Saturday, July 31, 2010

the unknown troubles on your mind

Runes of Magic is going to host a bit of Gamescom, Germany's largest MMO/game convention. They're hosting a fashion show where the winners win specially-built CaseMod PCs with a specific Runes of Magic theme.

Oh, to be closer to Germany...

All I want is an admission, the writer says, but will she get it? I have serious doubts. (So does Tateru Nino, who also took on the topic of the office hours meet.)

How'ver, the points Bronxelf makes are undeniable, and I want to expand on her post a bit.

Her list, as it exists:

1. Sim owners/concierge service.

I don't deny, this should be her, our, and LL's PRIMARY concern. These are the people paying the bills, funding new development, keeping people at the Labs employed, and providing space so everyone can say all the wonderful things we say about Second Life as a whole. Anyone who owns a lot of land, anyone who owns a lot of sims, anyone who rents whole servers--these are the Labs' base.

Of course, the problem is the Labs are renowned far and wide for terrible customer service, and especially now, these are the people getting shafted. And if you're an individual laying out $100-$350 per month for a sim, and getting it back from renters, that's one thing; if you're that same individual laying out $100-$350 per month for a sim, and being, to put it bluntly, screwed by the Labs in some fashion...sooner or later it stops being in any way fun, and people start to wonder why they're bothering.

This is completely antithetical to what the Labs should want; it behooves them to wake up and keep this point glaringly in mid.

2. Business owners and content creators.

This is second on Bronxelf's list, and I agree with this placement, too--beyond making it harder for sim owners to stay in business, the last thing the Labs should be doing is making it harder for business owners to stay in business. Most business owners, if they're any good at what they're doing at all, eventually want to raise their game and buy a sim to really get their vision of whatever in place. This is not a bad thing--desire creates opportunity, always. So the Labs should listen to business owners, pay attention to their needs, because at any moment, any one of them can pony up the price of a sim--or more than one sim--and join that vaunted group that allows for employees and health insurance and investment plans and vacations. The Labs should want to be nice to these people, because they may become the people listed above.

Yet, they seem to be trying very hard to interfere in every way with business owners. From the requirement to move to Zindra (and the subsequant mangling of Search entirely which allowed Zindra-based sales to drop on average 40% per merchant who moved) to the current refusal to allow picks information to be used in search metrics (when search is STILL largely broken), they're hobbling the people who create on SL. And here's the problem: the people who create on SL are a large part of why people stay in SL. In addition to virtual scuba-diving, virtual parachuting, virtual climbing, swimming, hiking, running, walking, dancing and ROLEPLAY--shopping is a large part of what people come into world to do, and a larger part of what people choose to invest in, Linden-wise. It's pretty much 50% of why people buy Lindens in the first place--to shop.

3. RL business concerns with presence within SL.

I'm still not entirely convinced educators and students shouldn't be higher, and this group lower, but as far as it goes, RL business concerns oddly are a mix of position 1 and position 2, with needs of their own. Their biggest need, though, is good, solid, dependable customer service.

And, as we've already established, "good customer service" are words that turn to so much static when perceived by Linden Labs. It's practically--or for all established intents and purposes--nonexistent. Even the Concierge Team doesn't have it together these days--reports back from people who've spoken with them are that they are friendly, with a deep desire to help, but ultimately do very little, if anything. And the rest of the Linden help team? The outside perception still remains: fundamentally useless in nearly every regard.

This needs to change now. This needs to change yesterday. Virtual worlds are still seen as "the wave of the future", but more companies than the Labs may know are choosing to develop their own virtual worlds in-house, rather than go through Linden Labs. Word has gotten out.

Now, to change the perception of the Labs as a bad deal, that's going to take a lot of work, mostly on the part of the Labs. But that's neither here nor there--currently, that is the perception. Linden Labs need to change that perception if they're going to survive.

