’t a quest, or a tutorial, or anything structured for them to grab hold of and engage in. They came in looking for an adventure and, finding that such was not provided in the platform, left to find one somewhere else. So the logical answer to that problem is that SL has to give them something to do. In other words, new users need a Guided Fiction of some sort that they can hook into right away.

Targeting The Wrong Audience

However, as I said, that’s solving the wrong problem. Second Life is so NOT a Guided Fiction platform that it’s just not funny. Marketing Second Life to the target audience that is looking for such a beast is just wasting advertising dollars. Since I’m often called Mr. Analogy … allow me this one.

“Marketing Second Life to Facebook and WoW players is like marketing art supplies to the Paint-By-Numbers crowd.”

The target audience that Second Life was chasing under Mark Kingdon, and is now chasing under Rod Humble, is the audience that is looking for something light and easily set aside. It’s the group of people that want their time spent in front of the computer to reach some successful conclusion, to come to an end (or at least something resembling an end) so they can feel fulfilled.

Now don’t get me wrong here. There is a huge market for Paint-By-Numbers kits. Just as there is a huge market for plastic models and dress patterns and Kit Cars. But the type of audience that Second Life really appeals to is the type that wants a blank canvas and some oils or charcoals, that wants a hunk of wood and a sharp knife to carve an airplane from … that wants a junkyard and a welding torch from which to build an authentic antique car. They are different in fundamental ways from the light-impact crowd. The Second Life Addict is the type that would rather build something from scratch instead of purchasing it prebuilt and ready to use.

Finding The Right Audience

Truth be told, I don’t know where the “Right” audience hangs out. It might be due to the fact that there is so little available on the Internet that appeals to that type of customer, but it might also be that other factors have caused them to hide underground. One thing that I find … odd yet logical … is the fact that Second Life has a much larger and creative “Griefer” population than all the other platforms combined. I think that’s because Griefers have to build their stuff from scratch, so if they’re looking for something really challenging, they are also the type that has to create it from the absolute nothing … and succeed at it too.

Once the Marketing Wizards figure out where the “Build From Scratch” customers are hiding, and once they start creating ads that appeal to that type, I am quite sure SL will see a resurgence in popularity. However there has been so much effort expended in trying to make Second Life into a “Batteries Included” kit suitable for the masses that I’m afraid the momentum is too great; Linden Lab won’t be able to nor willing to change up their target audience and go after the “Made By Hand” group.

Fallout and Side-Effects

LittleTextPeople is a rather hefty investment. Their purchase is (I believe) the current management’s answer to solving the New User Retention problem. Except that by catering to that crowd while disengaging (and at times outright hobbling) the creative, build from scratch creator that has made SL so successful, I fear the final outcome will be to have a world very reminiscent of WoW … and not the least bit fun or exciting. Once all the creators are gone and the customer base that wants their adventures scripted and pre-packaged is the predominant species found In-World, Linden Lab will find itself with a world that demands a continuous and boring daily grind of making the next new shiny. But since all the hands that made those shinies before has vanished and moved on to some other Grid where there are no lines, no kits … and no fences to guide their day … Linden Lab will be faced with making all the shinies themselves. And thus Linden Lab will become just another game maker and nothing more.

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5 Comments on That Was The Equation!

  1. Inara Pey on Sat, 18th Feb 2012 1:46 AM
  2. Interesting perspective. However….

    You seem to overlook that point that the acquisition of LTP is *not* actually being linked to Second Life. It is specifically geared towards the “new products” LL are diversifying into, as first mentioned by Rod Humble back at SLCC2011 and mentioned on a number of occasions since.

    The press release itself makes this very clear, vis:

    “Best known for Second Life®, Linden Lab will grow its digital entertainment offering by launching several new stand-alone products this year. Now part of Linden Lab, the talent and technology of LittleTextPeople will support the development of these new forms of interactive entertainment. ”

    Something that is followed-up in a quote from Rod Humble:

    ““LittleTextPeople brings a depth and breadth of AI and interactive story development expertise that is a great fit for Linden Lab as we launch multiple new products,” said Rod Humble, CEO of Linden Lab. “The result of this investment will be a new type of digital entertainment that modernizes the novel as a shared story-telling experience.” ”

    As such, it is a mistake to see this acquisition as anything to do directly with Second Life – at least for the foreseeable future. Certainly, longer-term, there would seem to be a degree of potential cross-pollenisation possible here: the development of psycologically-complex NPCs of the type Emily Short develops could be mapped into the future development of the NPC capabilities that LL are just beginning to test on Aditi – and these capabilities actually *could* have a good fit in SL overall.

    However, at this point in time, linking the acquisition with the development of SL (NPCs or otherwise) is speculative at best.

