After recent announcements from Linden Lab about Sansar, a number of bloggers have been weighing in on the news. I wanted to call out a piece at New World Notes that I thought made some excellent points. I also wanted to offer my own Sansar Commentary.
A Bit Of Background
First, for those who many not be familiar, allow me to explain. Sansar is the next-generation virtual world platform being built by Second Life creators Linden Lab. Despite coming from a company with a lot of expertise in virtual worlds, there have been numerous problems. After multiple rounds of layoffs and a hiring freeze, Linden Lab CEO recently announced on a Youtube show that they’ve halted development and have put Sansar up for sale.
In his post “What Went Wrong With Sansar: Victim Of VR Hype & Failure To Learn From Second Life’s Mistakes” author (and former Linden Lab staffer) Wagner James Au makes some excellent points. The company, like many others, bought into the VR hype hook, line and sinker.
He also points out Linden Lab seemed to be believing its own hype (notably, that Second Life was the most successful virtual world ever). They also failed to listen to its customers – both are big warning signs that danger lies ahead.
My Sansar Commentary
New World Notes stops short of laying blame on current Linden Lab CEO Ebbe Altberg, I have no such reservations. Though Sansar began as a Second Life Grid 2.0 project under previous leadership, Altberg has been captain of the ship. When a ship is off course it is the captain’s job to correct the heading, not increase speed and head for the rocks.
Sansar was deeply flawed from long before it was even christened Sansar. Ten years ago, BlakOpal and I were very deeply committed to Second Life. I volunteered considerable amounts of time helping Linden Lab. I helped create the Marketplace and also test their Viewer (back when it was still the most widely used client) and server releases. I worked many long hours with staffers, most of which are no longer with the company.
A Dedicated Futurist
I’ve been a dedicated futurist for decades, and have advocated and championed technology I felt made sense. Seeing the early success of games like Farmville, I lobbied long and hard for a mobile client. Beginning shortly after the launch of the original iPad in 2010, I saw mobile as crucial. Second Life was already available on Windows, Mac, and Linux. I thought mobile clients would make Second Life accessible to millions more people. That was in the early days of mobile. We now know mobile accounts for billions of devices and active users (read my post Going Mobile Is Important).
Early on in the quest for a Second Life Grid 2.0, my understanding was that mobile would be important. A couple years went by and BlakOpal and I were busy with real world art projects. I assumed the mobile would continue to be important. Unfortunately, things had taken a turn. By the time it was being referred to as Sansar internally, mobile was no longer an important consideration. In fact, accessibility appeared to have been kicked to the curb. Mac and Linux support was no longer planned for launch. Furthermore, my attempts to find out where it was on the roadmap were unsuccessful.
BlakOpal and I are both Mac users. This new direction meant that Linden Lab did not want us on their next generation platform at launch. Had Linden Lab shared a timeline for other platforms, we would have considered getting a dedicated PC for content creation. A year went by, and we still had no answers. By 2016, it seemed clear to me that Sansar was in deep trouble.
Why Not VR?
As I commented on the New World Notes article, “VR always has been and continues to be a developer trap. It’s a great success in a few niche markets (education and corporate training), but will never be a mass market success.”
For a start, there are still deep flaws with the technology. VR motion sickness is still a significant problem. Even more troubling are the gender-specific issues (women are much more likely to experience it, and more severely than men). To me, that alone is a showstopper issue. The technology is not ready for prime time. Developers should go back to the drawing board and solve it before trying to rush finished goods to market.
Most vocal VR advocates tend to be hardcore first-person shooter players. That is still a very male-dominated category. Aside from the misogyny and harassment issues persistent in communities like VR Chat, it means issues like motion sickness that affects women more frequently than men isn’t being taken seriously. Years after the first studies, and no significant improvements to either hardware or software have been made.
A Case Of Affluenza
Most VR advocates and fanboys (and fangirls, though there are far fewer of them) will shrug off the significant flaws of the technology as the result of it still being early days. They admit that these are hardware problems. However, they assume that it’s no trouble to just buy another head-mounted device or high end computer that’s powerful enough for the latest headset.
These kinds of comments reek of affluenza. The advocates think everybody should be on the VR bandwagon. It’s nothing for them to regularly buy another high end computer and the latest VR headset… They’re well off, and assume everyone can similarly afford to regularly buy new equipment. To date, the sales of VR hardware have been anemic at best. If you dig deeper you’ll discover that most VR headset users own multiple headsets.
Accessibility Is Key
Linden Lab was only building a world that ran on Windows , with or without a VR headset. I understand that they were trying to keep their development costs down, but that decision critically limited their options. It meant their grid was essentially designed for desktop and laptop computer users, and not mobile devices.
If you want to build something everyone can play, then you need to make that thing as accessible as possible. As I mentioned in my comment on the New World Notes article, “The future of computing, and social and casual gaming… is accessibility.
People want to use Facebook and Instagram and play casual games on any device (gamer PC, laptop, Playstation, tablet, phone) anywhere they happen to be (computer desk, couch, coffee house, park bench, bus stop, etc). Focusing on VR was truly a bad decision, but the real critical failure was to ignore mobile (where the majority of social networking and the majority of casual gaming take place) and limit the accessibility to a single platform. People don’t care whether their FB/Instagram friends use PC, Mac, tablets, or phones. A virtual world is a cross between social network and casual game, and any future generation world needs to be as accessible as possible if it hopes to be successful.”
Of Course I’m Biased
I have to admit that I came into all of this with a certain bias. Let me be abundantly clear: I really wanted for Linden Lab to succeed! BlakOpal and I spent many years in Second Life, not only as content creators but as users. Our even considering another virtual world platform only came about because Linden Lab chose a path forward that was going to exclude us, and refused to provide details on longterm plans for more than a year.
Even after we discovered SineSpace, we continued to hold out hope that Linden Lab would make Sansar more accessible, and it was only after it became clear that was not going to happen that we made our big announcement in 2017.
Writing On The Wall
As I see it, the recent announcement was inevitable. Last year’s announcement of Sansar layoffs and a hiring freeze were strong indicators that development was being put on hold, and projects like that require a lot of forward momentum.
The real question is whether this marks the end of the beginning, or the beginning of the end for Linden Lab. They are in a precarious state. The Second Life platform was designed 20 years ago, and it officially launched 17 years ago. Despite countless updates, it still runs on a custom-designed engine and a custom-designed grid. SL did not have mobile devices in mind. It is unlikely that Second Life will ever be able to run well on a mobile device.
It will be an uphill battle for Linden Lab to add features, functionality, and performance to Second Life. They do have a lot of experience in the field, but they are also completely on their own with a custom engine and grid. With Sansar up for sale, Linden Lab effectively has no long-term future plan beyond milking Second Life for all it’s worth. I don’t believe SL will be going anywhere anytime soon, but I think the longterm prospects are pretty bleak.
It’s Not The End
This is where I need to bring up my personal bias again. I really wanted Linden Lab to succeed. Our moment of realization came in 2017 – the future for virtual worlds is still bright, it’s just on another platform.
I’m going to avoid the big sales pitch on SineSpace. If you’re not interested, that would likely just piss you off. If you are interested, you’re welcome to check out any number of posts on this site or on the official SineSpace site to find out more information. Better still, both worlds can coexist. You can take a look at either without it having an affect on the other.