Second Life Special Report: “MSN With Legs” Will Go Mainstream

SecondLife6.jpgGiven the flurry of interest in marketing, news reporting and the potential for generating revenue in Second Life, last week’s New Media Knowledge event was very timely. It was pitched at creative digital companies trying to understand what they can do in that space and was held in a cosy basement in London’s Soho.
This might sound obvious, but I’ve wondering what it is about Second Life that has really captured people’s imagination and I think it’s that it is based on the function of communicating rather than playing – someone described Second Life as “MSN with legs.” I know there are elements of communicating in gaming, and elements of playing in virtual worlds, but the distinction was summarised today by an academic: games (MMORPGs, if you like the acronyms) are about worlds based on genre, activity based on quests or tasks and are built around a narrative created by the game designer. Virtual worlds are about a malleable world that offers different spaces for different genres, about community-based activity and about a narrative created by players. Crucially, players in these virtual worlds want agency – they want to feel they have the ability to affect a virtual world’s content. One thing that was touched on but not addressed at the event is the social legacy of all this virtual communication, but we’ll save that one for the academics.
— Virtual Worlds Are Going Massive – And Mainstream: Mind Candy CEO Michael Smith said you’d be forgiven for thinking that Second Life and World of Warcraft were the only virtual worlds because they have become “the darlings of the press.” He gave a good overview of some of the others, starting with the long-established Habbo Hotel, now running at about 50 million registrations. It’s a good example of developers offering the basic game for free and then charging for upgrades and equipment for characters. It’s massive in Korea, where as much as 90 percent of late teens to early twenties have registered, and the developers’ primary revenue stream is generated by the sale of ‘furniture’ for “tens of millions of dollars”, said Smith. He also mentioned Huxley, due out at the end of the year. That’s a MOOR, or “Massively Open Online Racing” game that seems quite conventional, except users race to win money to buy upgrades for their car, clothes for their character or to buy a house. On mobile he said there still isn’t one break-out game but that we’re on the cusp of that. And James Cameron, no less, is reportedly working on a MMORPG that will launch alongside a film, although so little information has been released about it that most people here were muttering “gimmick.”
Mind Candy is doing some really creative stuff with its own Perplex City platform. Designers (and frequently the players themselves) weave elements of stories and events into real world meet-ups like burying real treasure, planting clues in newspaper classified ads, using actors at live events and even recently flying a helicopter over players at a recent London meeting. This kind of realism presents much more opportunity for interaction with brands and advertisers; advertising Coke on a billboard in a dragon-slaying game back in the day would have been a no-go, but that format is commonplace in the new virtual worlds. But where is all this going? Smith says it’s to the mainstream, and I agree. “The sector is maturing, evolving and going mainstream much quicker than people think, moving rapidly away from its origins of sorcery and dragons. Soon everyone from kids to grandparents will be losing themselves in virtual worlds geared to their own interests. This presents huge opportunities for entrepreneurs, investors, advertisers and players themselves.
— Second Life Will Go Open Source: We were treated to a real life Linden Labber Jim Purbrick AKA Babbage Linden, Linden Lab’s only full-time UK employee. He said Second Life’s users are around 37 percent female but user time is almost 50/50, which means females spend more time on Second Life. He also said you’d be more likely to meet a Second Life user in the UK than anywhere else in the world. Linden will, at some point, open source much of the Second Life software. “The only way for us to go forward is to stop trying to create extra features and open it up.” He did add that Linden would keep some areas like Namespace private because that’s “where the money is”. And as with just about every massive internet firm you can think of, he said the most important thing about Second Life is that it is populated by the people that use it. “We can’t fill it with content – we have to let everyone else do that.”
— Real Companies Need To Engage With Second life, Not Exploit It: IBM’s “metaverse evangelist” Roo Reynolds (AKA Algenon Spackler) repeated that Second Life isn’t a game – it’s where people meet, explore, build, sell and collaborate, rather like the real world. He gave more examples of crossovers between Second Life and the real world, starting with a proof of concept to create a Second life version of Wimbledon – an event with which IBM is already heavily involved. Because each shot is closely monitored and recorded, every movement of the ball could be fed into the Second Life arena so the event was recreated in near real time. This was just a prototype but with obvious and huge potential to create a digital event and related income.
Ben Folds held a gig at a launch party in Second Life this week during which he got drunk and fell off the stage (which could happen in real life) and also chopped his audience up with his light saber (which couldn’t happen in real life). It’s still a novelty that these kind of events can happen in Second Life but users get a buzz from the exclusivity of these things in the same way you would at a real gig. “It was Ben Folds pressing the buttons,” as Reynolds put it. Does all the corporate activity mean Second Life is being commercialized way too soon? Reynolds said it has always been a cross section of real life and it’s like the early days of the web where gambling and porn were rife. “But it’s more interesting to see real companies engaging with it. They need to engage with communities and build on that in Second Life, not just exploit it.”
— Is Second Life Broadband’s Killer App? I don’t want to stray too far into the murky world of marketing, but Rivers Run Red is doing some fascinating work for Second Life. Founder Justin Bovington, AKA Fizik Baskerville, said digital offers the kind of ‘brand immersion’ that marketers have previously only dreamed about. Readers, listeners and viewers are passive recipients to the traditional formats of TV, radio, press and outdoor born in the sixties, and in the nineties, the internet, mobile, interactive TV and ambient media made active interpreters. But now social nets, podcasting and ARGs – alternative reality games – create engaged participants, and Second Life is at the peak of that. As you’d expect, Second Lifers are typically heavy and very influential web users with heavy use of MySpace, Flickr, blogger and YouTube and that’s part of the reason that the web is so populated with information about Second Life. The massive wave of publicity and interest means the platform is generating interest in a huge range of sectors. “We think the reason is that Second Life is perceived as having moved from being a game to a virtual development platform. This is what we thought the internet was going to be 10-15 years ago – a collaborative space that’s both social and creative. Broadband has been longing for its killer application in the past few years. There’s no disguising a lot of the hype but people want something different.”
He said the move by Reuters to establish a virtual newsroom there had legitimized the space, just as the BBC’s simulcast concert in May had done – driving up subscriptions nine fold. That One Big Weekend concert has become Second Life’s Woodstock: “Were you there, man? I was…” The real gig attracted 30,000 people to a park in Dundee; the Second Life version drew 6,000. Earlier, Roo Reynolds from IBM said the event “encapsulated everything interesting going on in Web 2.0 – both user-generated content and social nets.”
Another Second Life anecdote: Rivers Run Red worked on the XMen The Last Stand premiere in May setting up up a red carpet event “live” from Cannes. Pretty soon they had a call from Fox at Burbank about a YouTube video that showed an avatar reporting on the in-world premiere from the in-world red carpet – it had already notched up 67,000 downloads.
And if all this Second Life talk has inspired you, be warned that it takes an average 10-15 hours to properly get to grips with it. Added to that the “Orientation Island” is notoriously awful and you’ll need to spend quite some times mastering movement. One girl said she couldn’t work out how to sit down at a Second Life event and was so embarrassed she had to leave.

This article originally appeared in MediaGuardian.