The word from SL12B is that Sansar, the new virtual world from Linden, will offer its users free land. Speaking to Draxtor Despres and Saffia Widdershins at Thursday’s ‘Meet The Lindens’ interview, Danger Linden made this and a few other revelations about SL’s eventual successor (see Canary Beck’s summary for more details).
I’m mightily pleased with this and hereby offer myself the self-congratulatory pat on the back that is the custom amongst bloggers when one out of their hundred or so predictions/suggestions actually happens (or rather, something roughly like it is said will happen in eighteen months plus the extra year or so anything IT “under development” actually takes). I’ve been saying for some time now that the next generation of virtual worlds should make at least a certain amount of land free. Land, after all, is just some storage space on a hard disk somewhere and some processor time and memory as its engine. We all enjoy already a limitless amount of free storage in Second Life – all those notecards and textures have to be stored somewhere (to the best of my knowledge, no-one yet has been told their inventory has exceeded a maximum value) – so why not some free land also? There are two main reasons that I can see why it would be particularly difficult to do this in SL: first, Linden’s income is heavily dependent on land tier; second, a great deal of that land tier is paid by landowners who rent out their land to non-subscribers and whose business model would probably collapse if suddenly all their tenants could get free land. Sure, it’s ultimately changeable, but fiddling with that now could bring about an instability which could jeopardise the development of Sansar.
Making money out of virtual land probably made a lot of sense in the early days of SL; making money out of real land, after all, is pretty much a tried and tested business. It’s easy to forget that, back then, the huge trade in user-generated content we take for granted today was at best just an idea. What we currently call the Marketplace wasn’t even Linden’s invention: it started off as two independent ventures – Xstreet SL and OnRez – which Linden acquired in probably the most shrewd purchasing decision it has so far made. This is where Linden should be making its profits, targeting user activity rather than infrastructure. Mobile networks make their money out of calls, not selling phones; printer makers make their money out of selling ink, not printers; Linden should make its money out of the life that takes place on land, not the land itself. To balance this out, of course, content creators are likely going to have to get used to losing more than the 5% cut Linden currently takes from their Marketplace sales, though if more people have land and if having free land attracts more people then one might hope that increased sales end up more than compensating for this. And, to put Linden’s 5% in perspective, I currently lose to Amazon 70% on every Kindle book sale I make.
What, then, should Sansar’s free land offering look like? Part of the answer to this has to consider new users’ First Hour Experience. What could be more simple for a newbie than rezzing straight into their own home the moment they log in for the first time? What could be more welcoming than the first message they see being, “Welcome to your new home in Sansar”? Free houses would not need to be complicated and users could choose the sort of home they would like to live in when they first signup, much as they do now their initial avatar appearance. I think it would be a good idea also if the home had a basic level of furnishing, though of course users would be free (and encouraged) to replace these items with their own over time (one idea might be to furnish the main living room – so newbies have a place straight away to sit and entertain guests – and leave the others bare, perhaps with a couple of induction tasks to place some sample furniture left ready for them in inventory).
This ‘freemium’ approach would encourage users who stay to make their homes their own, but it does have a potential drawback: huge, endless ‘estates’ of starter homes stretching as far as the eye can see. It might be tempting, perhaps, to separate free houses in some way from the mainland (ie, individual houses floating in nothingness, a bit like the approach Google Lively attempted in 2008), but this would instantly prevent any sort of community feeling – of living in an actual place – and that, in my opinion, is one of the secret ingredients to immersion. To a certain extent, large estates could be broken up a little by varying house designs and including auto-generated community areas. Users could also be encouraged to replace their default homes with alternate builds so that, over time, something a little more organic starts to evolve. And you’d still be able to buy additional land, be it a plot with a nicer location on a different continent or just your neighbour’s starter patch if s/he moves away and you fancy nothing more than expanding a little.
All of this thinking, however, might be rather failing to think outside of the box in assuming a world built not all that differently from that which we already inhabit. Is it actually land that we need at all, for example, or rather is it just the concept of a home with the ability to build there and rez? What if new residents were given free apartments on their entry into the metaverse rather than land per se (with the concept of ‘Land Impact’ reorganised as ‘Resources Impact’ and ‘regions’ effectively stacked vertically so that a high-rise apartment block could be built as tall as you want it, each floor with its own resources). Would that not suffice? What if subscribed residents got ‘upgraded’ to a more luxurious residence each rezzday (always assuming they hadn’t by then decided to just buy something better) as a loyalty incentive? What if Sansar turns out to be a virtual universe rather than a virtual world and whole planets get dedicated to newbie homes?
And so on.
However it’s done, one additional thing I think needs to happen is some sort of link between the metaverse and the 2D web. Once people have a Sansar home, they’ll want a way of showing it off and inviting people into it from all the regular web and social media places they inhabit (let’s not assume just yet that the Oculus Rift will have taken over the world by this time next year). A web-based viewer could be one way of going about this, with temporary guest accounts available for non-residents who, for example, just want to attend a friend or relative’s virtual birthday party or an inworld class (in the longer term, making it as easy as possible for people with no interest in Sansar to attend such one-off events – no signup, no fuss; just one click and you’re in – could be very effective in recruiting new residents). I also like the idea of ‘virtual webcams’ which you could place in your home (or any other place you owned), viewable from a blog or Facebook page. Both of these ideas could utilise streaming technology of the sort employed by the recently deceased SLGo, making them available on fairly low-spec hardware.
As far as actual information goes, then, the ‘free land’ headline is pretty much only a morsel in the absence of any additional detail as to how it will actually be implemented. But it’s a pretty damned tasty one. I’m still holding my breath over whether Sansar is going to be the thing it needs to be in order to secure Linden’s long-term place at the metaverse table, but a little voice in my head is now daring to say, “this looks like it might just be good.”