Eric Johnson

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Linden Lab CEO Rod Humble on Second Life’s Tween Years (Q&A)

second life flyingIt has been around for a while, but the user-created virtual world Second Life is still alive and kicking (and flying around). Its creator, Linden Lab, says the game has more than one million monthly active users, 10 years after it launched.

There are other games in its portfolio, including Patterns and Blocksworld, a physics-builder for the iPad planned for release this month. But Second Life is still Linden Lab’s main focus. CEO Rod Humble sat down with AllThingsD recently to discuss where Second Life is headed — both on other platforms and within its own virtual world.

AllThingsD: What’s next? What does the future of Second Life look like?

Rod Humble: We’ve spent a lot of time on usability and performance. The elephant in the room was, it’s great to have this user-made world, but if it’s slow-loading or laggy, then the magic goes. And we just released a materials test viewer, and materials allow professionally made 3-D models to come into Second Life. So, that’s what’s in the immediate future. The other one is that — I’m traditionally very skeptical of peripherals or hardware, but we’re integrating Oculus Rift support, which turned out to be really cool. Surprisingly cool.

And you have a working version of Second Life on the Rift?

Yes. We have it up and running, and right now we’re working on usability. You need to integrate it with the Rift so you can look around and touch things. I think it’s late summer when it’ll be public. I’ve ridden on a train within Second Life with the Oculus Rift on, and it’s very cool.

Rod-HumbleWhat does the Second Life community look like now? Do you have a hardcore group sticking around? Are people dropping in and out?

It’s coming in and out. When I arrived (in 2010, coming from EA), I thought it would be a core group. But well over half of our user base has been here 18 months or less, with about 400,000 new registrations a month. With the world I’m used to, video and computer games, usually you get a core and it’s the new users who stop coming. And we’ve maintained this incredibly healthy user acquisition. It may be that we don’t have a large competitor that’s well funded. If you want a user-made virtual world, we’re kind of it.

What about Minecraft?

Minecraft is, I think, a huge marker. That’s blown open the sector, and it’s brought a lot of younger users in, which I think is fabulous.

Right now, you’re on PC, Mac and Linux. What do you think of games on mobile or living within the browser?

There are various areas we already have within the browser. Mobile, I think, there are two third-party Second Life applications for chat and walkaround. For us, we want to get that one right. It’s a very deep interface. To simplify it for mobile, even for tablet, is a lot of work.

Is that experience hard to recreate on the smaller screen?

There are so many different menus. … We’ve actually done ports of it working on a tablet. But it’s not ideal, just because Second Life is a very sophisticated piece of software. Second Life’s a chat client, a navigating-3-D-space client, plus we’ve got a 3-D modeling tool in it, plus we’ve got a programming environment. That’s a lot to get in! It’s a hard [user interface] challenge.

Are there more options for virtual worlds out there than there were even a couple years ago?

Yes, and I think it’s only going to get bigger. From my perspective, I do think that the age of user-generated but also user-rewarding entertainment and content is at hand.

What has changed? Why is that poised to take off now?

At least on the video game side, there was a content gap. Game makers are always trying to stay one step ahead of content creation, so you get these bigger and bigger budgets, trying to make more and more polished content. Second Life and YouTube are both rewarding their users for what they create. I believe there will be a day when you’ll log in to your social network and see, “Oh, I got five bucks because I posted my silly cat picture.” What I’m trying to do is position our company to take advantage of that and facilitate people being rewarded for the time they put in.

But are the people who play Second Life generally interested in making money from it?

There are two components: There’s the business component and the social component. Early on, the perception was that big companies would come into Second Life. In fact, the hobbyists won. They came in and said, “I make cars in Second Life, and that’s my hobby.” It became more like eBay than Amazon. There are bands charging for their gigs within the game. Famous bands like Duran Duran, but also a lot of indie bands who accept tips in return for live performances.

How much influence does Linden Lab have on those ventures? Did you go to Duran Duran’s manager and say …

… No, they came to us. We do our very best not to direct content within Second Life.

And why not? Twitter is a lot of things to a lot of people, but they work with media outlets to direct content by saying, “Here’s how you should tweet.” Why is that not of interest?

It’s of interest. If we were going to do that, we’d need to be very good at it. Right now, this year is the first year we’ll be able to say, “Hey, performance is good.” Maybe next year we’ll do more reaching out. It’s certainly an opportunity we need to get on.

People have freedom to sell pretty much anything in Second Life. Is that both good and bad?

It’s a perception issue. What percentage of Google search terms are, uh, adult related? But we don’t think of them as the porn search engine. We let people make whatever they want — unless it’s illegal — and there’s always been this sniggering “oh my” reaction. Somebody in the medium’s got to be first to be grown up about it. If you’re a writer and every time you’re writing, someone says, “Ah! But what about that D.H. Lawrence? That was rude, huh?” The community’s rightfully sensitive to it.

How do you get complete outsiders who have never played Second Life onboard? What’s the pitch?

Usually, we don’t have to convince anybody to try it. This [400,000 new accounts per month] is organic. The challenge is, when you’ve got a world that’s entirely created by other people’s imagination, what do you pick? So we’ve added a destination guide and some editorial picks, highlighting cool places to go. One of our biggest problems is, when people get in, we don’t know their interests. But people who do find something they like, boy, do they stick.

How many people get over the first hurdle and find that something?

It’s usually about 20 percent are going to be around a month afterward. That’s a massive drop-off, but it’s still not too bad compared to other services.

Back to platforms, we talked about online and mobile. What about consoles? Are any of them, either this generation or the new ones, of interest to you?

Not yet. I have no inside knowledge, so I can enjoy speculating like everyone else, but it’ll be interesting to see if there’s some PC-based console that’ll come out from Valve. I’m also interested in the Android boxes. These open platforms are of interest. With the traditional consoles, we’ll take a look at them. The hardware seems like it could be up to snuff. But we specialize in a lot of user-generated content, and you’ve got to figure out how that fits onto those platforms.

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I think the NSA has a job to do and we need the NSA. But as (physicist) Robert Oppenheimer said, “When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and argue about what to do about it only after you’ve had your technical success. That is the way it was with the atomic bomb.”

— Phil Zimmerman, PGP inventor and Silent Circle co-founder, in an interview with Om Malik