I’m Quite Frankly Befuddled … And Wrong

September 8, 2012 by
Filed under: Linden Lab and Second Life 

(Today’s post begins with a follow-on to the latest mysterious move by Linden Lab .. the “Gagging” of the SL JIRA service. For reference please read my two prior posts on this subject: “Today Marks The End of Second Life” and “I Feel Sorry For You Rodvik“.)

I’m still frothing at the mouth about LL’s change to the way bugs are reported to them. Whereas the JIRA System was often prone to off-topic rants, flames and routinely devolved into rambling opinion-fests, they still had a vital role in the way Second Life dealt with the inevitable technical issues. It really didn’t take a lot of effort to mentally filter out the “noise” to understand the basic details of the issue. In fact, recognizing the amount and ferocity of that “noise” was usually integral to understanding the importance of an issue. After all, if a small handful of folks post cold, factual reports with complete detail and no “fluff” then it’s obviously not something that has widespread impact or that threatens basic operation of the platform for a lot of people. But an issue that immediately gets 100’s of Watchers, turns into a spit-ball fest and forces the LL crew to delete a few “improperly worded” comments … that’s an issue that someone needs to address like RIGHT NOW!

Think of it like walking through the forest. If a single bee comes out of nowhere and stings you, you’re likely to say “Ouch!” and keep right on trucking. But if a swarm of 1000 bees suddenly jumps you and starts leaving welts all over your body, that’s damn good evidence you need to change direction in a big hurry. Yup, them stings hurt, but they also certainly served well to let you know you were heading in the wrong direction.

How My Wrongness Was Set Right

The basic premise that inspired my second post on this subject was that the company president, Rodvik Linden, was more a victim of this change than the instigator. But over the past week I have encountered a lot of people with exactly the opposite opinion. One post that really kicked my thinking into high gear was a comment on the SL Forums by WADE1 Jya. In that post WADE1 pointed out that Rod’s involvement in the Sims at Electronic Arts was as the “End Game Manager” (my words), carefully shepherding the very popular title into the history books. This was a bit of info that I sort of knew, but had consigned to the dark recesses of my memory. (My thanks to WADE1 for bringing it back out.)

Once I started pondering this rediscovered detail, and factored in other comments by people pointing out that most online games don’t really have a system like JIRA, the error of my premise became apparent. Contrary to my opinion that Rod was somehow the “victim” of this change, it now seems amply evident that he was in fact the instigator. (And Rod, I take back my earlier offer to shop around your resume for you. You’re on your own bud.)

Suddenly this latest move made “sense” in my new way of understanding Rod’s mind. Since he seems to only see Second Life as a “Game” (admittedly one with a really neat set of finger paints on the side), this move is sensible because no other games offer anything like it. Thus if “they” don’t need it, neither does Second Life. The weakness in this line of reasoning is the fact that most online games turn out updates no more often than once every six months. However Second Life turns out updates every week. Even more critical though is the fact that games in general are a very tightly controlled environment with very well mapped out and understood situations (sometimes called State Conditions or just States). Second Life is as far to the other extreme as is possible though. Just the act of crossing Sim boundaries raises so many variables and exposes so many points of failure that understanding and programming for all of them is a practical impossibility. Thus a complex computerized system like Second Life needs … no, demands … something like the JIRA in order to capture and correct all the infinite points of failure.

There is also lots of conjecture that this move was inspired by the recent announcement regarding the inclusion of Second Life in Steam’s catalog. (My posts about that announcement are HERE and HERE.) The basic concept with that theory is that Steam would be less inclined to give SL any premium positioning if they were to see all the Showstopper and Critical JIRA Issues that have not even been acknowledged despite being on the books for years. However, as many have pointed out, Steam’s catalog is already bloated with many other buggier titles, so I tend not to give that theory much credence.

But being the stubborn SOB that I am, I still wasn’t 100% convinced … until I read the latest transcripts from the Simulator User Group’s meeting. (Thanks to Toysoldier Thor for linking me to them.) In those transcripts it is obvious (and flat out stated by more than one Linden) that the change in the JIRA will have a painful effect on how they do their job. Not only have the Customers of Second Life been robbed of a critical resource, the people working to keep SL running have also been hobbled. They were so caught off-guard that they haven’t yet had enough time to try and figure out how to handle the problems this creates. Their spur of the moment suggestion was to start using the SL Forums instead. Of course there is no place in the Forums that can be readily adapted to such use, and it’s pretty likely that getting one created will take a lot of serious lobbying to get done, so it’s still a preliminary concept and has no actual basis in reality.

