Business in Virtual Worlds, Second Life, Virtual World Platforms

The Forked Road: Virtual World Agencies and Where They Went

A Californian, a Brit and a sheep walk into a bar.

Not just any bar - but the hottest bar in town. The kind of bar with limos lined up out front and models handing out free samples of Red Bull to the people waiting in line.

All three walk out some time later.

The Californian says: “That bar was cool. It’s just too bad it was so small. If the bar was bigger, and the people were more glamorous and global, it would make a mint.”

The Brit says: “Sure the bar was cool. But you don’t make money with cool people. You need the executives with expense accounts and corporate jets if you’re going to turn it into a real success.”

The sheep says: “That bar was dreadful. I hated waiting in line to get in. And once I DID get inside, I could barely move around. The lights were too dim and the space was so complicated I couldn’t even find the can.”

All three wander off, each with a different dream of how to apply the lessons they learned from visiting the bar. But the bar itself kept chugging along, night after night, each night with a crowd that was slightly more global, or slightly more crowded, or with decor that was slightly improved from the night before.

One night, someone asked Philip, the bar’s owner, why he thought the Californian, the Brit, and the sheep had reacted like they did, and gone off to hang out in new places.

“What did you expect,” he said, “There’s nothing in this place but mirrors. So you make of it what you are.”

The “Big Three” Give Themselves a Bailout
See….there’s still a sort of regret about what happened in virtual worlds a year or two ago. It’s that hype cycle thing. And three agencies were, perhaps, most closely associated with it: the Electric Sheep Company, Rivers Run Red, and Millions of Us.

Second Life was on the cover of Business Week - the famous Anshe cover. Coke had arrived. Scion was giving away cars or whatever it was doing. Reebok was selling customizable shoes. And of course CSI was gearing up for the great cross-media promotion with TV characters making the leap to Second Life, followed it was assumed by the consuming hordes who wanted nothing more than to get off the couch and actually solve puzzles or whatever it was they were supposed to do.

Now, Anshe ended up being attacked by flying, um, prims. And CSI ended up at a bunch of giant Cisco signs with red arrows. And the hype cycle took a nose dive while the “big three” metaverse agencies shuffled around and regrouped and looked for new things to build while preserving the integrity of their message that, yeah, virtual worlds are great, and we learned a lot, and we can do it better this time.

It’s not to say that everything fell of a cliff - these are smart people, after all. But where are you going to go after you’ve exhausted the low hanging fruit….you know, that ad agency money that people were swimming in back when there was ad money to be found, and every brand was looking to find the next hot thing, and no one wanted to be the guy who missed out on the next Facebook or youTube.

So they each took stock, and they each played to their own strengths, or to what they thought were the strengths of the virtual world industry, and what’s telling perhaps is that each has forked off in a slightly different direction, which either means that one is right, or just as possibly that they’re ALL right, in which case we’re really just at the cusp of where this is all going.

Enterprise Ready?
So the Brits over at Rivers Run Red decided that Second Life wasn’t so bad after all, it just needed to be nurtured a little over on some private sims, out of the prying eyes of the media, and the hype, and it could be all about enterprise and saving money.

Justin Bovington addresses the value proposition nicely in response to a recent article at Independent Minds (why does it seem that so many British publications have the word ‘independent’ in them anyways?). He argues that virtual worlds are “ready for business” because, amongst other reasons:

1) Companies are looking for new ways to connect their employees to a larger network. Virtual worlds can help facilitate this.

2) We’re in a new era of travel bans.

3) Virtual meetings are only part of the mix: they supplement other forms of communication to help address limits on travel.

“The advantage of Virtual Worlds,” he says, “Is the ability for Virtual Worlds to break the linear model of time. The persistent nature of the space, enables an always ‘on’ option for quick meetings, to larger set meetings connecting up to 20-30 people at anyone time (ROI is huge!)”

4) Virtual worlds help companies play catch-up to their networked employees. They are tools that get them ahead of the curve.

5) Virtual Worlds enable us to view and literally step into content. Data visualisation within these spaces will enable employees to perceive data as metaphors.

His comments, echoed on his recent appearance at Metanomics, are as clear a statement of the value proposition for the enterprise use of virtual worlds as I’ve read.

