Category Archives: Opinion

Ebbe Altberg on DW: words and thoughts on the next gen platform

Ebbe Altberg discusses the Lab's next generation VW platform (among other things) with Designing Worlds

Ebbe Altberg discusses the Lab’s next generation VW platform (among other things) with Designing Worlds

On Monday October 6th, Designing Worlds, hosted by Saffia Widdershins and Elrik Merlin, broadcast a special celebratory edition, marking the show’s 250th edition, and the show featured a very special guest: Linden Lab’s CEO, Ebbe Altberg.

The interview covered a number of topics, and ou can watch the show via the links at the end of this article, or read the transcript. One of the items discussed was, inevitably, the Lab’s next generation virtual world platform.

The following is intended to provide a more direct look at some of what was said about the new platform, and to offer some speculation  / thoughts on my part. Audio clips are provided, but please note they do not necessarily include everything said about the new platform; my aim in including them is to present what I feel is the core comments made about it, and offer some thoughts of my own. Should you wish to hear the comments in the context of the interview, time stamps are included with each audio extract for the point at which they occur in the original video.

What’s in a Name?

One of the points of interest / speculation in the new platform has been on the subject of its name. The Lab have simply referred to it as their “next generation platform”, and users have variously referred to it as “SL 2.0″, “The New Thing” (or TNT) or “SL: The Next Generation”, and so on. Ebbe explained why there isn’t a more formal name for the new platform at present.

[1:10:10]

The second point bears thinking about. Consider the term “SL 2.0″; while innocuous-sounding, its use could encourage us to consider the new platform purely in terms of how we see SL. For example, using the “SL 2.0″ label might cause us to think of land in the new platform as being the same as in SL – defined region types providing specific capabilities – when there is no indication that this will in fact be the case. Thus preconceptions are established which can have unwanted repercussions down the road. So while it might be handy to have a label, keeping things to a very generic “next generation platform” or “new platform” offers the easiest way of avoiding this from the Lab’s perspective.

On the Question of Open-source

Much has been made of the initial decision to make the new platform closed-source, with some commenting on the decision going so far as to describe it as a “mistake”. However, Ebbe points-out during the programmed that “closed-source” doesn’t necessarily mean that there can be no involvement on the part of TPV developers, nor is the closed-source nature of the new platform set in stone.

[0:54:08 and 0:56:50]

Will making the new platform's client extensible, rather than open-source, prove the best route? The Lab is open either way

Will making the new platform’s client extensible, rather than open-source, prove the best route? The Lab is open either way

Given that the new platform is intended to operate across different hardware environments and operating systems, there would appear to be a certain logic to the approach the Lab is taking in trying to make the client end extensible, rather than open-source right off the bat which might offer a way of achieving greater uniformity in how additional features are presented across these multiple devices.

Of course, a lot of the success of such an approach depends on the gateway the Lab put in place by which additional plug-ins (or whatever) are vetted and “allowed” where the client is concerned, their improved track-record with TPV and open-source developer contributions for SL notwithstanding.

Whether it might also mean that users get that Holy Grail long desired in SL – a client which is fully customisable by the user in terms of which features they “download” and use, or plug-in to their experience, remains to be seen. However, to lay eyes, it would appear that this approach might make it easier to achieve.

Compatibility and Portability

[0:57:39-0:59:03, 1:00:05-1:00:41, and 1:01:01-1:01:30]

When it comes to people’s inventory there are a couple of potential, but valid points that need to be made, both of which I hinted at in response to comments about the new platform on this blog back in June 2014.

The first is that while we may well have tens of thousands of items sitting in inventory representing a lot of expenditure, there’s a good chance that a fair percentage of those items are “dead weight”, having been long since superseded, replaced, gone out of fashion, etc. As such, any value in these items has already been written-off given we’ll likely never use them again. So perhaps we shouldn’t be so focused on “losing” the investment they seem to represent as might be the case.

The second point is the not-so-small questions on whether we actually have the right to transfer items in our inventory elsewhere, be it another grid or the Lab’s new platform. The IP for the items in our inventories resides with the creators of those items – and if they do not wish their creations to be ported to the new platform, we should be prepared to respect that wish. Hopefully, this is also something the Lab will be considering as well.

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First skill game operators and games listed, first skill game region arrives (for testing)

During the Server Beta meeting on Thursday August 21st, it was confirmed that the first region to be rated a Skill Gaming region had arrived on the main grid. The region – called “Crunchy”, isn’t actually open for gaming; it’s a test area currently being poked at by Gecko Linden.

