Category Archives: Business

Running our businesses in Second Life…lessons learned, techniques used.

Have I Reached The Party To Whom I Am Speaking?

lily_tomlin_01Apparently, Linden Lab® is introducing a new feature for Second Life® users, called “AvaLine” (I’m not sure if there should be an ®, a ™, or what after that word, so sorry, LL), which will allow people to dial a phone number and be connected to your avatar in-world.  Tateru, over at Massively.com, wonders what it’s useful for.  Quite frankly, so do I.

First of all, if you’re also a SL user and you need to get hold of another SL user that badly, the obvious way to do it is to fire up SL and make a voice call (or send an IM) that way.  Minimum hassle, no charges incurred.

Well, maybe you’re at work, or somewhere else where you don’t have the SL viewer handy.  You’re not out of options, though.  You can use another application, like Skype, to make a voice call.  You can send a message using another instant-messaging program, like Yahoo! IM, MSN, or GTalk.  You can send an E-mail.  You can even call the other person’s actual phone.  (That’s the way I’d get a hold of Lexx, for instance, if I really needed to talk to her quickly.  Likewise, she can call my cellphone, or send a text, if she needs me that quickly.)  Of course, this depends on the other person having made their outside-SL contact info available to you…which not everyone will have done, for whatever reason.

Ah! So maybe now we have a target market for AvaLine!  It would be SL Residents:

  1. Who want to be reachable by people outside of SL at any time;
  2. But, for whatever reason, don’t want to make any contact information available other than that linked to their SL avatar.

Aside from sounding slightly dodgy to me (and that’s just a matter of personal opinion), how big can this target market be?  In a world full of free Skype accounts, free IM accounts, free E-mail available through Yahoo, Microsoft, or Google, and low-cost cellphones with prepaid minutes–none of which have to have any public link to your RL identity–can AvaLine, which LL has admitted they intend to charge for eventually, find a niche?  And can you really do extensive business in SL without entrusting the people you work with, who might most have need to get hold of you urgently, with something more than an avatar name?

Also, of course, you have to use SL’s voice support to use AvaLine.  Which lets me, and most of the people I deal with, off right there, as we all tend to disable SL’s voice support and use Skype amongst ourselves.  It works well enough for us, as it has since before LL introduced the voice support in the first place, and it has the added advantage of staying operational and connected even if the SL viewer crashes, or if we decide, for instance, to exit SL and go to EVE Online.  (EVE also has built-in voice support…which we also don’t use, and for pretty much the same reasons.)  One could also use TeamSpeak or Ventrilo for the same purposes.

So AvaLine may be a great new “gosh-wow” feature for SL, but, really, it seems like a solution in search of a problem.  One wonders why LL is devoting resources to this instead of, you know, fixing the goddamn bugs.  (Not to beat a dead horse or anything…)

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Filed under Business, Technical

The Era “Just After Sunset” Opens

Just After Sunset

Well, it will probably come as a surprise to no one that I am back in the club business, along with master hostess Selena.  Lexx tasked us with developing a new club for the Lexxotica parcel previously occupied by Lexxistential Deviances, and, after that, Pb’s Solar Moonlight club.  We reached back to try and capture some of the ambiance we had with the Gin Rummy (which was, as you may recall, “SL’s premiere speakeasy”), and settled on “Just After Sunset,” which is, as we say, “a jazz club with attitude.”  That is, the live events won’t be strictly jazz music, but will feature whatever the DJs (meaning me, among others) want to play to fit the theme of the events.

Selena found the building we use, and handled much of the external landscaping, while I took on the task of fitting out the building interior.  Naturally, when we open, we’ll be one of the “teams” working as host and DJ.  (We won’t have dancers; I’m not sure if stripping pole dancers would require us to have an “Adult” content classification from Linden Lab.)

Save the date for our Grand Opening Formal Ball: Friday, May 1, 7:00-9:00 PM Second Life Time, at Just After Sunset, Lexxotica (97, 56).  See you there!

