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I can barely handle my first life, but...

I've been finding it hard to get any blogging in lately. Certainly one distraction has been our ongoing kitchen and master bathroom remodel, but a lot of my otherwise free time has been taken up with exploring the online world of Second Life.

Many people in technology know of me from my work creating and "managing" a virtual community named LambdaMOO. One of those people is Cory Ondrejka, whom I met recently at Foo Camp. Cory is a swell guy and the Vice President of Product Development at Linden Lab, the company that created and runs Second Life (or SL, as most users abbreviate it). Cory introduced me to SL at Foo Camp and encouraged me to take a closer look afterwards. I'm glad I did.

Like LambdaMOO before it, SL is a multi-user virtual world that allows every person who visits to add to the richness of that world. Also like LambdaMOO, SL has been very successful in inspiring people to spend time there and to pour serious creativity into the place. Both systems allow creation by programmers and non-programmers alike, and have made it possible for even non-technical people to start picking up programming skills as they express themselves in the virtual world.

LambdaMOO is a purely textual virtual world, where (by and large), all experience and interaction in the world is carried by prose descriptions and typed commands. This can, of course, lead to very rich encounters, as a kind of fully interactive literature.

Lambda Moose

My good buddy from SL, Lambda Moose

Second Life is, in a sense, a LambdaMOO for the twenty-first century. While LambdaMOO is centered around the written word, SL is an immersive 3D graphical world. You are represented there by a graphical avatar that you can easily and heavily customize to your tastes. You can walk, run, or even fly around the landscape, visiting the 3D houses, stores, playgrounds, and adventures created by the other users.

Technologically, SL shares a lot with the many massively multiplayer online role-playing games available these days, such as Everquest, The Sims Online, or the extremely popular Worlds of Warcraft. Unlike EQ or WoW, though, Second Life has no built-in goal, no scoring, no winning or losing. Like LambdaMOO, it's less of a game than simply a very interesting place to visit and contribute to. TSO is somewhat in that mold as well, but several things set Second Life apart.

First, from my point of view, there's the programming angle. SL has a fairly straightforward scripting language built into it, and anyone who has any programming experience can easily start adding objects with new behaviors into the world. Those without such background can often read, clone, and customize the scripts written by others, thereby getting a gentle introduction to the skills required. To my knowledge, Second Life is the only commercial 3D virtual world that opens up the programming option to all of its users.

Second, there's the license that you agree to before using the system. One of the most prominent bullet points makes it very clear that everything you create or perform in Second Life will remain your intellectual property, with all of your rights reserved. All of the other online world companies have bent way over the other way to ensure that they are the ones with all of the rights, and they can do whatever they want with anything you do on their servers.

Third, and perhaps most significantly, there's the in-world economy. Like most other online worlds, there's an in-world currency, the Linden Dollar, that can be used to buy virtual artifacts and services, and there's a real-world market for both in-world currency and artifacts. Again, however, in stark contrast to the other game companies, Linden Lab has fully embraced this economy. Users are strongly encouraged to set up business in Second Life and to take their in-world profits to the real-world currency exchange for translations into cold hard cash. As a result, there's a staggeringly rich set of small and large businesses in Second Life, selling everything from avatar clothing to virtual homes, from furnishings to land for building, and even services, from big social events to training in Second Life skills.

As of Foo Camp, Cory was estimating that there were about 40,000 users on Second Life and that, in the previous 12 months, over $2 million of commerce had taken place there. (That's two million US dollars, or something like 500 million Linden dollars at the prevailing exchange rate.) Many, many people there are more than making back their monthly usage fees, and some are beginning to generate substantial incomes.

Speaking of fees, SL also has an unusual rate structure. First, it's absolutely free to download the client software and join the world. Once there, you can interact with everyone else there, build as much as you like, go anywhere you like, and customize your avatar to your heart's content, all without paying a dime. The catch is, you can't own any land, so there's no place to put anything you create except in your avatar's pockets, and when you're not connected, nothing you've created will be available to anyone else. (Technically, you can get around this limitation by finding a group that will let you join them and use their land for your creations, but many [most?] such groups prefer to see land contributions from members before allowing such rights.)

To own land in Second Life, you must move up from the free Basic Membership to a paid Premium Membership. The nominal fee is US$10 per month, but there are substantial discounts if you pay in advance by the quarter or year. That gets you the right to buy land, and Linden Lab has set up a great program called "First Land" that offers you your first 512-square-meter plot at well below market rates. As you buy more land, you also have to pay Linden Lab a monthly land-use fee; see the Second Life site for the full details.

Obviously, I'm enthusiastic about Second Life, and I could go on and on describing it to you, but instead I encourage you to check it out for yourself. After all, the first avatar is free...


So did Cory say whether they were financially successful with this rate plan? I'd think they would be, and in fact, would be wildly successful; it sounds absolutely right on. Except I have the small niggling worry that a very active subset of the total users would generate them most of their money, and the rest would be lurker non-building users. But the nonbuilding audience probably fuels the builders and payers, giving them a reason to create, so perhaps that phenomenon is ok and even desirable?

Anyway, very interesting!

Cory wrote me this morning to point out an error in this posting. I apparently misheard him at Foo Camp; there's US$2 million in commerce inside SL per month, not per year!

My impression is that, although Linden Lab is not yet profitable, the curves look pretty good, and their investors have plenty of faith and patience.

It looks to me like pretty much everyone in SL does at least some serious customization of their avatar, and most buy one or more articles of clothing, or other in-world products. I don't know what proportion upgrade to the Premium membership and buy land, but a lot of the building is pretty straightforward and personal (like houses, gardens, etc.)

This is pretty much what one would expect, though, much like the creativity on the web: most sites are only interesting to a few people. But, like the web, there are enough people doing really cool things to inspire the rest and make the place really fun to visit.

I found the SL scripting and building UI to be rather cumbersome (compared to LambdaMOO), and don't visit there much anymore...

Like any system, you eventually get used to its quirks and become reasonably facile with it. I mostly don't use the in-game script editor any longer; I just feel better about having the "truth" copy of my source code back on my local machine, where I use SciTE-ez to edit it.