Linden Lab has been around forever, and Ebbe Altberg, the new chief executive of the publisher of the Second Life virtual world, has a tough task ahead of him. The company is in the middle of pivoting away from its last pivot. It is doing so by doubling down on Second Life and its next-generation experience, as well as the Blocksworld creativity app. All of its other properties are either being shut down or sold off.
Altberg decided that it was best for Linden Lab to use its resources to re-invest in Second Life and to focus on making its next-generation virtual world. The other apps were aimed at extending the creativity expressed by fans of Second Life beyond the virtual world to the mobile world. But none of them except Blocksworld had both the traction, talent, and resources to really hit a growth curve. Altberg’s teams have been exploring virtual reality goggles, such as the Oculus Rift, to view the worlds that the company is creating. Second Life is still enormously successful, Altberg said, but it was originally launched in 2003, and now he wants to expand its appeal through new technologies.
We recently sat down with Altberg for an interview, where he showed us a demo of Second Life working with the Oculus Rift. That’s just a taste of things to come, he said. Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation.
GamesBeat: So what have you done since starting at Linden Lab?
Ebbe Altberg: I came on board in February. Since then we’ve changed our focus. Some products that you wrote about in the past we’ve since discontinued to focus on a few things. We were starting to spread ourselves thin, I thought. We’ve already announced all this. There’s no news here. But Dio, Creatorverse, Versu, Patterns — all been discontinued work on those. Either giving them back to the original creators with some terms or just stopping them entirely [editor’s note: Linden Lab also recently sold off digital-distribution service Desura].
We’re focusing our energies on continuing to improve Second Life. We have a lot of good updates coming related to features and capabilities and enabling creators to do more interesting experiences but also just basic walking, attacking further improved performance. We have some things coming soon. … I hope our users will notice a significant performance improvement.
We’re also very excited about Blocksworld. I don’t know if you’ve had a chance to check that out before, but it’s a small up-and-comer. It’s one of the portfolio of non-Second Life products that we decided to stick with. We liked the user experience, the ease of creation, and the audience it targets: a much younger demographic than Second Life. Also, right now, it’s iPad only. It gets us into a lot of experience dealing with a younger audience. … You need to think about ease of use and simplicity but still enable them to create really powerful things, as well as working with the new medium of mobile. We’ve had good progress with this product. It’s still early, but we have good traction. The kids love it.
What will be our biggest effort for years to come is the next generation virtual world from the ground up. “Virtual world” might be a loaded term. We might want to chat more about what a virtual world means. But ultimately, Second Life and this next-generation product are platforms that allow creators to create awesome virtual experiences for a lot of different use cases. I’m not sure how up to date you are on Second Life, but the use cases in Second Life are extremely broad and fascinating, from education to health to role-playing to games and entertainment and all things in between.
GamesBeat: How did the brand new project get started? Is that a long time coming now?
Altberg: There’s been, I would say, a couple of guys that had started some of the deep, deep plumbing maybe a year ago or something like that. There [were] just a couple of guys, though, working on the deep networking stack for, ultimately, a highly [performing] multi-user hosted virtual world experience. But we didn’t really start in earnest with a lot of people piling on. We had these resources coming from us stopping a lot of projects and also subtracting how many people we had working on new features for Second Life and rerouted all these people to work on the next generation. That’s probably been in flow now for almost five months. I think this Friday will be the conclusion of the fifth month.
We’ve also had a push on hiring. We’ve hired several engineers, and we’re probably going to hire another 30 or 40. We’re 190 people so far. Since I came on board, it’s been fairly flat, but since we stopped five or six products, there was some obvious turnover as far as the type of skill sets we need. We’ve hired to focus on the future, and so, we’re basically flat, even though there’s been quite a bit of changes in the type of personnel we need to do what we’re about to do. We’ll start growing from 190 toward 200 and 210 and 220 over the next few quarters.
GamesBeat: Of those half-dozen things, was it really just the one, Blocksworld, that got traction?
Altberg: When I came on board, Blocksworld was the only thing we could look at and say it had meaningful traction. Blocksworld is quite meaningful. The other products were still too early. You couldn’t fault them for not having traction yet because it was still so early, but we decided we don’t have the time and resources for the things we want to go do and also take the time it takes to let them get traction. I would say some of them may have worked out if we’d stuck with it, but you have to make some tough choices as far as where you focus.
That’s also partly why we made arrangements like we did with Versu. We tried to make sure some of these projects could keep going. With Versu we made a deal with the people who we originally bought it from to take it back. They’re now running with it. We just made some terms that will share some of the future upside.
