Want to know how the wider virtual worlds landscape is developing? I urge you to read this article published yesterday in Re/Code, to get an overview of the key players shaping the metaverse today: Linden Lab, High Fidelity, and AltspaceVR. The article also addresses Facebook, and of course Oculus VR, and includes excerpts from interviews with Palmer Luckey, Ebbe Altberg, and Philip Rosedale. As I was reading the article however, I couldn’t help but remember why I’ve been hesitant to go ahead with some of my planned projects this year in Second Life, including a follow-up to Paradise Lost.
From a performing arts and immersive experiences perspective, this sentence in the article piqued my interest:
“But Linden, High Fidelity and AltspaceVR all suggested the idea of letting users host exclusive virtual events in their digital spaces, and encouraging those users to charge an admission fee to get in.”
Pay-per-use accessibility. It’s nothing new, but I see it as a central tenet of the way things are going, and it relates to Principle 2 of The Sansar Six.
In many ways, we practice pay-per-use accessibility in Second Life when we charge a fee to join a group or rent a small piece of land for homes or stores. Charging for events however, lags further behind.
I hit this exact challenge last year with my play Paradise Lost in Second Life. I spent many months and mucho dinero to create an epic experience. We were originally going to host it for free (like we did our previous show, Romeo + Juliet), but then we considered the alternative, and made what we felt at the time was a rather bold move to (create a ticketing system from scratch and) charge L$ 1,000 per ticket
In case you don’t have a clue of what I’m talking about when I refer to Paradise Lost in Second Life, here’s a 5-minute mini-documentary produced by Draxtor Despres:
Limitations of producing large-scale immersive experiences in Second Life
600 people purchased tickets for Paradise Lost in Second Life at L$ 1,000 (or $4 USD) each to enjoy the 90-minute experience. This may sound like a lot when compared to many Second Life events (and indeed, it was enough to cover costs and then some), but it’s a drop in the ocean compared to what it might have been if Second Life was more easily accessible on a free or even pay-per-use basis.
Because Paradise Lost in Second Life was a highly intensive live performance involving roughly 50 avatars within a very closed space, there were strict limits to how many people could experience the show at the same time. 50 avatars pushes region limits at the best of times, let alone when you’ve got a gazillion scripts, special effects blasting off, and high quality texture builds fading in and out.
The other challenge was timing. We scheduled Paradise Lost in Second Life begin at 1pm and end at 2:30pm SLT, on alternating Saturdays and Sundays. I chose these times to match concurrency and the player’s own availability. With that choice, however, I cut out a huge group of people who are asleep or busy at those times, limiting my audience even further.
Besides region capacity, the other barrier was user knowledge and ability. 600 people experienced Paradise Lost in Second Life, but how many people didn’t even know it happened? Despite being promoted on the Destination Guide as a Featured Event, featured in over 100 Second Life blog posts and being the subject of a DraxFiles World Makers Episode, we only hit a market penetration of 0.0006% of Second Life’s 900,000 residents. I know, without a doubt, that if people could find the content they sought more easily in Second Life, we’d have sold ten to a hundred times the number of tickets we sold. Even today, I get people saying to me: “How did I miss this??” when I tell them about Paradise Lost.
To keep performance within acceptable limits, we insisted attendees wear a low impact mesh avatar, and nothing else. We asked them to use an RLV-capable viewer, so that we could control their visual experience. We asked them to optimise their graphic settings, so that they might further enjoy the presentation the way we envisioned presenting it. Power users had no issue with these requests; typical users however, found them onerous. I also know of several residents that had friends and family members (non SL residents) looking over the shoulders as their avatars attended the show. I even know of some residents that invited non-Second Life users to create accounts, just to watch the show. Needless to say, these approaches are not ideal.
Where I went next (for now)
Many people have asked me if there’ll be another show like Paradise Lost in Second Life. Earlier this year, I thought I’d found a scripter to help me, but to date I’ve been unsuccessful in finding the right person. I think however, with more dedication, I’d have solved that problem within the last 12 months.
If I could add another one or two zeros to the number of tickets sold for Paradise Lost in Second Life to my next show, I would have definitely found that scripter – and paid them handsomely. I’d have put on another show by now – no question.
For such large ambitions however, I’d need five things to happen:
- a virtual space that offers a much higher-capacity through scalability (e.g thousands)
- in world search that better enables more people to find what they were looking for in Second Life
- more usable interface tools that allow me to create native experiences that don’t rely on third-party viewers or advanced optimisations to them
- easier ways for non-Second Life residents to experience the production without going through the long-winded and challenging onboarding process we have today (and a native ticketing system would be fantastic)
- the ability to ‘record’ my experience, and deliver it among multiple instances throughout a 24-hour cycle (e.g. we eventually developed the technology to the point where we could press one-button, and the show would loop continuously, using bots as actors)
When I’ve imagined creating another show, I have struggled with the limitations I’ve described above: scalability, timing, discovery and usability. Do I want to go through all that time, effort, cost and risk for such small-scale audiences again? No, I don’t just want to do the same thing again only slightly different. I want to go much bigger and better.
So where did I go next? Instead of producing another interactive show in Second Life this year, I chose to make a movie version of Paradise Lost in Second Life. I’m releasing the movie in September, but not in Second Life; rather, I’m using YouTube.
YouTube has almost everything I need:
- Massive scalability
- Asynchronous timing
- Easy discovery
- Brainless usability
- I can even monetise it, if I wanted to…
The big drawback, of course, is that YouTube is not a three-dimensional virtual world.
One of the most attractive and unique aspects of Paradise Lost in Second Life was that audience members took part in the performance. That’s what makes this medium uniquely suitable for immersive theatre, you are actually in it, as opposed to simply watching it.
For this reason, I eagerly await what Project Sansar brings to the table. If I can get from Sansar what I get from YouTube and Second Life, you better believe I’ll use it to its greatest potential.