Could the Oculus Rift help give Second Life a second life?

Imagine if this were all around you.
Imagine if this were all around you.
Image: Linden Lab
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Second Life—the online world once considered the hottest destination on the internet—never got much past a million users. But its creators think virtual-reality headsets could help give it a new lease of life.

Linden Lab, the San Francisco company behind the 12-year-old role-playing game, is planning to release a similar title that will work with virtual-reality (VR) goggles like the Oculus Rift. Codenamed Project Sansar, it will begin testing with a handful of players in the coming days. The company hopes to have an alpha version available by the time Facebook-owned Oculus launches its consumer headset early next year, and to commercially release the game before the end of 2016.

Some of Sansar’s rules will be slightly different, and the immersive VR graphics will be far superior (though it will still work on regular computers and mobile devices too). But like Second Life, Sansar isn’t a game with a clear objective. There are no bosses to defeat or princesses to rescue. Instead, people, playing as virtual representations of themselves, will carry out day-to-day, often fantastical, lives in a made-up world. They’ll explore, socialize, have cybersex, make art, perform, create businesses, build houses, go shopping, pay taxes.

That means that, as with Second Life, playing Sansar will require a lot of time and investment (some of it in real money). And Linden Lab’s CEO, Ebbe Altberg, say that this time, the goal is to reach not a million users, but “tens, if not hundreds, of millions.” So can it happen?

Virtual world, real money

In Second Life, nobody knows you dance like a dog.
In Second Life, nobody knows you dance like a dog.

The move into VR seems logical on its face. When Linden Lab was created in 1999, its original vision was to build virtual-reality hardware. It even created a prototype exoskeleton that would mimic the gestures of the person wearing the suit, theoretically immersing him or her in an alternate reality.

The only problem: There was nowhere for people with VR goggles to visit. And so, like many startups, Linden Lab pivoted, building an elaborate virtual world that users could explore through a flat computer screen. Second Life quickly reached profitability, and at its peak, had 1.1 million players and reportedly brought in about $100 million annually in revenue.

The pivot turned out to be a smart decision. VR hardware has proven hard to get right; headsets are just now starting to hit the consumer market. However, Second Life’s growth eventually stalled. Today, Linden Lab says it has about 900,000 monthly users, though it says it still makes a profit.

Making Sansar—the Hindi word for universe—an immersive 3D experience certainly seems like a way to lure more people in. But it’s not going to be enough to keep them there. (Second Life added support for VR last year, but Altberg acknowledges it doesn’t work that well.) That will depend on whether living as a citizen of Sansar is worth the effort.

Though Second Life is virtual, it brings in real money. Long before bitcoin was used to buy illegal drugs on Silk Road, there were Linden dollars, which Second Life players can both buy and redeem in a number of real-world currencies. In the game’s robust marketplace, people create, sell, and buy virtual goods. (Linden Lab’s own revenue comes mainly from the taxes the game levies on virtual landowners.) The avatar of one savvy player, a schoolteacher who went by Anshe Chung in Second Life, was featured on the cover of BusinessWeek in 2006. She ended up becoming the first person to make a million (real) dollars from the virtual world. Last year, Second Life users collectively cashed out $60 million worth of Linden dollars.

But while there are people who earn a part- or full-time living on Second Life, the complexity of the world became a turn-off for newcomers. People online complained about the high cost of virtual real estate, technical problems including lag, other players, or simply that it wasn’t fun anymore.

“Ultimately, the work you had to put in was, for most people, more than the fun you got out,” says Hunter Walk, an investor who previously worked at Linden Lab and oversaw Second Life’s product development from 2001 to 2003.

Bernhard Drax, an avid Second Life user since 2007, says he was most irked by the corporate presence. Press hype about Second Life lured many companies, including Toyota, Calvin Klein, and American Apparel, who viewed the virtual world as a marketing opportunity. ”If you looked at it as a 3D billboard, Second Life did not work,” he says. But he notes the world flourished “as an artistic playground.”

Altberg, however, maintains that there was never a mass exodus. And he firmly believes Sansar can overcome Second Life’s limitations.

Second act

Second Life started out as a blank canvas and has given rise to some fantastical creations.
Second Life started out as a blank canvas and has given rise to some fantastical creations.

