Tuesday, March 2, 2010

...and another one bites the dust -- the closing of There.com

There soon won't be any "There" there. Say goodbye to the waving couple from the intro page at There.com

I heard today through twitter that the virtual world of There.com would have its plug pulled on March 9, 2010. I may be a sentimental old broad at times, but in this case, to be perfectly honest, I’m not feeling particularly mournful about this turn of events. My friend Aldo once commented about Second Life that he looked on it “not just as a product in transition, but also as a transitional product,” and I think that is a reality that applies to all virtual worlds. They are like organic entities and they have a lifespan: they are born, they grow and develop, and eventually, they either die or evolve into something new. According to the announcement by the guys who run “There,” the bad economy finally caught up with them and it was no longer financially viable.

That may be true...or at least part of the truth. It also may be that “There” is a platform that can no longer successfully compete in the current market because of its limitations and/or somewhat uninspiring graphics. It may simply be obsolete. I can’t really say, because I have no direct firsthand knowledge of what has been going on in that particular VW. “There” was a platform that I never utilized, or even tried out, as far as I can remember. To be honest, I may have given it a shot a long, long time ago. But obviously, if I did try it, the experience didn’t make much of an impression on me.

At same time, I would like to point out that I was very much aware of it in its early days. “There” came out of Beta in October 2003, and was starting to attract users around the time I was getting pretty heavily involved in “The Sims Online,” another pioneering version of a virtual world. I thoroughly enjoyed TSO until the fall of 2004, when I decided to go try something else. My choices were either Second Life or “There.” They both seemed like they offered significant advances over TSO, and they both offered the opportunity to escape from the oppressive feudalism of life with Electronic Arts, the hateful, turnip-squeezing, Borg-like corporate collective that had taken control of The Sims Online. I picked Second Life only because most of my TSO friends who jumped ship had chosen to go to that platform. I wanted to be where my friends were, and if they preferred SL, that was good enough for me. And hell’s britches, anything was better than remaining in the evil, despotic clutches of EA.

For many other people, however, I think “There” represented an important transitional product from a highly structured and overly-controlled world like TSO, to the more open-ended environment of Second Life. For one thing, there was user-created content in “There,” but the process was overseen by the company, which very strictly vetted user-made content before it showed up in-world. I understand there was far less roleplaying in “There,” as it was promoted--and functioned--primarily as a multi-dimensional social platform. This focus was reinforced by developments such as the 2008 launch of ThereConnect, which enabled There.com members to display their in-world profiles, skills, groups and upcoming events on their Facebook pages. Around the same time, “There” introduced ThereIM, an instant messaging client that allowed Therians to communicate with other members’ avatars, whether or not they were signed into the virtual world. Furthermore, the business model for “There” was based on the idea that the nature of the technology would make it a more easily and generally accessible virtual world than something like SL. The company trumpeted the idea that you didn’t need an expensive high-end computer or even a super-fast connection to use “There.” Never having spent time in “There,” I can’t tell you if this meant that while anyone could get into the world, they were going to have a shitty experience if they had a less powerful machine and basic service. But I guess if you just going to use “There” as little more than an animated chat room, any such issues probably didn’t matter so much.

Nonetheless, it would seem that the creators of "There" believe that this strategic choice is at the heart of what brought about the imminent demise of there VW. Here’s how the “There” guys explained it on their site :

“Unlike other products, There was designed from the beginning to be a welcoming and comfortable place for everyone - not just gamers, not just people over 18, not just people with high end computers, and not just people on broadband.... We believe that all of this together made a world which was, well, like "real life", with just the right level of unreality thrown in. Standards for speech, interaction, avatar dress, and even the amount of "blood and gore" were pretty much what you'd expect in the real world, and we believe that it's one of the many things which made There special, accessible, and attractive to people from all over the United States and the world -- not just the privileged with high-end machines and broadband connections.

Unfortunately, this also meant that There.com's customers were hardest hit by the recession, and, so was There. While our membership numbers and the number of people in the world have continued to grow, there has been a marked decrease in revenue, which, in these economic times, is no surprise.

Throughout the last year and this quarter, we have fought the good fight by churning out new features and revisions as fast as we possibly could. Our hats have to go off to the team, which have in a very short time introduced a whole new suite of casual games, a completely new foundation for our user interface, improved internal efficiencies for the product, real estate, a whole new level of Community Involvement, etc, etc. On top of that, we've revised our first user experience several times, making the whole process for registering and getting into the world (and continued to be amused when the same features appeared in other worlds).

But, at the end of the day, we can't cure the recession, and at some point we have to stop writing checks to keep the world open. There's nothing more we would like to avoid this, but There is a business, and a business that can't support itself doesn't work. Before the recession hit, we were incredibly confident and all indicators were "directionally correct" and we had every reason to believe growth would continue. But, as many of you know personally, the downturn has been prolonged and severe, and ultimately pervasive.”