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Filed under Business, LexxCore

BZZZT! WRONG!

Just two days after I posted my call to Linden Lab™ to cut the crap and make the Second Life™ Grid, you know, actually work, they’ve proven they can’t listen worth a damn:

Today we are very happy to share some exciting news with you: Linden Lab has acquired Xstreet SL and OnRez – the two leading Web-based marketplaces for buying and selling creations for Second Life. Over the past few months we’ve been working with the folks at Virtuatrade and the Electric Sheep Company to hammer out the details…

How much of those “last few months” spent in negotiating to take over two services that, unlike the Grid, actually work, could have been spent on, say, making the Grid actually work?

How much effort will integrating these two services into the overall SL environment suck away from making the Grid actually WORK?

And will these two services now quit, you know, actually working once they’re subsumed into LL’s already bursting-at-the-seams infrastructure, thus requiring even more effort to make them work again, effort that could have been devoted to making the Grid actually WORK?

(Are you starting to see a pattern here?  I hope so. 🙂 )

I’ll leave it to others to debate the business aspects of this acquisition.  I’m more interested in having a working environment in SL.

Linden Lab: Does the phrase “fiddling while Rome burns” do anything for you?

UPDATE: Okay…now maybe I can start to believe that LL is taking these problems seriously.  But I’ll refrain from sending the roses until I see some real results.

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Filed under Bugs, Business, Downtime

Drop Dead, Part Deux: Openspace Sim Owners, BOHICA

Apparently it wasn’t enough for Linden Lab® to screw over owners of regular sims by dropping the price, thus pretty well ensuring that sim owners like Lexx would stand zero chance of ever recovering their investment.  Now it’s time for owners of openspace (or “low-prim”) sims–ironically, who proliferated as a result of changes LL instituted at the time of the aforementioned screwing of regular sim owners–to get it in the shorts:

We need to therefore take some steps to improve [open sims’] performance and better reflect their actual usage levels in our pricing so that we can maintain the best performance level for everyone. As a result, we will be implementing a pricing change effective January 1st along with some policy changes effective immediately.

Let the reaming commence!

We will increase the monthly maintenance fee from USD$75 to USD$125 per month. This price increase will apply to all owners of Openspaces on January 1st as well as new purchases after that date. There will be no grandfathering of Openspace maintenance pricing.

[…]

At the same time, we will be increasing the upfront fee for brand new Openspaces from USD$250 to USD$375.

Yeah, I don’t suppose a 66% increase in tier, combined with a 50% increase in purchase price, is going to make anyone owning one of these sims real happy.

Lastly we will begin to proactively discuss overloaded Openspaces with their owners. This is important because as with abuse of region resources, a heavily overloaded Openspace can adversely affect other Openspaces sharing the same machine which is clearly unfair to residents who are using them responsibly. We have listened to your feedback on this, and agree that we need to make changes to better support our Openspace users by actively working to keep the performance levels as high as possible. We will also provide some detailed guidance about what ‘overuse’ looks like and how to prevent it.

And, as if that weren’t enough, they promise more policing of “overuse.”  But who decides what “overuse” is?  Is it just going to be like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart (thanks for the correction in SL Bloggers chat last night, Lillie) famously said about pornography, “I know it when I see it”?

This is going to drop demand for openspace sims through the floor.  Here’s an analogy: If General Motors were to declare bankruptcy, who’d want to buy a GM car?  How would you know whether your warranty would be honored, or even whether you’d be able to get repair parts for it in the future?  Similarly, why would you buy an openspace sim, when at any time, LL could come along, declare what you’re doing to be “overuse,” and yank the rug out from under you?  Uncertainty is a powerful “negative incentive” towards investment.

