Interview with Second Life Founder Rosedale: 'Making it Crash Less Is our Number One Mission'

The hype has evaporated for virtual world Second Life. But founder Philip Rosedale is far from discouraged. In an interview with SPIEGEL ONLINE, he spoke about the backlash, the future of virtual worlds, and traveling the world via the keyboard.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: The hype for Second Life was huge in 2006 and 2007. Now, one hears little about it. Is the party over?

Philip Rosedale: With any new medium like this -- and it was also true of the Internet itself -- there is a predictable cycle of media hype followed by a backlash. We had major attention in the first two quarters of 2007, then some negative media attention after that. New tools, like the use of voice, or business applications, like collaboration and education, will slowly drive more positive media in the next couple of quarters. But it's a bit of a rollercoaster.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: The growth of Second Life, though, has subsided dramatically. Firms are pulling out …

Rosedale : The real business use of Second Life centers around collaboration and that is continuing to grow quite rapidly. There are more than 400 universities in Second Life and there are more than 4,000 teachers on our education mailing list. There might have been more enthusiasm and stronger growth in the first two quarters of 2007, but I think that the core growth in utility and in applications is still very strong. There's been a media focus on marketing …

SPIEGEL ONLINE: But marketing has really proven to be a flop in Second Life, hasn't it?

Rosedale : I believe it's too early to say that. We are still a system with 200,000 different users each day. And though that’s impressive and creates a million-dollar-a-day economy for people to make money in, it's not enough people to market many real-world products.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: There's a whole host of competitors now, like Sony's Playstation Home, Raph Kosters Metaplace, a German start-up called Twinity and many others ...

Rosedale : Sony's Home does not allow user created content, and is therefore, I believe, not in the category. I don't think their goal is to compete with Second Life, but with Xbox live. It's just the visuals that appear similar to those in Second Life. The others, if they enabled content creation, might be more similar to Second Life. It does concern me that they might learn from our mistakes -- but we'll learn from what they're doing as well. You'll see us able to follow these changes very rapidly.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What's your main source of revenue now?

Rosedale : The monthly fees people pay for their regions. Second Life is a good business. We make a little bit of money, as a little fraction of the overall economy within Second Life. We're self-sustaining.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: One thing you haven't managed yet is to make people pay to use Second Life on a large scale. Online games like "World of Warcraft" that offer mission and reward schemes make huge amounts of money through subscription fees. Do you need to reconsider your model?

Rosedale : Our strategy is that other people need to build that on top of us, and they are doing that. We have to make sure the platform offers the right kind of features to make that stuff easy -- and that is a challenge for us. It is similar to Facebook, where they've created an API to allow people to build little social applications. But we are not going to make Second Life into a game to improve its retention.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: For Second Life to run smoothly, users need increasingly high-end hardware. A fast Internet connection and a premium graphics card are a must.

Rosedale : Making it crash less on everybody's computers is our number one mission right now. Our mission is to make Second Life very accessible. But the immersive nature of the virtual world does require a certain level of computer performance.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What's second on your wish list?

Rosedale : Making it more usable. The user interface is still difficult, we need to make that better. Beyond that, what want to make it possible to browse the Web perfectly from within Second Life.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What's your future target group -- IT professionals, designers, artists? Or is Second Life going to be something like a three dimensional Facebook?

Rosedale : Second Life is going to move in the same way the Web did. The early users of Second Life are simply people who have a lot of time, because it takes time to be successful there. Much like Ebay, the early user base isn't really especially technical, but creative and entrepreneurial. The average age of the Second Life user is now 32 and women make up 35 percent of users. Of course there are many IT-people in there, but it's already a much broader user base than that.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Is the user base changing? The option for voice chat, for example, seems to clash with many of the early uses that had to do with adopting a different identity.

Rosedale : People do use it more seriously nowadays. But on 25 percent of the land area, people have decided to turn off the voice option. And I think that's great. There's room for both types of applications. New media always move through a phase of initial use for novelty and play, and then they graduate to other uses like collaboration, education and business. This happened with television, with the Web and I think it will happen here. But I don't want any of the historical uses to go away, and I don't think they will.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: But the early Web wasn't owned by a single company...

Rosedale : We have to profoundly open up the system. We've opened up the client, and we'll continue to open up formats, protocols, standards, and code. I think we can serve a function as a company that coordinates the activities of many companies and individuals within this system and by doing that allow Second Life to grow by two or three orders of magnitude. Ultimately, the use of virtual worlds will be greater than the use of the Web. Because the Web imposes a language barrier that a virtual world -- once it's perfect -- will not impose. I'll be able to travel to Tokyo in Second Life -- I'll never be able to travel to Tokyo on the Web.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: You might be able to travel to Tokyo in Google Earth before you can in Second Life though.

Rosedale : That's right. But the question is: What are you going to do when you get there? If you want a cultural and physical simulation of a place, you need the appropriate features and an economy. In Second Life, people build content because they're paid to, either by love or by money. Someone has to own the buildings -- if Google owns them, it's going to be a desert.

Interview conducted by Christian Stöcker

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