The Capn Lubs Second Life, in all its absurdity

A CNET article was published today written by my pal and fellow ‘Burning Man’ participant Daniel Terdiman;‘Second Life’: Don’t worry, we can scale. I am quoted as follows; “My understanding of (Linden Lab’s) back-end requirements are that they’re absurd and unsustainable,” said Daniel James, CEO of Three Rings, publisher of the online game Puzzle Pirates.” “They have (about) as many peak simultaneous players as we do, and we’re doing it on four CPUs.”

This is mostly accurate, but of course out of context. This is an excellent opportunity for me to blog about what I think about Second Life.

First I should correct the above; each Puzzle Pirates Ocean runs on one dual-xeon class server. We have five Oceans. So we have a total of 10 CPUs supporting peak simultaneous users of around 7,000 (which I believe is about what Second Life has). Currently the database for each Ocean runs on the game server hardware, but we are migrating to shared database clusters. We’re not sure how many oceans we’ll be able to support on one database machine. So, let’s say we support our 7k pcu on 18 CPUs or 8 physical servers. Please note that Puzzle Pirates is of course a much, much simpler service than Second Life. The EQ2 example given in the article is a much better comparison, as 3D requires a lot more server-side work, and even EQ2 is not doing many of the clever things Second Life has to do.

Secondly, I wish to preface this rant by saying, as I did to Daniel, that I love Second Life. It is teh awesome. I enjoy talking to Philip and Cory a lot, they are terribly smart chaps, and I think that what their team has made is incredible. They are easily the market leaders in the most exciting part of the MMO space. Indeed, they are the only practical deployed people in the most exciting part of the MMO space, if you discount early and niche folks like Alphaworld and Furcadia.

As I’ve blogged about before, I think that Second Life is the flag-bearer for the Burning Man side of the war for the future between manufactured entertainment and player-created worlds. I’m very much in favour of enabling player creativity. People have done extraordinary things in Second Life and continue to do so.

That said (you were waiting for it, right?) I naturally have issues. Most of these stem from one of the strengths of Linden Lab’s culture; Second Life has been built and operated more like a religion than a consumer-oriented business. I like to joke that Philip went up the mountain and came down with stone tablets describing how to build ‘The Metaverse’. Indeed, when I’ve seen him speak, he likes to refer to these immutable laws.

I’m reluctant to flippantly recite the sacred scriptures, but grossly paraphrasing some of them might yield; ‘It must be 3D’, ‘There must be contiguous landscape’, ‘Thou shalt not Teleport, thou must walk to where thoust would go’ (this one just got scrubbed, which is an encouraging sign!), ‘There must be arbitary code runneth over on the server’, ‘There must be physics runneth over on the server’, ‘ ‘Thy business model must be based on real-estate as a limited resource’ and so forth.

My problem is that I think that most of these beliefs are basically wrong, or at least, not necessarily the case for a successful player-created world. Moreover, I think that they have absolutely nothing to do with what the player wants to experience in what is most definitely an entertainment product (even though the religion forbids calling Second Life a game, it occupies that entertainment time the same way that games do, to the exclusion of things like TV). Often, as with teleportation, they are fundamentally and directly in conflict with what the player wants to do (go where they want to go, right away).

It’s my belief that to succeed in building an entertainment service, the player’s experience must be front-and-center the most important thing you consider. As a game developer, I’m all about creating fun for the player. That’s the main thing.