In addressing the arrival of the region, Simon Linden pointed to the Skill Gaming Approved Participants wiki page, and I noticed that the first set of Skill Gaming operators and the first batch of games have now been listed.

A warning is displayed if you attempt to TP to s Skill Gaming region you are no permitted to access

A warning is displayed if you attempt to TP to s Skill Gaming region you are not permitted to access

The test region is already set-up to exclude access to avatars which don’t meet the access requirements, which can be found in the Skill Gaming FAQ and on the Approved Participants wiki page. The access restrictions appear to work, as I was unable to reach the test region with my Crash Test Alt, but could enter it without a hitch with my primary avatar account.

There are some other tests going on in the region which are likely to be readily to performance testing, etc; robots fly and shoot, MOAP boards are displayed (and Gecko Linden seems to be a bit of a space science fan, like me).

Crunchy: the Lab's FOB for Skill Gaming regions, and "Basecamp Gecko"

Crunchy: the Lab’s FOB for Skill Gaming regions, and “Base Camp Gecko”

Some 45 games (a fair few of them variations on Solitaire) were added to the Approved Participants wiki page on Thursday August 21st, split among a number of operators. In addition, some 30 Skill Gaming regions were listed as approved as Skill Gaming regions, although they have yet to actually be converted to the new region type.

With the revised September 1st deadline looming for the introduction of the updated Skill Gaming policy, these additions are the first sign that people are actually applying to become operators / creators, and it will be interesting to see how many more appear over the course of the next week. As it is, there still seems to be a lot that is still up-in-the-air with regards to the Policy and its associated FAQ – the latter of which hasn’t been updated since August 7th.

One area still to be cleared-up is that of quarterly fees, which may well be delaying some from applying to become licensed operators / creators. The lack of any clear indication of the fees was raised as a matter of concern at the August 2nd presentation Agenda Faromet gave on both Skill Gaming and the July Terms of Service update (transcript and notes to both available here).

In many respects, it is hard to understand why the Lab hasn’t announced quarterly fees. According to the FAQ, they are in respect of are in respect of “processing and compliance-related costs associated with maintaining this program”. Taking this as the case, then it’s not unreasonable to assume the Lab has an idea of the compliance related costs and other fees they are themselves facing in order to allow skill gaming on their platform, and so should have some idea of what the quarterly fees are likely to be.

This is not to suggest the Lab are attempting anything untoward in not revealing the fees; a was pointed out during the SLBA presentation, the likely reason the fees haven’t been announced is because the Lab have (or hadn’t at the start of August) got that far in their thinking. Even so, it is potentially causing people to hold off applying.

What also doesn’t help the Lab here is that Skill Gaming regions already have a higher tier associated with them ($345 + VAT where applicable) “due to the greater degree of ongoing administrative work associated with administering our rules concerning Skill Gaming in these regions”. So applicants are faced with that, the application fee, the cost of converting their existing regions – and then still have a possibly large question mark hanging over their potential total operating costs.

It doesn’t inspire confidence.

There are other aspects of the process that would seem to need clarification or risk confusion. As Ciaran Laval pointed out on August 13th, it has been suggested (not by the Lab, admittedly), that SL-focused stock exchanges are possibly exempt from the updated policy, but at least one is going through the application process (SL CapEx, again as indicated by Ciaran); ergo, further clarification on the status of exchanges would perhaps be welcome.

There is also the requirement (section 9 of the FAQ), that applicants engage a US-based and licence attorney to help with the legal aspects of their application (e.g. provisioning their RLO). However, this hardly seem correct when it comes to applicant from outside the USA, as a US attorney is unlikely to know the gaming laws applicable to another country (or can even give a legal opinion on the laws of another country). So where does that leave applicants from outside of the USA? Again, further clarification might well be welcomed.

In his article, Ciaran notes the fact that the Lab are willing to push back on the date from which the new policy comes into effect is good – and I agree (although like him, I’d also like to se some indication on whether they are also willing to push back the date from whence the nebulous quarterly fees kick-in).

But that said, the fact that more than a month after the updated policy was first announced people are still waiting for clarification on some matters relating to its introduction, does suggest the Lab has perhaps put the cart before the horse (and I admit, I’m tempted to put “again” at the end of that sentence).

Obviously, those wishing to create and / or operate games of skill have little choice but to comply with the new policy. Even so, it would perhaps be nice if the Lab didn’t continue to give the impression that the best way for people to decide whether they want to be or not is down to a roll of the dice, the current batch of applicants listed on the wiki page notwithstanding.