Going Further – Fixing Rodvik’s Wrongness

So accepting that this bonehead move originates at the top, and understanding that the most likely cause for Rodvik’s decision is his perception that Second Life is nothing more than an online game, how do we go about fixing his misunderstanding of Second Life and preventing future similar missteps? Well, before we can attempt to fix anything, we have to start by understanding what’s wrong. In the case of Rodvik’s perception, his wrongness derives from several incorrect premises.

Premise 1 – Second Life Is A Game
This is a subject that has been the source of some of the most heated and long-running verbal battles. But those debates revolved around the semantic meaning of the term “Game” and had little or nothing to do with the way Rod thinks of a “Game”. To Rod’s way of thinking, Second Life is a game that comes in a shrink-wrapped box, has a place on the shelves of any online or brick-and-mortar technology or electronics store, and can be sold to the generic game player without any prior knowledge of Virtual Worlds or special affinity for them. After all, Second Life is pretty much the same as the Sims, it just has a few features that are different … but those can be done away with over time.

WRONG! This is the first place where Rodvik has totally gotten Second Life wrong. The Sims had a virtual reality component about it, a component that it had in common with Second Life. The Sims also gave “players” the ability to create and decorate their homes and their environments. But that’s pretty much as far as you can equate the two. At its core, the Sims was a game where you “did stuff”. There were tools and facilities with specific purposes and intended outcomes in mind, and though some of them did allow a pretty wide range of possible arrangements, they were still engineered with a single specific purpose.

For example, the building components in the Sims were meant to make buildings. Houses, stores, sheds … whatever type of building you wanted, the parts were there to make one. But those components are not anywhere close to the Prims that are available in Second Life. A Second Life Prim is a basic entity that can be used as a part in every type of construct possible. Prims are not limited to just making buildings. In fact, they aren’t limited at all. Unlike the building components of the Sims, a Prim has no limit or intended purpose that prevents its use anywhere. I’ve seen Prims used to make clothing, hair, shoes, plants, skateboards, sidewalks, animals, paintings, windows, boobies … AND buildings.

So here is the first place where Second Life differs greatly from a “game” like the Sims. It has no “intended purpose” or set of intended connections. It has no “intended” anything. The basic “things” in Second Life, Prims, are purposely designed without limitations in their use. Games on the other hand are built from the basic premise that the players will use the game to do specific things. Second Life is built from the basic premise that there is no basic premise. Thus Second Life cannot be made into a “Game” without stripping it of that essential truth.

Premise 2 – The Residents of Second Life Are Gamers
I’m not trying to pour fuel on the “Are You A Gamer” fire, but I do want to make a distinction that is crucial to this argument. First of all the people that are the Residents and Customers of Second Life do have a large component that are also Gamers. By that I mean they own, play and enjoy the online games that top today’s sales. They are the customers of platforms like the XBox and Playstation, and they are the customers of portals and services like Steam. But they are also more than that. When it comes to Second Life the title of “Gamer” is just one of the hats they wear. In Second Life they can and often do wear many more hats.

In games (for example WoW), each type of player character has various attributes. They also have a classification title. Titles such as “Warrior”, “Cleric”, “Mage”, etc. are shorthand ways to identify their purpose in the game play. A Warrior has certain buffs or advantages in characteristics that make them better suited to specific tasks. Same with a Mage, or with a Cleric. Each title, each classification has a place within the game. Raiding parties are assembled by collecting a specific number of each character class. In short, players of the game assemble Units (Raiding Parties for example) out of predefined parts. The Unit has a purpose and thus its ingredients have specific characteristics. The whole exercise is determined by the goal, the goal is predefined, thus the Unit is deterministic in its design.

When a “Gamer” enters their favorite game of the moment, they choose among their various “Characters” based on the goals they wish to meet at the moment. If they want to hang with friends and run through a specific instance, the Raiding Party may need a Tank. Thus the Gamer will log in as their Warrior, gear up in their Tanking outfit and join the Party. So in this definition, a Gamer is a functional title indicating someone that adjusts their character and their behavior based on the needs of the Unit and, most importantly, the current Purpose imposed by the Game.

But Second Life doesn’t have a “Purpose” in that sense. It doesn’t have a goal. It doesn’t have a standard Unit with deterministic characteristics. The closest thing to a Unit is a Second Life Group. But Groups are ad-hoc collections of people with similar interests. Any purpose they have is based on their commonality and not on achieving some sort of externally imposed goal. Thus the people that comprise those Groups are not “playing a character” in order to complete the unit. Thus they are not “Gamers” in that sense.

