Seeking new horizons: Humble and Short talk new products and more

Games Industry today carries an interview with Rod Humble and Emily Short. Along the way, Humble discloses what drew him to Linden Lab in the first place.

Humble’s reasons for joining the company are enlightening – he’d actually forgotten about the platform and had been thinking of developing something along the same lines when the opportunity to join Linden Research popped-up. A nice example of serendipity in action.

Since joining Linden Research, Humble’s focus has been on the platform’s usability, which the article describes as being “far from perfect” – something many users would doubtless regard as an understatement. While there is still a good way to go in making things “better”, only the churlish would refuse to accept there haven’t been improvements in a number of areas, and that Linden Lab is working to get some deep-rooted issues – stability, performance, region crossings, even (dare I say it) the official Viewer – properly addressed.

There are also some comments that are liable to have users cringing in some quarters. Humble’s comments on gaming mechanics in particular may well offer little comfort to some as to the future of the platform. While SL may not itself be a game, it is a perfectly valid platform upon which users can develop games of their own if they so wish. Indeed, one might argue many have been doing precisely that almost since the platform entered open beta 10 years ago. That LL are now making the capabilities to do so easier to use is demonstration that the company is working meet user demands and provide more effective means by which the platform can be leveraged by users themselves.

As well as wanting to get issues around SL’s usability sorted out, Humble reveals that one of his overall goals would be to expand LL’s portfolio of products – to put the “Lab” back into “Linden Lab”. Reading this, one is tempted to wonder if this desire formed a part of his  pitch for the CEO position, and was thus one of the reasons he was hired. Thirteen years with just a single product is a remarkable achievement for any company – but it is also a precarious position to hold.

In terms of the acquisition of LittleTextPeople, it appears to be something of a natural symbiosis more than a straight buy-out: Humble / LL were working in a particular direction and at the end of last year it became apparent that Short and Evans were working towards the same destination. Thus, the acquisition was to their mutual advantage. It’s also interesting to note that the Humble / Short / Evans relationship is a lot deeper than the EA Games link between Humble and Evans many of pointed to when news of the acquisition broke.

As to the product itself, little is said in detail, but what is mentioned helps frame the product more clearly. It will be primarily text-based with 2D graphics. It will be a story form, but deal with social interactions – how people treat each other and what say to one another. Most intriguingly of all however, is that it appears the product will be capable of supporting user-generated content. “Although it will launch with some very, very well crafted content, the overall plan – just like all Linden lab products – is to democratise the actual creation process. Other people will be able to make things on that platform. That’s really the business we’re in: building platforms that allow people to express themselves in different ways.” Humble informs Games Industry when mentioning the product.

Of the other two products currently being developed at the Lab, even less is said other than the intimation they will also support user-generated content – although Humble did hint this would be the case when the development of new products was first announced at SLCC-2011. However, this is the first time we’ve had it directly confirmed that three products are currently in the pipeline. Again, Humble has only previously hinted at this in a comment on New World Notes, wherein he made reference to the LTP project being “Product 3″, and there being a “Product 2″ under way at the Lab as well – although at the time, some did speculate as to whether “Product 1″ was perhaps Second Life.

The interview isn’t going to satisfy everyone within the SL community, but for my part, I found it a worth-while read, not so much the for the titbits of information that emerge about the upcoming new products, but because it again shines a light on Rod Humble’s thought processes and some of his strategic thinking where both the company and SL are concerned. Given the company has been pretty quiet when it comes to talking to the community as a whole on such things, it’s refreshing to gain this kind of near-candid insight, and actually does help restore one’s faith that, overall, SL is in a safe pair of hands right now – a perception that has been slipping a little of late.

Obviously, the new tools being rolled-out / developed for SL and the new products themselves aren’t going to lift LL out of the perceived mire, and it fair to stay the company is facing further clouds on the horizon –  particularly around the stormy issue of tier. But taken as a whole, this is a positive piece and carries with it the promise that we may well be hearing a lot more from LL as whole in the coming months – and that in itself will be refreshing.

