Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Hunted Down

One aspect of Second Life culture I haven't touched on in this blog is hunts, which so far as I can determine are one of the main activities in which many SL users engage—particularly if they're in the fashion-conscious set. Since dressing an avatar is something almost all SL residents do, almost everyone is fashion-conscious to one degree or another.

This store is participating in (at least) ten hunts. Which to choose?

The Game's Afoot

Hunts generally work like this: a group of folks who sell stuff in Second Life—which usually means they have stores and offer virtual goods—get together and decide to offer some items to visitors for free, just for turning up at the store. But here's the catch: the items aren't set out near the front door with a giant blinky sign pointing to them saying "FREE!" (Well, not usually.) Instead, they're hidden in a hunt item, typically a small virtual object secreted away somewhere on the premises of the store. When visitors turn up at the store, they typically have to wander around and cam through a bunch of nooks and crannies—thus taking a more-than-casual look at the store and its merchandise—in order to find the item. At that point, they can click it to receive their free item, along with a landmark to the next hunt location. Hunters can then teleport to another store to look for another hunt item hidden somewhere on the premises to get another freebie.

Hunts are many and varied, and there are usually several major hunts taking place on the Second Life grid at any given time—check out the SL Hunts blog for what may (or may not) be a reasonably comprehensive list. Some hunts are build around a particular theme, event, or season—for instance, someone who's not into scifi and robots might not want to spend time doing a cyberpunk hunt, but that same person might get into an all-shoes hunt or a holiday-themed hunt. Some hunts are short, involving maybe half-a-dozen stops, while others are huge and sprawling—I think I've seen descriptions of hunts with more than 200 stops.

You Can Be The Hunter…

Hunts bring together two things that drive the Second Life economy: residents' desire for freebies, and sellers' desires for promotion, sales, and traffic. Residents benefit because they can literally get something for nothing: just turn up, wander around for a bit, click a tiny object and presto! Free stuff!

From a hunter's perspective, hunts can be fun: you get to pop around to a bunch of locations in Second Life, pick up free stuff, then pop back to your virtual home or a sandbox to try things on and sort through all your goodies. If you don't want to follow a hunt from beginning to end, it's pretty easy to jump into most hunts at any point along the way. Almost every hunt has a blog or Web site showing who's participating and sometimes what sort of stuff has been set out. It's considered poor form to "cheat" on hunts—don't stand next to a hunt item shouting "It's here, people, right here! Behind the plant!"—but some blogs and sites often assemble lists of hints of where hunt items are hidden, which can sometimes make it easy to see if you're interested in a hunt, or, say, to visit only hunt sites in which you're particularly interested. Hunts can be a good way to see how different creators approach things in SL—invisiprims, hand-drawn versus photographic textures, animations, kookiness, realism, whether items can be modified, etc.—without having to spend money and potentially get burned. So free hunt items are an opportunity to learn about types of virtual goods.

For sellers, hunts are promotional tools. Businesses get exposure for their stores and merchandise—not just at their locations, but also in the myriad of blogs and Web sites that cover Second Life hunts and review hunt items—as well as traffic, a measure of how many residents visit a Second Life location. Traffic impacts how highly a location in Second Life is ranked in the in-world search feature: a place with lots of visitors is ranked more highly than a site with virtually no visitors, on the premise that if more people go there it must be good.

(The logic of this sort of primitive crowdsourcing to provide "search relevance" is specious—and things like hunts make it even more specious. I'll save the bulk of this rant for another time, but in some ways hunts are an example of in-world businesses gaming the Second Life search engine. Participating in a hunt is a way to increase traffic numbers and, therefore, be ranked more highly in search.)

It's not unusual for in-world businesses to participate in several hunts at the same time. Pop into any reasonably popular in-world store—they're easy to find because (amazingly!) they're ranked highly in search—and you're bound to see posters and placards and displays proclaiming the store's participation in this-that-and-the-other hunt. (Providing information about the hunt at every location is pretty common: promotion, promotion, promotion!) So sometimes you can pick up multiple freebies as a single stop.

The quality of items available in hunts varies widely: some aren't even good enough to merit the adjective "craptastic," while others truly are stunning pieces that, undoubtedly, the creators could be selling for hundreds (or even thousands) of Linden dollars. The vast majority tread a middle ground: they're neither bad nor particularly spectacular: some might tickle your fancy, while others will leave you non-plussed. It's pretty common to find a hunt item that has potential but has one or two major strikes against it: "Wow, this would be great if only it weren't fluorescent orange!" In cases like that, the creator probably makes a version of the item that's closer to what you (and probably lots of other people) want…but it's not available for free.

…or You Can Be The Prey

OK, so here's my thing (and you knew this was coming, this is Lou's blog after all): I pretty much hate hunts. It's not that I begrudge in-world businesses trying to get some exposure, or even mind picking up free items that, ninety-nine percent of the time, I have no use for and never wanted in the first place.

No. I hate hunts because of the way I feel when I try them: angry and stupid.

I actually got off to a positive start with hunts. Lette Ponnier (Buccaneer Bowl quartermaster and hunt goddess extraordinaire—catch her over at Virtual Fun & Brains) was kinda astonished at one point that I'd never tried a hunt. So one evening we set off for a few stops together in some hunt in…gosh, it must have been early 2009? We zipped from place to place, I was getting some free stuff, we were chatting, I was using a few explorer-Lou tricks to quickly scan through stores, and it was generally a good time. It must have been, because a few days later I went back to that hunt and did several stops on my own. I wasn't even terribly disappointed that none of the things I picked up were remotely interesting to me (I remember now: it was some Valentine-themed hunt I think: lots of hearts and lingerie and flowery crap mixed with the odd spiked leather bathrobe—mmmmmyeah). I was just goofing around, seeing what hunts were like.

