Social Networking

Second Life Grid Trademark really annoys me

Apparently Linden Labs, the creators of Second Life, have gone out and filed a trademark on the word GRID. For you virtual world folks, the word implies a lot of things and is usually interchangable with a number of other cyberspace related words. Anyway, I don’t have a problem with LL getting a trademark on “Second Life Grid” which is usually how it is presented but to try to trademark the word grid by itself is pretty damned cheeky. Personally I find it offensive, insulting, and unfair. They might as well try to trademark cyberspace, web, network, polygon, avatar, pixel, link, and a few other generic terms that are common words, terms, and phrases used in the virtual worlds sector (which includes your standard virtual worlds, mmorpgs, and simulations).

I’m pretty disgusted with this.

I’m beginning to sense a bit of desperation from Linden Labs these days. Their CTO left recently, and their CEO has decided to “step down” in the near future. The media backlash against their unrelenting PR in late 2006 through 2007 (studded with misleading and disingenuous stats about their active users and subscribers) is continuing, and SL is handicapped by many problems that don’t seem to be going away anytime soon.

I think that Second Life would have died a long time ago, but for the fact that there is no clear competitor. Sure, there are places like there.com or whatever, but Second Life has bent over backwards to wrangle a lot of big name corporate sponsorships and virtual presences, and catered to the explorer and tinkerer types. Of course, there are a lot of virtual world experts, luminaries, entrepreneurs, and researchers that have found a home in Second Life. To be sure, SL has been valuable to a lot of people, and to some degree has validated virtual worlds in business, research, education, and online collaboration.

But I still think that the Emperor has no clothes, and the SL house is a house of cards that is very shakey. The first company that comes along with a better offering…more functionality, streamlined performance, better features, etc. will marginalize SL and dominate it, much in the way that World of Warcraft came out of no where and smacked down most of the MMORPG industry (not to worry, that gorilla is getting old and someone will knock them off their throne soon enough).

Anyway, I don’t want to get too far into an anti-SL rant here (at least not without doing it comprehensively and backing up my opinions), but their desire to trademark grid is crossing the line and just one more straw on the camel’s back.

 

 

“Walled Gardens” are not the problem…

Maybe it is just me, but my experience has been that most people I talk to don’t have their own websites anymore. Instead, they have a page on myspace, a profile on facebook, a gallery on deviantART, items for sale on EBay, or they have a blog on one of the hosted blog communities (like wordpress or blogspot). In a similar fashion, gamers usually have distinct characters in multiple MMORPGs (and not always the same class or even gender).

One of the problems that everyone faces, is trying to manage all of these identities and profiles. It is a real pain in the neck creating a new account on the latest social networking site (fad!) or some other website. In the Web 2.0 world, there are a few options for creating an ID once and using the same login for other places, and a few social sites make it easy to import your basic profile data or even entire friends lists (sometimes even sending out email invites to everyone in your address book).

In the virtual world sector (including MMORPGs) several ideas have been bandied about concerning avatars that easily migrate from one world or game to another (where you create a character or avatar once and use it anywhere), and some virtual world platforms boast the goal of breaking down the so-called “walled gardens” to create hundreds of thousands or millions of virtual worlds…one for every user.

This sounds good on paper, but I wonder if anyone is considering problems this approach naturally creates, particularly given the social and psychological natures of humans.

First, I should probably define what a “Walled Garden” actually is. The term, particularly in regards to the internet, refers to an exclusive or proprietary environment or community that is “closed” or that requires membership of some type. AOL is a good example of a walled garden, in that you had to be a subscriber to access most of its content, and the whole thing was pretty much setup as a network within a network. For MMORPGs, each of them is, by definition, a closed garden. You need a unique client application to access the servers and game network. The client handles everything from rendering the world’s graphics to acting as the interface for chat and gameplay interaction with other players. You cannot use the client software from one game to access the virtual world of another game.

There are more than a few benefits to the “walled garden” approach. A few examples include security, management and moderation, contextual consistency, advanced features, “uniqueness”, easier access to the flow of traffic of other users, etc. etc.

