Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Churn baby, churn

A few well known Second Life bloggers recently weighed in with ideas to improve the virtual world's stagnant growth rate:
  • Dusan Writer launched an 800,000L$ "newbie viewer" creation contest. He sees the current interface as the key one cause of the problem.
  • Grace McDunnough proposed an AI trainer corp to guide newbies' first steps. She believes lack of guidance is the main issue.
  • Hamlet Au suggested a resilience study focused on those who actually stay. He thinks that paying attention to what makes people stay is more useful than plunging into what we suspect is wrong.
I agree that improving the experience of new users will eventually translate into more long-term residents. It’s a wonder anyone makes it to their first rezday. Orientation Island sucks. The learning curve is as steep as Everest. It’s hard to find help when you get stuck. The search engine provides almost no qualitative guidance. The client and grid are unstable. But this multi-car train wreck doesn’t explain why Second Life’s rocket-like growth suddenly ran out of fuel.

Growth Rate

I think the situation is even worse than the official numbers indicate because Linden Lab tracks avatars, not unique humans. Their data indicates about half a million active users. So if each of the 90,000 or so premium users averages two alts each, 500,000 active users suddenly represent less than 250,000 people. Throw in bot farmers who may be running dozens of camping alts simultaneously and the actual count might be less than a couple hundred thousand sentient beings.

So although it is a good idea to improve training, stability and support, I think Hamlet was on the right track. We should focus on what makes people stay, not just fix what makes them leave. You can’t improve someone's user experience if they never log in. Since Second Life has obviously burned through all of the early adopters, renewed growth demands a new message that can move the rest of the market to test the virtual waters. Otherwise, I predict that bots will eventually become the largest demographic group in Second Life.

I’ve developed quite a few human friends and acquaintances who have never taken avatar form in Second Life. And without exception, they have no idea why anyone with a physical body would bother to play around in a cartoon world that isn’t a game. Except maybe for the virtual sex. It’s not surprising that virtual virgins don’t see the point. Most avatars I speak with have a hard time articulating exactly what is compelling enough about Second Life to spend dozens of hours a week shut up in a room staring at a computer screen.

I've leave it here for today. Stay tuned for part two later this week.


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A beautiful thought experiment personified through the imagined perspective of a self-aware avatar. My creator's site can is at http://fourworlds.tumblr.com