    As to where LL are going with SL – a look at the Careers page on the Linden Research page would tend to suggest that effort and focus is still very much on SL – so it’s doubtful that the new products will directly impact work on the platform (again as has been suggested elsewhere).

  3. Darrius Gothly on Sat, 18th Feb 2012 2:14 AM
  4. You are exactly right on the stated goal for LTP under the LL umbrella. However, notice I said “stated”. Linden Lab has shown every symptom of being in search of the next new shiny to develop and market. Based on my own personal experience with high-tech companies and their “Development/Support Arc”, LL is well onto the downward side of the arc. LTP offers up something that is new, exciting and fits well within the skull-space of Rodvik. While there will be no direct link, the net effect on LL will be even more echoes in the empty halls in the SL Development and Support staff.

    If LL had the money to go out and purchase another company (LTP in this case) then they clearly were not hurting for cash. Yet even now, without the “New Baby” taking all of Mom’s and Dad’s attention, the SL Platform has been receiving a cold diffidence that proves how disenchanted LL is with it. Now that they have adopted a new baby, LL will swing its crosshairs onto LTP and further abandon SL.

    I think the most disconcerting outcome from the acquisition is that rather than trying to “Fix” Second Life by getting enough skilled human resources to actually accomplish upkeep and growth, Rodvik has instead convinced the BoD to go buy something new, something that no one at Linden Lab (except himself) has any recent experience with. They’re tossing out the “old frying pan” and buying a new one.

    All of the well-intended and no doubt honest statements like those you quoted above, I have seen this cycle and the inevitable outcome all too many times to just buy into a future promise that has never come to pass. What they intend to do, what they will eventually do, and where they will dedicate their cash and people is a promise made by many high-tech companies; and yet not a one that I can think of actually managed to do as they initially intended.

    Within a year, perhaps 18 months, we will see LL pushing the LTP product line to the top of its product line … and being annoyed and uncomfortable when those promises (about keeping SL and LTP separate) are brought up.

    I may yet be wrong Inara … but it would be the first time on this exact subject. So shall we bet on it? Say … 2 wooden cubes? (*grin*)

  5. Ciaran Laval on Sat, 18th Feb 2012 11:23 AM
  6. I’d love to see interactive fiction and NPC’s guiding players in Second Life, however the purchase of Little text People is to do with product 3, there’s another product entitled product 2 that we haven’t heard of, I’m assuming Product 1 is Second Life.

    Interactive fiction and story driven adventures could very much have a place in Second Life, they could change every couple of months, we’ve got some sims that are game based, that’s the beauty of Second Life, different themes.

    There is also, as you rightly point out, the blank pages option in Second Life, some people find that very appealing, no scripted path, develop yor own story, that option will continue to exist.

    However, one problem with any of this is tier pricing, tier pricing strangles development of these sims and continues to do so, until that issue is seriously addressed, we’re not going to see large growth with concepts like this.

  7. Inara Pey on Sat, 18th Feb 2012 2:09 PM
  8. Darrius,

    As I said, longer-term there may well be cross-over; not denying that. But right now the goal seems to be clearly set – “Product 3” is at the heart of this aquisition far more than any immediate SL-focused enterprise – much as many of us would love to see it (and I’m firmly with Ciaran in his comments on this).

    I’d also suggest that your comment that “rather than trying to “Fix” Second Life by getting enough skilled human resources to actually accomplish upkeep and growth, Rodvik has instead convinced the BoD to go buy something new, something that no one at Linden Lab (except himself) has any recent experience with. They’re tossing out the “old frying pan” and buying a new one”, is somewhat inaccurate, as it suggests LL are in an either/or position, as in, either they work on SL or they develop new products. Yet nothing could be further from the truth.

    In fact, a glance at the LR recruitment pages would tend to suggest that the company are as active in recruiting skills specifically aimed at SL as much as they ever were. So really, there is no basis to immediately equate the development of new products with the demise of SL.

    Plenty of companies work with multiple products, and one the whole, when a company is seen to have just a single product, diversification tends to be seen by business as a whole as a good move. So why not in this case?

    Sure, there is a potential longer-term risk for SL – particuarly if the new products are overwhlemingly successful and can be developed with far lower overheads. But that needn’t be the automatic outcome. Either way, time will be the best judge.

    Right now, I prefer to look at this demonstrating that far from being close to half empty, the glass is now rather more than half full…

  9. Darrius Gothly on Sat, 18th Feb 2012 6:31 PM
  10. @Inara – Time will tell. Personally I’m praying I’m wrong. Now I’m off to rez up a couple of wooden blocks and put them in escrow .. just in case. 8^D