Don’t just take my word for it – go read the article, and don’t miss the side-bar piece as well.

With thanks to Daniel Voyager for the pointer.

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24 thoughts on “Seeking new horizons: Humble and Short talk new products and more

  1. Pingback: WHAT IS THIS CRAP? » Have all the bishops harmonize these lines…

  2. Lindal Kidd

    At the bottom of your entry I find this mysterious link…
    Pingback: WHAT IS THIS CRAP? » Have all the bishops harmonize these lines…

    What is it? I’m afraid to click it and find out…

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    1. Inara Pey Post author

      :)

      That’s a link to Crap Mariner’s blog – a worthy read in itself. It’s perfectly safe to click. His 100-word stories are a recommended read (find some on his SL profile feed).

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      1. Pussycat Catnap

        I go to that blog almost daily just as one of my launching points to click through the links for something to read at slow points at work… :)

        Though I’m starting to find I’m on a different political fence than C Mariner, the choice for the SL blog links is always good and has caused me to discover a number of new blogs.

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        1. Crap Mariner

          I’m on a different political and moral fence than most people.

          And, yes, it’s electrified. ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZT! OH YEAH! FEELS GREAT! SHOCK ME AGAIN, MAW!

          -ls/cm

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  3. Trinity Dejavu (@TrinityDejavu)

    It’s going to especially hard to talk about Tier when the lab is perceived as spending Second Life money on other projects and you still can’t hold a decent group chat (and the rest).

    There have been a few back lashes recently from relatively small sections of the SL community that have been exceptionally vocal and noisy, shake down land owners and it will be an open revolt as we all either own virtual real estate, or to one degree or another support those who do.

    Personally, I’m sat on the fence. So far while Rod hasn’t killed the goose that keeps laying those golden eggs, like his predecessors it’s looking more and more like the focus is elsewhere and the doggedly loyal Second Life customers are paying the bills.

    The one thing I’m absolutely sure about is the passion of Second Life’s users for their world.

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    1. Inara Pey Post author

      The perception that gets me is not so much the spending of money, but that LL are developing new products “instead of working on SL”. Quite where this started, I’ve not idea – as it is clear from the Linden Research career pages that the development of the new products has neither halted nor hindered the company’s recruitment programme where and when it has been needed for their other operations – web or SL.

      This is pretty much where LL are on a hiding to nothing – as I’ve said before. If they don’t do something that could potentially alleviate the stress of tier, they are “killing SL”. When they move to diversify and strength their portfolio, they are “killing SL”. Even when they make the attempt to introduce small, fast changes that users would generally appareciate, there is a vocal element in the community that lambast them for doing so “instead of” working to fix other issues.

      People simply don’t appear to grasp the fact that in developing new products or in fast-tracking small updates, it’s rarely an either/or situation.

      Much the same could be said for the move towards better enablement of game-like mechanics within SL: it has people up-in-arms because “SL isn’t a game” – and yet, its entire history has a major focus on people creating a wide variety of games – fantasy, combat, role-play, direct shoot-em-ups – so it is fair to say that by improving the capabilities of the platform to address such uses, LL are in fact addressing the needs of the user base and increasing the appeal of the platform.

      I’m not sure I get the point on “loyal customers paying the bills” – at the end of the day, that’s a fact of life for any business – and when it comes down to it, we potentially do have more say in the shaping of the product itself than is usually the case. But beyond that, it baffles me that people are so upset over LL’s efforts when those efforts themselves could very much relieve at least some of the burden users are carrying. Of course, lightening the burden isn’t a given – but it should at least encourage people to do as you’re doing: give the company the benefit of the doubt and let them make the effort and see where it leads.

