Monday, November 28, 2005

What is the reason for new users to turn their backs on SL?

It was a non-official statement, but if it is true, nonetheless a plausible explanation for the "Killing of the Telehubs", announced by the Lindens last week. It is an attempt to improve the retention rate of SL for new users. At least that was stated by Babbage Linden in the last meeting of the Thinkers (transcript here).
Babbage Linden: ok, the big discussion that drove all this was about making SL easier to use
Babbage Linden: at the moment loads of people are turning up, becoming bewildered
Babbage Linden: and never coming back
Babbage Linden: making SL easier is a big focus
Babbage Linden: to keep those people here

Babbage Linden: yes, newbies need to find what in SL appeals to them
Babbage Linden:
but once they find it, they need to be able to get there easily
Babbage Linden: not find an event that sounds fun
Babbage Linden: and be teleported somewhere else
And I have to agree: P2P teleporting will make SL easier to use. (I think P2P has many other disadvantages, but that's not the point here.) And while, IMHO, the importance of direct teleporting is grossly overrated, ease of use - or the lack of it - is maybe the most important factor for newbies giving up on SL in the first days or even hours.

In my own portrait post on SLOG I already mentioned my own problems in the first days in SL. I don't want to generalize them too much. Maybe I am exceptionally clumsy. But I fear a lot of new users that are not too savvy with computer games in general or other online platforms like There or TSO will face similar hurdles. It may sound ridiculous to a seasoned resident, but Second Life is too damn hard for many first time users. The reasons are many:
  • The client leaves much to be desired in terms of classical software usability.
  • There is nothing much in the way of a tutorial.
  • Online support is completely dependent on whom you accidentally meet in the WA or - similarly accidentally - contact through the help menu.
  • There is not even a formal manual for the client and the "world". (No, a user-edited wiki does not count as a manual for a professional product.)
Am I exaggerating? Maybe ...

Many a youngster coming to SL with years of experience in early egoshooters or console games will snicker at these statements. A "tutorial"? LOL! "Manuals" for an online game? Christ, who needs that? Simple answer: many people in the most important target groups for SL! Lets face it: for the average player of console games SL is not a very attractive offering. The platform leaves much to be desired in the way of fast graphics, physics engine etc.

On the other hand SL is extremely attractive to people who like to communicate, to people who like to create, who don't want to slay monsters, who simply want to have a good time together with others - or alone, but in the context of a larger and complex world and society. That's why - compared to other PC games and online platforms - you'll find a high percentage of women and people with ages above the age of 30 (or even - OMG - above 40) in SL. These people are, BTW, an extremely attractive target group for Linden Lab. Why? First because they are a large - and growing - part of the internet population. Second: a lot of them have "money to spend". Third: for these people most other MMOGs and similar platforms are not really a competition (because of the personal preferences mentioned above). They only remaining competition currently seems to be There and TSO.

But - and that's a big "but" - many people in this promising target groups need more in their first days in SL. They need a client that is significantly easier to use. They need more in the way of up-front documentation. More in the way of guided tours, tutorials, how-tos - which could be implemented marvelously with the tools available in SL. More interactive support by real people. More "structure" to guide them through the first days. Some of these weaknesses are so obvious that I often did ask myself why Linden Labs seems to do so little in this direction.

I suspect that this has got to do with the dogma of a society and a world mostly build by the residents themselves. This is a stated principle by Linden Lab - and has a lot of cost advantages, too (having hard working natives being paid with glass pearls). It worked fine for a while. But I am not sure if this will work in the significantly larger and fast-growing society of Second Life in the year 2006. Admitted, efforts like the Ivory Tower and similar offerings build by the residents are great. The greeter program is a fantastic achievement of the community. I bet the new Helper Island is great, too. But the quality and accompanying support fluctuates wildly. And all these programs do not attack the usability weaknesses of the client.

All in all this is not a problem the most enthusiatic user community could handle. It is a job that should and can only be done by Linden Lab. There are some steps in the right direction I can see. But at least in the inworld activities I also still observe something that I fear is the attitude to get it done "as cheaply as possible" (= use non paid residents work wherever possible). And thats not the right way to set priorities, IMHO. Any Dollar invested in making Second Life more accessible to casual and non game-savvy users will come back manyfold.

Maybe I am prejudiced with this "ease of use" issue. Maybe that is because in my RL job I am often involved in usability improvement projects for large websites and development processes along the lines of "user centered design". Maybe ... On the other hand I have experienced exactly in these RL projects how important ease of use can be for an IT solution; especially if it is a system on the web, which is used by a large number of casual users. Little improvements in the front end or in some simple support process can lead to huge improvements in the retention rate or conversion rate. I wonder, if this really should be so much different in a platform like SL?