One of the next most important things for us at Three Rings (note: this entire blog does not reflect the opinion of the company etc. blah blah blah) is that we build such player experiences in a manner which is practical, both in terms of the time and efforts it takes us to make, and in terms of the practicality of delivering the service to what we hope will be a large population of players. Again, it’s my opinion that some of Linden’s ‘commandments’ are in direct conflict with this; it would be my suspicion that it’s not practical to do physics and arbitrary scripting on the server in the form they’re offering, as their back-end requirements indicate. Naturally they could (and hopefully will, for the sake of the A/C at the colocation facility we share with them and many another San Francisco startup!) optimise this stuff and make it much less onerous on the back-end. And, of course, I don’t have any particular insights into where the cycles are going — it may be a user-facing task (like culling the player’s view, or somehow handling their interactions) that put the real strain on the servers. All of this could be optimised into reasonableness. I will go on the record that 3-20 concurrent users per CPU is not reasonable for a service that hopes to scale to become the defacto Metaverse. To run with 500k concurrent users in China, like Audition, you’ll need all the servers in Shanghai, and more.

Another aspect of their business I find puzzling is the real-estate side of things. I understand that physical space is the point of greatest cost of goods for Second Life, so it makes sense to charge a lot of money for it. But as a long-term business model it sounds pretty… well, crap. That’s renting servers, otherwise known as a more complicated kind of web-hosting with fancier proprietary code. Perhaps the exclusive supplier aspect means that the margins are sufficiently great, but I still can’t get comfortable with the idea that Land Barons are going to be pivotal to the future virtual utopia. Instead, I’m going to call bullsh*t on the belief that ‘physical’ virtual space should be in any substantive way a restricted commodity. Sure, it’s another way to make money — on Habbo Hotel or Puzzle Pirates you can buy a bigger hotel room or palatial estate — but it’s a minor part of the overall item-based business model.

I can’t get my head around why Linden would not operate with the same model that we, Sulake, and every Captain Insano Korean game uses; mint currency and sell it to folks, have them buy virtual goods from us (for example land) and, in some cases, other players. When I asked Philip this a while ago he said something about treating Second Life as a ‘country’ and managing its money supply responsibly, as governments don’t just print money willy-nilly. I don’t know enough about economics to really say whether this is sensible or not; I know that a simple faucet (time/money) -> drain (taxes/’state-sold’ goods/item decay) economy works out well enough in Puzzle Pirates and we don’t carry an problematic float of either pieces of eight (time-based currency) or doubloons (cash-based currency)… but we also don’t support cashing out of Doubloons and there is no secondary player market for them, as yet. Perhaps if we were trying to manage a dynamic currency market between the ‘loon and the dollar, we might think about things differently. Or, if we were smarter. My suspicion is, though, that Linden has evolved to their currently business model via subscription and found it to be lucrative, so they’re sticking with it. I believe, however, that it will hamper significant adoption in the long-haul as it puts the emphasis on the wrong aspect of things. Of course my opinion here is influenced by my belief that the physical, landscape-based metaphor has absolutely nothing to do with how people will want to interact with ‘the metaverse’, and that 3D is an attribute, like the colour blue, not a requirement for satisfying player experience.

So, having said all of this, I will repeat; I lubs Second Life. I lubs the Lindens. I don’t particularly want to rain on their parade (and oh my! What a parade! Being in the Economist the same week as a cover in Business Week gets them a huge prize… the Economist is the only print media I read these days.) What they’ve done is awesome and they are in an incredibly strong position to continue to execute, with lots of money, a great team, and some traction with a tremendous community of players^H^H^H^H^H^Hresidents. I love what they’re doing to web-ify Second Life, it’s very smart. If they keep moving in this direction, sort out the back-end, and keep scrubbing those commandments off, they have a reasonable crack at being the metaverse.

However (you didn’t think the Capn was going to end on that kind of up-note, did you?), I believe that the metaverse, should a ubitquitous platform for online entertainment ever emerge on top of the the web (which I would argue already *is* the metaverse) will have lots of properties that we cannot begin to foresee, right now. It’s only through tremendous iteration that we’re going to get to the point where something metaversal emerges. To think that we really have any definite ‘rules’ yet is frankly absurd (I do like that word).

I also believe that such a successful platform will have to be open-source in a pretty deep way (which conflicts, it seems to me, with the land-rental model, though not necessarily with the ‘not-a-b@nk-but-a-bit-like-one’ model).