      Otherwise, what is the alternative? The fact is that it is highly unlikely that SL will ever be “mainstream” in the way that more traditional (dare I say it) gaming platforms are – even if the infrastructure could support such levels of use. As such, several observers within the SL environment have estimated that LL could probably withstand the loss of around another 5-6,000 private regions before hitting the wall. Looking at the rate of recent region losses – and granted, there is no guarantee the trend will continue (or lessen), that gives LL potentially 2-2.5 years in which to address the critical issue of revenue. As such, and while I’m cautious around as to how popular the new products will be, I would rather the company start to look into building-up additional / alternative revenue streams now rather than seeing finances dwindle to a point where they can no longer sustain SL, much less develop anything else.

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      1. Trinity Dejavu (@TrinityDejavu)

        I think the perception is based on the output from the lab, they are quiet and the excitement around the new products is very tangible. In the mean time SL has fundamentally the same problematic UI and the same basic problems of performance and governance (many of which are entirely perceptual and can’t really be pinned down other than to say, something is broadly not quite right).

        There is a failure to engage the user base who rightly or wrongly are starting to feel like they are just seen as crazy counter culture wackadoodles (Business would be so easy if it weren’t for the damn customers!).

        New game mechanics will be awesome and could well breath a little new life into many activities in world. If anything I’m more worried they will fall short and under deliver.

        The biggest threat to SL in my opinion is the search. Or lack there of rather then anything the Lab decide to add at this point, stuff like direct delivery is amazing and long overdue, just some of the finer details aren’t quite golden.

        I switched to V2 when firestorm got build tools, then moved on to work on catznip. There is one big change in behaviour I can’t help notice. I don’t explore anymore. I used to spend an hour or two a day just hitting the places search and exploring, I met people, found shops, spent money. With the V2+ search I can’t do that so well. So I don’t.

        Our little social circle had a little experiment the other night, Catznip as our main with the stock V2 search and the old Phoenix V1 places search. The difference between them is like night and day and not just in terms of results.

        Search is the heart that pumps users around the grid and the web based V2 is frankly not up to task. It’s no wonder we have seen V2/3′s eventual assent coincide with a boom to the marketplace and in world locations on the decline.

        The grid is declining because people can’t search effectively.

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        1. Inara Pey Post author

          There’s the rub.

          There is a lot of be unknotted in SL (something you’re probably more aware of than I, having been hands-on with the Viewer code); but in fairness to LL they have given a commitment to working on things at the server-end and are continuing to do so. And overall, SL isn’t the same place it was three years – or even two two – ago when it comes to performance and stability. Overall, it is a lot better. I think part of it is that the nature of the beast means that the changes must be incremental – as Oz famously remarked, a lot of the problems stem from the fact that issues in the past were dealt with using a band-aid in order to keep things running. When the band-aid broke, another replaced it, and so on to the point that it’s band-aid upon band-aid. Peeling those back and implementing a “proper” fix can’t be easy. It’s something that has bitten LL in the bum – and the users. But at the time things were “band-aided”, everyone was happy as it meant minimal downtime / service interruptions, etc.

          I’ve said rather a lot on the subject of LL as an entity where communications are concerned, so will say no more here. What I will say is that I’m now constantly amused when someone brings up the idea that LL regard us as “wackadoodles” on three counts:

          1. It was quoted entirely out-of-context on another blog recently.
          2. “wackadoodle” is actually a term of affection according to the urban dictionary.
          3. The original use of the word (which was, deliberately or otherwise spelt “whackadoodle”), does not actually appear to have been aimed in any way at the user community, but rather at LL itself.

          It’s worth checking-out Qarl’s blog to gain the context of the original comment. It comes after a slew of sympathetic comments and, even if it was aimed at the users, it’s hard to see it being meant in any way negatively.

          On the subject of search – I can’t disagree. My own use of it is exceptionally limited outside of looking-up people I need to contact who are not on my friends list. I don’t know that it has stopped me exploring or shopping. In the case of the latter, my habits have simply changed: I use the Marketplace to seek out things I’m looking for and follow-up with an in-world visit to the store itself. As such, I don’t seem to be hampered by Search, and where I’m looking for something in general (such as a style of dress), I find SLM advantageous as it allows me to cross-compare different designs without hopping back and forth between stores. That said, I do still use it and the Destination Guide very successfully to explore SL for blogging purposes.

