The second ‘take-away’ observation from Virtual Worlds 2007 is related to the first.
Second Life is the place to be. The media companies offerings will be of strictly limited importance because they are so closed; the corollary of this is that the most open platform will be the one to watch, and the most likely to “win”, inasmuch as there will be a single winner. And that most-open platform is Second Life.
But openness is a matter of policy, not technology or software licensing. You can build a walled garden with open source tools just as easily as with closed source tools. But because Second Life is a unified world rather than just a platform, the openness of the SL world is determined by the policies governing that world. And just as Disney and Turner define their worlds with a closed, locked-down policy, Second Life is an open society defined by the Linden policy of keeping the barriers to entry for creators as low as possible.
This feeling gelled for me when I was attending a presentation by several staffers from Electric Sheep. They presented their perspective — quite a valuable one — of developers at work in several virtual worlds, contrasting the capabilities and strengths of each. Whether it was what they intended or not, it seemed to me that SL hit just the right note: with texture and sound uploading without restriction and near-zero cost, and with 3D modeling available in-game (thus no need to buy an expensive package like 3Ds Max or Maya, or learn a user-hostile free tool like Blender), and a company policy that encourages unrestricted creativity and enterprise (so long as it doesn’t involve gambling or kiddie porn), SL seemed to be the most welcoming and fertile environment for creators and entrepreneurs.
As one panelist described, the other virtual world companies act like media companies: if you want to create something, you get their approval, and give them a cut. Linden Lab, by contrast, acted like a real estate company: if you want to create something in SL, they would sell you some land, then pat you on the butt and wish you well; no permission or profit-sharing needed.
Exactly as it should be.
Second Life’s technological base is a generation behind, it’s true; but it can be fixed. (In the mid 1990s, the web seemed kind of drab compared to the AOL walled garden; but we all know how that one turned out in the end. Technological advantages are fleeting.) But from an openness standpoint, SL has the other virtual worlds beat by a mile.
Conceivably, someone could set up a similarly open-policy world using the open source VW toolkits available; but then they would have to try to catch up to Second Life in the marketplace, to build a world and a community big enough and deeply invested enough to overcome SL’s mindshare. They would also have to solve all over again all the non-technological problems Linden Lab has had to deal with: creating and maintaining a micro-transactional currency system, sorting out the logistics and legalities of real-world money exchanges, arbitration of player disputes, a whole raft of liability issues, Proktastic trolling, griefers and DDoS attacks, and many more challenges we probably haven’t even heard about.
And Linden Lab’s lead is about to grow wider this week (though how much it will grow in the long term, I can’t say) as the audience of CSI:NY gets introduced to Second Life as the exemplar of what a virtual world is.
Thus, SL is the place to be, and will be for at least a few years to come.