Virtual Protest Threatens Linden Lab's Profitability

The denizens of Linden Lab’s virtual world Second Life are a passionate lot, so when the San Francisco company recently announced a steep purchase and maintenance fee increase on popular regions of their virtual land, sign-waving avatars were soon gathered outside Linden’s SL office, in protest. Some even set themselves on fire.

There have been protests like this throughout the world’s five-year history, but without a competing virtual world offering all the unique features of Second Life, angry customers have largely stayed put, despite their grumblings. Now, however, there is an increasingly viable alternative: OpenSim, an open-source platform for developing virtual worlds, that was, ironically, made possible after Linden Lab released its viewer code. Though still in beta mode, OpenSim has attracted developers with IBM, Microsoft, and numerous startups, so it’s bound to rapidly improve.

Within 24 hours of the price hike announcement, more than 800 frustrated SL users, including influential members of the community, had registered with an attractive OpenSim variation. That might not seem like much, but Linden Lab is profitable primarily through virtual land sales, and less than 17 percent of its 507,000 active users are premium subscribers who can own SL real estate. (Economic stats here, SL reg. req.) That number has been slowly but steadily decreasing — there were 93,000 premium subscribers in December 2007, but in August 2008, the last published figure, less than 85,000. So if a few thousand of its land-owning users quit SL for OpenSim, accelerating this slide, the company will likely feel the pressure.

I contacted freshly minted Linden CEO Mark Kingdon for his comments about the protest. In a statement provided by his publicist, Kingdon told me, “We understand that this price adjustment will affect businesses and other projects of some our Second Life Residents,” and emphasized the cost increases were only directed at select landowners, who have until January 2009 to adjust themselves to the new rates. “To be clear,” Kingdon continued, “this price adjustment affects only a portion of land in Second Life; it does not apply to private islands or regular mainland property. We made this change to ensure an optimal Second Life experience for all Residents.”

That may be, but anger over this increase (which many consider unfair) and concern over future price hikes have become added incentives for users to consider OpenSim grids that charge less for virtual land. Second Life does retain a lot of goodwill among its supporters (including me), which will dampen any calls for a general exodus. Still, one thing remains clear: “I’m moving to OpenSim!” has already become the metaverse version of the “I’m moving to Canada!” threat we hear every U.S. Presidential election.

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