Needless to say, this announcement has raised merry hell among the existing owners of OS sims.  Some have even gone so far as to announce they’re calling it quits.  And I don’t know as I can blame them for doing that, having just been cut off at the knees.  Others are urging calm, saying that this is only LL’s “first offer” and the price increases may be mitigated somewhat before they actually go into effect.  Which would be all well and good, but ignores the “negative incentive” factor of stricter enforcement without clearly defined terms.

Of course, anyone who’s in the business right now can tell you that the rentals market in the Second Life® virtual world just plain sucks at the moment.  Witness this article by Prokofy Neva.  Now, friends, I’m not one to always agree with what he says, but he’s speaking from extensive experience here, and I’ve seen the numbers of this business for myself with Lexxotica’s rentals, and I can tell you that he’s right.  It is very difficult–nay, impossible–to make money at rentals unless you have damn near 100% occupancy, and Lexxotica wouldn’t be here if I didn’t pour a lot of my money into it to keep it going.  (Of course, I get a sizable chunk of the land, as well as the continued existence of a club to DJ in, so there are other benefits, too…)  Now, when I saw this announcement, I thought, “Prok is just going to be laughing his ass off,” and I wasn’t the only one.  And sure enough, he’s got plenty to say on this, too.

Prok does point out what LL says about openspace sims and their intended usage, to wit:

They are provided for light use only, not for building, living in, renting as homes or use for events. As a stretch of open water for boating or a scenic wooded area they are fine, but we do not advise more serious use than this and will not respond to performance issues reported should you not use them in this way.

Fine, but this raises a few questions:

  • Why are they starting to get anal about this now, given that people have been using these sims in “unapproved” ways for so long?
  • Why did they double the prim limits for openspace sims (from 1875 to 3750), when they knew or should have known that this would just encourage more of these “unapproved” uses?
  • Why did they give people the opportunity to convert their sims from full to openspace, when they knew or should have known that people probably weren’t just going to rip up their existing builds and plant trees or dig lakes on these newly-converted sims?

Now, I’m going to try to give LL the benefit of the doubt, employing the maxim, “Never attribute to malice what can be adequately explained by stupidity.”  I think they got overconfident about how much load their “openspace” sims could really bear, post-Havok 4 deployment, and about how many people would pick an OS sim over a regular sim for their needs.  They overestimated the former, and/or underestimated the latter, and it’s killing their revenues while imposing loads higher than anticipated.  The Law of Unintended Consequences cannot be circumvented; people will always find loopholes in the rules, and do as they damn well please.

And killing revenues is not what LL wants to be doing right now.  The whole RL world is currently in the throes of a financial downturn (how deep or long, it’s anyone’s guess at this point), and despite indications to the contrary, the SL world is not immune from RL’s effects.  If you check out this PowerPoint presentation, you’ll see that high-tech companies all over the place are being advised to hunker down and focus on sheer survival right now.  (As one of the last slides puts it: “GET REAL or GO HOME.”)  Much as I hate to see anyone screwed over by LL, the fact remains, if they go down, all of SL goes down with them, and we’re all screwed.  And maybe that poisons the dream of a “real” Metaverse for years, or decades.

Tateru, over on Massively.com, says, “The simplest explanations for all of this that fit the observed facts, is that either the March 2008 changes have progressively gutted Linden Lab’s market for regular simulators, or that they’re in need of a large cash infusion for Q1 2009 — or possibly both.”  Two sides of the same coin here, Tat.  It all comes down to money, and, for LL, as for every other business out there right now, Money = Life, especially now.  With the coming move to Class 6 server hardware (which sure as hell ain’t cheap, as I know from being in the HPC cluster business in RL), plus the cost of energy to keep those data centers powered up and cooled down, plus programmer salaries in San Francisco (where the cost of living is among the highest in the country), LL’s burn rate is nothing to sneeze at right now, I’m sure.  Anything that helps stem the tide is probably welcome right now.