Of storms in teacups and dear diary articles

For what was a fairly minor piece on Second Life, Karyne Levy’s August 1st piece for Business Insider, Second Life Has Devolved Into A Post-Apocalyptic Virtual World, And The Weirdest Thing Is How Many People Still Use It, created quite a storm in a teacup, ripples from which continue to spread with accusations it is “negative” and “poorly researched”.

Yes, it is a tad lightweight, has a ridiculous title which has no bearing on the content, and gives every indication of being written in a hurry. It also gets a couple of things wrong: sex has always been a part of SL, rather than something that filled the void left by big business; and it isn’t actually as easy to see adult themed items in search as is suggested (not without setting the right Maturity ratings first).

But “negative”? Not really. Sure, it quotes William Reed Seal-Foss saying that SL stagnated (a view actually shared by many in SL); however Ms Levy counters this herself, pointing out the platform is pretty much still as popular among its users as it ever was. She also references the fact that it is embracing new technology like the Oculus Rift and she references Chris Stokel-Walker’s excellent 2013 article on SL for The Verge (which I reviewed when it first appeared).

Nor is any failure to mention the likes of the LEA or live performances or any of the hundreds of photogenic regions in SL evidence of a lack of research on Ms. Levy’s part. The reason such places aren’t mentioned is simple: they’re not the focus of the article.

Karyne Levy: "Dear diary" article (image via Business Insider)

Karyne Levy: “Dear diary” article (image via Business Insider)

The bottom line is that the article isn’t supposed to be any kind of analysis or examination of Second Life; nor is it an exploration of the creative opportunities within the platform. It is simply this: a “dear diary” account of one person’s venture back into Second Life and her experiences in doing so, and to judge it as anything else is to entirely miss the point.

As it is, and given the way the piece demonstrates just how shoddy the new user experience is, with its sink-or-swim approach to new users, I’d suggest Ms. Levy is to be commended for not sitting down and dashing-off an article along the lines of “after ignoring it for X years, I tried SL again. It still sucks”.

Let’s face it, she comes in-world, apparently negotiates the Learning and Social Islands (both of which are anything but), and gets herself to a role-play region only to find herself summarily ignored. As experiences go, it’s hardly great, and I suspect there are more than a few who can attest to having a similar experience when coming into SL for the first time.

Fortunately, rather than running off never to be seen again, Ms. Levy uses the assistance of an acquaintance – Judy – to help her on her way. How and where Ms. Levy may have contacted Judy isn’t that important given the nature of the piece; the fact that she at least had someone willing to help her is.

Ms. Levy met-up with Judy at the Caledon Oxbridge new user orientation centre, where she was able to acquaint herself with the rudiments of Viewer 3.x

Ms. Levy met-up with Judy at the Caledon Oxbridge new user orientation centre, where she was able to acquaint herself with the rudiments of Viewer 3.x

Nor does it particularly matter whether or not Judy took Ms. Levy to the “right” places in SL or that her personal view of SL seems oddly slanted. What matters is that she was able to provide help, and enabled her to have a little fun whilst in-world.

That last part is actually quite important, hence the emphasis. Having fun is what is likely to bring newcomers back to Second Life. Probably more so than bashing them for writing something which fails to measure up to some preconception of what their article “should” be about.

At the end of the day, there is nothing intrinsically negative about the Business Insider. It doesn’t malign the platform, or cast judgement on the initial experience the writer had when in-world. It doesn’t poke an accusatory finger at anyone or mock Judy’s SL / RL relationship. The most that can really be said about it is that it overplays the adult / sex element; but that’s not bad research, that’s unfortunate titillation.

Would I have preferred something with more meat on it? Yes; I’m not about to deny that. But by the same standard, I’m also not about to start clubbing Ms. Levy about the head with a rolled-up version of her article because it doesn’t meet my expectations. As strategies go, that’s probably going to be a lot less successful in getting her to write something more considered in the future  than, say, inviting her back in-world and showing her the things she might enjoy writing about.

TOSing the (word) salad (or why I think the latest Terms of Service update misses the mark)

On Wednesday July 16th the Lab issued an update to Section 2.3 of their Terms of Service. I’ve already provided some feedback on the update and how, thanks to the use of parentheses, it appears to be limited to only addressing the issue of the Lab attempting to sell user-generated content for their own profit; something which is also indicated by the official blog post on the matter being focused solely on that issue as well.

However, there was more I wanted to say on the matter, but which, as an expression of personal opinion, I didn’t want to include in what was essentially a “news” article. So please excuse me if I now take the opportunity of doing so.