Premise 3 – Second Life Can Be Sold To Gamers
Rodvik is quite clearly trying to shape Second Life into a commodity that can be boxed up and sold to Gamers. He is actively cutting back on services and features, drawing thick dark borders around the concepts of Second Life, and struggling hard to convert it into a definable concept that can be distilled into a few highly attractive paragraphs, printed on the side of a box or slapped at the top of a web page … and sold by the unit, hand over fist. But it’s a goal of his that is doomed to failure. At least, failure if the true essence of Second Life manages to survive.

If you’ve ever asked someone to define Second Life then you’ve no doubt witnessed something about SL that I find quite fascinating and enjoyable. When pressed to sum up Second Life in something short of a college thesis … they can’t. As soon as they write out or utter THE definition, they suddenly realize they left something out or said something not quite right and they immediately start to edit or expand on their first effort. It’s an exercise in futility for people, trying to distill something as complex and varied as Second Life into a neat, concise paragraph or two. It just can’t be done.

This is why Rodvik’s attempts to box up Second Life and sell it as a commodity are doomed to failure. There isn’t a single definition or description of Second Life that says enough about it. You cannot capture everything that needs to be understood about Second Life into sound-bites and sales blurbs. Sure you can settle on talking about some specific aspects, perhaps even find something that appeals to your audience of the moment. But you cannot use that same tiny slice of Second Life and sell it to everyone. Further to the point, you cannot easily package it and sell it to a tightly defined audience. Any attempts to do that will not only fail when you get to the next person, but you will have done a great injustice to Second Life in the process. No matter how carefully you think you’ve defined it, you’ve undoubtedly left out something that is absolutely crucial to attracting someone else.

Premise 4 – Second Life Will Only Survive Sold As A Commodity
This is a mistake made by every single MBA I’ve ever known. They have been classically trained to conceptualize things in neat tidy boxes. Boxes can be counted, quantified and monetized in predictable ways. Predictability thus is the only path to success. If something cannot be placed in a predictable, easily defined box then it will not succeed and thus has no future or worth.

WRONG! Second Life isn’t a boxed product. It isn’t a quantifiable product period. It isn’t a thing with edges and limits and slots and tabs. It isn’t something that fits on a single page or appeals to one specific group of people. Second Life is an essence, a concept, a non-definable amorphous infinity of possibilities, goals, dreams and desires. It isn’t a picture frame, it is a classic masterpiece painting. It isn’t a neat row of flowers, it is a single flower with all the chaos, beauty and poetry of the entire human experience. It isn’t a measurable entity, it is an infinite compendium of random arrangements, unlikely juxtapositions and awe-inspiring unexpectedness.

The basic flaw here is the insistence on quantifying everything in our world. The digital world itself is based solidly on the basic rule that everything can be reduced to a set of numbers and values. But even though the digital language of binary ones and zeroes is used to represent it for our consumption, there is no standard of measurement that can be used to define Second Life. Personally I’m very comfortable with the concept of Infinity and Quantum Uncertainty, but it’s a concept that gives most business people heartburn and sleepless nights. Things that you cannot define, measure and quantify also cannot be stabilized enough to understand their risk, and risk without a foreseeable limit is a risk that cannot be taken.

Selling Second Life

Now that we understand what Second Life isn’t, there comes the need to understand what it is. After we understand it in its entirety then we can also begin selling it. So let’s jump in … both feet … k?

It is an essence, a feeling, a world, a community and a comfortable chair on a lazy Summer afternoon. It is a light that illuminates our darkness and fascinates us in its gentle twinkling. It is a sound of friends chattering around us. It is the smell of freshly laundered sheets. It is a place where we no longer struggle against the elastic cords that keep us tethered to a reality we do not always understand. It is a “Home” in all the meanings that word has ever had.

To make someone understand what Second Life can be to them, you only need ask them what most bugs them about the real world around them. When they get done hemming and hawing and give you an answer that makes sense to them at the moment … that is when you can take them by the hand and show them why Second Life is not like that. Or you can ask them to describe one thing they really wish they could do in their lives, then you can open up your viewer and show them how they can do it in Second Life.

You can “sell” them by showing them how Second Life takes away the limits, erases the “can’t do that” and colors it in with “and you can do it twice on Sunday”. You don’t need to find a way to make them want the limited features and goals, you don’t have to sugar coat anything in order to convince them that the “Second Life Way” is the right way. All you need to do is ask them what they want … then show them how to get it, do it or live it as soon as they log in.

