By Bixyl Shuftan
Daniel Voyager recently posted his Second Life user concurrency Winter 2012 report on his blog, using statistics from the Second Life Grid Survey. The results were disappointing. While user concurrency itself had remained stable, the number of sims on the grid has been falling. In January 2012, the number of sims was about 31,000. By July, the number had dropped to 29,000. And now, the number of sims stands at 28,300. Almost three thousand sims vanished, or a decline of 11.3 percent.
The cause of this, Daniel thought the reasons were Second Life users spending more time outside the Grid and fewer people signing up. Listening to people and reading comments, I heard two things repeatedly: dissatisfaction with Linden Lab's performance, and a poor economy that just isn't getting better.
So where are the users going? Facebook has certainly done a better job at attracting a mass audience, but what Second Life users are looking for is a virtual world. Daniel Voyager thought that one big reason was people moving to the OpenSim worlds, such as Avination and Inworldz. But his observation isn't quite the same as mine. Among the people I chat with, a few mention checking the OpenSim worlds, but not that many. One gamer whom a couple years ago bought some space in Avination because of its friendlier policy toward gambling still maintains some places in Second Life. I've also heard comments that OS worlds are less stable than Second Life. A number who did talk about moving to Opensim were not doing so because of overall dissatisfaction with Second Life, but were Star Trek fans alarmed by CBS's moves against Trek-related items on the Grid and getting the impression it was time to consider moving on to other worlds as what they were doing might soon get them in serious trouble here.
Among those in Second Life who prefer nonhuman avatars (or in the words of a few "I don't want to look like a Ken doll"), the OpenSim worlds seem to have less to offer. In Daniel Voyager's comments, Pussycat Catnip commented her avatar was a furry feline, "When I can have that in an OS Grid, and a social community that is thriving, and a large continent I can explore around in, then I might start looking at an OS Grid seriously." Of her avatar, "I didn't make that furry, I bought it. Many folks don't have the time or expertise to make things like that. The people who do have not left SL."
So if not the OpenSim worlds, where have the people I've been talking to going? Massive Multiplayer Online games have been around since before Second Life, though their popularity seems to wax and wane. With the release of the latest "World of Warcraft" expansion, a number of my friends have been playing it more. They've also mentioned other games such as "Star Wars: The Old Republic," and "World of Tanks." But as popular as these games are, compared to Second Life, one's ability to express creativity is limited.
More recently, another kind of virtual world made an appearance: Minecraft. The graphics there were primitive compared to Second Life, but it did allow players to express their creativity in making buildings, gardens, and other structures. Not to mention for newcomers it offered clear short-term goals: don't get killed by the monsters coming out at night. While some Second Life residents will have nothing to do with this "8-bit throwback," overall it's been so popular, a number of communities on the Grid have been getting their own Minecraft servers, including the Angels/Sunweavers, the SL Newser office building's neighbors.
So what can be done to stop the decline, or at least slow it down? One response I hear again and again to the question is "lower the tier!" By making it less expensive for residents to get sims, more will put up their money for them. Simple supply and demand. Well, maybe not.
In an article in September, Hamlet Au brought up one noteworthy statistic: most sims in Second Life are owned by only a handful of residents. He stated of the 75 million US dollars Linden Lab made, half a million residents paid about three million for Lindens for various items while about 5500 residents paid sixty million for private land. And of those, just 500 paid 48 million, more than half of Linden Lab's revenues.
Hamlet thought it would be "a near suicidal gamble" to lower tier with this kind of arrangement, even if more residents were less able to pay. The majority of residents would probably disagree with him, and many who did had quite a few comments on the issue in several of Hamlet's articles related to the topic. Someone suggested, "replace those 500 high profile customers with 50,000 low profile ones." Hamlet's response was "Yes, but to get 50,000 customers … Second Life will probably need 500,000 or so more unique users, which will require growing the user base" with games and other attractions.
One land baron, Desmond Shang of Caledon, gave one reason shaking up the real estate market might not be good for Linden Lab's bottom line was what he called the "Rip Van Winkle" residents. These were residents whom almost never popped onto the Grid, but steadily paid their rent, content that their "happy place" was still around, "I've had to close a few regions over the years, and I can think of only two cases where a 'Rip Van Winkle' made time to pull up stakes and move to another location. The rest simply quit."
So if lowering tier isn't an answer, whether or not the Lab can't or simply won't, what is? Hamlet himself thought that Linden Lab would offer occasional goodies to encourage Premium subscriptions, but it was up to the residents to offer more substantial things to attract new residents. He brought up a zombie MMO that was making news in Summer 2012 and suggested that something similar could be made on the Grid, or perhaps a third party SL Viewer with gaming controls built in. Indeed, there is no shortage of combat sims in Second Life, such as Aria Clash and New Bastogne, and a number of role-play regions have combat built in as part of the action.
Desmond himself thought there was "no easy fix" to the problem, "Lowering tier to match demand might bring back growth, but it would take a lot of lowering before growth came back. And it might not return." Could anything else bring back growth? Not mentioning Hamlet's ideas, he felt "there are several (options), but few are legal," mentioning gambling was done away with, and some of the early growth was financed by "bank scams and ponzi schemes." He agreed with Hamlet that lowering tier was a risky move, but as numbers continue to drop, he did feel the option would be "someday ultimately necessary."
For now however, any talk of lowering tiers is pretty much ignored by Linden Lab. And it's up to the residents for an alternative solution for the Grid's shrinking numbers.
Sources: Daniel Voyager's Blog, New World Notes