The problems are also plentiful, but generally ignored (or perhaps unrealized by designers and evangelists?). To help make my point, let me go back to web communities and social networks which are all technically walled gardens at one level or another.

  • Ease of use and content generation

It is easier to setup a profile on any given social networking site or a hosted blog than it is to setup a server, register a domain, and set it all up yourself.

  • Easier to network and find traffic

It is deceptively simple to do a basic search and find friends that are already on a particular site, find new friends with similar interests, share just about anything, and so forth.

  • There is a strong sense of community or belonging

While the strongest feelings of belonging are based on smaller social circles, being a member of a particular site or community can engender similar feelings (even if they are very subtle or subconscious).

Remember, these are walled gardens…supposedly a bad thing in the minds of a lot of experts in virtual worlds, cyberspace/metaverse, etc.

But what are the problems if everyone can have their own virtual world? This is the same as everyone having their own website.

  • Traffic is harder to find and drive to your site. Without an overarching and all encompassing community or world, you basically have to use the entire internet as the replacement. Instead of being able to leverage internal stats, tracking, referrals, and other features and functionality, you end up trying to compete with everyone on the web for attention.
  • Client and Server applications must be open and freely available. The lowest common denominator wins the day for the greater market saturation and standardization. All content must be as simple and generic as possible for a truly open metaverse/internet. As soon as you start having to worry about downloading billions of modules, extensions, or versions so you can access one location over another, you realize that this misses the point, and it becomes a turn off for a lot of market share.
  • Open = unregulated and unmoderated. If anyone can make an avatar or character that can go to any virtual world or game, it becomes an imbroglio of issues to sort through when e-commerce becomes involved, not to mention hacking and security headaches. Sure, this isn’t an issue with the internet so much right now, but we are talking about webpages, not immersive worlds…this is a whole magnitude of difference in complexity and elements.

The better approach, I think, is a walled garden of many gardens. Yes, I think that at some point there will be a truly open and ubiquitous platform that is pretty much ungoverned and the transition from web 2D to cyberspace 3D will occur, but I think it will quickly denigrate into chaos and become a useless mishmash of crap. The true successful ventures will be the massive ones that are indeed a walled garden, but are also composed of nested worlds/gardens. You belong to Myspace, but you have your own unique page that you can customize to your heart’s content…but ultimately, it is moderated and controlled by Myspace.

Maybe I’m drawing too much of a distinction over what might be nothing more than a fine grey line. I dunno…I just think that trying to make the whole internet into an open (in all senses of the word) 3D universe isn’t the great idea that it sounds like. While I don’t like the idea of one company pretty much owning and controlling the virtuality that we have been dreaming of (particularly if it isn’t MY company), I think that this is exactly what is going to be required, at least in the interim of the next decade or so to push the industry forward, establish the standards, build the market, and so forth. Also, at least as far as MMORPGs go, making them all so generic as to allow characters to move from one to the other seamlessly is a really stupid idea. Then again, most of the titles coming out these days are virtual copies of each other in the most generic way possible, maybe it isn’t so bad…after all, they are starting to look alike, and you can find the same old static quests, missions, creatures, and classes in each one. Perhaps I’m getting bitter in my cynicism.

I feel like the voice in the desert sometimes…I have a clear vision of how things could and should be done, what the missing pieces are, where the convergences of various technologies needs to occur, and how to build “IT”. But the money flow keeps going towards the same ideas, the same people, and the same failing models…both in design, business, and execution. I’ll say it again for the hundredth time…where are the pioneers, innovators, and dreamweavers? Ten to fifteen years ago there was a tangible sense of excitement in the air and new ideas were constantly being explored and pursued (not just in the internet sector mind you). Now? It seems like the only exciting thing is another social network, another mobile phone, another way to shove ads in your face, or another MMORPG that is more static and single player oriented than a truly immersive world full of engaging experiences and a sense of wonder.

One way or the other, I’m going to shake things up (or at least get a damned good start at it) this year. 2007 was pretty crappy in many respects, but 2008 still has promise.