          I’m not sure the grid is declining per se, but rather that there is no sustainable growth. We’re seeing no major downturn in overall user numbers, the last set of stats released by LL (Q3 2011) suggested concurrency was rising (although other indicators were at best flat). Yes, the grid is losing land – but then again, there is an argument that the grid has simply been too big to sustain itself (based on overall user numbers) for a good few years, and as such some of the shrinkage could be said to be a natural process (which is not to say that some of it isn’t fuelled by the economies of SL). As such, and as the trend continues, I’m more inclined to say that the grid has reached its niche plateau and is continuing along it, and that in this respect the rapid expansion seen in 2006-7 was an anomaly which many of us at the time mistakenly took to be the shape of things to come.

          The reality probably is – and I’m liable to get chased out of town for saying this – given there appears to be something of a balance between those coming and staying in SL and those departing, LL aren’t overly concerned about whether user numbers remain relatively constant or gently rise. As long as the balance between those coming in the door and sticking around more-or-less equates to those moving on – and providing they do address the wider issues of platform usability (which they are) and revenue / tier (which they have time to do, and would be fools to ignore), then SL can continue to trundle along and put money into the company’s coffers and the investors’ pockets. And that’s all that really matters at the end of the day, no matter how more involved in things we like to feel we are, or however much we feel we have a stake in SL’s development and future.

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        2. Pussycat Catnap

          Search for me is better under v3. Very easy to get the events and places I want.
          But for items – yes – useless. Harder to say… find a new dress with it.

          I don’t know about urban dictionary, but as a San Franciscan, like Qarl, when I read it, I mentally conjure up ‘crazy cat lady’. When I first read it, I immediately thought of a very Prokian sort of image.

          I wouldn’t put trust in the urban dictionary – it very often fails to capture how a word is used where it is being used.

          Look up the sixth and seventh definitions of Rastafarian on that website – proof of a lack of editing, and more of a ‘whoever hits the submit button with their entry, gets it in there.’

          When I read the context Qarl put it in, it came across as “glad I don’t have to deal with those freaks anymore.”
          - And from a perspective that his was a common view there.

          From that we can either take that he was being very unprofessional in saying that; cluing us in to why he was let go, OR, he was right and that’s what they think of us.

          The comment was pretty easy to dismiss as just his opinion, until Rod gave the big ‘no’ response to last names, and then shut down communication on the topic when the response got hot. Demonstrating that they don’t get or understand their customers.

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        3. Pussycat Catnap

          That comment of mine right above this one, re the wackadoodle comment and what I claimed it said about Qarl was out of line. I’d edit it out if I could, but I can’t.

          So I’d instead just say that’s not the right thing for me to say and not where I usually feel on that. I’m wincing as I read it… Really uncalled for on my part… so if you see that Qarl, I can only say I’m sorry for it.

          What I really think, is that ‘wackadoodle’ has become for us all, a handy buzzphrase for how we feel LLs isn’t communicating effectively.
          - Notice how almost nobody was repeating that word until after the last names thing got its discussion closed. It was after that that people looked back and found this ‘recent’ blog of Hamlet’s, and comments in reply to it (some of which were mine… sigh…), and ran with it.

          While we’ve seen some great movement from the lab over the last year, its been hand in hand with a muzzle being put on communication. And we’re all just looking for -ANY- way to vent over that…

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      2. Pussycat Catnap

        Everywhere in the world but for one place the job market is DEAD, dead, dead. Roadkill, bug on the windshield dead. Barely even a zombie apocalypse to carry things on.

