As a platform, the virtual world of online title Second Life is still in development, despite the fact that it emerged from its beta phase more than three years ago. Almost every week, Linden Lab, the company that created and runs the world, takes it offline for most of a day to release a hefty update to its client software.
And as in other massively multiplayer environments, a vocal minority of users can be counted on to clamor for more bug fixes, more features, better architecture and more attentive customer service, no matter how much of each is provided.
That being the case, it's unusual to hear a CEO look back to a virtual world's history rather than forward to upcoming improvements. But that was exactly the tack taken by Linden Lab CEO Philip Rosedale in his closing keynote at last weekend's second annual Second Life Community Convention
in San Francisco.
Rather than flag new features, Rosedale chose to go over his own early history and some of the thinking that led him to start work on his virtual world in 1999. He was followed by Cory Ondrejka, Linden Lab's Chief Technology Officer, who demonstrated to the 400-plus Second Life "residents" in attendance how far their world had come, by showing them a video
of what Second Life was like back in 2001, when the world was known as Linden World. Fortunately for those looking forward to an even better world, Ondrejka also revealed some of Linden Lab's plans for the near future.
The World Like Lego?
Rosedale related a few amusing tales of his childhood, including the garage door opener he installed as a boy to lift his bedroom door through a hole he cut in the ceiling, and the acoustic microphone he mounted on the roof of his parents' house, with which he eavesdropped on the conversations of neighbors.
"I always wanted the world to be LEGO somehow," Rosedale said. "I just wanted to make things as a kid. As I got older and computers came around, I just wanted to use computers to build stuff. I thought of a computer more as a hammer. I just wanted to do something cool with it."
Rosedale's fascination with automata and self-organizing systems had a deep impact on the initial form of Linden World. Linden World featured a more crudely textured topography than Second Life enjoys today, and a rudimentary eco-system that had creatures known as Ators chasing stick-figure birds, which in turn garnered sustenance from -- what else? -- rocks. New creatures and objects could be added to the world by firing them from your avatar -- which at one point took the form of a giant bloodshot eye -- and could be destroyed in the same way.
But it was at a board meeting in 2001 that the real potential of the world struck him. While making a presentation, Rosedale asked a few Linden World engineers to play around in the world as a background diversion. "We were watching this in the background, and we realized a city was emerging very, very fast. It was an incredible thing," he recalled.
He continued: "Someone built a snowman and someone else built a sort of burning man, and you could see this jazz thing happening in real time. There had never been a canvas two people could paint in at the same time, much less three or four or five."
"That was a moment of change," Rosedale said. "We realized it's not necessarily about the wind working really well. It's about people making things together, because the capability this thing provides is mysterious in the degree to which it allows people to do things together."
Ondrejka On The Future
After showing the video of Linden World, Cory Ondrejka's talk began by stressing that Linden Lab is currently looking to hire more developers. High on the list of priorities is an overhaul of Second Life's somewhat clunky user interface, and a renewed effort to reduce downtime, he said. "The next many releases are going to be very light on new features," Ondrejka said.
Much of the work ahead, he said, will be devoted to fixing problems with pieces of Second Life's code that have been insufficiently documented or simply sloppily implemented. "We're working on fixing problems that are fragile, only because they've been in the code since 2001."
For all the improvements under the hood, two new features will be appearing soon, Ondrejka said. A new system for organizing and managing user groups will be unveiled soon, as well as a feature that's being brought aboard as a result of Linden Lab's hiring of Jeffrey Ventrella, co-founder of There.com, last fall.
Puppeteering Up SL
That feature, known as puppeteering, will give SL users the ability to manipulate their avatars more naturally and create new custom animations for themselves within the world instead of having to use an expensive third-party application like Poser. While Linden Lab apparently showed a demo of the puppeteering functionality at Siggraph recently, that clip was not on view at SLCC.
To help deal with downtime, LL plans two changes, Ondrejka said. Rather than continue to update the SL client every week, LL will soon move to a biweekly schedule. LL also has a project in the works known as HetGrid, or Heterogeneous Grid, which will move the client to a model that does not force users to download an update each time LL changes or adds a new feature. Instead, users will be able to continue to use an outmoded client without the new features, in a model similar to downloading updates to Firefox or other browsers.
All in all, the changes should be welcome ones. If Second Life residents can content themselves with fewer new features for the time being, it sounds like they will get a more stable platform better able to handle the great deal of growth the virtual world has seen over the last year.
[Mark Wallace is the editor of 3pointD.com, a widely read blog covering virtual worlds. His freelance journalism on technology and culture has appeared in Wired, The New York Times, PC Gamer (UK) and many other