Yes, you will see me using “hybrid”, “convergence”, “adaptive”, and “evolving” a lot this year. Good stuff is coming.

PS: Yes, I realize that I sometimes ramble my way through these blog posts. Most of them are brain dumps and they aren’t intended to be edited and polished articles that follow a strict outline. So, if I need to clarify something, or I missed a point, feel free to comment or email me.

Virtual Items...who owns what?

The issue of virtual item ownership has been percolating in the background of the industry for a few years, occasionally coming to a boil as a dispute gets some press or litigation occurs. One one side, we have the publishers and developers of massively multiuser online games (usually role-playing, hence the term MMORPG) and virtual worlds (Second Life, Project Entropia, etc.). On another side, we have the end-user…the players who spend hours and hours drudging along to level their character and gain hard to find or rare items. This category also includes people that spend time in various virtual worlds…in some cases generating or creating content of their own. There is a third side that everyone seems to ignore for the most part, and that is the Government (the US Government for the most part).

When you create an account with a MMORPG or Virtual World (VW), you generally have to agree to a “Terms of Service” that is loaded with a lot of legal sounding mumbo jumbo. Among other things, users are expected to recognize and agree that the developer (or publisher, depending on how things are setup) owns, claims full copyright, and reserves all other rights regarding to everything within the game or world. For example, the World of Warcraft Terms of Service states:

Ownership.

All rights and title in and to the Program and the Service (including without limitation any user accounts, titles, computer code, themes, objects, characters, character names, stories, dialogue, catch phrases, locations, concepts, artwork, animations, sounds, musical compositions, audio-visual effects, methods of operation, moral rights, any related documentation, “applets” incorporated into the Program, transcripts of the chat rooms, character profile information, recordings of games played on the Program, and the Program client and server software) are owned by Blizzard or its licensors. The Program and the Service are protected by United States and international laws. The Program and the Service may contain certain licensed materials, and Blizzard’s licensors may enforce their rights in the event of any violation of this Agreement.

Second Life, however takes a different approach:

Content available in the Service may be provided by users of the Service, rather than by Linden Lab. Linden Lab and other parties have rights in their respective content, which you agree to respect.

You acknowledge that: (i) by using the Service you may have access to graphics, sound effects, music, video, audio, computer programs, animation, text and other creative output (collectively, “Content”), and (ii) Content may be provided under license by independent content providers, including contributions from other users of the Service (all such independent content providers, “Content Providers”). Linden Lab does not pre-screen Content.

You acknowledge that Linden Lab and other Content Providers have rights in their respective Content under copyright and other applicable laws and treaty provisions, and that except as described in this Agreement, such rights are not licensed or otherwise transferred by mere use of the Service. You accept full responsibility and liability for your use of any Content in violation of any such rights. You agree that your creation of Content is not in any way based upon any expectation of compensation from Linden Lab.

Before I continue, let me declare a few definitions to help clarify what I am talking about. Yes, labels and names are important. Let’s define User Generated Content (UGC) as content that is built (like fitting legos together) or customized (character race, stats, name, appearance, etc.) based on other content that is created by the developer. Your character’s avatar in the game is not created by you…individual components are created by the developer and put together by you (this includes equipping the character with particular gear and items, or selecting skills, etc.).

User Created Content (UCC) is any content that is created by the user from scratch. This includes written fiction and stories, textures, 3D models, animations, code (widgets, applications, scripts, etc. usually based on some sort of scripting language provided), and so forth. In the case of Second Life, it is a very open environment and architecture, that lets users use tools to create and upload new content. Second Life makes no claim to this content, and they are willing to literally sell ownership rights to sections of virtual “land”.