On the forums there is a lot of lively discussion about what features would make SL more appealing to "the masses". The usual suspects are "less lag", "more fps", "better physics/Havok2", "VoIP", "speed tree", "more stability", "try before you buy" etc. etc. And all this is probably true. But not one of this features will help much if Second Life as a whole - the client software and the support structures inworld and outworld - will not become easier to use for the newbie!

Worshipping the Almighty PP!

I had almost forgotten that it existed, the "Popular Places" (all hail the almighty PP!) listings. Back in the famed days of Darko's Cannibis Cathedral, a full effort was put forth by many people to break the dwell record of 30,000. Well, Dwellnor hath long since been defeated, and now people worship at the altar of the mighty TRAFFICVS.

I did a double take seeing traffic counts approaching 100,000, then realized that the number of people a simulator can handle simultaneously was allowing traffic counts to reach new levels. Unfortunately, its a house built on a foundation of sand. I visited a sim that had 83 people in it, spread out in various areas, featuring dancing, tringo, slingo and more. I explored each area and approached the people in it, saying a friendly "Hello!" or "Howdy!" Out of the 83 people in the simulator, I got a reply from exactly three. I spent nearly an hour going to the different corners of the sim trying to find answers to queries that puzzled me... mainly, why are you doing this?

Now, all three of these people were very nice, and when asked questions, after about a minute they would reply; however, it was quite clear that people were gathered at this location to make a pittance. Is this kind of THX-1138 existence worth it for the quest of popularity? Is the metaverse just going to turn into a gym where we all stand on virtual treadmills to ensure other peoples' popularity? Is it really popularity if people are just visiting you to make money? How can these people not realize that you can get L$1000.00 for less that the price of coffee at LindeX or Anshe? Do they realize that the electricity and time they're wasting to accrue L$1000.00 is costing them more than they're making?

I set out to find out the answers to these questions. I just found it very unfortunate that no one was answering my questions, since they all appeared to be (Away) or (Busy).

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Sitting on a Goldmine

Money chairs make me sad. Not because I dislike the idea of an easy way for new players to make a few lindens but because of what they have to go through to get a few dollars.

I get a lot out of Second Life. It's a creative outlet and a way to connect with some really interesting people. That's my reward. Everyone has their goals in SL and that's one of the most beautiful things about it - you can do anything and set your own goals. My concern is that the people won't be able to experiment with the many facets of this place and discover something that will set off a spark to start projects of their own if they are simply sitting in one spot hour after hour.

As I mentioned, I don't disagree with the idea of new players being able to make some easy money. I've always liked the money trees. New players can simply walk up to one, pluck a few lindens and fly away to explore the rest of the grid and maybe buy something. And from what I've heard Slingo and Tringo are a fun way to make a few bucks too.

But generally, I have always felt that there is a bit of a gap between the new player and their ability to enjoy what SL has to offer right off the bat. Many people have argued that you can't throw money at new players, it's terrible for the sl economy, which I agree with. But by the same token, I wonder about how many new people SL loses on a monthly basis because people are too impatient or are simply unwilling to put too much effort into it in order to make money from content they create themselves. I bet there is a slew of people who have no interest in learning about the building and scripting tools. I can't blame them. At the end of the work day, my brain is often fried and I don't have the energy to get started on something new to sell.

This is where the money chairs come in, although I don't see them as a solution to the problem at all. To me they just highlight the need for LL or someone , maybe a resident, to come up with a more amusing way for new people to make some cash. And if they did, it would spare hundreds of avatars from sitting on their duffs while the rest of the SL world goes by.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

A noob comes to town

Hi, there ;)

Contrary to most of my famous co-authors on this weblog nobody knows me in SL. So I thought, it might be ok, to say a few words about my perspective on Second Life, without looking too vain. It helps to understand what I will be posting in the time to come ;)

I came to Second Life in January 2005 after a friend and colleague of mine discovered it and invited me. It took him and another colleague a whole afternoon (connected to me over a normal phone line), to lead me through my first steps. Otherwise I would have given up after 5 minutes. That's because I have to admit (full of shame!), that after a few first steps with computer games in the 80s on a Macintosh 512 I never, ever have "played" any game on a PC since then. Yes, yes, yes, I know that I will get some angry frowns when I call Second Life a game. Rest assured. It isn't - to me; but I understand when others see it like that. But at least I can say with some certainty, that without prior knowledge of PC games, especially 3D games, Second Life if very, very, very hard to grasp in the first day. I still see this as one of the great weaknesses of the platform and believe this is a main cause for a relatively high churn rate of new users in the first days.

But I am meandering;) I just wanted to say that I came into SL with a rough start and soon learned to love it. The weaknesses of the system as a "game" does not annoy me much because I came to Second Life with a few friends and colleagues in our search for a platform on which we could build business applications in a 3D virtual environment. Yep, *blush* we thought we could do business here. How embarrassing. Even more embarrassing: I still believe that this is possible - and I mean "business" not only as a content creator, club owner or land baron(esse).

