Monday, January 31, 2011

Mainlining Mainland

One accepted truism of Second Life is that the SL Mainland is kind of the virtual equivalent of steerage compared to the posh upper- and first-class berths afforded by private sims and estates. To an extent, the perception is justified: Mainland is home to many builds that can generously be described as eyesores, many neighbors that can diplomatically be described as uncouth cretins, and sim performance that can sometimes be measured on a geologic scale.

But that doesn't mean Mainland is without its charms. When I'm not at my own little flying island parcel, attending some event, or off (gasp!) working on some project or other, I can often be found hanging around public Mainland areas. Although there are many high-quality, privately-owned areas of Mainland open to anyone, I often find myself going to places built by the Lindens (or, more properly, by the Moles—often resident contractors working on projects for Linden Lab) for the simple reason that they're intended to be public and open to all. Often I can be found in parts of the Blake Sea or the newly-emerging Sea of Fables, so when Linden Lab's efforts at infrastructure improvements made my home (and thousands of other sims) inaccessible for several hours:

Staring off into the empty space where my home sim ought to be…

…I thought I would go looking for a few new places.

One of the first I found—purely by visually scanning the in-world Map—is a Linden-build "Space Base" in a sim called Mos Ainsley. Although pretty obviously named for a lawless desert town in the first Star Wars movie, the whole sim is a crater with what appears to be some sort of sci-fi abandoned research station. The build features a selection of buildings, tunnels, pressure doors and elevators (about half of which don't work—whether that's deliberate or not I can't say) along with an underground shuttle hangar where you can rez your own craft and fly around.

The Lindens' Space Base, with the pod bay doors open, Hal

Exploring the build, you might find yourself a spacesuit to wear in case things go horribly wrong, and while the build as this weirdly hygienic quality to it, the not-working stuff and the sense that whoever was there just abandoned the place recently creates a bit of an Alien-ish atmosphere. And…if you can find your way through the right airlocks you'll eventually meet the aliens.

"Hey, S'nicklzyb'grr!zub, how's it goin'?"

At some point I noticed there's a spot on the Mainland called "Mare Segundus," and I believe someone told me it was one of the older Mainland "seas" where folks first took at stab at making sailing vessels and stuff for Second Life. I looked for it on the world Map and it's super easy to spot: it's got a bunch of islands shaped like the number "2." Two. Get it? Har har har. I figured with that level of subtlety I probably wasn't too interested in visiting, but at some point I found myself only a sim or two away and thought "what the heck"—and discovered it's actually kind of neat. A lot of Second Life's mainland seas have this vaguely Greek/Minoan/Atlantean vibe to them, like you're stumbling on variously-preserved bits of a long-crumbled civilization. (The new Sea of Fables has recently sprouted a Mount Olympus island, for example.) Anyway, there's a bit of that here, with a few domed structures and an orrery you can lay back and observe spinning. However, the star attraction is a kind of brass-punk rocketship on a landing pad right in the middle of that "2" on the map.

T minus three minutes and counting…

You can poke around the rocket, get a gangplank out to it, and get inside—and if you're not careful, it'll blast off! The takeoff seizes control of your avatar's camera so you're looking out the rocket porthole and see the horizon drop away beneath you—and then you land and you're on an alien world!

The atmosphere is breathable—do we dare go outside to look around?

Of course, you're not actually on an alien world, or even transported to another sim. (Sim crossings are pretty jarring events: you'd notice.) Instead the rocket transports you up about a kilometer into the sky, where there's a skybox carefully dressed up to simulate a bit of a classic scifi alien planet: you feel a bit like Robbie the Robot might appear in a moonbuggy at any moment. You can explore around and check out the weird plants and drippy things—careful, there is a monster and it will eat you if you let it. I was amused to find a flag planted by a previous exploring party—the Moles.

The Moles have claimed this planet as their own
LDPW stands for Linden Department of Public Works

If you bumble around a bit you will eventually find a strange altar—watch out for the tentacles, and be careful what you click!

To worship false gods, or not worship false gods?
Decisions, decisions…

As soon as I saw the altar on the "alien world," I knew it looked very familiar—it's a dead ringer for another strange altar that I found elsewhere on the Linden Mainland, not far from where my friends Lebn & Preston have their house. I don't think the Lindens have any overarching backstory to their builds, but it's kind of fun to notice when things recur and have little themes.

Hmm! This one doesn't have tentacles!

Anyway—the upshot here is that just because a location is Mainland and technically owned and operated by the Lindens doesn't necessarily mean it's boring and a no-fun place to hang out. I often pop to places like this when I'm just kicking around SL for a little bit, knee-deep in multiple IM conversations that need immediate attention, or maybe just looking for some no-script, no-rez areas to test some of my new scripts and toys. (There's actually a rez-enabled area right near that second altar intended for boats and whatnot that I abuse for other purposes.)

Of course, Mainland will always be Mainland, and not everything is going to be neato-keen, picturesque, or even polite. The same day I was galavanting between those altars, I got a message from a friend that it was raining penis-posters at her mainland house. I popped over there, and sure enough: spread across four mainland sims were at least two dozen invisible griefer objects, the sole purpose of which was to emit (literally) thousands of obscene images. Ah, the charms of Mainland.