Some of the things we stopped may still find a way to get traction through a different channel. But I felt it was too many things going on, especially if you want to go build a next generation “virtual world.” That’s a massive undertaking. To at the same time try to make another five or six products succeed, that would be nuts for a company like ours. For a big company it would be nuts, even.
GamesBeat: I remember that Second Life was throwing off enough money to be able to invest in some of these things.
Altberg: Absolutely. Second Life is still going strong. We’re still profitable. I consider Second Life my investor. We love Second Life, and we’re going to do all the work we need to do to make sure Second Life has a long run into the future. But instead of spreading the gains from what Second Life throws us across many things, we decided to focus on a couple of things.
GamesBeat: Have you talked about how many people are in Second Life right now?
Altberg: The monthly active user count is just south of a million. When it peaked it was just north of a million. … Second Life started development 13 years ago and reared its head 11 years ago. There are parts of Second Life that, yes, are old. It’s a challenge to get it to be competitive in today’s world, when it comes to devices or framerate or graphical quality, when you think about lighting and making something realistic looking….
[There are] a number of things that made Second Life successful but also constrain it a bit as far as how big a virtual world ultimately can be and should be. Which is why we’re investing a ton of energy into this next generation product. We’re going to solve the things we think are holding Second Life back. Performance, scale, graphical quality, ease of use, multiplatform. It’ll be able to be a great companion to new technologies like Oculus, where you need to have a tremendous framerate, times two.
That’s where we are. We’ll probably start revealing the beginning of this thing toward the middle of next year sometime. That’s what we’re shooting for. That beginning will not be as feature rich or enable all the use cases that Second Life offers, but for some of the simpler use cases, we’ll be able to do something that’s going to make Second Life jealous.
GamesBeat: Where’s this going?
Altberg: Past creations from other companies have been positioned as virtual worlds but haven’t hit the same components that Second Life has: user-to-user economy, user-generated creativity, a communications platform, 3D building platform, scripting platform. All those layers that we’ve combined to make a virtual world, this next-gen project will be in that spirit, rather than just a reductive flavor of that. Maybe not at the very first, but … we don’t want to constrain what people can do with it.
You can call The Sims a virtual world, but that’s a very constrained virtual world. You can’t be exactly what you want to be. You can’t do exactly what you want to do. You can’t build exactly what you want to do. Therefore, you don’t see Texas A&M teaching chemistry in The Sims. You do in Second Life. You don’t see it being used to help people with PTSD and all kinds of mental health issues, or in education. Those are huge opportunities and use cases. They’re actively used by lots of people in Second Life. Few other products could enable that. It’s the flexibility of the platform that allows those use cases to take off….
Think about all the machinery or architecture or things you want to be able to simulate in advance of building them, or to train people. There’s an incredible number of business use cases that have barely even started, where you can get a large number of people to successfully communicate and collaborate and create in virtual space. They can be trained and teach in virtual space. We’re scratching the surface of what will ultimately happen. Aside from just all the social and entertainment possibilities.
It’s the power of being able to take someone to a completely different place and have it feel natural. When you’re in a virtual space, if you have the right user experience and performance, your brain cannot distinguish between the virtual and the real, which shows you the incredible power you can have in those contexts. Now that VR is getting this whole new extra boost of excitement and a tremendous amount of investment, whether it’s Facebook buying Oculus or Magic Leap, where people barely know what they do and they get $500 million, this is all great for us. The whole space of virtual reality is getting so much investment and momentum behind it. We’re sitting here with 11 years of operating a successful virtual-world business. We’re excited to take it to a whole other level.
At the same time, the rest of the industry will take it to another level with better input devices, whether it’s Leap Motion or SixSense or the new cameras that you can do interesting things with to read people’s expressions and transmit that to avatars. The human-to-human interface through the computer or device is going to a whole other level, which is awesome for us. It’ll make the types of experiences people create and have a lot better.
GamesBeat: Valve is still active in VR.
Altberg: For us, the more the merrier. … We’re not in the hardware business. We’re in the software business and in a special segment of user-generated content. We don’t create content ourselves. Blocksworld and Second Life and the next-generation platform are about enabling users to create experiences, as opposed to us creating the experiences. Most companies around don’t take that user-generated content approach. They build some experience themselves.
The reason we did Oculus with Second Life is not necessarily because we think they’re the perfect marriage. There are constraints with Second Life with regards to its performance. You’re not going to get the framerate you need for it to be a consumer-grade perfect fit. But we’re learning a ton. We’re going to apply all these learnings to the next-generation platform. Our content creators also learn a ton about how you create content that’s optimized for this device.
You might see a bit of a jitter as you move your head around. It’s not completely smooth. Things will improve, both through things we’re doing to Second Life and things that Oculus is doing, but in the meantime, I don’t want you to think that we’re trying to tell you that Oculus and Second Life are the best thing since sliced bread. It’s still early.