Final Thoughts

As pointed out by a comment on another blog I follow, the “Reign of Rodvik” is yet another iteration of changing the upper management, changing the perspective, and subjecting the whole of Second Life to spasms and convulsions that tear at its fabric on a daily basis. In those famous words of old … “Same old, same old.”

But this time, it’s different. It’s different because I think the money people are tired of putting up with the failures at the top. This time I think they’re no longer willing to try one more tweak in the hopes they’ll get it right. This time, I think we’re seeing the last of the “Same old, same old.” What comes next?

Click! “Hey! Who turned out the lights?!?”

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2 Comments on I’m Quite Frankly Befuddled … And Wrong

  1. Inara Pey on Sun, 9th Sep 2012 3:25 PM
  2. While certainly do not believe the JIRA situation is a particularly good idea (or one that even comes close to being a good idea) when speaking as an engaged resident (especially given LL themselves clearly have no idea how the JIRA 5 bug reporting system will work, as shown by Oz and Alexa’s comments) – I can in a way understand the reasoning behind it (think number of SL users vs. number of engaged users actively using the JIRA constructively). Again, I don’t agree with the rationale, but I can see how it originated.

    However, I’m not persuaded by your arguments vis-a-vis the Steam link-up, and I honestly believe that a lot of people are over-reacting. Let’s look at the flip side a sec.

    There are already a considerable number of people who routinely move back and forth between SL and Steam without issue (I’m now one of them, and I am in no way shape or form a “gamer”). There are several SL communities on Steam have have been – gasp! – for up to four years. If those already engaged with both Steam and SL can ebb and flow between the two, why is it automatically assumed that others cannot?

    Steam isn’t only about “gamers” as in people who blast their way through shoot-em-ups. There are healthy communities on 3D model building, game modding, machinima and the like. There are effectively “sandbox” communities there.

    These all appear to be reasonable “fits” with much of what SL already supplies – ergo, and with the right promotion (questionable, I know on LL’s past record), the Steam hook-up does appear to have merit.

    Those on Steam are also liable to have more of an understanding of the social nuances that do go into social interactions in SL through the use of avatars. Again, many on-line games (intentionally or otherwise) actually encourage social interaction outside of simply bashing others over the head or blowing them up as violently as possible. The many and varied videos on YouTube demonstrate this.

    The mantra “Second Life is not a Game” actually doesn’t hold up to examination, even without pathfinding, Steam or anything else. Why?

    Because most people who come to SL actually do so because they want to play, to be entertained. That’s why there are so many role-play genres in SL to start with. We have Gor, we have elves, we have medieval, steampunk, cyberpunk, Roman, WWI, WWII, post-apocalyptic, many assorted adult role-play, sci-fi and all its sub-genres (Star Trek, Doctor Who, Stargate, Battlestar Galactica, Dune,, etc.). Many of these involve combat as well.

    Sure, the approach and execution is different to “hard-core” gaming, and there can be obvious and worrisome misconceptions if things are not properly handled, but I think the gulf between SL and many of those using Steam is not a wide or as deep as people fear.

    There’s also the supposition that the Steam link-up is about bringing hordes of “gamers” into SL or of turning it into a “game”. I’m not entirely sure either of these suppositions is entirely correct – and even if they were, precious few of us in SL at the end of the day would be negatively impacted by them.

    So … I’m personally not ready to call Rod Humble on the Steam link-up, and I do think that doing so now, before the link-up is even in place and we’ve actually had the chance to see how it might function is premature.

    That said – packaging SL as a commodity is a mistake. However, and despite the apparent foot-in-mouth moves of late by the management team (and setting aside the board’s continuing apathy towards users who are engaged in SL, which itself is a whole other subject – and you’re aware of my thinking on that matter 🙂 ) – I don’t actually think that repackaging SL is the overall aim here.

    Rather, and in light of events elsewhere over the last three months, I actually do believe that what is happening is more of an attempt to reach those communities outside of SL where there are people who are more likely to “get” the “secret sauce” of the platform, and become engaged (at least to a point), and spend money here.

    The real problem, as I see it, is the rather large caveats LL are placing around the subject of users being “engaged” in the platform. Or rather, the ring-fencing being erected to limit the degree of engagement future users come to expect.

  3. Teagan Tunwarm on Mon, 10th Sep 2012 3:25 PM
  4. I agree with your last comment Inara. It is harder and harder to engage LL, and actually I would say fairly impossible at this point as they seem not to WANT to know what anybody in SL actually thinks. And by anybody I mean the “residents” aka customers. Decision after decision has been made at LL and over time less and less info trickles out about what is really going on. I can understand the reasons behind it, but I question the idea of how you can steer a ship when you have no idea where the people in the boat want to go…