I - among many others - see Second Life as a first small step towards a future version of "The Net" which will not replace but complement the World Wide Web. You might call it "Metaverse" if you like;) But there are many other stories out there about a future virtual world, in which we will communicate, collaborate, work, play ... live. I like some better then Snowcrash. But thats personal taste. I am sure that this "virtual world 3D" web will come. And it will be fun - SL surely is - but it will be big business too.

I am rather sure, that - like it or not - platforms like SL will be used by companies of all sizes for entertainment, training, marketing, collaboration and more and more for sales, too. Projects like the one Well Fargo did are just the first steps. There are many more to come. But now at the end of 2005 this platform is still in its infancy. The update to 1.7 and its aftermath clearly shows that. Second Life is severely limited in many aspects - in its architecture as a rapidly growing MMOG and as a development platform. But besides being a fascinating world to spend time in, meet people, create, dance, drive, explore etc. etc. it is still by far the most flexible solution on the market for building applications. I am rather sure of that because our group checked quite a lot of competing systems before we settled on SL.

Still not much in the way of "real projects" has come out of the discussions in our group; which is frustrating, of course. Maybe it is too early for a medium scale RL operation based on SL, maybe we are too naive, maybe we are not focused enough. I am not sure yet. But I am sure that SL or a similar platform will play an important role in my professional life at some point in the not to distant future. Lets see what will happen over the next months or years.

In the meantime SL is the most interesting society to observe (and take part in) that I have encountered so far in my travels in the real and virtual world. It is one great playground where you can watch a society and an economy evolve that is not based on (at least some of) the limitations of the real world. But people don't change so easily. Even if you take away some physical limitations. Human nature has a great inertia. We can fly in SL but we still build most of our houses as if we could not. And the need to define ourselves in a larger, but closely knit group with strong emotional ties is so strong that many have begun to use their profile to define a family of their choice: sisters, brothers, parents, children ...

And maybe this is the most fascinating aspect of Second Life at all: how residents use the limited tools provided to build not only a new world but a new society, too - with many similarities to the Real World but many interesting differences.

Lest I forget: Of course I have a 1st Life, too. (I prefer not to call it "real life", SL is very "real" to me!) In my 1st Life I am a German, in my forties, married and happy father to a little son. My professional life always was dominated by "new technologies". In the 90s I founded one of the first German internet agencies, which through a series of new economy mergers now is one of the largest firms in this field in the country. I was CTO for this group for a while before I left it some two years ago looking for new adventures in technology ;)

Everyone wants to be a land baron(esse)

The Linden propaganda seems to have succeded. If you have a look at some of the latest auction results one can get the impression that ambitous new players are entering the land market and prices are on the rise. The market is heating up. Many residents seem to find the job of "land baron(esse)" interesting.

Everybodys favourite Land BaronesseOf course ... with Philip touting Anshe (pictured to the right) as an example for a player making "six figures a year".

Seeing the rising prices at the auctions and the envy and hatred with which some residents look at the land barons made me curious and I did a little calculating.

The result? Alas, "getting rich quick" is not as easy as some may expect. At first look it seems that all you need is some investment money. Buy sims cheap at the auctions and sell them with a nice markup. Easy, quick! Or is it?

Take one of the auctions results for example:

A fresh sim was sold at some 1,600$. This is a rather high price but not especially unusual these days. The sim had some 61,000 sqm usable land (the rest is Linden protected). A quick calculation results in an avarage price of 6.7 L$ per sqm (at an exchange rate of 255L$/$) that the owner needs to break even. I am not sure if this is a price you actually can fetch for this type of land (I have not looked at it in detail). But 6.7 or 6.8 is a rather common price for nice flat land in the last weeks. So far so good.

But, oops, I forgot: the auction price is not the only cost connected with the buying of a sim. You have to pay tier for the additional land while you own it. Actually you have to pay tier for PEAK land ownership in an accounting period. So you have to add some 200$ to the price. Or more ... if you don't succeed in selling the land in the first month. (There are situations where the cost is less, but only if you have rather large holdings and can sell the land really, really fast. Possible but not easy. In effect it is hard to sell a sim without additional tier costs of 190 - 220$.)

OK, this added cost leads to a price of a little less than 8.5 L$/sqm to break even with the deal. Hmmmmm ... might be hard to achieve that price on the current market.

But wait! Didn't we talk about "get rich quick"? A little profit might be nice. I know "profit" is a dirty word for some. But no way to get rich without a profit;) So we add 100$ (a markup on cost of less than 10%). And please don't forget that it means work to parcel up a sim.

Please don't laugh. Believe me: to cut a sim into parcels of the sizes that are going best on the market (512, 1024, 2048 etc. and combinations thereof) takes time - especially when the sim contains oddly shaped protected areas. I talked to land barons and even when you take their words with a discount I estimate that it takes at least 3 - 4 hours of work to research, bid, take over, set up and list (in land sales) a sim. At a markup of 100$ this means you get 25$ per hour. Not bad but no way to "get rich quick".