Ok, moving on. Regardless of which type of content we are talking about, people have a natural feeling of ownership for their character/avatar, as well as everything that the character or avatar “owns”. This goes beyond the name of the character and its likeness, personality, and backstory. In MMORPGs particularly, there is a significant and substantial time requirement to develop characters, complete quests, collect items, and so forth. Users equate their time and effort to collect these items (indeed, most of these games heavily emphasize item collection) as their investment to acquire the items. Remember, MMORPGs are supposed to be about role playing…you are your character. All of these games have built in mechanics to trade items from one player to another, as well as sell these items directly to another player for in-game currency (platinum, gold, silver, whatever), sell them in in-game shops, or even post them on auction systems built directly into the game. While this is absolutely necessary as functionality in any MMO game, they serve to reinforce the perception of ownership…not just by the character, but by the player as well. So, naturally, people attempt to sell items, currency, characters, and even entire accounts for real world currency. There are dozens of auction sites for doing so (Ebay has been particularly aggressive about disallowing such sales), and venture capitalists have funded several ventures that exist solely to buy and sell game currency in multiple MMORPGs (gold farming anyone?).

Developers are usually against this. The reasons vary, but basically they don’t like being left out of the loop and not making any money on it, they feel that users don’t have the right to sell something that doesn’t belong to them, and there are a lot of potential legal issues and pitfalls that developers simply do not want to be exposed to or have to deal with when it comes to this particular issue. It is interesting to note that some publishers, like Sony Online, have changed their stance somewhat and make provisions for things like character transfers and whatnot, but they charge a fee for the service (I don’t believe that the mechanics are there for person to person sales though).

The issue is further muddied by the growing emphasis on virtual item sales (microtransactions) where developers sell game items directly to the player. $5 gets you a shiny sword or some unique piece of limited edition clothing. But do the players actually own this? Or are they just paying for access or limited license to the object? Are they in fact paying a service fee to use the item?

I’ll come back to that in a moment. First though, I want to talk about the third entity coming to the party. The Government. For the time being, the Government has limited its interest and interference to crowing about ratings systems and mature content (rightly so), and the occasional congressional nutcase (both parties) hollaring about how games are destroying our youth and the definite cause of much teen violence (which is ludicrous). The danger that lurks is when the Government decides that virtual items DO have real value, and they DO belong to the end user. Which means, they are taxable. Great. You really want to own your level 70 Warrior in World of Warcraft? What’s the market value on that? Do you really want to have to declare it on your tax return and pay for it? How about virtual property taxes? Be careful what you ask for…

Another quick point…I think Second Life made a big mistake in selling virtual land. The concept is good (and honestly, I was pitching this in the mid 90’s (95/96) with my first MMORPG venture), but there are some issues. One of the problems that Second Life has (and they have many) is that they have a difficult time keeping new users (the reasons I may discuss in some other post). People make accounts, buy some virtual land, build some objects (usually displeasing to the eye, but that is the nature of the toolset and no moderation over user created content), and then they don’t come back after they get bored. What happens? Landscapes filled with a chaotic imbroglio of buildings and objects with no consistency or context…and no population. So, Linden keeps releasing new land and the cycle repeats. Because some user OWNS those objects and virtual land, there is nothing Linden can actually do about it to clean it up or reclaim it.

Wouldn’t it have been better to sell leases, licenses, or limited rights to the property? Pay rent and do what you want. Quit paying rent and your virtual land gets forclosed on and resold. This simple little twist would have made Second Life a much greater success than it is now. Revenues would have been higher, the economy would be much more stable, and high traffic areas would be much easier to develop. Plus, the continual refreshment of content would help keep the world alive and vibrant. This approach (applied to virtual items as well) would let developers maintain all rights to their content in games and solve a few potential pitfalls. Even in WoW, the terms of service should be modified to allow users to transfer ownership rights of their license or service agreement.

I’m not an attorney by any means, but I think this is the way to go. Oh, I haven’t discussed the pitfalls I mentioned earlier. If the user owns everything, what happens in a MMORPG where there are thieving skills? What happens if another character kills your character, or screws up a quest or raid you were in the middle of trying to earn some epic item? If these things have real world value and ownership tied to it, you could conceivably sue them, and the developer for the loss or even emotional distress. Think about it… not very reassuring, is it? What happens in a server outage or rollback? Bugged items?