        So when people see motion in LLs, they assume its being taken from SL. The few zombies, are thriving in there by eating the brains of SL. Cause it couldn’t be anything else…

        Except that one place in the world that isn’t plastered like green oozing paste on your windshield is Silicon Valley…

        We’re not doing great out here. And in fact over the last year I even started thinking it was time to throw in the towel. But this place is actually recovering. So it just might be, that there are companies here capable of hiring folks without cannibalizing some other part of themselves first.
        - Not sure yet. But it is possible. No matter how impossible the very idea sounds from anywhere else on this banker-driven Republican engineered financial end of days we’re all in…

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  4. Pussycat Catnap

    I’d never noticed the avatars in that article’s caption before – but they’re on the SL homepage down at the bottom now (and probably have been for the last few dozen times I went there and missed them).

    Nice artistic improvement, but for the lack of ethnic diversity, this is a great group for an image for SL.

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    1. Inara Pey Post author

      I think LL got a little stung into trying to revamp (and absolutely no pun intended given one of the former sign-up images!) the pictures following rather a lot of negative feedback.

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  5. Pussycat Catnap

    Ok read the article now.

    More of this, and less of things like the ‘no on last names fiasco’ please. If Humble would say more of this kind of stuff to his actual customers – things might be a lot smoother around here.

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    1. Inara Pey Post author

      I’m a bit bogged by LL’s approach to PR.

      They have a PR function. They have an “in the news” web page. They used to have a very clear link from the main web page everyone saw to the “in the news” page – but no more. Why not add a link to the COMMUNITY section at the top of people’s dashboards? It’s a simple, low-key change that might help spread news, especially if linked to outgoing notices to the “SL Press Corps” Group in-world (mostly bloggers) to highlight the fact that there is news to be read / disseminated.

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  6. Gwyneth Llewelyn

    It would be like saying that Microsoft is doing a bad job because they could have spent more time and money in Windows instead of hiring developers to do Office. I’m sure that old Windows 2.0 fans complained (probably on BBSes) when Bill Gates announced that their company had bought the original Word creators and would launch a new product :)

    I suppose that kind of argument will always be brought up when a company starts with just a single product and later diversifies to others…

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    1. Inara Pey Post author

      Funny… a Microsoft example also crosses my mind whenever writing about the more negative responses out there that relate to LL spreading its wings a little :).

      Some of the worry is understandable; what happens if the new products become a sensation and do lead to SL becoming the donkey in LL’s stable? Will the company be willing to maintain a modest-scale niche product that requires considerable technical overheads to managed / maintain? Of course, the flip side to this is that SL is reasonably self-sustaining despite the current doom and gloom, and it has been (albeit plateaued & longer-term issues on tier notwithstanding) for the last couple of years. So long as this remains the case, will there be cause for LL to do anything as drastic as pulling the plug even with a highly-successful string of other products?

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      1. Gwyneth Llewelyn

        Hehe I agree, citing Microsoft is a double-edged weapon!

        Nevertheless, you’re right — dropping a successul for product which is highly profitable (to Humble’s own surprise, as he admitted on that interview…) is very unlikely. In fact, the current trend of rolling out so many new features in such a short amount of time is reminiscent of the Golden Age of 2006/7, when LL was far less profitable than it is today — which ironically was also the time when LL stopped working on new functionality. Humble, somehow, got the priorities right: if a product is highly profitable, it should receive continued funding to develop further, which is exactly what he’s doing.

        I mean, Second Life is not like, say, Google Wave and all the other technologies that Google has phased out in the last 3 years because they were completely unprofitable. Moving now to Google as an analogy (and moving away from Microsoft!) it would be like trying to believe that Google would stop doing Web advertising because it has invested in so many other areas. This would be plain stupid.

        “Putting the Lab back in Linden Lab” is just admitting that LL, as a one-product-company, is already so successful that they can afford to lose money in a handful of new products and keep their cash cow operational to fund them all. In essence it would be just like raising venture capital funding for a new start-up — with the difference that LL can raise its own funds, create new departments instead of new companies, and leverage on its 13-year-existence and a successful product which has been around for close to a decade (beta testing SL started in 2002).

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        1. Inara Pey Post author

          Agreed on all points :).

          Given that we’ve just seen seen a couple of 10-year anniversaries (Stellar Sunshine and PR himself), it’s fair to say SL is now 10 years old.