And, in closing, I am going to put my money where my mouth is (instead of just my foot, as usual), as Three Rings will develop something oriented towards player-created content. Ya’ll will have to wait and see that, but hereby I grant open season to ridicule me appropriately when I come down from the mountain with my tablets… I think those hooded robes would look pretty good on me.

11 thoughts on “The Capn Lubs Second Life, in all its absurdity”

  1. I wouldn’t say the metaverse has to be 3d, I would have to say the metaverse must be *immersive*.

    The more immersive, the more you feel like you’re truly interacting in a compelling way.

    And, yeah, coming from the puzzle pirates, I can see how everything is a game to you, however 200 universities and a group call NMC might disagree with you…

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  3. On the concept of Internet as metaverse and how it relates to game development:

    While I don’t think that one game can become the new Internet/metaverse, I do think that all games are a part of our existing metaverse, and that the very existence of this virtual world (the Internet) which connects our real world to its self and plays havoc with space and time is the beginning of a societal change which will move us toward a consenting interdependent and creative community akin to Burning Man.

    All games become, in essence, themed camps (to follow Burning Man analogies) that one can visit, participate in, and learn from within the over-arching metaverse. Unfortunately, the vast majority of games on the market teach outmoded values and lessons (the hunt, kill, and become Chief caveman lessons) which apply to our real world less and less, and to our metaverse almost not at all. The value of games such as Second Life, with more interactivity or player created content, is not that they “are” the metaverse, but that they are games/theme camps for our new world, ones which teach us how to think, invent, and interact. In a world where we are already taking steps toward a new social order, these games are classrooms and subverses wherein we will learn how to exist in our new metaverse.

    Linden’s obsession with modeling monetary connections to creation on real world land rental/ownership is flawed because it is the point at which their game fails to make the full jump into the potential of new social and economic structures that the virtual world provides us. Second Life is still a viable classroom – and their model will remain viable as long as people need the lessons which Secon Life provides.

    It will be exciting to see what new models show up as more people start building subverses that apply to our modern world.

  4. ARRRRRrrrr!

    “The Dutch electronics giant has tested the technology in the labs with consumers and noted that a person’s galvanic skin response–a change in the skin’s ability to conduct electricity, caused by an emotional stimulus, such as fright–rises with 3D viewing.”

  5. Every time I look at the Second Life map, my mind boggles at the sheer number of grid squares, knowing that each one is its own little server — and that at any given time probably half of them don’t have a single person in them!

    Certainly SL is scalable geographically but get a bunch of people all in one place and the “sim” crashes. They’re going about things completely the wrong way: scaling for space, not traffic. You want busy areas to ultimately survive hundreds, if not thousands, of people milling around. You can only do that by using processing power dynamically: one server for a single city block or 10 square miles of countryside.

    Despite all its flaws though, I’m with you. There’s nothing else like it out there, save for Croquet ( which is years from being ready for public consumption.

  6. (Man, I really need to start blogging again so I can respond to this type of thing more fully…)

    Of course my opinion here is influenced by my belief that the physical, landscape-based metaphor has absolutely nothing to do with how people will want to interact with ‘the metaverse’, and that 3D is an attribute, like the colour blue, not a requirement for satisfying player experience.

    This, in a nutshell, is probably the biggest reason that the mainstream of gaming has lost me these days. SCEA seems to have a particular dislike of 2D, believing such games to be suitable only for “budget” releases on the PS2 or rejecting them outright. There seems to be a lot of places where 3D is a business requirement rather than a tool, and a lot of games suffer for it.

  7. Second Life has, to my view, a couple of interesting back-looking parallels.

    Most MMOs, with their levels and quests, regardless of genre, are direct decendants of LPMud/DikuMUD/AberMUD, etc, back from the 1990s era of text-based internet games , when everyone used 2400-9600 baud modems.

