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What can we learn from Second Life?

Ben Parfitt
What can we learn from Second Life?

Nintendo’s Touch Generation range in particular, which boasts the likes of Dr. Kawashima’s Brain Training, Big Brain Academy and Elektroplankton, has challenged our perceptions both of what consoles are able to deliver and what content owners demand of them.

However, one of the most important drivers in this new wave of ‘leisure software’ is one that’s not often discussed by the industry – perhaps for good reason. A unique blend of MMO gaming and social networking, Linden Lab’s Second Life is hard to pigeonhole – and as a download only title, whilst it may be holding the torch for digital distribution, it’s certainly no friend of retail.

Second Life, for those not in the know, is an internet-based virtual world, a 3D extension of the chat room concept popularised in the late ‘90s. Its massive number of registered users, which Linden claims now tops seven million, has thrust it into the mainstream media spotlight. And whilst some may questions its actual user base, the fact that numerous real-life corporations are taking notice has meant that it is foolish of the games industry not to.

But even maker Linden Labs admits that its colossal success was unexpected. “It has been quite a surprise,” Linden’s director of brand strategy Catherine Smith tells MCV. “We were always aware of Second Life’s incredible potential, though the speed of adoption we’ve seen has been truly incredible.”

Considering that no-one really knows what exactly Second Life is – game, chatroom, money-spinner? – its success is all the more incredible. Fortunately, the ambiguity with which it is viewed by outsiders is not shared by the minds behind it.

“Second Life is not a game, but rather a complete 3D online virtual world,” Linden CEO Philip Rosedale states. “In many ways Second Life can be seen as the next step in the fulfilment of the internet, in which people create and interact with content and each other in a 3D environment. You could envisage Second Life as a type of 3D Internet browser.

“The potential for interaction, education, ecommerce and entertainment in a 3D environment is far greater than in the flat two-dimensional world we are now familiar with on the web. Ultimately, the appeal has to do with complete freedom, content ownership and significant business opportunity. Games are defined by manufactured conflict and have set objectives — Second Life has neither of these things.”

Content ownership is certainly one of the key factors to not only Second Life’s success, but also its importance. Second Life has its own economy and currency – Linden Dollars. Linden claims that over $1.5 in real-life money is spent in-game in any normal 24 hour period. Indeed, there are many people whose sole real-life earnings are garnered from activity in Second Life – a staggering reality. Land ownership brings with it payable fees to Linden, though for the player that owns the virtual real estate, the possibilities of generating in-game income, and subsequently genuine cash, are considerable.

And whilst Linden keeps a tight control on the Linden Dollar exchange rate, the most crucial aspect to Second Life’s success is the fact that it is the users who hold the power to shape the ‘in-game’ experience.

“How do you find a balance between the desire to shape user’s experience of Second Life and letting users shape the experience themselves?” Smith answers. “The answer is simple — we’ve almost entirely handed the reigns over to our residents. The world is theirs to shape as they wish. 99 per cent of all content is already user-created, and the sheer volume of this creative output is unbelievable.”

Of course, handing over control to the users presents its own problems. With residents playing such a pivotal role in Second Life’s development, it’s hard to find a balance between being too stringent or too lapse in regard to verifying real-life identities.

And what about when residents misbehave? January this year saw a ‘virtual riot’ break out in Second Life between a group of French National Front users and a number of opponents, including the Second Life Left Unity. Linden to date has adopted a liberal approach, allowing users to resolve their own issues independently. But could Linden find itself liable for the in-game activities of abusive residents?

The firm has already been taken to court regarding the ownership of virtual real-estate, with US attorney Marc Bragg claiming it had defrauded him to the value of $8,000. That case is still on going.

But such complications are in themselves a testament to the tremendous opportunities presented by Second Life. The virtual world has played host to concerts by real-life music stars such as U2 and Duran Duran, and the BBC recently aired it’s The Money Programme simultaneously both in-game and on British TV screens.

There are signs that console gaming has recognised the huge potential of Second Life’s model – you need look no further than Sony’s upcoming PlayStation Home for that. Home aims to be a social networking programme for console owners, and certainly cannot be labelled as a game. More importantly, it will promote the trade of virtual items for real cash.

So whilst Linden insists that Second Life most definitely not a game, its implications for gaming could yet prove to be huge.

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