Oops, and I forgot that if you want to get the hard earned money out at one of the currency exchanges you have to add more costs: fees (or "spread") on the exchange and PayPal commissions. And with all this added, said land baron has to ask more than 9.0 L$/sqm. And now it is beginning to get a little implausible. Prices like that may be achievable for some waterfront land or in the vincinity of a telehub. But this sim wasn't either.

Land is not exactly rare in SL these days
Land is not exactly rare these days in SL ...

This was just one especially striking example. There are more. And you don't have to look at the auctions with the high bids. Depending on the amount of sellable land it might even be hard to break even with the starting offer of 1,000 US$. Thats why the auctioning process for some sims seems to take forever to start. They are a bad deal even of you only pay 1,000. Selling a pure water sim for 6L$/sqm? Plain grass land for 8.5L$/sqm? Not easily. But some budding land barons seem to hope for exactly that. And there is lots of land on the market these days.

Looks like an overheated market to me.

By the way: contrary to the real estate business in RL its not possible for a land owner to simply wait out the market and speculate on rising prices. Tier payments would eat you up. Tier is the great factor which differentiates the real estate business in RL from SL. You have to be fast in here!

I am NOT saying, that you can't make money in the land business. Obviously you can. But it's in no way "easy" in the current market.

Finally one good tip for all wannabe land barons: as frustrating as it sounds, when you finally see that you outbid Anshe there is not allways reason to rejoice. It usually means that you made a bad deal;) (If you don't have insider information about future telehubs or such). She is very experienced in estimating market prices, has a better cost structure made possible in part by larger volume and might get better prices for her L$ at her own currency sales. At auction prices where she still makes a profit, a smaller land baron is already in the red.

If you are looking for a quick and easy way to get rich - maybe you better start looking in another direction.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Finding Second Life

Linden Lab has recently created a new program called "Second Life Surrealty", which gives new residents a home in Blumfield when they upgrade to a premium account. Blumfield is a fantastic rendition of the types of suburban neighborhoods that sprung to existence in the 1950s. It is appropriately being compared to Levittown, a planned suburban neighborhood created 30 miles from New York City between 1947 and 1951. William Levitt built affordable homes after WWII to address a local housing shortage as soldiers returned from war, stating, "We believe that every family in the United States is entitled to decent shelter." With a $10 down payment and $90 upon moving in, an American family could have the foundations for tackling the challenges of life. I grew up near Levittown, so upon hearing Linden Lab's announcement, I took a trip to Blumfield.

Blumfield, much like Levittown, provides new residents a place to call home as they begin to build a Second Life. New residents are given the choice to move into one of six different styles of homes (created by resident architects for a Linden sponsored contest) in neighborhoods filled with residents in the same stage of their new virtual lives. The 14 x 14 homes have either 2 or 3 rooms, and the one I was invited to visit had a cozy fireplace. I was lucky enough to run into a number of residents inhabiting Blumfield all extremely excited to have been offered the opportunity to move into a new home while they master the basic skills of Second Life. Each resident had a similar pre-Blumfield story, "I hung around 1 or 2 clubs, frequently trying to win their raffles" and like Rhinohorn Axon, who was learning how to texture by replacing his front door, felt very good about having a place to call home. Rhinohorn told me "I felt like a hobo and this gives me a sense of belonging. A sanctuary from which I can learn the basics" and then when asked if he will ever move out of Blumfield said "If I ever spend enough time to determine a way to make an income, I probably will."

When I asked new resident WhiteWulfe Hauptmann what his favorite thing about Blumfield was, he answered "just a place to call my own". While WhiteWulfe was waiting for the official move in notice, he was noticeably excited to have a place where he could learn more about creating content in Second Life. In anticipation of having a place to build he told me, "I can't wait until I can move and take on the offer to apprentice to build race engines, though." Another resident told me she was 3 weeks into Second Life, bored, and was thinking about leaving, when she was offered a place in Blumfield which "gives me something to do".

None of the residents I spoke with had heard of any resident efforts to create villages for new users, or really understood the new land program. These future land barons, content creators, animators, and game developers all appreciated the opportunity to have a place to call home while they learned what Second Life was all about. Retention is an important issue the world of Second Life faces. The more people who find an anchor, a place to learn the basics and develop the skills to make it in this virtual world, the larger the overall active population will become. With so much to see and do in an increasingly expanding and complex world, it's easy for new residents who do not have a specific goal to accomplish in SL to get lost in the Sea of Second Life. Blumfield is a really attractive place for new residents to learn the ropes, but after they find their niche, they will want to move into their own plots. Encouraging residents to stay and become active members of the Second Life economy creates a larger market for land sales and rentals, clothing, vehicles, games, and just about every other resident run business inside of Second Life. Diversity, customization, creation and a feeling of self are the defining qualities of Second Life and the homogeneous design of Blumfield will eventually drive these same residents to find other places across the grid to settle. But for now, they have a place to call home, a reason to return and "a sanctuary to learn the basics."

