Rating my predictions for SL over the last year – Part 3

January 3, 2009 at 12:25 am (secondlife) (, , , )

Well looks like my first few predictions for Second Life this year panned out well. Let’s see how the next few guesses went.

Predictions 3 and 4 were:

  • Many new entrants will come… and go.
  • Google will release a VW which will be wildly successful, then disappointing, then wildly successful.

These are worth looking at as a group due to the biggest surprise of the year, Google. So let’s see how Google changed the game and how, despite much prognostication, they didn’t.

Whither Google Lively

I predicted Google would enter the market, and their initial offering would be underwhelming – most initial offerings are. What I couldn’t foretell though was their spectacular exit before the years end. What could have gone so spectacularly wrong? Pretty much what you’d imagine if you removed the Google name and stepped back a few paces to look objectively. Let’s pull Lively apart and see why. (The Lively image to the left links to a larger version which gives a Second Life side by side comparison.)

If you combined the criticisms of Second Life at the time of Lively’s launch and addressed all of them, Lively was like a dot point list of what folk were saying they wanted out of a virtual world. It was:

  • Simple to use
  • Contained pre-made pro content
  • Ran in a browser
  • Wasn’t full of perverts like SL

Well for about twenty-four hours after the launch folk hand-flapped about the death of SL under the crushing weight of this new contender on the scene. At the end of that day however, many commentators started asking if it was too simple, the content library too tightly controlled, if running in a browser restricted it too much, and where all these perverts came from.

Well… let’s skip answering the last question in detail: we all know perverts come from the internet, and if you expect that suddenly a virtual world will pop up without sex in it you missed the point at internet school. Imagine the internet is a place with a large population, like say New Jersey. Now imagine New Jersey without any sex in it…ever. Ok let’s move on.

The first three points on that list are the selling points for most of the new virtual world entrants, which this year includes big new players like Sony and old stayers like IMVU (that are only just getting noticed so look kinda new.) For some context here’s Googles search data on these things for ’08 (click for further stats).

Second Life
Playstation Home

Ok, what we’re looking at here is Google trends data, so it’s just searches and not representative of actual use. But it certainly tells us what people are Googling, which in my book is a good indicator of interest. So to put it another way – we’re looking at hype cycles. Waaay over on the left (off the graph but click thru to go explore yourself) is the initial Second Life hype spike. Exploring that is left as an exercise for the reader (but take note, SL’s hype spike was immense!) What we can see from this breakdown though can be summed up thusly:

  • Google’s Lively when launched briefly spiked interest (around July) in the new “SL killer”.
  • Within a month it had become about as interesting as IMVU.
  • IMVU is about half as interesting as Second Life, but growing (as it has slowly steadily for years now).
  • Sony’s offering on launch was about half as interesting as Lively, and quickly became less interesting.

So here we’re seeing two of my forecasts in action: Google’s initial success, then failure, which is unsurprising as excitement augurs disappointment most of the time, and Sony on the leading edge of the same hype cycle. Which begs the question, why did I include IMVU? I’m glad you asked 😛

IMVU was one of the early virtual world light contenders to go up against Second Life. They have a good product that fulfills a niche, (exactly the niche Lively was trying to fill by the way.) I’d like to send out a hi-five to IMVU right now, for sticking to their market and continually improving their service and growing their user base for years now. So let it be known, SL isn’t the only game in town. It’s a wide market that a few players are already doing good things, and while Second Life may be the yardstick for a complex “world like” virtual world experience, IMVU sets the bar for simple social avatar chat with low barriers to entry…. but I digress.

So that’s the rise and fall… what about the rise again?

The upturn and downturn of Lively I predicted – but the yelping tail between the legs kicked dog run-away I didn’t expect. From Second Life killer to put out of it’s misery within six months was quite a surprise. Could it possibly rise from the ashes? The answer from the community is a resounding yes. Within a month of Google’s announcement they were closing the doors on the product, enthusiasts had reverse engineered the whole product and started a clone of Lively’s service a day after Lively closed the doors.

NewLively only took a month or so for a small team to build, based on different technology to the original product. It appears close to a feature complete Lively experience. This somewhat begs the question – if it only took a month to clone Lively, was it a very ambitious offering in the first place? Well if it takes a month to clone the answer is no. Evidently Google’s bet didn’t pay off, but they weren’t betting much to start with.

Personally I was incredulous when I was told about NewLively – surely the biggest name on the internet couldn’t have their product duplicated by enthusiasts in a month. Dizzy ensures me it’s quite true. So Lively lives on, and three cheers for it… may it rise again.

Whither the rest of the rabble
Well if you try to count the number of virtual worlds projects that have come onto of fallen off the radar in the last year, you’ll run out of fingers and toes. Mister KZero has far more fingers and toes than me, so go look at his maps. (If you can count them all do let me know – it’s like guess how many jelly beans in the jar, I’m sure there’s a prize.)

There’s one contender though for the biggest new entrant into the market since Second Life, and that’s Second Life…. well not really, it’s OpenSim. Mis Gwyneth makes the case that OpenSim is a valid emerging Second Life competitor (ie. the Next Big Thing) in this post, but by her own admission:

OpenSim is a reverse-engineered application running on top of .NET/Mono. What this mostly means is that the developers of OpenSim don’t really knowhow LL’s servers work. All they know is what the SL client expects to receive in terms of communication. Thus, the SL client, to a degree, defines how an OpenSim-based grid ought to work.

Now I agree with Mis Gwen’ that there is a lot of interesting things happening in OpenSim, and that it’s the most interesting general-purpose platform to pop up in recent times. (Sure there are others, but as we saw with Lively, the right bullet list of features does not a successful virtual word make.) Heck, even my boss is an OpenSim fan.

…but there’s something wrong with this picture.

The short explanation is this: if Google can fail with a virtual world by not providing anything as compelling as Second Life, then have their efforts duplicated in a month by amateurs. If there still isn’t a valid competitor on the market for whatever it is that SL does after five years of lead time. If new entrants still keep making the same mistakes. If OpenSim folk are hobyists and not building defensively. If all these things are true… then it’s not as rosy as the rose colored glasses folk keep donning when they amble into the garden of virtual worlds business to make a million green from their daisy chains.

But I digress… further breakdown of the difficulties of virtual worlds development, the limitations of some of the platform decisions being made at the moment, and the holes in the business models that are prevalent…. they’ll have to wait till future posts.

I hope my two cents has been food for thought, but there’s a lot more ground to cover before we can tie a neat bow around 2008 and make sensible predictions about the year ahead. So happy new year to all and see you next time.

Toodle pip!


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