We’re in the process of learning. Our creators appreciate it a ton that we’re doing this, even though it’s not perfect, because they’re able to understand what the future is going to be like. They can re-experience the content they’ve created. We’ve heard some things already; “I would have made this thing differently because now I’m able to walk around it and my perspective is totally different.”
No matter what, when people can actually be inside their experiences with the Oculus, it’s incredible. Jo Yardley, which we can talk about more later, she’s built Berlin as it was in the 1920s. She has a large, extremely happy and devoted community that lives there. When she was first able to go in to Second Life with the Oculus and actually be inside her own creation — not looking at it but being inside it — she cried. It was just so powerful to have that experience.
GamesBeat: Can you put basically any Second Life location in Oculus?
Altberg: Everything in Second Life, everything, over a petabyte of user-generated content, is all available to use with the Oculus. We probably have more creators for the Oculus than anyone else. They just don’t realize it. And anyone can be a developer, if you want to call it that, because obviously creating in Second Life has a much lower technical burden than if you were to license Unity or Unreal and hire an engineering team and build a 3D experience. That’s a huge effort.
In Second Life, I would say normal people … Jo, that built this stuff, she’s not a technical person. She was just inspired to create a virtual space that she was passionate about. She figured out how to do it. We’ve lowered the bar for who can create a virtual experience beyond what anybody else has. Anybody with the Oculus today can download the Second Life viewer and explore the entirety of Second Life with Oculus, with the caveat that not all the user-created experiences have necessarily been optimized for it. It will all work. You can cruise around, chat with people, explore their experiences. A lot of Halloween content is out there right now, looking to scare folks. It’s all there.
GamesBeat: This Blocksworld creativity space seems to have some competition. Microsoft just launched Project Spark. Minecraft is an obvious example.
Altberg: There are some similarities there as far as users creating things. But it’s in the vein of Second Life as well. It’s not just clicking zombies. It’s kids creating things as they imagine them. Even though it’s very simple, it’s very sophisticated. Kids learn how to program, how to think about logic, how to construct, how to tell stories. They get to showcase themselves.
We’re learning a ton about how to make creation easy and fun. We’re learning how kids interact with a device like this. We’ve done barely any marketing around this. We’re still evolving this product, still early. But we’re already up to just about 400,000 monthly users. We’re a top-ranked game in the education category. We tend to be near the top in both the family and education categories of the App Store, at least in the U.S. The app is available globally, but at the moment, it’s English only.
We first released it worldwide a little more than a year ago. We had our first anniversary in August. Once you create a world, you can share it within the app. Anyone who has it around the world can play. Part of what’s interesting as you browse through the community, you see what kids make and what they like when you hand that power to them. You give kids a stack of Legos and say, “Make me something.” We see a lot of kids humor stuff, a lot of pop-culture things. Lots of memes.
It’s very similar to Second Life in that it’s all user-generated content. But we’re targeting a very easy-to-construct interface. People have showed how easy it is to construct. It’s probably kids around six or seven to 17 kind of range. That’s the key demographic.
It’s a way for them to express themselves in three-dimensional form with scripting. It’s all drag and drop. You can see here by dragging blocks around. It’s sort of like digital Legos. You can build and scale these blocks. You can color and texture them. Then we have what we call action blocks, things like wheels. Here I can drag out four wheels, put them in place, they just snap together. If I hit play, it’ll drive off.
GamesBeat: How does Blocksworld make money?
Altberg: We’re still playing with that. To date, we give you a certain set of basic blocks, but then you can buy more sophisticated blocks. If you want some of this custom IP or certain types of action blocks or what you might call bling, you can use coins to buy them. You can earn coins by creating and getting likes from other users, or you can put money in and buy coins to then buy blocks.
Over time, we’ll go more and more down the path of letting kids earn through their creations like in Second Life. I’d envision, over the next few quarters, getting into a user-to-user economy where kids can sell pieces or constructions. Like, if I find a really cool car I want to put in my world, there will probably be a marketplace someday where kids can buy and sell stuff. I’m looking forward to kids being able to cash out.
Monetization leads nicely to what’s new or upcoming about Blocksworld. Right now, if I want a set, I buy coins or earn them and then redeem the coins for that new set in the shop. At the moment, I have a singular inventory. As I build worlds, I’m depleting from that inventory. If I have 10 wheels and I use 10 wheels in one world, when I go to build another world, I either need to take them back from that one — sort of like physical Legos — or go buy some more.
I’m not too worried about monetization. Whether it’s a subscription, an upfront price, or kids earning money and we take a piece of the action from an in-world marketplace, we’ll play with those variables. The key thing to continue having success on is user engagement and growth.