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Fear of Music

Tuesday I was admiring Octal Khan's house with some friends. Octal's house has been carefully textured to create the illusion of diffused summer light, and the effect is quite nice. It's also laid out very realistically, like an actual house would be; as a consequence, it's preferable to negotiate the tight (for SL) spaces in mouselook.

Each room has a specific purpose, including a kitchen, livingroom, bedroom, etc. One room which immediately grabbed my attention was the music room. It was lovingly crafted to mimic a modern home studio, with electronic keyboards and a centralized desktop computer to run everything. Of course none of it was functional, but it looked very tactile to me.

Octal in his music room.

I said aloud "I wish Linden Lab would integrate a General MIDI module into the Second Life client." Marcos Fonzarelli countered with something along the lines of (and I paraphrase) "No way. I've heard enough crappy MIDI files on the Web to last me a hundred lifetimes, thankyouverymuch." And he has an excellent point there...nobody likes MIDI on the Web. At the same time, I've heard enough bad techno streaming from parcels all across the Second Life grid to kill my higher functioning brain cells many times over. Audio can be abused in so many ways.

What made me think about MIDI in this circumstance had nothing to do with playing prerecorded music. It was about giving musicians a way to collaborate in Second Life.

A MIDI file is different from a sound file in that it actually contains no audio information. Rather, it is a set of instructions sent to an electronic instrument, telling it what sounds to use, what notes to play, how loudly to play, etc. Because MIDI files contain no actual audio information, they are much smaller than WAV or MP3 files (which is why they're popular on the Web). The downside is that it is up to the instrument receiving the MIDI information as to how to interperet it. An instrument built by Yamaha may play the same MIDI file very differently from an instrument built by Roland.

In the early 90s instrument makers collaborated on the General MIDI specification. Among other things, the General MIDI spec defines a predictable list of electronic instrument sounds for MIDI use. So if I make a MIDI file that sends the information "play sound number 22," both the Yamaha and Roland instruments know I want an accordian sound. The Yamaha accordian may sound different from the Roland accordian, but at least we know we can expect to get an accordian sound of some kind.

When you listen to MIDI files on the Web, generally you are hearing them played by a software synthesizer...a computer program that acts as a musical instrument. Often the software synthesizer is embedded into your sound card. On Macs it is integrated into QuickTime. And there are any number of standalone software synthesizer programs available for purchase or download.

What if Linden Lab licensed a decent-quality, General MIDI-compatible software synthesizer to integrate into the Second Life desktop client? It would be controllable via Linden Scripting Language, allowing people to create bandwidth-efficient musical instruments. Because the sounds would all be produced locally on your computer, rather than streamed from the Internet, performance would be lightyears better than the streaming audio we're familiar with in SL; The amount of data necessary to trigger the sounds is tiny.

Imagine buying a drum kit in SL. It comes with drumming animations for your avatar, and when you activate the drums a HUD appears on your screen with visual representations of all the drum heads in the set. Click on the snare, and a signal is sent to the software synth embedded in every SL client within listening distance to play General MIDI percussion sound number 40. Click the bass drum and percussion sound number 36 plays.

Your friend buys a guitar, which works similarly to the drum kit, except it plays General MIDI sound 30 (overdriven guitar). The cool part is you can both play at the same time, in real time. Add a couple more friends with instruments, and you have a Second Life band that can actually perform live in-world.

I admit that I have painted a simplistic picture here. Even the fastest data transfer in SL can be affected by lag, and mouse clicking on HUD objects is not the best interface for playing anything other than the simplest music. I have no idea of the technical hurdles that would be involved in adding the necessary MIDI tools. Nonetheless, I think it's an interesting idea, and would be a huge step in allowing musicians to participate more fully in their Second Life.

What do you think? Far fetched? Leave your feedback at Prim Heavy.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Half Empty, pt. 2

Half Empty, pt. 1

I remember as a newbie I spent a some time just hanging out at Joan's in Kissling (still there relatively unchanged, although these days it features a somewhat incongruous R2-D2 wandering about). Joan's has a marina feel, with docks, boats, and open air builds. It's bright and touristy. And it never felt empty to me, though I was often the only one there. I attribute this in a large part to the sound of water lapping at the docks, and the ever-circling gulls with their characteristic cries.

Pol at Joan's.

Any veteran of Second Life knows that circling birds are child's play to script, and where to track down a freely available ambient sound script. The point is that basic touches like these, working in harmony with the environment, can make a significant difference in how visitors perceive your build.

