Friday, April 16, 2010

Heritage Key -- a virtual world designed for learning

At Heritage Key, visiting Stonehenge as it was in ancient times

We know that learning takes place in virtual worlds. It isn’t always something that the designers of those worlds intended, and if they did intend for learning to happen it doesn’t always take place in the ways that designers hoped for or expected. Nonetheless, what we have seen happening--both in the unplanned learning that takes place and within the context of conscious educational experimentation--is giving some groups and individuals a sense of how they can try to do a better job of fostering structured learning experiences in virtual immersive environments. A wonderful example of this is Heritage Key, an independent learning grid utilizing OpenSim, software that is based on an open source version of Second Life code.

Heritage Key is a project of Rezzable, the company that is responsible for creative experiments such as the “Greenies” build in SL. However, rather than being a purely artistic or creative endeavor like the little green guys, Heritage Key is a stand-alone grid designed specifically for didactic purposes. Its elements include a number of archaeology/ancient history themed “exhibits” and immersion environments that are crafted to achieve specific learning goals, and to convey specific messages and information.

Elements of a structured learning experience in HK are distributed throughout the exhibits to provide context and meaning for the builds.

You come away from an experience in Heritage Key knowing something you didn’t know before, or having seen something you thought you were familiar with in a new light--and that information and perspective is more than likely one that the designers of the spaces wanted you to get.

This is real different from the type of learning I have been a part of and am familiar with in Second Life. There it’s not so much something that was intended, as it is a series of serendipitous light bulbs going on and someone suddenly saying “holy crap, I think we just learned something here, didn’t we?” It’s different and it’s intriguing. I have been visiting Heritage Key and watching their progress for a while. And yes, it is very much a work in progress. You can go visit it right now, but keep in mind it is changing almost daily.

Back when I started visiting HK, I was delighted to find that some old friends were part of the project: Viv Trafalgar and Jasper Kiergarten. They, along with some other folks who work there have been very friendly and forthcoming, answering my numerous questions. And when I hit them with some things they couldn’t answer, they directed me to Rezzable’s top guy, Jon Himoff.

Jon was likewise very helpful, especially as I was seeking to understand as well as possible the background of the project. Here are some of the questions I asked him, along with his answers:

DAK: I gather Rezzable Productions is a for-profit entity that generates income from advertising and providing services to facilitate virtual marketing initiatives for corporate clients (even the use of the term "sponsorships" implies an underwriting approach borrowed from the non-profit world). But I am unclear as to how Heritage Key is underwritten. I was wondering if perhaps it is actually not meant to generate income and is in fact a sort of "loss leader" designed to kill two birds with one well-crafted stone: doing something civic-minded and positive in terms of fostering learning in the metaverse; and actually creating a successful and innovative educational grid, thereby highlighting and promoting the creative and practical skills of Rezable and its partners?

In short, I'd really like to get a handle on why you're doing HK and what the goals are.”

Jon Himoff: (Our) goal is to make money with all this work on Rezzable/HK. We have equity funding to get all the technology and methodology in place. We started in 2007 really with the challenge of figuring out how to attract mainstream online users to more engaging, immersive experiences. Heritage key is our brand and we are using a combination of rich media--including virtual experiences to delivering unique, compelling content around the idea of traveling to ancient world sites. As this rolls out we are also looking at other types of brands that would benefit from real-time community capabilities. “

....Education is not as much an objective as making history relevant to people (or maybe that is what education should be?). Clearly if people find something intriguing or even fun then they will pull on it and drill into the material. The ancient world content fits the virtual online well--it has a level of imagination but also the facts are rich and many stories have not been told to large audiences (like Boudicca)."

DAK: “I would also like to know if there were there academic partners involved in each segment--content specialists who were partnered with the virtual worlds experts like Viv and Ordinal to create a successful and meaningful experience for the visitors? (I'm big on the idea of partnerships that cross boundaries of disciplines and worlds, and correct me if I'm wrong, but it seems like that must be part of your philosophy in trying to make your projects work)."

