Sunday, January 31, 2010

Land of the Lost

My latest Second Life crisis centers not around clothing or trivia or griefing or even the utterly infuriating process of scripting. Nope: instead my current dilemma centers around one of SL's oldest and most basic questions: whether to get some land of my own.

I've been in Second Life for about a year and a half, and I've always characterized myself as one of SL's "vast homeless population." When I started out, I was assigned to an infohub (Memory Bazaar in the sim Ross): infohubs are kind of public fora where people can materialize inworld, get their bearings, then go on about their business. Since they're also the first glimpse most people get of the main SL grid, infohubs tend to collect together resources, helpful information, and tutorials for new avatars, and try to serve as a launching point to get people exploring SL.

Some people spend a lot of their SL time hanging out at infohubs, including folks who genuinely want to help new people. Infohubs also tend to gather pranksters and bona fide griefers—I was griefed within 30 seconds of starting in SL, and if you want to see some of SL's reigning experts on potty humor check out the infohubs at Ahern/Morris/Dore/Bonifacio or Waterhead sometime. Despite these "regulars," however, infohubs aren't anybody's home. Infohubs are public places, but not places people can build: you can't rez that free Linden home you picked up on Help Island, build your own club, or perhaps realize your dream of a Pok√©mon museum. You can hang out at an infohub, but you can't exactly move in and make the environment your own.

A typical gaggle of gigglers at Waterhead

Pixel Rush

To do that sort of thing in Second Life, you need some virtual land—and, yes, that concept is as weird as it sounds. In the real world, the value of real estate is based upon two things; LocationLocationLocation, and the fact land is a limited resource. In the real world travel isn't necessarily quick or cheap—so location matters—and comparatively little new land is bring created nowadays, so the land that exists is valuable. In comparison, the idea of buying virtual land in a world where new land can be generated at any time—and where avatars can teleport anywhere in the "world" at will—seems a little daft.

Second Life is owned by Linden Lab, which operates all the servers that comprise the Second Life "grid." But, if you're willing to pay Linden Lab some money, they will happily rent out some of that land to you. There are two catches: first, to be eligible to rent land from Linden Lab at all, you have to be a premium account holder, which translates to paying Linden Lab about $10 USD a month. Next, you have to be willing to put down money both to purchase the land, then (if you want more than 512m² of land) toss more money to the Lindens every month for "tier"—essentially, a hosting cost for keeping all your land up and running more-or-less 24/7. The more land you want, the more it costs, and the greater the monthly tier to keep that land.

Despite every resident's ability to teleport, LocationLocationLocation still seems to be a driving force in the Second Life land market: some spots are clearly more desirable than others. A lot of the land in Second Life is in a large series of interconnected sims (thousands of them) collectively referred to as "mainland." The mainland sports several "continents"—which, when compared to real life geography would be not-particularly-large islands—and a few areas of open ocean around and between them. Most of the mainland is owned and developed by SL residents; some areas (like Bay City, Nautilus, and forthcoming Linden Homes) are owned by the Lindens directly. One recently-opened continent—Zindra, aka The Continent of Dildos and Heaving Bazooms—is now Second Life's adults-only red light district.

Mainland might be the bulk of SL, but it's also widely considered some of the least appealing real estate. Mainland used to be widely festered with "ad-farms," tiny plots that folks used to put up garish and annoying in-world advertisements: the ad farms are mostly gone now, but for the most part SL mainland is still pretty ugly. For every resident who can put together a nice home, park, or store, there are about 20 more who (at best) plop down something pre-fabbed, park their spaceship outside, and think they're cool. Also, having a mainland parcel means you're effectively competing with other landowners on the same sim for resources: if they have a bunch of enormous, bandwidth-sucking textures on their property, are running a club packed with avatars at every hour, have heaps of heavily scripted virtual pets running around, a siren or farting noises blaring non-stop from their property, or run a store selling off-color merchandise right next door…you've just got to deal with it.

Lou on a randonly chosen mainland road, stuck between a pink store, a tacky apartment block, and a stargate. And check out the adfarm column.

Hence, the primo real estate in Second Life is on private sims—aka islands—that are managed lock-stock-and-barrel by their owners and are only accessible by direct teleport—and sometimes they're locked down to just a handful of avatars. Most of the cool places I've photographed for this blog are on private islands.

So: if you're thinking about getting something less than an entire sim of your own, your options are buying or renting some Mainland, or renting a parcel on someone's private island. Prices for mainland parcels can vary widely: right now, a 512m² parcel in the middle of nowhere with few redeeming features might be available for as little as $650 Lindens, but one near a well-trafficked store, road, or infohub might be asking ten or twenty times as much. Most people expect Mainland land prices to fall considerably when Linden Homes launch.


