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Why go 3D?

July 18, 2007

The LA Times is the latest site to remark on the business ‘cooldown’ in Second Life (Techcrunch also covers it here) , Wagner James Au has been quick to jump in pointing out the discrepancies in the article, but if there’s one thing to be said it’s that Second Life has had it coming. I could argue that more clarity about user numbers could have saved Linden from this kind of backlash, but to be fair it probably would have happened anyway and that has as much to do with companies going in there with little ambition or knowledge of what they were doing. And that’s fine, this is ‘Stage 1’ in the development of open virtual worlds so failure is to be expected and lessons learnt.

So what next? The alternatives to Second Life suggested in the LA Times article certainly don’t offer solutions to the problems encountered by brands in Second Life.

Gaia Online might claim to have a bigger user base, but it is a much less flexible a virtual wordl, offers fewer opportunities for interaction, has more limited UGC opportunities and is largely occupied by teens (apparently). But perhaps something can be learnt from Gaia’s inclusion of games for which players are rewarded with virtual currency, a ‘storyline’ that offers quests, a very simple user interface and the fact that it’s browser based.

Entropia Universe I have yet to try out (promise I will!), but from what I understand it has fewer users than Second Life and requires a heavy investment in RL cash. So although it has a back story and a skill system, features that help guide and direct players it doesn’t feel like this virtual world could be the next big thing. Of course the Chinese version could be very successful, but at this moment in time that’s a different story.

There I’ve tried out, although not in great depth. Like both Gaia Online and Entropia Universe it has fewer sign-ups than Second Life, offers fewer customisation and UGC options but is browser based and seems very easy to use. Again it feels as though it’s core users are teens though.

So the alternatives don’t suggest that success in these virtual worlds will be had any easier than in Second Life, the graphical style of both Gaia and There probably won’t appeal to anyone over the age of 16 and Entropia sounds like it requires far more effort than the casual player will want to supply. So in my books anyway Second Life is still the best option at the moment, and I think companies just need to re-think (and I mean seriously re-think) what Second Life can do for them and perhaps more importantly what they can do for Second Life.

One thing this whole debate has made me think about is the importance of ‘3D’ in virtual worlds, encouraged by this post on Faster Future. Gaia online and other VWs like Runescape have fairly admirable user bases and are browser-based (although Second Life  might soon be browser based itself) meaning that kids/teens can use them on low-end computers in libraries and at school, but would adults be as attracted to a 2D/isometric world (I’m assuming Cyworld has a high number of adults, but if I understand correctly it’s primarily a social networking site along the lines of Myspace/Facebook, with a virtual world element). Thinking about my first 3D experiences from the days of Wolfenstein and Doom, it certainly increased the sense of immersion together with the fixed first person perspective, who doesn’t recall jerking their head violently to avoid an imp’s fireball? But what about for platforms that are largely social in nature where immersion is a less integral factor? Sure many of the arhcitectural and clothing designs in Second Life benefit hugely from being 3D, but when the numbers of people who can master these skills is so small does that really matter?

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