    Second Life is the graphical descendant of TinyMUD. The simple user-expandable game that was ‘a weekend hack that got out of hand’ as James Aspnes put it.

    TinyMUDS were never as popular as Diku/LP Muds (90% of MUDs were of the combat-oriented style) but TinyMUDs tended to have a wider variety of themes and places to explore. There would tend to be more people on a popular TinyMUD than a popular LP. Often a tight-knit community would form. The players of TinyMU*s were very much into shared-world roleplay. I even remember players who would pose going to sleep (even changing into pyjamas!) in their bedrooms before logging off, even if no one was around to see it! The largest could probably have qualified in 1999 as very small MMOs (FurryMUCK and TinyTIM each had several thousand characters, and 300-500 people on their single ‘server’ a night at their peaks). Second Life is in this mold.

    TinyMUD originally had a simple economy of Pennies: It cost pennies to build a room, or create an ‘exit’ for the room, or create an object, similar to the real estate model SecondLife used. You could earn pennies in the original TinyMUD by solving simple logic puzzles. Second Life went a step further and required real money, with a set exchange rate of 300 Lindens to one real world dollar. This, combined with the fact the players retain ownership of anything they create, has ended up locking them into their current model.

    They have real Land Barons who, like medieval barons, may have power that rivals the ‘kings.’ A recent attempt to increase the number of Lindens to the Dollar was stopped by the biggest real estate moguls in second life complaining about losing value. Some of these people’s virtual real estate assets are quite large, the richest having assets valued at over $250,000. (thats 1,050,000 Lindens).

    As un-computer-game a magazine as Business Week did an article on Second Life entrepreneurs (costume designers, real estate moguls, educators using SL as a teaching too, and Programmers). I suspect Second Life will end up developing into something nation like, but not the way the developers see it. Those with the major assets will end up driving Linden’s policy more than Linden themselves. (Something like a medieval king’s trouble with dukes and barons).

    I think a quota system will come into place for the next generation of Second Life-style games: You have a quota of X objects you can create, if you give an object to someone else, (EG, a new costume) it becomes their object, in their quota. Larger quotas could be purchased, but a basic quota would allow a character to build a modest residence and outfit it, or start a small gathering place or ‘business’

  8. One year later, this might be possible a dated comment. However, something strikes me in your article: you’re using your own definition of “metaverse” (which is fine).

    Let’s start with Wikipedia’s definition:

    The term metaverse comes from Neal Stephenson’s 1992 novel Snow Crash, and is now widely used to describe the vision behind current work on fully immersive 3D virtual spaces. These are environments where humans interact (as avatars) with each other (socially and economically) and with software agents in a cyber space, that uses the metaphor of the real world, but without its physical limitations.

    And from the The Metaverse Roadmap:

    Areas of exploration include the convergence of Web applications with networked computer games and virtual worlds, the use of 3D creation and animation tools in virtual environments, digital mapping, artificial life, and the underlying trends in hardware, software, connectivity, business innovation and social adoption that will drive the transformation of the World Wide Web in the coming decade.

    So the first thing to notice is that the metaverse is defined as a virtual 3D environment where web applications, social (“Web 2.0”) applications, and online games converge, but its focus is on how we will live and work in a virtual, 3D, immersive environment. Leave the “3D” out of the metaverse, and you have Web 2.0. This is very important to stress: we already have an online, social, working environment that runs on top of the Internet, and it’s called “Web 2.0” or “the social Web”.

    Alas, the Web is not a “metaverse” — it doesn’t fulfil at least one prerequisite: it’s not a virtual, 3D, immersive environment.

    Obviously if you dislike the notion that 3D is a quality of metaverses, you naturally might eliminate it from the definition. Just don’t call it a “metaverse” then.