Confused yet? Just wait. Remember that you can only buy land if you're already sending money to Linden Lab every month, and if you want more than 512m² you'll be sending even more money, called "tier." Linden Labs' tier fees are kinda straightforward in a confusing sort of way…and not exactly welcoming. A 2048m² parcel runs $15 USD a month on top of that $10 USD/month premium membership and whatever you have to spend to buy that land in the first place. With that 2048 square meters you'd get 468 prims to play with (assuming you aren't on some prized amped-up land that can support more than the usual number of prims). One U.S. dollar buys about $260 Linden dollars at the moment; leaving aside the cost of a premium account, that means buying the capability to have prims that stay around 24/7 cost about $2L per week per prim.

So what's all this about prims—you thought we were talking about land? Sure, land is an area where you can put stuff, but that stuff is all made of prims—and the number of prims you can set out is tied to the size of your parcel.

Prims are the basic building blocks of Second Life—one of the phrases you'll hear in-world is "it all starts with a cube," and a cube is one of the most basic prims. Of course, there are other types (cylinders and tori being useful, as well as "sculpts," prims that can have relatively arbitrary geometry defined by programs outside SL). Pretty much everything in SL is made up of prims, piled and linked together in assemblages that may (or may not!) resemble things in RL. Even things like shafts of light and shadows are often prims, just textured and edited in clever ways. A basic room might use squished cubes for a floor, four walls, and a ceiling: that room would take up six prims…and it might not have a door. A clever builder could do a small room with three prims: a hollowed-out cube for the walls, then flat ones for the floor and ceiling.

Different types of objects require different numbers of prims. For instance, a simple table lamp I made on a whim (it has a three-way switch) uses nine prims. My little temporary sky platform uses a minimum of two prims, but can take up about 50 by the time I set out a little furniture and my building tools.

So, by these measures, the 468 prims granted with a 2048m² parcel of land might seem like a lot—heck even the 117 prims that come with a 512m² parcel might seem like a bonanza if you're just putting up four walls! But consider: the hair that typically adorns an SL avatar's head is a prim attachment, and "a head of hair" can run from maybe 50 to 250 prims. (The hair I'm wearing as I write this is 119 prims; my "good" hair is 127 prims.) Now, avatar attachments like hair don't count against a parcel's prim limits (or most people wouldn't be able to walk onto the land they own!) but it does mean that if you're building something, you need to have enough prims available on your land while you're putting it together. (You can do some editing on things attached to you, but you generally have to create things "loose.")

By way of example, a lot of the jewelry items I've built in Second Life clock in between 150 and 200 prims each. If I were going to get some land of my own for building, I couldn't even get started with a 512m² and if I were working on a major piece (that involved multiple attachments) even a 2048m² parcel wouldn't be enough to rez the things, let alone work on them.

Extraordinary Rentition

So, everyone in Second Life who has land is renting from the Lindens, since Linden Labs runs all the servers on the grid, mainland or private. But if you don't have a premium account, the only way to have land is to rent it from someone who is already renting from the Lindens. The basic idea is that non-premium account holders pay money to the real "owners" of the land, who ostensibly pass the money along to the Lindens to pay tier fees and probably keep a little for themselves. Some of these arrangements are just-between-friends affairs that are low-stress and easy to manage; however, some of the most successful "businesses" in Second Life are so-called "land barons" who do their best to buy low, sell high, and rent out as much of their land as they can for as high a price as they can command. Most land barons own a mix of mainland and private sims, and often own a mix of land intended for residential, social, and commercial spots. Supposedly the first "virtual millionaire" Anshe Chung—someone who cleared $1 million USD in income from selling virtual goods—did it as a Second Life land baron.

So, basically, if you're looking to rent land in Second Life, there are no shortage of avatars willing to try to get one over on you. Second Life has an in-world classified ad system where land owners can post adverts about their land and try to lure customers in. The variety of rental possibilities is kind of astonishing: some are just bare plots advertised as blank canvases for your imagination, while others come with amenities like pre-fabbed "homes" and common areas, while others are part of themed communities (beach, forest, Arctic, Japanese, medieval, steampunk, desert, western, post-apocalyptic, vampires, cyberpunk, tinies, furries, Star Trek, you-name-it). And prices are all over the map: some seem to fall right in line with that $2L-per-prim-per-week baseline; some are way over that, while others are suspiciously under that threshold, implying the owners are losing money on the rentals.

A typical rental parcel on a private island: 1024m²; nearby parcels are rented out and set up in a variety of styles.

Of course, one advantage of "owning" land is that you're dealing with Linden Lab directly: so long as they're still afloat, presumably you'll have your virtual real estate. Not so when you're dealing with private parties: for every person I know who's a happy renter in Second Life, I probably know another who has had a landlord go belly-up, resulting in the Lindens shutting down the sim or kicking renters off the parcel with little or no notice. (Fellow trivia-ite Becki Verne recently had a similar experience.) So most renters are not only probably paying extra money for their land, they're also assuming greater risk.

