How to Save Second Life in Seven Easy Steps

Second LifeTomorrow, Second Life creator Philip Rosedale will give Linden Lab’s corporate strategy presentation to the company’s customers, at the most perilous time in the virtual world’s history. A darling of the Internet industry only three scant years ago, Linden’s profitability has been eroded by company efforts to turn SL into a real world business platform and improve the complicated user interface — both of which yielded negligible results, and worse, a massive layoff of Linden staff (including the top executive and CEO who led that drive.) Newly returned to Linden Lab as “interim CEO”, Rosedale says he’s pushing a “back to basics” crusade that will fix the nagging technical problems that beset Second Life. Which is a good start. But as someone who’s been writing about Second Life for seven years (first as a Linden contractor, and then as an author and blogger), saving Second Life in today’s Internet will require quickly growing its userbase. Here’s how:
With about a million unique users who log in every month, Second Life is hardly dead; what’s more, several hundred thousand new accounts are still reportedly created monthly. The problem is few stay, and those who do rarely spend much money on Linden Dollars (the world’s virtual currency) or buy SL land (the company’s main revenue source.) Fortunately, there’s a number of fixes with a reliable track record that could improve this, and which the company could implement relatively easily and cheaply:

Add an Achievements/Leveling System to Second Life
Overwhelmingly, most new Second Life users quit because they generally have no purpose or motivation to explore the world, find the incredible amount of user-generated content in it, or interact with the existing userbase. An achievement/leveling system matched to L$ rewards and pinned to exploration and interaction would immediately increase user retention, while encouraging noobies into the far richer experience of Second Life that lies beyond the initial learning curve.

Partner with a Prepaid Card Service
While Second Life has some of the highest ARPU rates of any freemium virtual world, it needs many more customers to keep the internal economy of user-generated content thriving. Already popular with the largest virtual worlds and social games, a prepaid retail card for Linden Dollars would quickly create those.

Add an “In-World Now” Display
Linden Lab has been fighting a losing battle to create a viable search engine to expose all the great user-made locations in Second Life. One short term solution is easier, and probably more effective — a list of locations which contain other users currently online. Most people don’t care to find pretty locations that are empty; far better to show them all the places that are full of people. That’s how Habbo does it, and Habbo’s fricking huge.

Greatly Improve Text Chat
In a study by two University of Michigan academics, chat was found to be the primary predictive factor for keeping new Second Life users engaged. Not making money, or exploring the world, but simple text chat with fellow SL users. The problem is that Second Life chat, especially within groups, is dodgy and unreliable. If there’s one feature that needs the most attention, therefore, it’s this one.

Point-and-Click Movement
Incredibly, moving in Second Life still resembles a first-person shooter, hardly the most user-friendly UI metaphor for casual social gamers. To capture the mass audience who’ve embraced the most successful full 3D PC games, like The Sims 3 and World of Warcraft, Second Life needs a navigation option like theirs: Point-and-click.

Heavily Promote User-Made Machinima
Linden Lab has unsuccessfully tried to promote Second Life as a place to hold business meetings, while largely ignoring the most powerful real world application of SL: Machinima, which has already been used in several Hollywood movies. That’s SL’s real world killer app, and should be promoted to film schools, indie filmmakers, and others interested in a cheap and powerful platform for 3D animation. (And all that machinima only serves as a great visual promotion for Second Life itself!)

Hire a Game Industry VP With Design Background
Here’s another surprise: Linden Lab has never had an executive with a background in the game industry that’s heavy on design. (Programming and marketing, yes; not the same thing) But it’s game designers who’ve already learned how to solve a lot of the problems Second Life faces. Above all, hiring a game designer means Linden Lab will have made the most important realization about its own product: Niche real world applications aside, Second Life is still essentially a game, and needs to be fun before it is anything else. But doing that will require getting out of what I call the Dwight Scrhute Echo Chamber.

Of course, there are many more features that need fixing and adding, but I believe these are the easiest to implement that’ll gain the best immediate results. Failing that, I fear the most interesting and inspiring user-generated community I’ve ever written about will flounder into irrelevance, instead of becoming what it could and should be: a central hub of the social Internet.

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