People understand this instinctively, which is why you see so many water features across the grid. In addition to being terrific eye candy, they add motion (and often sound) to give a sense of human presence to the world. Many water features, such as fountains, are already partially integrated with their environment simply by being both a scripted and architectural object. Contrast this with the ubiquitous "spinning box" signs, which add superficial motion but are made to grab eyeballs rather than to contribute to environment. Integration is key.

This doesn't mean we always have to go with the expected. For example, Fallingwater Cellardoor of Fallingwater Flowers recently showed me a sample from her new batch of plants. Her prim-based plants have always been equal parts sculpture and organics, and now she's adding some interesting scripted behaviors; her "bug-catcher" flower snatches a buzzing insect out of the air. It's a nice surprise, and I imagine that it would be even cooler if you stumbled across it in somebody's garden.

You can make comments about this entry at Prim Heavy.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Postmortem of a Machinima Festival

In the last weekend of October, the Alt-Zoom Studio group hosted Second Life's first in-world Machinima Festival. Machinima is the art of making movies using a real-time computer rendering - aka making movies in a virtual world. The purpose of this was to see if it was feasible to make movies *and* screen them in SL.

What went right:
The Test
The festival was held over Halloween weekend, so I decided to crib a format from a college festival I had participated in: The Ed Wood Film Festival. In Real Life, we were given 24 hours to write, shoot, and edit a movie "in the spirit of Ed Wood," and all the films were screened the evening after the deadline. I decided to follow the format, with one change, I would give SL residents 72 hours to complete their films. This format was ideal for several reasons - first, Ed Wood was a horrible director, so it meant that filmmakers felt very little pressure to make a "good" movie - so it was more likely they would make one. Second, the short timeline would keep people from getting bored, or too ambitious, and not finishing the films they started. The screening of the films shortly after the films were made kept excitement levels high enough to attract a decent crowd to the screening, but Halloween night meant that the crowd didn't get so big that poor framerates made the movies unwatchable.
All of this worked well, and it meant that the movies were able to be made, and shown in the same weekend. The films were very watchable, and well received, and the filmmakers were very happy to be able to show their work to a live, receptive audience.

The Movies
We got 4 entries, which is not as many as I had hoped for based on initial forum excitement, I was hoping for twice that. On the other hand, all of the entries were exactly what I was looking for - they were bad, but in a hilarious way. They can all be viewed now at They range in length from about a minute to 20 minutes, giving me about 40 minutes of footage, which was a nice length for a Second Life event. They were generally featuring zombies or aliens, which was appropriate for the theme, and perfect for Halloween. The general quality was much better than I had hoped for - but I shouldn't be surprised given the pool of talent Second Life draws upon.

The Screening
With the help of Launa Fauna and Francis Chung, I built a theatre to screen the movies in. At first, I wanted to find land on the mainland facing over the void, over a sim border, within easy flying distance of a Telehub, to make a theatre that could hold 80, with minimal frame loss. I was not able to do this, but I have been leasing an island from Linden Lab for the purpose of making machinima on. The "ground state" of that island is empty, and only a few small sets sit out there now. Using the estate tools, I was able to raise the agent limit, and of course, I could put the telehub wherever I wanted it.
I posted to the forums the when and where of the forums, and also listed the event. At 8pm on Monday night, folks started to poof into the theatre. I had designed the theatre to be completely closed in from the rest of the island to enhance the experience - no one would be distracted by the few random sets outside. I gave about 10 minutes into the hour for the audience to find seats, then gave a short talk about what Alt-Zoom is trying to do, and thanking everyone who helped make the festival happen. Then we played the films.
The theatre seats were scripted to force your gaze towards the screen from just behind your head, I think that it actually felt like watching movies in a real theatre. My host, Lunarpages served the movies perfectly - they started playing almost instantly after I hit "play" on a slightly modified Linden Media Player. I forgot to "cut the lights" - aka, drop the sun, but no one seemed to mind. 40 minutes later, after the "lol", "rofl", and "lmao" settled, we finished a event some older users claimed was "the most fun I've ever had in SL."

What went wrong:

Not enough time!
72 hours might be enough for the filmmakers to complete their movie, but if it wasn't for a lot of cooperation from them and my theatre crew, I wouldn't have had it ready to screen in time. My plan was to edit all the individual films into a single longer file, making it easier to set up the streaming. I managed to get all the films put together in Adobe Premiere, along with transitions, etc, by 6pm (having left work early to do so), but the full movie took an hour to render to file. This meant that if I didn't get it right the first time, I wouldn't have time before the event started to re-do it. The final file spit out, and I dragged it into QuickTime to play - it was looking good until the sound kicked in, and I had to tear my headphones off my head. It was loud, squealing, and awful. I quickly tried to export the sound only from Premiere - I could put it in using QuickTime Pro, but Premiere crashed - tried again, same result. I tried to convert some of the individual movies to QuickTime compatible, and Premiere just wouldn't work. If I had given myself an extra day, I could have taken more time to experiment with sound codecs and quality. For the next festival, I am giving myself 3 days.