No Particular Place to Go

And so my quandry. I've been fortunate enough to make many friends in Second Life, many of whom own or rent land and have graciously allowed me to use it, whether to host my Lou's Clues trivia game or just have a quiet place to work on projects. And to be sure, some of my projects are not at all prim-intensive: one of the more complicated things I've worked on is just two prims (all the blood, sweat, and tears are in the scripts). But, with the exception of two lonely prims hovering a few kilometers above a private island, I don't leave anything "permanent" in Second Life. Barring a crash, I clean up and pack everything away when I log off. I don't have a spot of my own, I don't have a house or a workshop or a trivia venue or a store or a music hangout. I got nothin.'

Part of my quandary is the building problem: even if I rented land, I'd have trouble justifying the expense of land that supported enough prims to work on my typical projects. So, if I set up a workshop, I'd still wind up doing most of my work in public sandboxes—to be sure, those usually have enough prims available, but—at least now that Hyperborea is gone—also subject me to a lot of griefing and interruptions. And if I'm going to wind up spending so much time in sandboxes anyway, why do I need land?

If I don't use land to build, what would I use it for? I have no idea. A lot of people make homes in Second Life: they set up places that may (or may not!) resemble real-world homes and spend a lot of time decorating and designing with pictures, furniture, and landscaping. And some of these places are astonishing—I've been repeatedly impressed with what my friends have accomplished with their inworld homes.

But whenever I think of making an Second Life home, a part of me hesitates and wonders if I wouldn't just be taking the "playing Barbie" aspect of Second Life to another level. Everyone in Second Life has an avatar, and almost everyone spends an inordinate amount of time obsessing over their avatar's shape, appearance, clothing, and persona—it's no wonder that avatar add-ons are the center of Second Life's in-world economy. (OMG I have to have those boots!) I call this "playing Barbie," because we all expend enormous effort dressing up our little dolls and playin with them—and I'm just as guilty as anybody else, if not moreso because I have this silly idea that Lou is Lou is Lou is Lou and Lou is short.

Anyway—whenever I think about land, I worry it's just taking playing Barbies from avatars out to the level of walls and trees and furniture and buildings. I don't begrudge anyone else having fun constructing spaces and building out their land—I love what a lot of my friends have done—and almost all of them have repeatedly noted how it's nice to have a place of your own to log into, log out from, and try out clothes or new things in private on your own. But I'm not an architect; I'm not a designer; I have no real graphics skills—I don't even know how I'd begin to make a place of my own. And I've been "living" all this time in SL without one…so do I really need one?

And yet…part of me is still looking.

Lou consults with the Wise Old Owl at the New Trivia Monkeys about virtual real estate

Sunday, January 17, 2010

A Whole Bucc'ing Year

This weekend marked the thirteenth Buccaneer Bowl, Second Life's monthly team-based trivia event. It's astonishing to me that the Bowl has been going on for a year now: it still seems so new, and I remember clearly when it was just a vague idea kicking around in the trivia crowd, until Thornton Writer, Lillian Shippe, and Lette Ponnier decided to go for the gusto and make it happen. And now the Buccaneer Bowl is as much a Second Life trivia institution as any of the long-running games. Even though I'm just a player, it's kind neat to have been a teeny part of helping create such a successful event.

Trivia fans assemble for the January 2010 Buccaneer Bowl

For January's game, teams assembled on the floating pirate ship 2000m above [MonoChrome]: Rain Ninetails and I teamed up with trivia stalwarts Circe Falta and JoshuaStephen Schism to form up the impromptu team "Frivolous CirceSchism" team. Josh and Circe usually team up with Chaddington Boomhauer and Shale Nightfire on a team "BoomFire CirceSchism"—see the theme to the naming?—but Chadd and Shale couldn't make it to the January game. Rain and I only had two people for the Frivolous Corsairs too, so we combined forces. And after a disheartening first round, we did OK, managing to win two out of five rounds and rolling into a fourth place finish overall—which is no small feat considering the level of competition at the Buccaneer Bowl.

Josh Schism, Circe Falta, Rain Ninetails, and me (atop the barrels) at the Buccaneer Bowl; the JOB Squad is to our left: Juke, Jewels, Hilda, and Sal.

This month, the champion team was the JOB Squad, consisting of Juke Badger, Hilda Static, Sal Zulaman, and Jewels Carminucci. They not only played great, but were solid performers in all five rounds—and their victory also means that the gallery of teams that have won the Buccaneer Bowl is still expanding. The many-time-champion Triviators are mighty, to be sure, but they aren't unbeatable…because plenty of people have beaten them!

As always, a mad round of applause to Lette, Lillian, and Thorn for putting on the Buccaneer Bowl—the game is still evolving and changing, but the three of them have got things down to a solid system that runs smoothly. It's also great to see new players trying out the Buccaneer Bowl each month—although the so-called "trivia regulars" form a lot of the regular teams, new teams are putting on remarkably good showings!

On a personal note, I would just like to say that my perch atop the barrels once again put me head and shoulders above everyone else at the game. It wasn't intentional, but back a the November Buccaneer Bowl I was also the most-elevated player, and maybe I've got a theme going.

Congrats to JOB Squad, and all the Buccaneer Bowl teams!