4. Educators, and their students.

Without substantially developing an "Educational Enterprise" package (considering the bulk of the Enterprise team got sacked), keeping educators in SL is going to be challenging enough. For once, the problems surrounding education in SL is at least 40% on the educators--they need to make their courses approachable enough, and their virtual 'classrooms', for lack of a better word, enough of a draw on their own, to make SL being part of the package an attractive one. To this end, owning a sim, and making it over in their image is not a bad thing, putting them at least partially in the first group.

Here's the essential problem: what educators on SL really need (in an ideal world, because this won't ever, ever happen) is to sit down with the developers of the Restrained Life Viewer, and customer service representatives on SL, and see if something can be worked out to allow students to access certain regions of SL ONLY during class time (which would include blocking logging into anything BUT the campus during class), receive notecards but no IMs, and be restricted in movement during the educational period, with the understanding that these restrictions would drop once the time of the class was over.

This, unfortunately, is dependent on three things. First, that the educators would meet with RLV developers. Second, that RLV developers would meet with educators. And third, that customer service representatives for educators exist at the Labs.

5. New Residents.

Why are new residents left until nearly the end? I think it's something of an oversight by both Bronxelf and the Labs, honestly, but consider: several years ago (back when we had wood-burning cats), there was something called Orientation Island. The standard neophyte user couldn't get off OI until they had completed a range of tasks, meant to demonstrate their understanding of the basic principles behind Second Life.

And we are talking basic, here, things like:

Ωchoosing an avatarΩchanging clothesΩacquiring new clothes
Ωrezzing out a box primΩinteracting with objectsΩthe basics of flying
Ωthe basics of sim-crossingΩbuying objectsΩopening objects
Ωsearching inventoryΩsearching in-world inventoryΩteleportation

All of which matters not a whit if these students aren't taught these things, but rather pick them up in whatever slipshod fashion the particular log-in they've found allows. Because, about a year after I walked through Orientation Island, someone with a grudge proposed to the Lindens that really, honestly, OI was a pain, and businessmen didn't have the time to spend an hour, or two, or more on what was essentially character creation. They wanted to get in there, get working, have fun--that magic word again. And Linden Labs, in their infinite something, thought this was just the coolest concept since raw toast. And they implemented it on the spot.

Why do I say someone with a grudge? Because this, beyond any other feature that's changed since the game was first designed, has been the single largest threat to the game. I do mean that.

Listen. Take ten average people. We're not talking NASA engineers, here, we're not even talking college students. Just ten people who've heard about Second Life and want in.

At least one of those, I guarantee you, will be 1) gay or 2) into steampunk or 3) both. They'll likely end up in the steamlands, somewhere.

Two of our average set will be players of WoW, or another big MMO. They'll wander a bit, make jokes, sneer at everything, never figure out how to change their clothes, or shop the mens' armor section of Bare Rose nigh to the exclusion of all else. Without quests, fun new gear, or leveling,

One, you will ponder 'til your brain hurts the very concept that they own a computer, and knows how to use it--because he or she types that badly. This usually isn't even an international issue--I mean, they literally cannot spell, cannot seem to think, and wander around with boxes on their heads or hands for hours. Sometimes they can be helped, though it's always a puzzlement how they manage things on the other side of their screens. Most of the time? They can't learn, they don't interact well, and unless they have a specific agenda (rape fantasy, serving girl, sword-swinging barbarian, whatever), they soon fade from world.

This leaves six. And while the Lindens are likely right in that three of those six got frustrated on OI and left in disgust, that still left the final three turned out with at least rudimentary skills. At this point? All six log in, choose an av, and are out roaming within the first half hour. And, depending on what they're told, by anyone they come across, they'll either stick for a week, or leave the first day. Why?