So basically, these guys are saying they tried their darndest to make this world into something that was broadly appealing, easily accessible and connected to social media, and so, consequently, ripe for mass adoption. But they couldn’t make it pay in the end--according to them because their target audience got walloped the hardest by the recession.

OK. I think I can kind of go along with the concept that the economy can be seen as a factor. But I have to admit I’m thinking there is more to this than just the idea that their primary audience has less disposable income and therefore had to cut back on something, and so are spending less on things like online amusements. That’s a sorta kinda good theory, but at the same time, there are reports that online gaming activity in general is not declining. In fact, as happened with the Great Depression, people seem to have been looking for cost effective forms of entertainment and that spending is actually up in areas such as toys and gaming.

So what’s really killing “There?” Has its time simply come? Did the attempt to go for mass adoption hasten the process of natural selection? I just don’t have the time or energy to really pick it apart. But I sure as hell hope our friends at the Lab are carefully analyzing what happened to “There.” The Lindens have an opportunity here to do a case study of a virtual world that took a path to extinction rather than evolution. I hope they take it very seriously and learn some things that will keep them from making SL go dodo before its time.

I will say this: I am convinced that a key difference between these two worlds is that Second Life residents have so much more freedom in what they choose to create. So many of our various experiments in education and the arts, so much of our roleplay and community building, so much of our resident-based commercial activity grew out of people being able to say, ”hey, I want to to make this or that” without first having to run it through some vetting process.

But again, that’s just my gut feeling. I would be curious what some of you who had more experience with “There” thought of it, and what you think killed it.


  1. You know, that gent pictured at top looks eerily like Philip Linden's avatar. Coincidence?

  2. Some philosophies hold that there is no such thing as coincidence. Hair like that, however, may serve as proof that there is such a thing as bad luck.

  3. There's target audience is pre-adolescents. With Second Life, at least, the person spending the money is also the one providing it. It becomes much more chancy and uncertain when you have to convince Mom, in the middle of a recession, that she should let you use her credit card to buy something in a virtual world she has never visited and isn't interested in.

  4. Hey Doreen,

    That's an interesting theory that the primary demographic using "There" had shifted to pre-adolescents. I would be curious to know what your source for that information is--not because I think that you're wrong, but just because the guys running "There" seem to have been rather reluctant to provide any data about their customer base during the last few months. It would be extremely enlightening to actually have some real honest-to-gawd numbers about what was going on in "There."

    This would be good information to have a handle on--I certainly can see how having an insufficiently diverse user population could be a factor in their demise.

    Nonetheless, I do know that the "There" guys claimed that not restricting access to people over 18 was a key aspect of their strategy.

    In fact, I may be wrong about this, but my recollection is that initially "There" did have an age restriction, but they changed that after a while. So clearly they looked on having a younger player base--at least in part--as a positive thing.

    So would having a player base that skewed to the younger side be a bad thing if hadn't been for the downturn in the economy? Well, all I can say is that one of the things I noticed in reading comments about the closing of "There" on some of the various forums was that a number of people said things like "There" was "full of pedos." A few people on SLU said they left "There" after witnessing what appeared to be older players hitting on younger players. That kind of perception can certainly work against a VW as it struggles to survive and flourish. With that in mind I really really hope that the Lindens think very very carefully before they possibly open up the main grid to younger players.

    Ultimately, I think you have an important point Doreen--the younger users aren't reliably profitable. Add to that the issues that arise regarding potential inappropriate interaction with older players, and it just doesn't seem like it's frakkin' worth it.

    So this really falls into the category of "if it's true, I hope the Lindens look at it and learn from it."

  5. I think Doreen may be right about teen users at There. I got a notice to expect underage visitors at a place I do volunteer work at as a greeter for new SL residents *sighs, and curses under her breath* because of the closing of There.

  6. hey Caro,

    Good luck with that. I guess the good news is if they are coming from "There" then perhaps they won't need as much technical guidance since they already have some familiarity with life in a VW. I'm frankly not sure how much of the actual specific skills will transfer, but perhaps their brains will already have some of the wiring in place to get SL quicker than utter greenhorns.

    The issue I think will be more one of how well this apparently younger demographic will adjust to the nature of life in SL?

    For example, I have been told that many Thereians preferred using voice and that the younger players shunned or looked down on other players who insisted on using typed chat. I assume it's that "if you're not using voice you must be hiding something and are probably some sort of perv." These people are going to have to learn that in SL lots of people prefer not to use voice because A.) voice in SL sucks, b.) they find it is necessary for certain activities such as rp to use typed chat, and c.) it's nice having a record of your discussions. Transplanted Thereians who think people using typed chat are automatically evil are just going to have to fucking deal with it.

    In fact there will probably be a lot of things they will have to adjust to and deal with--or they may cluster and create their own micro environments and transplanted communities, rather than becoming involved with existing SL society.

    I think it's going to be really interesting to see how this sorts out. At the very least, I bet they are going to enjoy being able to make shit without having it all approved first.

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