How strong is corporate interest in online worlds? So much so that the media giant is investing 7 mill not in Linden Lab (developers of Second Life) or Makena Techologies (developers of There), but in a third-party development studio that creates corporate-funded projects in both worlds. Launched in late 2005, the 50 person, East Coast-based Electric Sheep Company is the biggest player in that most unique of Web 2.0 niches, the metaverse development studio. When corporations want to promote their brand and IP in these worlds, they don’t work directly with Linden or Makena— instead, they hire a company like the Sheep, with its studio of early adopters and content creators who are already familiar with the medium, the platform, and in Second Life’s case, the user-created content development tools. SL even has a “metaverse big three”, which in addition to the Sheep, include the UK-based Rivers Run Red and the Bay Area-based Millions of Us.
If you’re still scratching your head about “metaverse developer”, think of it this way: Electric Sheep is to online worlds what Razorfish was to the dot com boom, but instead of creating web pages, they build in 3D. (And much the same way that the first Internet bubble suddenly elevated art geeks into highly-paid web developers, it’s great to see so many talented but under-employed students and stay-at-home moms who joined Second Life early on now working for metaverse developers with Fortune 500 clients.)
But why is CBS is putting so much money into the Sheep, and what are they going to do with it? I asked Sheep CEO Sibley Verbeck, and got some quick replies.
“Our immediate goals with the funding,” Sibley explains, “are to work on a number of software products that will help virtual worlds be more mainstream audience ready and support businesses making use of virtual worlds.” This is particularly crucial in Second Life’s case, for Linden Lab’s developer-centric user interface is profoundly unfriendly to most people; that and the confusing new user orientation are the main culprits behind its low retention rates, estimated in the 10-15% range, so I asked Verbeck how much this funding will go towards improving those. (Linden Lab recently open sourced their viewer software, a conscious initiative in that direction.)*
“All of this funding is being used for software development (our virtual world services business is profitable on its own),” Verbeck tells me. “Interfaces and orientation experiences are an important part of that and are naturally a very high priority for our media company partners who use Second Life such as CBS and NBC.”
Among those projects will be an official Star Trek-in-Second Life themepark the Sheep are building for CBS. But, as Verbeck suggests, CBS isn’t just paying for Second Life UI development, for the Sheep also have projects using There technology (such as Virtual Laguna Beach, created for Viacom’s MTV) and other worlds.
“I would say that one of the key reasons CBS selected us was that we do not limit our work to any one virtual world,” says Verbeck, “but both experiment and work professionally in multiple virtual world platforms.”
On my Second Life blog, I’ve reported that real world corporate sites in SL are sparsely visited, based on Linden’s internal metric of Traffic, which counts both visitors and duration of stay at a given location in Second Life. It’s a raw and imperfect measurement, however, and it looks like the Sheep will spend some of their CBS booty on supplanting that, too: “Other important projects include the infrastructure to enable sponsorship by advertisers,” explains Verbeck. “[T]hings like aggregate metrics reporting for sims that is similar to what you get from a Web site— total number of visitors down to total amount of time spent by users with a particular activity.”
*Update, 2:32pm: I asked Verbeck if the Sheep would use this funding to develop their own Second Life viewer through Linden’s open source program, and he just answered this way:
“We don’t have definite plans yet but are exploring that. I think Second Life would be best served if we and many others provided customized clients or plug-ins for the open source client that adapted the Second Life experience for different audiences or different applications. We will certainly be involved in those types of efforts.
“We’re pretty excited to support Linden Lab’s open source effort so that an open developer community can improve the client software. We have one person full time right now devoted to creating and submitting code to Linden Lab’s open source client and may expand that.”