Monday, December 24, 2012

More on CBS and "Star Trek" Content in Second Life

By Bixyl Shuftan

Last month, CBS was contacting Linden Lab and several content creators about the latter's merchandizing of "Star-Trek" related items. As the owner of most of Star Trek's copyrights, CBS demanded they remove their items from SL Marketplace and stop selling them. Recently, a number of Trek fans met up to discuss CBS's moves, and what to do about it.

About a dozen residents, including Vic Morrington (Victor1st Morrington) of the Dr. Who community, and "Examiner" writer Doc Grun, were present at the meeting. Doc Grun stated he had written to CBS about the matter. "CBS has declined to comment, and has also declined to be interviewed," he stated, though several CBS employees had checked his Linkedin profile since.

The incident was compared to when Universal contacted Linden Lab about Second Life's "Battlestar Galactica" content. With "Battlestar," sims and groups had been closed until Universal until an agreement was made. This time CBS contacted both Linden Lab *and* several content creators. Doc called it, "That is using an atomic bomb to swat a fly." But unlike then, no sims or groups had been taken down. Vic suggested CBS was looking for a quicker resolution, "direct contact with the seller makes for much quicker conversations between CBS and the person they contacted without going through the middle man: Linden Lab." That is, those departments of CBS involved, "It wasn't a full shut down 'cause the top tier of CBS legal department never got involved in this, it was the clerks."

So what were CBS's goals? The language in the letters CBS sent left much room for interpretation, "Immediately cease all creation, distribution, promotion, and sales of the infringing products. … Refrain from advertising, selling, and positing the infringing products in any format on the Second Life Marketplace, and at any other websites or locations where you may be offering and/or selling the infringing products." Was CBS trying to stomp out not just the selling of Trek content, but Trek roleplaying as well? Vic disagreed, "They only came into SL to get rid of the folks selling IP violation items, there was no sign of them trying to close down the RP groups within SL." Doc Grun seemed uncertain, saying, "you all have contraband you see, every one of you is wearing stolen goods. Lawyers are there to take on trivial sh*t like the end of the world mattered on it." But was CBS trying to wipe them out, "They have not made that clear, at all. You are literally in limbo."

The residents had various different reactions. One had deleted all Trek items off his Marketplace account and no longer made it. Another had kept going, "I will never listen to any one that tells me to stop my RP and building of trek whatsoever." It was the impression of those meeting the Trek community as a whole would keep on roleplaying, CBS be damned. If nothing else, there were other virtual worlds besides Second Life, one saying, "You'd be surprised at the number of Trek groups that have left Second Life for other grids, sometimes private grids."

Despite the lack of clarity from CBS, Vic suggested keeping the emails to them at a minimum, "as someone who used to work for Paramount, if you folks keep prodding CBS looking for an explanation, they will take that stick you are prodding them with and are liable to just say 'screw it' and beat you all over the head with it. As I explained COUNTLESS times to the IFT folks, you do not 'deal' with CBS."

Following the meeting, Doc Grun made his own column for the "Examiner." But the title of it, "CBS Moves to Stop Star Trek Content in Second Life" sparked some controversy among some Trek fans as needless scaremongering as more than one thought it was suggesting CBS was after all Trek content, not just that which was sold. Edconnect Gufler of the Trek Museum remarked in one chat,"He has no credtibility." Others suggested giving him a break, saying he did try to get the facts and talk to CBS. Then came an announcement from the IFT group that suggested negotiations with were suspended:

I have been playing e-mail tag with the office of the Vice President of Licensing & Intellectual Property Rights, Liz K. (technically her exec. asst. Brian L.), at CBS. They really do not like it when someone else tries to intervene after establishing that I was the point of contact in SL back in 2009. As a result, I believe they have ceased all talks. So, a sarcastic thanks goes out to whomever interfered. At any rate, until told otherwise, keep things status quo, short of selling copyrighted stuff.

For now, the question of the fate of Star Trek content in Second Life remains not yet resolved. Chatting with some in IMs and group chats, some see CBS has no real legal claim to shut down Trek RP groups and sims with freebie goods. After all, are there no shortage of Star Trek costumes in real life science-fiction conventions? Has not Gene Rodenberry's son appeared in Second Life and seen his father's work recreated here, and not having a problem with it? But others are not taking chances, heading on to other pastures, such as OpenSim.

Bixyl Shuftan

Friday, December 14, 2012

News & Commentary: Second Life's Declining Sim Numbers

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

Bixyl Shuftan

Monday, December 3, 2012

City of Heroes MMO Closes

There was some sad news in the world of Massive Multiplayer Online games. "City of Heroes," the popular superhero MORPG from NCsoft, is no more. At Midnight, Friday night on Nov. 30th, the servers powered down for the last time, disconnecting players from their CoH characters for good.

The decision to close the game was announced on August 31st, the official reasons being "realignment of company focus and publishing support." Following the announcement, players rallied to try to get the company to reverse it's decision, taking part in online demonstrations and even mailing the company capes and masks. But the company refused to change its mind, and on the last day, players gathered at a "final unity rally" at the town hall's city park across all the servers. Players talked about old times, in addition to taking on monsters, aliens, and other bad guys dropping in. One of's writers, Beau Hindman, covered the event, until his screen read "Lost Connection" (link to the final hour and a half can be found Here), "It's unfortunate to see an MMO unlike any others shutting down."

"City of Heroes" was launched in 2004. The superhero game was hailed as a "gust of fresh air into an increasingly stale sword and sorcery MMO world," with an extremely flexible character creation system that allowed for a wide variety of appearances, notably the costumes. Despite terms of service forbidding characters that looked like or were named after heroes from the comics, Marvel Comics filed a lawsuit, saying the company was doing nothing to stop it. But the court dismissed some of Marvel's claims. The remainder were settled out of court.

NCsoft has several other games, including Aion and Guild Wars. Some Second Life residents commented to me they had enjoyed the game, and will miss it. Where the fomer CoH will go is anyone's guess. Perhaps many will make their way to superhero RPs in Second Life.

Sources: Massively, Wikipedia

Bixyl Shuftan