Because they can't do anything. People get frustrated--if they can't use the viewer (which is now default viewer 2.0 or 2.1, depending), they can't figure out how to access things, they can't figure out how to type back to people that type to them--or, worse, they wander around yelling "Hellooo!" on voice for hours...let alone shopping, understanding the difference between 'demo' and 'full purchase', and that, of course, is assuming they logged into the game WITH Lindens....they're really, really lost.

There are some places where they can still get a good basic education--Oxbridge Village comes to mind, Solace Beach has an orientation area, and if they're lucky enough to come across someone with a landmark to Help Island, that's a godsend. But for the most part? There's not a lot in world that will talk newcomers, step by step, through learning SL.

When I'm asked, I answer what I can, but I'm not that different from anyone else--I don't automatically friend, I won't go with them on long shopping trips, I'll help them with landmarks, but I won't hold their hand through getting them outfitted and up to date--and I don't date, anymore.

Now, I'll help out friends of friends--who wouldn't? But whatever genetic quirk is responsible for really, deeply caring about people I don't know, it's missing in me. Give me a name, a liking for dark chocolate, a favorite color--something to hang what I see of that avatar's personality, and I'm good. Don't give me that? I don't know you, don't ask.

I'd say this is an American failing, but I've been talking with groups containing international typists, and a newcomer duck-walks up and asks for help, there's that mutual--and observable--drawing back. Just about everyone does it. And it doesn't mean we're bad people--most everyone I know on SL will help, and some groups I'm in go overboard with landmarks, script assistance, advice--it's heartwarming to see.

But if you're a university, and you're thinking about buying land on SL to put up a college and show the value of the experiment to course-takers? Think about this. Maybe put up a place they can learn about SL, first, or have ways to send them there, before you expect them to know everything and attend your class.

Which brings us to:

6. Genpop.

Which is Bronxelf's handy catch-all for established residents, whether that's six months in or six years. And we're a diverse group with an insane number of different motivations, psychological impairments, and interests, but we're the easiest of just about everyone to program a viewer for. We want a viewer that WORKS, more than anything else, and works UNOBTRUSIVELY; whatever else we want the viewer to do from there diverges (and wildly). But what almost every person on SL wants more than anything else is a viewer that isn't so code-heavy, a viewer that lets things rez in decently well, a viewer that lets us move, shop, build, talk, listen to music or media, WITHOUT CRASHING.

But maybe that's too much to ask.

7. (and this really is added at the end because it’s real, but it’s a strange duck) people who are running SL on limited computer resources.

I don't know that this is really a separate group, but maybe there's enough people now where it really does count: and if so, the killing of the Ajax text-only viewer becomes relevant, because it was one of the few well-known--and, more importantly, cleared, alternate viewers for SL. While it had its drawbacks--a security bypass as a scripted 'feature' that was huger than the plot hole in Citizen Kane--it did apparently work on some mobile devices, as well as from lower-graphics-enabled computers.

The whole point of a viewer, for any game, is (or should be): does it work on a computer five years old? Because if it doesn't, not everyone being in the land of shiny SOTA newness, then there won't be mass adoption of that game.

Of course there are arguments to the other side as well--if you don't play to the money, you don't make the money. Everyone knows that. But if it's just a money game, then hold that focus--because the minute that focus is lost (through, say, TERRIBLE CUSTOMER SERVICE 24/7), you might as well start playing to the cheap seats again.

And here's the real difficulty with that level of either/or thinking--if the Labs want the game to be popularly adopted, it's in their best interests to encourage playing for free (and their current ads reflect this). But if all they want is the money, then they need to earn that--by respecting their customers, working on anticipating their needs, or at the very least being there when they try to contact the Labs with problems.

As far as we can tell, there's at least one avatar whose typist has lost her mind entirely. Which is nothing short of sad, and also, kind of scary. Plus, first she's using a Homestead page--I thought Homestead pages went out in the '90s--and second, my gods, the color scheme. And the emphasis. And I'm sure the picture included is to show us how normal she is, but all I see is a woman in black leather sitting in a rusted-out car, and I think Oh good. Backwoods sociopath.