But what about the effect of this on the average Joe the Resident?  Well, I think we have adequate evidence now that LL’s Give-A-Shit Meter about Residents per se is strongly down in negative territory–if not in imaginary numbers.  First it was the full island owners, then certain groups at SL5B, and now this.  One wonders if a second-order effect of all these policy changes is to drive Residents away to OpenSim-based Grids as soon as the interoperability technology is there to support it, leaving LL and their Grid to lead out a corporate-friendly, Disneyfied existence.  (Lillie Yifu tells me, “That is a long way off Erbo.”  Well, maybe it is and maybe it isn’t.  Depends on how hard LL pushes for it, doesn’t it?)

In the meantime, this Grid, of its users, by its users, and for its users, shall not perish from the Earth.  These things pass; the trick is to live through them.  Just make sure you’re ready for the next episode of “Bend Over, Here It Comes Again.”

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Filed under Business, Current Events

The Coming Disneyfication of Second Life

In the wake of the conclusion of the Second Life® Fifth Birthday Celebration–and especially in the wake of the remarks made by Linden Lab® board member Mitch Kapor on the 7th, as well as certain other announcements–one is left with an impression that more changes are in the works for our Second Life virtual world…not all of which will be viewed as “better” by many of what have been, up to now, its core constituencies.

First, as Hamlet Au states, Kapor has explicitly said:

“[I]t is simply valuable for people to be able to use a virtual world. And that is going to make things challenging for people who feel that as the frontier is being settled and there is less novelty and in some senses less freedom, it is always an uneasy transition for the pioneers. And I believe we are going to go through that again.”

SLKids, Goreans, BDSM’ers! Think getting excluded from the birthday celebration was bad enough?  Well, that’s only the beginning. Expect to find yourselves further and further marginalized, if not outright banned, because you don’t fit into LL’s Brave New World of businesses and social causes.  And furries, roleplayers, escorts and sex club owners, you’re not long behind.  After all, this ain’t the “frontier” anymore, and all the old brothels and saloons have to make way for respectable businesses.

Second, expect voice and other technologies for bringing your RL self into the virtual world to take on more importance as time goes on.  Again we quote Kapor:

“[V]oice through its tone carries a whole stream of information about the attitude of the speaker, the speaker’s intention, which is just not present in text chat. And though voice is not a panacea and there are still many applications in which it is actually a drawback, I am not a positive affordance. My intuition was that it would be hugely empowering to add voice in a fundamental way to the platform and when the team actually produced them, we saw the incredible wide spread adoption of it. It was gratifying in the extreme and now it is not really possible to imagine the experience without voice.

[…] There are a lot of other meta information that is filtered out of our avatar to avatar encounters. And what is missing today is that natural conveyance of things like body language and gesture and facial expression.[…]

So what is missing today for a whole set of users are going to be making things more realistic when you want them to be more realistic in terms of the presentation of your avatar.”

Great, if you want to be yourself.  But how about if you want to be someone else? The transgendered people are going to be only the first casualties of this new emphasis on “realism” (see Cala’s well-known post on the subject of voice, for instance); this one’s also going to hit the roleplayers, furries, and many others, including those of us who’d rather just keep our voices to themselves, except when we want to share them.  (Lexx and I communicate via Skype all the time, leaving SL Voice turned off.  Occasionally, we conference in other people…but at our discretion.)

Expect more of these kinds of policies coming out of LL…and expect LL, increasingly, not to care about what the Residents think of these policy shifts.  Their response to complaints about the new policies will start to be, “You don’t like it?  Fine!  You can just go elsewhere!”  Up till now, this wouldn’t have worked, because, after all, where else could we go?

Where else, indeed:

IBM and Linden Lab have announced that research teams from the two companies successfully teleported avatars from the Second Life Preview Grid into a virtual world running on an OpenSim server, marking the first time an avatar has moved from one virtual world to another. It’s an important first step toward enabling avatars to pass freely between virtual worlds, something we’ve been working toward publicly since the formation of the Architecture Working Group in September 2007.