What is the best format to be played in Second Life? I don't know - but I have a better idea now. I did not specify what format to turn in a film, because I was confident that Premiere could convert them safely. Unfortunately, because of the failure of premiere, I was left with 4 movies, two of which were in formats that QuickTime could not play! I was able to get a hold of one of the filmmakers, who was able to convert and give me a link last minute, but the fourth film was not shown at the screening because I could not convert it. I don't want to specify formats in the future, because movie makers using free editors like Windows Movie Maker will be excluded, but I am hesitant to shell out the $600 to purchase Autodesk's Cleaner software, an industry standard for format conversion, even though Premiere failed.

The forums do not reach out to enough Second Life users. I was hoping they would spread via word of mouth, but there was not enough time. I also got a hit, but I'm not sure that it helped at all. I have a feeling that this will be a constant struggle for the next several festivals - trying to capture the interest of residents and non-residents alike to both make the movies, and to show up at the in-world screening. There are several decent out-of-world vectors - New World Notes, SL Herald, Snapzilla - but I'm not how to pursue advertising in-world.

What's Next?
Overall, I think that this Machinima Festival was very successful, so I have already announced the next one. One thing that is very apparent from what went wrong is that organizing the festival is just as difficult and time consuming as actually making a movie. I am not sure yet that this next one will be more successful than the Ed Wood project - I think that it needs at least a weeks worth of preparation before announcing the project in order to get ahead in the publicity right. This project, which I am calling the Take 5 Machinima Festival, will have a different format as well, limiting movie makers to a 5 minute film, but giving a month to make one. I'd love to see films from all of SLog's Readers!

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Around the SL blogosphere

Recent interesting entries in the SL blogosphere:

Gwyneth Llewelyn on “generations” of SL users – if you found Aimee’s politics article interesting, you might also enjoy Gwen’s post.

Jauani Wu, always a colorful and controversial character on the forums, has a brand new blog -- I particularly liked his response to prok in the comments section of the Nov. 4th post where he discusses the role the avatar can play in the building process.

PARC's Play On has a short post on avatar communication, summarizing a recent conference presentation they did. Much of Play On focuses on WoW (I have never played), which is not surprising given that mmorpg’s market dominance. The Daedalus project also has some interesting analyses on mmorpgs, including one on buying gold.

Finally, on the breaking news front, check out this post on Clickable Culture where Forterra Systems, formerly There, has filed patent suits claiming infringement against methods for instant messaging with a 3D virtual environment. EDIT: speaking of Clickable Culture, this post is also interesting.

Comments or other interesting links? send me an IM in-world or PM me on the SL forums.

Monday, November 07, 2005

The Pitter Patter of Size Zero Feet

"Cut off your toe. When you are queen you will no longer have to go on foot." "Cut a piece off your heel. When you are queen you will no longer have to go on foot." - Words from the Stepmother from Cinderella to her two daughters.(Grimm's Fairytales)

Imagine if you will, that in this fairytale land we call Second life that in order to fit in one must stuff their foot into a tiny slipper. A size zero slipper as it shall be called henceforth. Cinderella's two stepsisters mutilated their feet to fit into the size 0 slipper in order to marry the prince.

From Cinderella we will move on to China (where the original story of Cinderella originated). In China it was a sign of great beauty to have very small feet. The people became so infatuated with this ideal foot size that they began binding their feet to fit tiny shoes. This caused great pain for the women subjected to this practice.

This custom is being brought over to Second Life. Every time I buy a pair of shoes I feel like the evil step sisters. Smashing my feet to an impossible size in order to fit them into the size zero slipper. Only to pan my camera around and realize my long legged self looks as if she might topple over at any instant. Without the pain of bindings or cracking our precious shoes another facet of the idea of beauty comes to light.
The ideal Barbie shape, with her tiny pointed feet. Something used to make the legs look longer and therefore more attractive. Have you ever noticed something about Barbie though? She can't freaking STAND UP. No matter how you try her little stilt-like legs cant support her huge head of hair. (On a side note did you ever try to fit Ken's feet in Barbie shoes? I sure as hell did!)

I've seen numerous 6'+ women in Second Life with size zero feet. It's amazing to see how proportion is ignored in the face of personal beauty. We live in a world where people are free to contort their avatars in a way that is physically impossible (or at least damn unlikely) Frankly I like my size 24 feet. Now if only we had toes...

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Let's have a Party

POLITICS, n. A strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles. The conduct of public affairs for private advantage. - Ambrose Bierce

It may come as a complete surprise to you that some people have been discussing government in Second Life. When I say “some” I basically mean “government discussions are falling from my kitchen cabinets like tribbles from a ventilation shaft.” So I say we talk about parties and don’t spare the assless pants!! HA! Fooled you! Not THAT kind of party! I was talking about political parties (with assless pants.)