Standing on a griefing cage 400m in the air, reporting penis-poster-spewing particle emitters—what fun.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Stepping into a Walled Garden

Right before Christmas Linden Lab announced it was bringing in Rod Humble as its new CEO, taking over for the (second) departure of Second Life founder Philip Rosedale. Reaction in the SL user community was rather muted, in part due to the timing of the announcement, but the overall tone was generally hopeful: Humble comes to Second Life from a background in online gaming and virtual worlds with Electronic Arts, The Sims, and EverQuest, and many folks figured that experience might make him a better fit with the SL universe than a chief executive with primary experience in other fields—like marketing or financing.

To my surprise, Humble's first official statement to the Second Life community wasn't about a vision for the future, Linden Lab's business fundamentals, an announcement of new technology initiatives, or leadership shakeups. Instead, Humble has posted a surprisingly charming chronicle about getting his feet wet in Second Life. "One of my highest priorities, over the last few weeks, was spending as much time as possible exploring inworld […] to better understand the product experience, your needs, and the culture of Second Life."

The best thing about the short piece is that Humble clearly isn't intimidated to show that he's new to Second Life—for experienced SL users, Humble's little photolog brings back memories of their first days when everything was new and mysterious and filled with exciting possibilities. Humble doesn't put on airs: he doesn't try to present a sophisticated persona or avatar, and honestly seems to have had fun getting started. In the post, Humble says he popped around to some of SL's winter seasonal activities (I did something similar when I was new to SL), then started playing around with terraforming land and even tapping into SL's building tools (to create a "shack" and a raft) and scripting tools.

I have to admit this last bit delighted me: the head of the company is actually trying to create things of his own in world, and even add interactivity to them! (He made a prim that sends him email.) He's totally up-front that everything he did is very basic, but one consistent criticism of Linden Lab's leadership during my time in Second Life is that, while a few developers and other Lindens log actual time in-world, very few of the top execs spent any time at all in-world. I'm happy he is, I hope he enjoys it, and I hope he consistently spends time in-world.

But. Being a cynical creature, I immediately started reading between the lines. See that omission ellipsis in that quote from Humble, above? Here's the full sentence (emphasis mine):

One of my highest priorities, over the last few weeks, was spending as much time as possible exploring inworld (with an alt and now Rodvik Linden) to better understand the product experience, your needs, and the culture of Second Life.

It's not much of a secret that most (all?) Linden Lab people are hesitant to log into the world with a Linden account: it's like having a target painted on your back, so they use different accounts so they can get around without being harassed. But I am somewhat disappointed that the new CEO's first experience of Second Life is that managing a Second Life experience requires multiple accounts. I'm kind of interpreting that as an indication Linden Lab has no plans to improve account tools, role management capabilities, or other significant deficiencies in the platform that lead may people to use several alts—or, in some cases, entire troupes of them.

Humble segued from visiting a few locations and events to "playing around with the land tool […] on my island." This made me blink. Maybe Humble had a genuine newbie experience with first alt. He doesn't say. But his experience of Second Life, with his own private island won't provide much experience of the needs or culture of average SL users. Most SL users aren't land owners. Among landowners, most don't have a private island. I've been in Second Life over two years and have never used the terraform tool. (I've never been permitted to do so. I literally have no idea how it works.)

No. "Real" new residents get dumped into an infohub, somewhere like Waterhead or Ahern or Moose Beach, where a large gaggle of avatars usually stands around 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, with the explicit purpose of getting lulz at the expense of any new resident who might get close to them, or (heaven forfend) ask a question. And let's not even get into the rude noises, flying penises, pixel bestiality, goatse particle fountains, or other common entertainments at those hubs.

Infohubs are also prime locations for scammers and spammers: I popped into an infohub to test a script last week and within a minute received this instant message:

[2011/01/16 22:28] [REDACTED] Resident: Hello, may you help to me with 100 Linden$ for loading avatar picture, please! I do not begging.

Popping back just now (weekday afternoon SLT at a "PG" infohub) I see seven brand-new "Resident" avatars with group tags like "QuickCash" and "Ask me how to Make L$$$," group tags promoting porn Web sites, outright solicitations for virtual sex, and a few older avatars with titlers saying things like "*Homes for rent, contact me*" and "*~*Wanna get lucky*~*" Although, in a ten-minute span, I am somewhat surprised to count only one nude female avatar, three penises, and one person shouting to the whole sim about how he loves Jesus. It's worse in the evenings.

This is the fast, easy, fun, "PG-rated" environment into which Linden Lab is dumping new residents and (now) 16- and 17 year-old residents: as of today, the Teen Grid is gone.

Let's remember: new residents typically have no money. They want to try SL before they commit to hooking up a PayPal account or anything—so they can't buy better clothes, tools, or land. New residents devote a lot of time learning to customize the shape of their avatar, asking people for pointers, seeking out newbie-friendly locations, and looking for freebies. If new residents are interested in building, they're basically limited to sandboxes—and sandboxes are where the gaggle of infohub troublemakers go when they find the more-controlled conditions of infohubs too dull.

By starting out on a private island, presumably with some Linden cash (he is the CEO, after all) Rod Humble is neatly bypassing the typical experience for new residents.

So, not that you're reading this, Mr. Humble, but:

  • Use your alt to check out the infohubs and see how new residents are treated.
  • Try to get by with no money. Search for freebies, maybe try some hunts. Keep track of your time.
  • Attend events—live music is a good choice (but I'd love for you to try a good trivia game!)
  • Continue building. See if you can turn that raft into a boat, and that shack into a house, and that mailpost into, I don't know, a suggestion box.
  • Have fun for diving into Second Life. Don't give up now.