And here is where we see the grand strategy really begin to take shape.  Once it becomes possible to travel between Grids as easily as we teleport from place to place on the Main Grid, Linden Lab will start tacitly encouraging any activities they don’t want on the Main Grid to migrate to one of the OpenSim-based grids, where, presumably, the rules will be different.  As all these unsavory “legacy activities” spread out, LL’s original Main Grid will become more “Disneyfied,” more suitable for showing off to all those businesses and social activists that will then shower the Lindens with dollars to establish their virtual-world presence.

(Oh, those of you who’ve already invested, perhaps heavily, in a presence on the Main Grid?  Guess what: you’re up Shit Creek without a gas mask.  You can either stick around in LL’s increasingly-more-stringent environment, or sell out, most likely at a financial loss, and start over again where the rules are more like they used to be.)

So, how does the Linden Prize fit into all of this?  I’m not sure, but when I look at its stated purpose:

“[The] fundamental motivation here is to recognize special achievements by Residential organizations using Second Life and to call attention to the ways in which it is being used to improve the human condition.”

I start wondering just exactly how much “improve the human condition” is a code word for “advance liberal social causes.”  (You don’t see that it’ll be that partisan?  I’ll believe it when I see a Linden Prize awarded for something like the virtual-world equivalent of Oleg Volk’s www.a-human-right.com site, promoting gun ownership for self-defense.  Or for a campaign exploring the themes raised in Mark Steyn’s book America Alone.)  Perhaps LL thinks that highlighting the works of a virtual Amnesty International, or Greenpeace, or whatnot will go a long way towards cleaning up the image of SL as a sordid den of sex and child abuse, at least, in the view of certain asshats.  This could especially be the case if LL sees a potential dominant performance by the Communists Democrats is in the cards in the November elections.  (Or maybe I’m just overstating the obvious; LL is, after all, in San Francisco, a city which is so far off the “moonbat” end of the scale it’s not even funny…)

LL may go on to many great things as a result of this strategy.  But in a very real sense, to paraphrase the old Vietnam War-era saying, they will have destroyed Second Life in order to save it.

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Filed under Business, Current Events, Philosophy, Politics

LL to Island Owners: Drop Dead

Or, as Lexx would put it…“Blow me.”

Linden Lab®©™ announced yesterday a big break in the price of private island sims…now regular islands will be going for US$1000, down from US$1675, and “open space” (low prim) sims will drop in price to US$250. (Tier, of course, will stay the same…the cost of power, cooling, and bandwidth isn’t getting any lower, nor is the need to amortize the development costs of the server software getting any less.)

Those of you planning to buy sims in the near future are probably dancing with glee right now. Those of you who just bought sims, on the other hand, are most likely as livid as Lexx is, or as Nobody Fugazi is. True, LL did throw a sop to some of the more recent sim buyers, offering them a free low-prim sim to go alongside their suddenly-devalued purchase. Of course, Lexx took delivery of Lexxotica a little too late to take advantage of that bonus…which just doubles the piss-off, as far as she’s concerned.

Of course, as Nobody points out, “I’m really glad I’m not someone with a lot of land holdings. Sarah Nerd must be feeling this – and I just know Anshe Chung is.” You can add a bunch of other names to that list, like Sirux Mahoney, Desmond Shang, and Doeko Cassidy, to name a few. All of them have large numbers of sims–Fantasyland, in fact, just doubled its sim count not long ago through strategic acquisitions–and the value of those assets just took a 41% nosedive.

And, if Prokofy is right, the sim market is set to keep going down like the stock market on Black Whit-Monday…in fact, all the way to zero when the Grid finally goes totally open-source and I could set up a spare machine here to run a sim. (No doubt I’d have to pay a tier fee to LL still, though, to connect to the “official” Grid and its asset servers and user pool.) Harbingers of that are already appearing, in the form of grids running the OpenSim software (which I really ought to check out, by the way…I could easily see running a small Grid on one of our test clusters at the office); they’re charging, in some cases, less than US$100 for a sim, with tier of US$75 a month. (Though, with the dollar going the way it is, I’m betting some of those outfits will want to start quoting their prices in euros…but that’s another story.)