While nobody has really tried to define political parties in Second Life, I believe parties are emerging all by themselves. You can see people polarize over any issue, and it’s not uncommon to see the same groups of people standing shoulder to shoulder on a variety of issues. So with half a cup of chutzpah, two teaspoons of intestinal fortitude, and just a pinch of hubris, I’m going to define Second Life’s Political Parties!

To start with, it seems politics in Second Life can be charted on the ever trusty “two axis graph.” One axis indicates whether Second Life is a country or a company. The other axis shows the degree to which a governing body in SL (whatever that may be) should intervene into the lives of players. Below I have charted where the different political interests fall on this graph and a brief description of these de facto political parties.

The Nation Party
Official Bird: The Cuckoo
Official Color: Furious Red
Official Motto: “Philip SAID he was making a COUNTRY!!”
Example Members: Ulrika Zugzwang, Prokofy Neva and the SL Herald

The Nation Party started as a protest against the thousands of coffee shops in the US who claim to serve “The Worlds Finest Coffee.” “They can’t ALL be the finest!!!” they excitedly jeered. But just as they were about to start a nationwide vandalism campaign, their attention was suddenly shifted to the voice of Philip Linden as he uttered his fateful words “I am building a country.” Insisting that the quote be taken literally, the Nation Party endeavors to hold Philip to these words by advocating policies that are more governmental than corporate.

While policies on hiring, employees, and marketing are largely considered internal matters for most companies, The Nation Party insists that SL’s customers have clear visibility to the policies and some degree of democratic influence. For example, SL’s marketing efforts should not be based purely on SL’s marketing needs (as determined by their marketing department) but should also act as a social program to manage/equalize customer visibility.

The Nation Party is comfortable with government intervention provided it is democratic. They often advocate freedom of speech but often look for official sanctions against griefers and harassers. Nationists believe that feature creation/changes should not interfere with the interests of current players. For example, they feel that point to point teleportation should not be implemented as it would hurt people invested in land near telehubs.

The Platform Party
Official Bird: The Peacock
Official Color: A Smug shade of Royal Blue
Official Motto: “*Roll Eyes* Here we go again.”
Example Members: Lordfly Digeridoo, Cubey Terra, Slog.

The Platform Party believes that Second Life is a software platform privately owned by Philip and Linden Lab’s investors. This party expects Linden Lab to behave like a company in matters of hiring and marketing policy. For example, Platformers feel SL players are not professional marketers (nor are they answerable to SL’s investors) and therefore marketing decisions by democratic rule are a bad idea. If Linden Lab begins to make bad business decisions, Platformers believe the people will vote with their wallets.

Platformers are comfortable with Government intervention by the Lindens when it comes to maintaining order. However they adamantly oppose efforts to create artificial economic conditions, such as wealth redistribution. Platformers also encourage any feature changes that provide a long term benefit, even if they cause short term losses for some players.

The Game Party
Official Bird: Like, a cool jet powered eagle with sword claws and missiles
Official Color: Matrix Green
Official Motto: “ZOMGWTF its A Gamz0rz..pwnage!”
Example Members: Magnum Serpentine

Gamers look at Linden Lab as a gaming company, and expect the Lindens to exert any influence needed to make SL fun for EVERYBODY, not just the high achievers. For example, “success” (however you wish to define it) should be managed by strict game rules rather than a free market economy. So becoming a top designer should have less to do with real life artistic or marketing capabilities, and more to do with a series of victories over linden created challenges that eventually allow players to “level up” to success. If the challenges are too difficult for success, players could play on an easier level.

The Game Party believes Linden Lab should worry less about preserving the value of the Linden Dollar, and instead give away money to players so they can buy more stuff and have more fun! Gamers don’t necessarily believe this would harm the economy or deter content creators. If economic conditions do suffer from these policies, then content creation would become the responsibility of the Lindens rather than other players.

The Freedom Party
Official Bird: You can’t force a bird on us.
Official Color: Don’t even try it buddy.
Official Motto: “Go fuck your official bird.”
Example Members: Seymour Butts (Unverified member, possibly a prank)

Pegging the upper left corner of the chart, Members of The Freedom Party believe the Lindens should behave more like a country … A country that doesn’t really do much. Censorship is the highest crime in the land to this party therefore the Lindens should not interfere with the creative output of players in any way. Instead, the Lindens should stick to writing software and leave the community to us.

Of course Second Life politics is far more complex than this. These parties aren’t strict, sharply defined organizations. Rather they are like patterns of flotsam and jetsam that have emerged as some debris collect with similar kinds of debris. Some people fall somewhere between the patterns. Some will follow the waves back and forth between the collections. And some people, some highly opinionated people, find themselves solidly on a team…

Temp on Rez: Peace and Quiet

(click image for larger version)