The moment that users (especially gamers) claim full ownership to the virtual items and start placing real world value on them, the pandora’s box opens wider and wider. Then at some point, developers will be shut down after litigation (ruining it for everyone) or the government will step in with a fat tax package (Obama already wants to raise your taxes by a ludicrous amount…it wouldnt be a far cry for anti-corporate and anti-gamer politicians to go after the mythical internet tax or the more realistic virtual item tax).

Just my two pieces of gold.

If you noticed I was incorrect in anything I mentioned specifically here, or you have some data on which party has been more vocal and anti-gaming (or even which politicians favor taxing internet stuff), please comment and let me know. 

 

Social Networks aren't really social...are they?

Social Networks are overrated. Most of them are pretty useless and a total waste of time. They are popular, sure, but why? I think the answer is more that they are a fad instead of something really useful and worthwhile.

On myspace, I used to get spammed with random people wanting to be my friend, because the number of “friends” you had was a measure of how cool or popular you were. These days, I keep getting spammed with friend invites from “hot” girls….look at their page and you can tell it was assembled moments before with the typical half naked picture and a plea to the reader to sign up on some other site because they are too busy to actually socialize on myspace…and if you give them your credit card number and subscribe they are willing to assume you are a normal person absolutely perfect to date and get to know better. No matter how many times I mark these scams as spam, I still get them. Thank you myspace. Why do I bother to keep my profile there anymore?

Facebook… instead of getting friend invite spam, I keep getting spammed with the latest facebook app of the day. I don’t even bother spending time declining these anymore. All these useless widgets and applications are utterly useless. Even if I did like them (I’ll admit to wasting time with warbook), there isn’t enough hours in the day to play with them all on any regular basis. I’d rather be playing real games over on kongregate.com or goofing off in some MMORPG or another.

And of course, there is a new social networking site every other day, and venture capitalists are just crazy about throwing millions of dollars at anything that remotely sounds like a social networking site…even if it is just like every other one out there. Now, here is the surprising thing…if you have traffic, you are likely to have an easy time of a venture capitalist throwing millions at you. But doesn’t this sound like the dot com crash? Who cares about business models and generating revenue? I have TRAFFIC! I have users! Yeah, I know the majority of them just make profiles and rarely come back (they are busy making profiles everywhere else), but just look at all these user accounts! These same venture capitalists won’t talk to dozens of other non-social networking ventures without a rock solid business plan, a business model from on high, and a team that doesn’t really need the capital to start with. [I’m sure this is going to piss off some VCs, but hey, I’m talking from experience here]. Social networks are one of the “flavors of the day”. But what happens at the end of the day? What if your Social Network is overshadowed by a new kid on the block? What if google DOESN’T want to acquire you (how many of you guys actually list this as your exit strategy?). You are dead in the water (is orkut.com still alive? for non-Brazillian and non-Indian users?) and millions are lost down the drain. This happens in other sectors too (how many MMO dev teams have scored millions for all the wrong reasons and ended up in the trash can, thus screwing it for the rest of us?), but I’m in the mood to pick on Social Networks right now.

Anyway, the obvious potential of social networking and their lovely websites is fairly obvious to any observer with half a brain. This is why these things got funded in the first place, but I don’t think that they are living up to expectation. Just because I have 350 “friends” on my buddy list does not mean that I socialize with them (at all) or that I am some sort of opinion leader, or that I feel like telling each and everyone of them about the latest product I bought or sway them in some other fashion. No, true social networks are the people you SOCIALIZE with. yeah, go figure.

I think that social networking (as website communities) have potential to be sure, but I don’t think anyone has done it right yet. Ok, sure shove the user metrics of accounts and traffic down my throat for all the big sites out there…I’m still not satisfied though. They could be much better. Maybe I’m alone in my bitter arrogance and high standards, but eh, so what. It’s my opinion. If you disagree, send me an invite to join your friends list. Then we will be great buddies right? Maybe someone can really monetize us for a change (and by that, I don’t mean spamming me with popup ads).