This strikes me as somewhat unfair to LL’s existing customers…you know, the ones that are responsible for so much of what makes Second Life®©™, Second Life®©™. And not just the land barons; most of the good fashion retailers have their own sims, too, as do many other unique groups. As far as I know, the only company that seems to be able to get away with pissing off its own customers on a regular basis is Microsoft…and even for them, that strategy is starting to fall apart. LL really, really, really might want to think hard before they do this again. They might be able to get away with this once. But after that, all bets are off.

“The consumer is not a moron; she is your wife.”David Ogilvy

UPDATE: Tateru over at Massively.com has a post up about the price drop, where she advances some theories about reasons for the price drop, namely, drops in the price of Class 5-type server hardware and greater automation in the island-buying process due to the new Land Store. Which is all well and good, but the steep drop in price hurts existing customers as much as it helps new ones. LL could easily have kept the sim prices the same and pocketed the extra profits, or scheduled a more gradual price drop curve, say, US$100-150 a quarter over the next year, which wouldn’t have been such a big “ouch” to existing customers.

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Filed under Business, Current Events

How Not To Run An Event

Recently, I was asked to DJ an event at another club, which I agreed to do and for which I was paid my standard rate. However, when I got to the site of the gig, I found that certain things hadn’t fallen into place…

  • The club’s stream information had just been changed, which apparently they do on a monthly basis. (I do approve of this as a security measure, as it keeps rogue DJs from hijacking the stream.) I had received the correct login information, and it worked…but the club’s stream changer had not yet been updated with the new stream URL.
  • Only one person had access to modify the settings notecard for the stream changer…and he was unavailable.
  • I thought that perhaps the URL could just be set on the parcel manually, via the land settings dialog. Unfortunately, the club’s land had not been group-deeded, so only one person (the land owner) had the ability to change the parcel media settings…and he was unavailable as well.
  • What’s more, the event had not been publicized (via a listing in SL Events or such), so it was likely that there would be little turnout, even if the stream issues could be resolved.

In the end, the event was postponed to a later date, and I agreed to come back at that date. But this particular event had required a lot of prep time on my part, so naturally I was somewhat miffed.

There are some lessons to take away from this experience. First, always have a backup plan in place for your business operations. First Life does take precedence, but if the absence of one or two critical people can throw your business into disarray, you need a better backup plan. In the case of Lexxistential Deviances, if Lexx is not present, I can perform her functions, as can Lilli. The businesses I’ve been involved in have a long history of having backup plans, to the extent that, when Danielle’s home in RL was burned in a fire, I was able to keep the Gin Rummy open despite her extended absence.

Second, group-deeding business land is good. If your land is group-deeded, you have a lot more options in controlling who can do what to the land, thanks to the group role and permission capabilities we’ve had for some time now. In our case, we allow people designated as “DJ” to change the parcel media settings, as, obviously, they may need to do that to broadcast. We do use a stream changer of our own, an Erbosoft Distributed Music Changer (of course!), and it does have a “manual override” mode where you can feed an arbitrary URL in via a chat command, if you have the right access; still, it’s good to have a backup capability (which relates back to my first point).

Third, have procedures in place for publicizing events. In our case, we determine the events for a weekly block (Friday through Monday) in advance, complete with staff assignments for each event, which Lexx distributes to the staff group via a notecard attachment to a Group Notice. Then I take her notecard and write the descriptions for the events, which I post to SL Events. Just before event time, our host for the evening grabs a copy of the event text and uses that to create a Group Notice for the VIP group.

N.B.: I am deliberately not identifying the club involved in the little snafu above, because I believe they can do better and I don’t want to embarrass them, just help them and others to keep from making those mistakes. Any comments which identify the club in question, even very generally, will be deleted with extreme prejudice.

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Filed under Audio, Business