But since then, I don't honestly think I've been able to complete more than a few stops on a hunt without cursing wanting to hit something—and, more often, I can't even get through a single stop.

First, it's the lag. One of the downsides when popping from place to place is that you have to download all the details—prims, textures, etc.—when you get there. And since lots of these places are stores that want to look supercool, they're festooned with prims and lots of high-resolution textures, scripted gimmicks, and masses of sculpts. Even on a high-bandwidth connection, popping into these places often entails several minutes of doing nothing but waiting for things to rez enough that I can step off the landing point, let alone start to look for a hunt item. (The way most hunt items work, you have to be relatively close by for them to render at all, so you have to wander around after arriving.) Adding to the lag are often a selection of hunters, dressed to the nines in their giant fake prim feet, blingy jewelry, talking pets (or talking tummys), multi-layered tattoos, tails, hugely laggy hair, and maybe a thong. Ironically, you can sometimes identify experienced hunters because their avatars are not over the top.

Second, it's the people. I don't intend to disparage "SL hunt culture"—whatever that may be—but, I've gotta say, outside of actual griefers, the people I routinely run into participating in hunts are easily among the rudest and crudest I've encountered in Second Life. Aside from scammers and predators hanging around popular hunt stops begging for money and/or virtual sex—I guess they got kicked out of infohubs and the you-sex-me-now clubs—I find hunt participants are routinely rude. I'm insulted for my height, the way I dress, for what I say (or for not saying anything at all), for pretending to be a kid, or for just existing. It's not just hunt participants: I've had a handful of store owners/managers get on my case, and one even banned me from her store and abuse-reported me to Linden Lab because I was taking "too long" at her stop. (In reality, I had been away from my computer for a few minutes while I waited for things to rez, but after that I legitimately could not find the hunt item. She assumed I was a griefer or copybot operator.) Considering how few hunt stops I visit—and how common these incidents are—I can't imagine wanting to be regular "hunter."

As a result, I've (repeatedly) sworn off participating in hunts. The sole exceptions I'll make are when someone I know recommends I check out a particular stop on a particular hunt, because he/she thinks I would particularly like the item. (For the record, I also go and check out for-sale items friends recommend to me.)

But I almost never get to see those items—which brings me to point three: sheer frustration. I'm not new to Second Life, and as a builder I have some pretty solid camera skills. But I gather "SL hunt culture" has found new and interesting ways to cheat at hunts—perhaps object searches built into third-party viewers, viewing things in wireframe mode (where you just see surfaces outlined without textures), or maybe other things entirely. So, it seems, many hunt stop proprietors try to be extra clever about where they hide hunt items—I've found them floating in mid-air 50m about a store, embedded in walls or other objects, shoved meters below the ground, and (once) carefully encased in a touch-enabled prim so the item couldn't be clicked. Others I never found at all. To be sure, plenty of hunt locations "play fair"—but some do not.

I love puzzles. I love figuring things out. But I deeply resent being gamed. Roughly 50 percent of the time I can go to a hunt location, spend half an hour legitimately trying to find the hunt item, and come up totally empty. If I can't crack a hunt location in the first ten minutes, my only prayer is usualy to wait at the location, hope other hunters show up, then pay attention to where they're standing before they vanish: that's sometimes an indicator of the hunt item's general area. Except, you know, when stores are in multiple hunts: then, it's inevitably the location of a hunt item I'm not trying to find. Or, you know, when the other hunters just give up too. The result is that not only do I feel like an idiot, but I feel like someone—the hunt organizers, or a store owner—is toying with me. And that makes me angry.

Maybe it's just me—maybe I'm the odd duck in the pond and everyone else loves hunts and everything to do with them. I have to assume that kind of profoundly negative experience isn't what Second Life businesses want their potential customers to have…but, then again, I suppose it doesn't matter to them. Second Life search doesn't care whether the time I spent at a location was positive or negative, only that I visited.

2 comments:

  1. yup...only tried one...feel exactly as you about them!

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  2. Nope, you're not alone. I have pretty much stopped doing them and, for the most part, taking part in them as a business owner. The ones I still bother to do are the tiny curated ones -- often Japanese ones (ex. Red Packet) or hunts that are limited to a specific sim or creators that I already support (ex. Cioccolata). And the only ones I still participate in are the Starlust ones, because I'm involved in that community and because they keep it light, easy and optional. Otherwise, I've learned that it's generally not worth the frustration. Statistically, the percentage of hunters who bother to look around, buy non-hunt items or ever return to the stores involved in the hunt is very small. Sure, our friends do. But most grab the freebie and split.

    Hunting never really served me as an exploration tool -- I discover new places to see and shop via other means, and I get no thrill or satisfaction from the routine of hunting itself. For me, hunts were about free stuff and, as you said, a preview of the creator's talent -- if the hunt item was good, I'd go back and check out the store. What's nice now is that, between blogs and Flickr, you can usually get a look at the prizes/creators and determine whether or not the hunt is worth it (and, maybe because the sheer number of hunts has caused quality to go south, often it is not). My days of fighting lag and blingtards to pick up free crap just for the sake of picking up free crap are over.

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