Wagner James Au weighs in with the news: according to Nielsen, Second Life pwns World of Warcraft, biyotch.
Based on audience surveys regarding a hundred non-casual, pre-installed PC games, Second Life is the most played of all, registering average playtimes of 760 minutes a week per user, nearly a hundred more than World of Warcraft, and second in total player popularity only to WoW.
No, really, there is numbers and everything:
You will also note that Dark Messiah of Might and Magic, a three-year-old middling-selling fantasy kick-em-up is more popular than Half-Life 2. You know, the engine for Counterstrike. You know, one of the most popular online games of all time. Yeah, that one. Clearly, everything you know about online gaming is wrong!
Or, more accurately, metrics are a dark art that can be easily abused, misreported (note the double entry for Civilization 4, which would place it as the second most popular game in the survey if properly collated) and gamed. Luckily, in this case, Linden Lab has always been fairly open with SL metrics and they have been tracked historically by third parties. With a peak concurrency of 75,000-80,000 users and an estimated 1.5 million active users (Mitch Wagner of Information Week quotes Linden Lab’s CEO as giving a figure of 600,000 for the latter), Second Life is pretty solidly in the top tier of Western MMOs in terms of popularity, but an order of magnitude less popular than World of Warcraft, or other free-to-play MMOs (which Second Life is properly classified as) for that matter (the ever-ignored Runescape has close to 8 million users).
But popularity figures are just that – a beauty contest. What matters is if a given virtual world/online game is profitable (well, to its publishers, anyway. What matters to its users is whether or not it’s fun, which is outside the scope of this discussion, though no doubt will be the subject of “SL is nothing but furries and phalluses” comments following this post!) And Second Life is profitable, largely because its profit isn’t dependent on maintaining the insane publicity bubble that Linden Lab managed to ride a year ago. There may be fewer articles in Time about helpful mentors giving Joel Stein a penis, but the users that remain are quite willing to give each other money – lots of money, over $350 million last year. Linden doesn’t see all of that, of course, or even most of it, but they do collect an arbitrage fees off of virtual currency conversion as well as fairly hefty server rental fees to store owners and power users. Lack of popularity isn’t going to hurt them.
Lack of community management, on the other hand, might. If you log into Second Life this month, what you’ll hear people talking about is “Adult Content”. Which is surprising if you consider both Second Life’s reputation as the Internet’s red light district and the fact that Second Life, um, is already rated 18+ only already. Yet in March, Linden announced an upcoming segregation of “adult content” (translation: everything you think goes on in SL) into its own virtual continent, called Ursula, or as named by some resident wags, “Pornadelphia”. This month, a new beta version of the SL client introduced with it content filtering, such as filtering out search terms such as “Gorean”, “bondage” and “bosom” unless your account was flagged for “Adult” (which, confusingly, is a content level above the already-existing “Mature”). Many users are fairly furious over this, less over an incipient uprooting (the move to Ursula only affects “mainland users”, or users who own land on servers, or “sims” managed by Linden Lab – users that rent their own sims are unaffected by this) then the fairly explicit scarlet lettering involved in entire adult-oriented lifestyles, which while no doubt snigger-worthy to outsiders, are an entirely valid reason for, you know, wanting to participate in a virtual world that was already labelled adult-only.
What you’re not seeing in all of this is, well, any community management whatsoever. There have been a couple of blog posts which while acknowledging the controversial nature of the subject, dismissed implicitly most of the user complaints. There is little to no interaction with community personnel on the main Linden forums, and absolutely zero interaction on third-party forums (which are far more popular, especially among the users most affected by this). For being one of the more utopian and libertarian virtual worlds, Linden has had a fairly antediluvian attitude towards community management. And in this case, it is costing them a good deal of user goodwill in the process of implementing what almost any reasonable person would see as regrettably necessary restrictions on sexually explicit content. A little more honest explanation of the why (“We can’t continue to position Second Life as a venue for remote education in a complete free-for-all environment”) along with some give and take on the how would go a long way. Yet most residents, correctly, are seeing this as a diktat from on high, with little recourse for protest or even negotiation. For a world that is explicitly owned in large part by its users as part of its terms of service, that is not a very good way to run a railroad.
If it continues, maybe next month, Dark Messiah of Might and Magic will overtake Second Life in the ratings!