    Now with that settled, let me quote again from you:

    I understand that physical space is the point of greatest cost of goods for Second Life, so it makes sense to charge a lot of money for it. But as a long-term business model it sounds pretty… well, crap. That’s renting servers, otherwise known as a more complicated kind of web-hosting with fancier proprietary code.

    In fact, the Web gave us a new business model for providers: web hosting. The metaverse gives us a new business model for providers: hosting of 3D content. The companies that understand what the metaverse is supposed to be will make a push to become 3D content hosting providers. That’s what Linden Lab does. No matter how ‘crappy’ their technology (or business model!) might be, the point is that they are exactly doing what a metaverse service provider is supposed to do, namely, co-locate Internet-connected servers and run “metaverse server software” on top of it. That’s the new business for providers on the Internet.

    On the reverse side of it, you have content developers. In the pre-Web era, they were called “Internet application developers” (you used telnet to log in to remote applications). In the Web era, they’re called “Web designers” — and have added a new layer of complexity when producing interfaces to applications (ie. graphical design is suddenly a part of the service). In the metaverse era, the new companies providing content are “metaverse development companies”, and they add an extra layer: now they require competences in architecture, 3D modelling, character animation, urban planning, and movie production. And they also need to do graphic design, and, of course, back-end server programming.

    I hope that explains what businesses are doing on the (existing) metaverse right now. LL’s business model is not ‘crap’, it’s a new business model, and they’re just part of the business — running servers. Others design content. Just like the web, but more complex.

    Yet you carry on with:

    I can’t get my head around why Linden would not operate with the same model that we, Sulake, and every Captain Insano Korean game uses; mint currency and sell it to folks, have them buy virtual goods from us (for example land) and, in some cases, other players.

    The answer is so simple that it should be obvious to you: because Linden Lab’s business model is not operating a game, but acting as a 3D content hosting provider! The Second Life economy is not “created” by Linden Lab. They do not define how much the microcurrency is worth, or how many transactions are possible to do, or how people should define prices. The market does fix the value, just like any other currency. The amount of money in circulation depends ultimately in how many people effectively do transactions between themselves using micropayments; as the number of users in Second Life grow, so grows the economy (albeit not at the same rate).

    I know it’s hard to understand — in fact, as hard to understand as someone owning a shop and being used to do accountancy all their lives, and suddenly being invited to be the Minister of Finance for a country. Suddenly, nothing makes sense any more. In effect, any student of economics knows that there is a huge difference between microeconomics and macroeconomics.

    In effect, “selling currency to make a profit”, as you suggested, is assuming that Linden Lab is running a game, and that “currency” is just the commodity that is provided by Linden Lab. You might immediately see the flaw in your proposal. What if users simply ignore Linden Lab’s currency and start using their own, noting transactions on external web sites? There goes Linden Lab’s business model down the drain.

    In fact, Linden Lab operates at a macroeconomic level. The “Linden dollar” has value not because Linden Lab says so, but because users are willing to use it as a token for simplifying micropayments. Why don’t they create their own “currencies” then? First, because Linden Lab does not sell currency. They just operate one of several currency exchanges, which, in a free market, exchange bids for selling and buying Linden dollars for US dollars. The market finds its own value. Currency is converted like on any other “real” currency exchange, by meeting supply with demand.

    To make things more complex, Linden Lab is not a passive watcher. In fact, attempts to crash the market — by dumping currency (either L$ or US$…) to force prices to fall/rise for speculators — are dampened. In extreme cases, the exchange might stop transactions — just like real life exchanges do to prevent consumer panic. And, of course, Linden dollars are injected (or removed) from the exchange to keep the ratio stable (in fact, external observers have noticed that the Linden dollar has been more stable that the US dollar recently, although, granted, that’s not very hard to do). This is exactly what the FED and the European Central Bank have recently done to prevent the world-wide markets to crash because of the mortgage/risk assessment crisis in the US — they’ve injected more US$ and Euros in the world markets, thus making more currency available. The result was that the NY exchanges opened above the red on Monday.