Acutely aware that Second Life still has a fervent following, Linden Lab is trying not to alienate the game’s existing users. Though Project Sansar will carry many elements of the original, it is being developed as an entirely separate game.

That creates an opportunity to get rid of some things that didn’t work. ”Second Life was built on top of something on top of something for years,” says Altberg. “Now that we get the opportunity to do that from the ground up, we thought, ‘Well, we’re going to make it a much easier-to-use product.'”

Linden Lab declined to give Quartz a preview of Sansar, but one of the changes, according to Altberg, includes a rethink of the game’s economics. With virtual-real-estate prices ballooning—some top players are spending hundreds of US dollars each month—it became prohibitive for people to run businesses and create experiences in Second Life.

“In Sansar, we want land to be much cheaper, which means property prices have to come down, which means we have to find other ways to make money,” says Altberg, who hints at raising taxes on the sale of goods and services instead. “In Sansar, we want to find a better equilibrium to spread the cost out in a different way.”

Another change is in making things easier to build. As with Second Life, Sansar’s success will hang on what people create in it, and when the first players begin exploring this week, the place will be a ghost town. So Linden Lab is making the tools to create virtual objects in Sansar easier to find. It will also support objects created with external 3D modeling and editing tools, much as a word processor supports documents created in other word processors.

Linden Lab also wants to make it easier for people to discover cool stuff in Sansar. In Second Life, users typically didn’t spend much time wandering around the vast virtual world, and never saw many of its greatest marvels. ”Depending on the first two or three things you discovered… you might come to the conclusion that Second Life is not relevant to you,” Altberg says. The hope with Sansar is that people would enter the virtual world through other channels, such as blogs or websites. “This gives more opportunities for creators of content to promote themselves,” he adds.

The most obvious improvement will be seen in the game’s graphics, which Altberg says will rival those of modern video games. Drax, who has seen a preview of Sansar, calls them “very, very impressive.” And whereas technical limitations capped the number of people that could be in the same place at the same time in Second Life, Sansar’s will support bigger crowds.

This would be a lot of effort “if we were doing this just to get another million users,” Altberg says. “No, no, it’s much, much bigger than that.” He admits it might take decades to achieve his goal of tens or hundreds of millions of users, but is adamant that VR is the future and “we want to be a part of helping create that future.”

Breaking into the mainstream?

Second Life’s main source of revenue was taxes on virtual land. In Sansar, they’ll be lower.
Second Life’s main source of revenue was taxes on virtual land. In Sansar, they’ll be lower.

Altberg’s vision sounds a lot like that of Philip Rosedale, Linden’s founder and former CEO, who left in 2008. Rosedale too envisioned building “a world that could house millions, tens of millions, and beyond,” recalls Walk, the former head of Second Life’s product development. The fact that Linden Lab has paid out dividends to its investors is “some measure of success,” Walk says, “but I don’t think any of the original team would be satisfied.”

Rosedale is still pursuing that vision. In 2013 he created a new company, High Fidelity. It’s creating a virtual world not unlike Second Life and Sansar, with its own economy and building tools. The big difference: People’s avatars will accurately mimic their owners’ facial expressions and head movements, in real time. “We want you to interact with other people in an emotionally normal way,” Rosedale told MIT Technology Review last year. He seems to think this is the crucial feature that will attract the masses.

Drax, by contrast, doesn’t think the goal should be all about numbers. Though Second Life never went mainstream, he points to the varied ways niche communities used the platform, including a group of Parkinson’s patients who say their avatars’ virtual activities helped their own bodies partially recover (video). ”As much as I am an evangelist,” he says, “the reality is I’m not sure if a large number of people is really going to embrace [Sansar].”

Whatever their game features, the success of both Linden Lab’s and High Fidelity’s virtual worlds will also hinge in part on the virtual-reality hardware. It’s still early days; just one consumer headset from Samsung, the Gear VR, is currently available for sale, and even at about $200, it’s considered a low-end device. VR won’t take off until high-quality hardware gets cheaper, there is more content to explore, and mobile internet speeds up.

But Linden Lab is patient. ”You could argue Second Life was started 10 years too early,” Altberg says. “Now is the real start of what’s going to be possible.”