Can Second Life Ever Grow Again?

A Veteran Game Designer Has Some Very Good Insights

Alexia Mandeville social vr designer Second Life

Pictured: Alexia in High Fidelity (as a cloud)

Rather than write yet again about what went wrong with Second Life way back when, I recently asked veteran game designer Alexia Mandeville what could go still go right.

She’s in a very good position to offer her perspective: An SL user herself back in the day, she’s now a designer at Niantic (creator of Pokémon GO, the massive AR-based virtual world), and a designer on the early iteration of Horizon, Facebook’s social VR world. Even more pertinent, she was also a UX designer at High Fidelity, Philip Rosedale’s follow-up virtual world to Second Life. She sees a shared corporate culture to that startup and SL developer Linden Lab, which has hampered consumer adoption of both their virtual worlds:

“[A]cquisition was never a strength at these places,” as she puts it. “You need a strong aesthetic style (Minecraft/Roblox/Fortnite) and the ability to communicate your use case articulately to attract mainstream people.”

So what are her recommendations to Linden Lab, to grow the Second Life user-base when so many previous attempts by the company have failed?

Ms. Mandeville makes four key suggestions:

Brand revamp

“I was part of the World of Warcraft crowd during the height of SL, and my crew of friends didn’t use SL because we perceived it as a place for people to have sex.

“Today you can’t check out the Second Life website without logging in. As a new user, I would want to know what it’s about before I commit to giving out my info.

“I think some of the messaging leaning into connections could be paired with some of the building and economy aspect of SL to move away from the perception that so many people still have about SL just being about sex.

“This perception was only validated when we would talk features at High Fidelity, and we’d be discussing pose balls and jiggle physics with some of the engineers who came from Linden Lab.”

Make building more accessible

“Two years ago I was in SL looking to do some building and was completely overwhelmed with the tooling. A [veteran SLer] was showing me around the tools, too. So it’s not like I didn’t have help. There needs to be some scaffolding there, start with a few tools, onboard a creator as they become more advanced.”

She acknowledges the bifurcation challenge, where SL’s prim-based system has largely been abandoned for offline mesh rendering — but thinks there’s a better way of marrying them:

“Obviously you can’t take that external import system away at this point in the product, but I believe it to be a big issue for aesthetic cohesiveness which brings it back full circle to acquisition of new users because your product LOOKS good.

“I guess a solution for improving it as it currently stands in SL would be to make sure all the materials have a similar visual aesthetic for both tools. Get all the creators on some sort of even playing field, or find another way to even out your aesthetic. That was one of my biggest issues as a creator in High Fidelity. Getting everything to look similar whenever I imported materials from Maya. I think that can go a long way to lift the style and make it more appealing.”


“SL is old, of course the rendering system could probably use a revamp. If you go take a look at it, it just feels blah, drab, sad.

“Even the website has drab colors. I have no perception of who Linden is actually marketing to by looking at this site. There aren’t any creator spotlights or event highlights, like you might see in Horizon or in Fortnite.”

After telling me that, she did eventually find event listings by digging around the official forum — which sort of proves her next point:

Highlight community events

“I follow IMVU and Fortnite and Roblox, and I’ve seen events for each of these things in my social media and in the news. Makes me wonder if SL is really taking advantage of social media, or the community is confined to the website and forums.”

Some might point out that Second Life does in fact have a large official presence on Facebook, but to her point, it’s very inwardly direct, seemingly speaking only to the existing user base. It’s similar to Second Life’s official YouTube channel, which also suffers from insularity — it’s why a YouTuber can draw far more views from her own Second Life videos, which are directed to general interest gamers, instead of just the existing user base.

“I really want to see one of these virtual worlds become really huge again,” Alexia tells me. “I think the one that last resonated with me was Minecraft. I don’t really want to have to put a headset on and I want things to just be simple to hang with my friends and meet new people.”

Or to put it another way, make Second Life fast, easy, and fun — which is something the company promised to do in 2010 after having to make a major round of layoffs. The fact that this never happened suggests they have not been listening to designers like Ms. Mandeville — or as she suggests, that Linden Lab’s corporate culture is simply not designed around that goal.

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