It’s the Client, Stupid
The sheep, of course, is Sibley. And the Sheep decided that usability was the key barrier to adoption of virtual worlds, and that the way to solve that was to shift gears and move into browser-based worlds. This is an idea echoed by Raph Koster, who believes that the end goal is wide-spread adoption, and that worlds don’t need to be separate, but rather embedded in the Web.

Now, I won’t get into Metaplace. I’ve been there, I’m not supposed to say anything about it, and I don’t understand much about technology, although I am under the impression that how Metaplace is built and the philosophy of the code is pretty stunning. And it’s not really browser-based at all - although browser-based environments will be the thing most people see.

The Sheep went the browser-based route but without the game mechanics. (Hey, Raph is a game God, you didn’t expect him not to think about game mechanics did you?)

As Sibley said about the Sheep’s Webflock service:

“Sure. It’s not specifically for games in the way Metaplace is, but it is a tool set on which you can create games, for sure. So it doesn’t, at this point, have game engines in it so you would have to do a few more of those, really, game mechanics and the software behind game mechanics yourself. But, in that way, it’s very flexible. So it’s a little bit at a lower level when it comes to a gaming tool set than Metaplace might be considered to be, but, at the same time, it does have perhaps even more of the features that would be in other types of Virtual Worlds built in. So it’s just a little bit different feature set out of the box, but I think on Metaplace versus what we’re doing, you could do similar things if you wanted to go far enough with those tools.”

And the goal? Millions of us. Um. Millions of users:

“So the goal of Electric Sheep Company has always been to try to build applications that many millions of people would use if they use Virtual Worlds. We felt like, as we were learning about Virtual Worlds, certainly doing things in Second Life and doing things in other Virtual Worlds, which we’ve always done, we felt like in addition to the great platforms that are already out here for different audiences, for different purposes, one of the things missing in getting mainstream users into Virtual Worlds was a really easy first step. One of the things we’ve always been challenged by is getting large numbers of whatever mainstream users mean, but somehow a large number of users into a great community like Second Life.

So we felt like, well, a first step might be doing a little more that’s like a Virtual World on an existing website. And that’s never going to be a rich with user generated content or with all the interactive experiences you can get in Second Life, for example, but it can really take people to getting used to being in a multi user environment with avatars, perhaps creating content and so forth.

So we decided to create Webflock, and it is entirely Flash based. If people have seen the 2D Flash Worlds like Club Penguin out there where they have the isometric viewpoint or something that might be considered 2 1/2D, maybe like Habbo Hotel or something, we’re trying to go a little bit further with what Flash can do and make things feel a little more 3D. And from a personal point of view, I’m hoping that’s a gateway towards getting larger numbers of people into really rich Virtual Worlds.”

Now, I have no idea how Webflock is doing. Maybe it’s a stunning success. What I do know is that it looks a lot like the dozens of other Web-based worlds out there. And that I can’t help wondering, as I do with a lot of these “mini spaces”: OK, so you can get people IN all right - but can you make them STAY.

Social Media and the Big Brands
Which leaves us with the Californian. But on this one, you’re just going to have to tune in yourself to find out where Millions of Us has headed since we met them last.

What I will say is that I’ve heard Reuben Steiger speak, and I follow his tweets, and I read his articles in Ad Age and the guy says some pretty smart things.

None of which will really answer the question: which of them is right, if any, or what if it turns out they ALL are?

Which remind me of a joke: an accounting professor, a Canadian and a bunch of Australians walk into a bar…..

Promotional Consideration Goes to:
Metanomics Monday: Reben Steiger, Millions of Us

Reuben Steiger, CEO of Millions of Us, is actively defining the role of Social-Media Agencies for marketing and branding. From celebrity wrestling in Gaia to the highly successful Upper East Side for “Gossip Girl” in Second Life®, Millions of Us is acquainting traditional media audiences with virtual worlds. Its affiliate, Virtual Greats is responsible for a growing portfolio of copyrighted intellectual property for use in virtual worlds. Join host Robert Bloomfield, as Metanomics queries Reuben Steiger about the emerging principles around social-media campaigns.


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