I'm still trying to track down the rest of the story; unfortunately, I can't contact Miss Tuqiri, because...I don't want her any closer to me than I can throw her typist. Maybe far less close.

Lastly, ponder the puzzle of the Mysterious Box! I have two thoughts on this video:

1. What was in that thing?

2. Did they stop filming and repack it to ship later, or did they just retrieve it, pass it further down the line, and X customer got the highly-thumped-and-rotated box later from Amazon?

Concerned viewers want to know.


Samantha Poindexter said...

In fairness, I think "And Linden Labs, in their infinite something, thought this was just the coolest concept since raw toast. And they implemented it on the spot." does them a disservice.

I was a Mentor until that program was disbanded, and I wouldn't have bothered if I didn't think we did some good, but I do know that the Lab did a considerable amount of A/B testing with several entry models, including Orientation Island with Mentors; OI without 'em; skipping straight to Help Island, with or without Mentors; a totally redesigned version of OI that provided a clear path that needed to be walked through, with instructions and activities every few paces (I was in on that test, and it was easily my favorite of the bunch); and some other variants. Rather to my own surprise, they found no significant difference in retention among any of those models.

Counterintuitive? Yes. Debatable? Sure. But changed on a whim? No.

Rhianon Jameson said...

My first foray in to SL found me somehow bypassing Orientation Island. In retrospect, I think I clicked on what was an "exit" button before I had done any of the training units. I survived.

When I created an alt, I thought it would be interesting to see what happened if I went through the OI process. (True, it's impossible to do a straight comparison because I can hardly forget what I had learned.) Honestly, I don't think it helped that much. I'm not a computer gamer, yet I found it easy enough to pick up basic skills: moving, talking, flying, changing clothes. At the same time, the real skills needed to make SL enjoyable - how to interact with other avatars, how to create, how to find and fit into a community - are not taught at OI and, in fairness, aren't really teachable in a small amount of time. It's the nature of the game that there's no single purpose to being in it; how can LL teach the zen of "your world"?

I think you're right, though, that most people will help out strangers, but only to a certain extent. A nice lady stopped by my house in Caledon Downs, and we chatted for a bit, and the one thing she asked about was how to get rid of the duck walk. It was easy enough to send her a free, transferable walk and to tell her a bit about AOs. (Sadly, she now walked like a hooker, but it's all I had that was transferable. And it was an improvement over the duck walk.) However, I didn't want to spend the afternoon fitting her out with a ZHAO and a bunch of animations.

Emilly Orr said...

Miss Poindexter,

Keep in mind that while I have helped out newcomers (and had people help me), my personal perception is that Orientation Isle (in some form) existed until the announcement from the Labs came that they were instituting new gateway systems that would allow people a simplified first login process, or to skip it altogether.

I remember how baffling I found that announcement, and I decided to make an alt (now discarded), and--sure enough--nothing stopped me from sailing right through the process. Did I need those pauses for comprehension? Not really; this was an alt of a main that had (at that point) been on the grid two years. Would an average avatar have needed those stops, though?

I still think that answer is yes.

There may have been months of testing and private debate, but not being a Mentor, what I saw is what the Lindens announced, which made it seem very sudden, and very much counter to all systems they'd had in place before.

Emilly Orr said...

Here is another point where the elitist in me is likely strongly seen: I view the orientation process as roughly an intelligence test geared to the grid: "You have to be this smart to ride this ride." And to be utterly fair to new residents, not everyone comes out of whatever passes for orientation these days with a chip on their shoulder and a deep yearning to upset people.

But the bad apples do stand out; were there less of them before OI was abandoned? I'm not the one to answer that. The perception is that it's true; the actuality may differ largely. It may be that all the men who see every woman as being for sale and all the women who see nothing wrong with that line of thinking...may all be alts of established avatars.

Now that's a scary thought.