    So, to recap:

    – metaverses are immersive, 3D virtual worlds where people work (which doesn’t mean they cannot have fun too! — or even play online games), where users provide their own content, and which runs on top of the Internet and give access to applications on remote servers. If you remove those attributes from the word “metaverse”, it becomes something else (ie. if it’s not 3D, it’s the “Social Web”; if it’s not “work”, it becomes an online game; if it doesn’t tie into external application servers or does not allow creation of content by the users, it becomes simply “a virtual world”)
    – the metaverse comes with two new business opportunities: 3D content hosting and 3D content development. Linden Lab is a 3D content hosting provider; companies like MillionsOfUs, Electric Sheep Company, Rivers Run Red or Infinite Mind Vision are 3D content developers. This maps nicely to the Web model of “web server hosting” and “web designers”.
    – yes, the economy of the metaverse is independent of any of those players (hosting providers and content developers). They follow established rules of macroeconomics, but are not a “commodity” that can be “created at will” and turned into a business model. That works for “online games”, but not to the metaverse.

    Finally, before I’m labelled a “groupie” or a “religious fanatic” — I don’t mind, I used to be called a “Web believer” too in 1994 and seen as a lunatic as well — I should mention that Linden Lab’s Second Life might not become the Metaverse announced for 2016, but it certainly is the closest we have right not. And it’s not because of the technology (which everybody agrees it’s crappy and doesn’t scale well). OpenCroquet might, in fact, have better technology (one day). There are lots of better examples of massively distributed grids and networks (think Google FileSystem or Amazon’s S3); there are far better graphic renderers; in fact, there are “far better everythings” in so many different applications. No, the issue about Second Life is it’s social environment, ie. a virtual space where millions of people can work (and, of course, play too) and engage in business transactions, and develop their own content, leave them on persistent storage, and, well, in 3D. Crappy as Second Life might be, it’s the closest idea we have of a working metaverse (and not wishful thinking). Linden Lab’s challenge is how to make sure that the technology keeps up with the social environment, and, so far, it seems they’re slowly coming to some serious bottlenecks and dead-ends… only time has an answer for that.

  9. Hey Gwyneth, thanks for the awesome comment! A couple of things in response;

    – You’re right that Metaverse – 3d = web2.0 MMO. I don’t think we do have that already, but we will soon. I’m fine with saying that a metaverse is by definition 3D, but in that case we need a new term for these web 2.0 player-created MMOs that are open platforms. I personally believe that for some time these types of experience will continue to be much more commonly used (Habbo, Cyworld, etc.) than any 3D experience.

    – I understand that Linden is a new kind of hosting company, my point is that this business model is not very appealing in the long term, because hosting an open platform trends towards being a commodity business with lots of competition, like web hosting. A web hosting business could be a nice little earner, but it’s not that exciting. Linden commands non-commodity premiums for their land (‘hosting’) right now because their server code and userbase is proprietary. If this opened up then the rates they would be able to charge for land would fall rapidly, particularly as people made more efficient grids.

    – As you point out, since I wrote this Linden have begun aggressively selling virtual currency. I estimate it’s around 1/4 to 1/3rd of their revenues. This is fine so long as the trade deficit is in favour of the grid, i.e. more money is going into the system than coming out. It has the effect of stabilising the L$ exchange at the fixed rate. If there was a major move out of L$ then I think Linden Lab would have to crank up drains (to remove L$ from the system, with likely outcry) or start buying back currency (to prop up the exchange, costing them money).

    I agree that Second Life is the closest we have right now to the Metaverse. My contention is whether we should be aiming for Stephenson’s classic idea of the Metaverse at all, and even Science Fiction does up being The Future, if Linden’s business decisions will allow them to lead the way.

    For the record I most certainly do not think Second Life is ‘crap’. It is, as I say, the awesome.

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