          One of the problems at the end of the day is that we’re all armchair experts. We as users feel that as we’re using SL on a daily basis, we’re as well place – if not better placed – to be able to determine what is “best” for SL. In some cases, this might be correct – many who script and build and use the tools available to to that are in a position at times to better see the potential impact of technical changes (take the recent situation vis-a-vis llGetAgentStatus) than perhaps is apparent at the Lab. But it can also be a conceit because there are times when opinion is loudly voiced on a very narrow perspective or a restricted use-case for SL with the result that unless very precise requirements are met, LL are lambasted as going “off the rails”.

          The new game mechanisms that LL are developing are a case in point inasmuch as there is a prevailing attitude that SL “is not a game”. As a general outlook on the platform, this is true. The interactions and nuances that can go into people’s time here generally tend to make SL far more immersive and genuinely interactive than any game. The problem comes when “SL is not a game” is used as a banner by which to lead protests over the development of game-like capabilities within the platform because there is a conceit that such tools somehow lessen the platform’s stature. Yet, if we’re honest, a large part of the attraction for many users in coming to SL is that while it may not itself be a game, it is a platform in which many forms of game-playing can take place, and being involved in game-play is the initial catalyst for other, perhaps deeper social interactions.

          Throughout SL’s history there have been many instances wherein such mechanisms have been enhanced for greater enjoyment for those that have participated in them. As such, where is the harm in LL developing tools and technologies that leverage server-side capabilities which are otherwise beyond the reach of in-world developers in order to provide those same developers with better tools in order to enhance and extend people’s enjoyment of the platform and the myriad uses to which it can be put? And it is not as if many within the user community haven’t been calling out for such tools and capabilities…

          So long as LL do continue to invest time and effort into SL dealing – as they are – with the fundamentals (stability, performance, etc.), and in developing tools and capabilities that content creators can leverage and integrate into in-world experiences and opportunities, I’m very much swayed towards the company being on the right track. There are, obviously, caveats to that statement (such as how they handle the issue of tier down the road), but I’d rather see how things develop rather than throw hands up in the air in horror when we’ve not even seen the first new product or how creativity the new capabilities within the platform might be used.

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          1. Gwyneth Llewelyn

            Hear, hear, Inara — I also totally agree with your assessment of LL’s success. I mean, ten years later, still churning out a profit, still having millions of users, still getting 10k+ new registrations per day… that’s all good. Sure, it could be better. But it could long since have gone the way of Lively, Blue Mars, and whatever was that thing from Raph Koster called… not to mention Spore, another “announced SL killer application” which just barely made a profit and landed Will Wright at the board of LL! I mean, except for IMVU, who else is still around with the same degree of succes as LL? And I don’t even think that the IMVU creators are so eagerly investing in new features of their own platform (there are a few minor improvements here and there), and, of course, it’s not really SL, just perhaps what comes closest to SL from all the “survivors” in the user-generated-content-virtual-world category.

            I also agree that the Sword of Damocles is suspended on top of tier. It will be really, really interesting to see what LL will do about that. There is a very delicate balance regarding tier, and it can break everything if not handled properly. My guess is that they will be able to change the rules if — as they once seemed to announce — Land Impact for sculpties and tortured prims will be calculated using the same algorithm as meshes. If and when that happens, it will completely change the way tier is currently perceived, and it would be an excellent opportunity to review pricing: it would be so different from what we have today that it would be very hard to make comparisons (e.g. some people would actually pay far less tier, most would pay far more, so the calculations would be hard to make). We’ll see what happens.

            In the mean time, I believe that LL just smiles at the OpenSim competition: the more “desirable” a specific grid becomes, the higher they charge for tier (with worse performance), and the more closed they are. And these, right now, are the only players who show some real competition to SL — and they’re barely a few grains of sand on the top of a finger’s nail, compared to the vast golden beaches of SL…

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  7. Pingback: Linden Research seek Beta testers | Living in the Modem World

  8. Pingback: 2012: a year in review – Part 1 | Living in the Modem World

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