I’m actually not at all surprised that the Lab has looked no further than addressing the issue of their selling, reselling or sub-licensing user content. Prior to the update being published, I spent a fair amount of time reading Ebbe Altberg’s forum comments in relation to the Terms of Service and transcribing his statements on the matter at various meetings. One thing that struck me in doing so, was that throughout all of them, he only ever referred to revised the ToS in terms of addressing this singular issue.

Unfortunately, even in dealing with this one issue, the Lab appears to have again managed to introduce ambiguity into matters. In their blog post, they state that the updated Terms now require some nebulous form of “affirmative action” on the part of users in order for the Lab to sell, resell or sublicense their content. But what form is this “affirmative action” supposed to take?

It’s fair to say that the revised Section 2.3 of the ToS doesn’t give any indication, other than perhaps via the very generic statement of, “as permitted by you through your interactions with the Service”, which could mean almost anything.  Even a check on Section 2.4 of the ToS – which the blog post points to as being the basis for the additional language in Section 2.3 – offers little enlightenment. It merely states that “interaction with the service” might be as simple as using the permissions system with any content you place on any Second Life region accessible to any other user. As such, people could be forgiven for taking the blog statement about “affirmative action” as little more than cold comfort.

... Except the ToS doesn't really indicate what such "affirmative action" might be, other than in the most generic of ways

… Except the ToS doesn’t indicate what such “affirmative action” might be, other than in the most generic of ways

Beyond this, why the Lab have persisted in ignoring concerns over the removal of all reasonable limitations on the granting of shared rights to them, remains a mystery. It’s not as if they weren’t aware of any issues on this matter, because at the end of 2013 and early 2014 efforts were being made to put such concerns directly and clearly to them. I know this to be a fact, because I was an active participant in one such group engaged in those efforts.

And if you’re not convinced that the July 2014 update leaves the matter of granting unqualified rights unchanged, then as I pointed out in my original article, you need only look as far as the statement following text which has been added to Section 2.3. It is completely unchanged from the August 2013 version of the ToS, still stating that the Lab might “otherwise exploit in any manner whatsoever, all or any portion of your User Content (and derivative works thereof), for any purpose whatsoever…

Again, no-one is denying that the Lab requires the non-exclusive granting of certain rights in respect of users’ content. That is to be expected and should be understood. Without such rights, Second Life ceases to work. It is simply the extent to which the Lab require the granting of such rights since August 2013.

An unaddressed concen with the August 2013 Terms of Service was the removal of all limitations around the granting of rights to the Lab in respect of user-generated content. extent to which the Lab require users to grant them shared rights to their content. In October 2013, Agenda Faromet suggested how the August 2013 ToS update could be improved - through the re-establishing reasonable limits on the non-exclusive rights granted to the Lab in respect of content - just as had been the case up prior to the August 2013 update.

Agenda Faromet, speaking at the October 2013 in-world meeting about the August 2013 Terms of Service changes, was perhaps the first to clearly bullet-point why a reinstatement of reasonable limits on the granting of shared rights to the Lab in respect of users’ content might benefit the Terms of Service.

Up until the August 2013 update, the ToS had required rights to user-generated content “solely for the purposes of providing and promoting the Service” (see Section 7.2  of the May 2013 Terms of Service). Even allowing for the fact that since August 2013 the Terms of Service have been applicable to all of the Lab’s products and not just Second Life, it is hard for the untutored eye to understand why this language couldn’t have been carried forward in respect to rights granted to the Lab. After all, “the Service” could apply to Patterns, Desura and any other platform the Lab produces, just as much as it applied to Second Life.

And therein lies part of the problem; because the removal of all limitations on rights granted to the Lab appears to be entirely arbitrary, it gives rise to suspicions and mistrust over the company’s motivations. As such, it is a shame the Lab has never really made any effort to clearly express why they believe such a sweeping change assists them in their role as a service provider when compared to the previous, more qualified granting of rights. While it would still be a very poor second to actually working with concerned users to try to amend Section 2.3 to the benefit of all, providing such feedback might at least help in allaying the aforementioned suspicions and mistrust.

Unfortunately, I tend to feel that we’re unlikely to see any further movement on this matter; the Lab have revised what they felt needed to be revised, and it’s not as if they were unaware of other concerns related to recent ToS revisions. As such, and like it or not, we still have a Terms of Service which still has every appearance of being creator / collaboration unfriendly.

And in that respect, when considering the July 16th update, I’m left with a quote from William James rattling around my head:

A difference which makes no difference is no difference at all.

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