Breaking News: Second Life New User Experience is Still Broken

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This started out as a reply to a post on James Wagner Au’s popular “New World Notes” blog. I’m going to go into a bit more depth here.

Second Life’s new user orientation process is broken.

No, that’s the wrong word. “Broken” would imply that there was something there that’s not working. What Linden Lab’s (the company operating the Second Life virtual world) currently has is effectively no new user help at all. The current set-up is the worst I’ve seen in nine years of following—worse than the “temporary” Help Island (warning: SLURL), which was never designed to be an orientation in the first place, yet stuck around for well over a year anyway, worse than the now completely gone 2007-2008 Orientation Island that required a HUD (that never worked right) to complete and get your ticket to the rest of Second Life.

There is not a single thing in Second Life’s two-island new resident chain that makes any attempt to teach a new user anything at all. The experience starts with the familiar MMO cliche arriving at the seashore next to your wrecked ship. But unlike a typical MMO, there’s no helpful NPC to talk to near by. No one to give out an introductory quest. There are just arrows sending a new user through a path around a rather uninspiring wilderness area (lots of people in Second Life can do better, and have!) Eventually they get to a portal—the only way off that island.

That takes them to Social Island (warning: SLURL) where they can wander around a cave, socialize with other confused new arrivals, dance by yourself at a faux night club, explore a campsite, a generic temple, and a lighthouse. If they haven’t given up on Second Life out of sheer boredom by that point, they may eventually make your way to a “portal arena” where they can choose among Wilderness, Art, Roleplaying, Popular, Social, Music, Editor’s Picks, Linden Realm, and Adult. If the new resident picks one, he or she will find there are no instructions for getting back. (Unless they happen to figure out that SL—unlike most every MMO in the world—operates in part like a web browser and try the back arrow.)

So if the new resident picked wrong—or the random destination script in your portal picked wrong—he or she will be stuck until they can find a live person to ask for help. Hopefully, they will have a landmark to someplace like (SLURLs ahead) Caledon Oxbridge, Virtual Ability, NCI, or the Shelter (or a similar resident-run area) where they can find actual help.

Oh, there’s also one more trap for the poor new resident. The “Home” button doesn’t take you back where you started. It picks a random InfoHub. Which contain help posters do nothing but offer to open a web browser for you. Not only does popping out to the web beak immersion, many systems can’t run a web browser and Second Life client at the same time. To make matters worse, Linden Lab seems to have helpfully isolated most of those InfoHubs to to minimize their chance of running into anyone that might help, leaving them to the mercy of they typical InfoHub/Welcome Area crowd. In my test run through, it took me eleven hits of the “Home” button to find a place I knew I could get help—the Shelter InfoHub.

Thing can be better. I know. Some of the old Community Gateways—Caledon Oxbridge (which I co-created with Desmond Shang) among them—scored higher than Linden Lab’s own new user experience. Which was a lot better back then than it is now. Linden Lab’s s excuse for shutting the Community Gateway program down was that it could not scale. Things “not scaling” were a very popular way for a previous single letter CEO to dismiss stuff his team didn’t invent.

Being more like an MMO—at least at first—may be part of the answer. While Second Life’s demographics tend older and more female than the typical MMO gamer, they are a significant enough part of Second Life’s audience that their needs definitely do need to be addressed. As it stands, Second Life new user experience manages to be confusing to both the casual user as well as the dedicated MMO gamer.

I would suggest a three option orientation: 1) Some sort of introductory “quest”, where a new resident can accomplish a series of learning tasks for a reward. 2) Another option should be a more traditional orientation path (like those at Caledon Oxbridge or Virtual Ability), that new users can do at their own speed. 3) There also should be an accelerated introduction path, for the type of new user that wants to get into the world immediately. This could resemble Linden Lab’s short path Orientation Island (SLURL again) from 2005/2006.

Lastly, one of the orientation departure gates should include a selection of Linden Lab-vetted resident-run help organizations.

Changing the UI again is not the answer, though. Second Life’s current UI is not bad at all. I’ve seen far, far worse among popular MMOs. Could it be better? Sure. But as a compromise between a web browser and an MMO client, it works pretty well. And that seems to be a compromise that Linden Lab thinks is necessary.

Additionally, every time LL overhauls their UI it throws a lot of annoying, unpaid work—with usually little notice—at the resident volunteers who do the bulk of the orientation work here. On top of that, a new UI disrupts the work flow of creators and estate rental operators who are working on thin enough margins as it is. A UI overall should only be done as a last resort, and after consultation with residents. Beta test any new UI for a few months, then take it back and make the changes that the residents most requested, and then test it again.

But fixing non-UI parts of the new user experience is not as hard as everyone says it is. I could a team to do it all through my real life company for much for easily under half a million—probably much less, and have a complete solution in six months. Of course any final price would depend on 1) the negotiated scope of work, 2) how many different people I would have to report to, and 3) how often and how long I had to be in the Bay Area.

I’m serious. Ebbe Altberg, if you are listening, consider this an offer. Check my reputation in-world. Take a look at what I’ve done. My email is j.carl.henderson@gmail.com. My cell phone number is 972-822-5263. I can fix this.

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