Jon Himoff: “The hard research comes from the experts. We are not subject matter experts, but the packagers of that into something engaging online. We actually spend a lot of time learning about the things we will make virtually -- in fact almost the entire content of the .com is the work in progress on that effort. We would like to work more with universities and museums. “

DAK: “I gather there is some connection between this open-sim grid version of King Tut and the VotK build, and a similar previous project on the SL platform (but that in moving to HK, the concept was refined and expanded). If I am correct in that, then I am curious why the use of SL was abandoned?”

Jon Himoff: "We use our own OpenSim-based grid. We did some initial work in SL, but it is too expensive and integration is impossible. SL will also not scale."

DAK: “I would also be curious to know how things that were learned in the course of developing and presenting the previous version may have shaped and facilitated the expansion and enhancement of the new version--and if so, what sorts of lessons were learned in the previous experiments?”

Jon Himoff: "I think major lesson has been that just because you build it, doesn't mean people will come. You need to do a lot of work to make things digestible for mainstream online users. Navigation is major issue. Also we are investing a lot of time/energy into offering quests as parts of dynamic, user-oriented story telling.”

DAK: “HK is obviously open for visitors, but still seems to be very much a work in progress--is there a schedule for opening additional elements and a plan for promoting usage of the HK grid as bugs get worked out?”

Jon Himoff: “Yes, it is a sort of open kitchen right now. We are also getting a lot of great feedback from visitors. There are some technical issues, but main focus is really getting the flow across the content working better. It is hard to get it all right--some people are newbies, others are gamers so their interest and skills are very different. Ultimately they should all gain something by visiting.”

DAK: “Is it accurate to say that the current exhibits you have set up on HK are not just a laboratory to work out how to get "the technology and the methodology in place," but they also essentially function as "demonstration" pieces, to show potential clients what can be accomplished with your platform and the good people you have working with you? “

Jon Himoff: “I think of it as a proof point -- it does work and it can scale. We have done Tut, Stonehenge and integrated rich web content as well. Check all the videos for example, but there are also tons of articles, images, slideshows. See site search results as an example . I think you don't really know how something can work until you get on with it and try to make it engaging. You hit a lot of issues that you wouldn't see as critical until people are using it. “

DAK: “If the current exhibits are in fact demonstrators, I was also wondering if the upcoming British Museum segment is also a demonstration piece or an actual contract job for an institutional customer? ”

Jon Himoff: “The BM is not a customer, but I also don't really see the museums as customers. They should really be partners with us. In general we should be able to work with them to generate more interest in their collections and special exhibitions in order to drive more visits and make online more profitable for them. Especially for the sites--which often don't have strong collections but are very exciting to actually visit if you understand the context of the history.”

DAK: “In one of your answers to the previous questions you said that you gave up on doing projects in SL not just because of the cost, but because "Integration is impossible." Would you explain exactly what you mean by that?”

Jon Himoff: “Trying to create a streamlined user experience from web community to virtual experience is not possible in SL. There are no API's for example. There is no way to brand the viewer etc, etc etc. And I would add that Linden Labs is not a credible business partner. There model is selling virtual land (at a high price) in a closed, proprietary platform--so if that is all you want, then they have it ready for you. We don't see that as a foundation for 3D Web.”

I found Mr. Himoff’s answers well as raising other issues that I am still not clear on. The question of how they plan to monetize HK still eludes me a bit, although I have noted sponsors being associated with various elements such as the Steamfish game on the main Rezzable grid. I also understand British cab company Addison Lee is sponsoring an ancient London element of HK. But I am intrigued that they think of the institutions they are working with--such as the Britsih Museum--not as “customers” or clients, but as “partners.” I am curious about this knowing that there are other organizations that would have an interest in being involved with experiments like the exhibits on Heritage Key, and at this point I am not clear how they would go about exploring the possibilities with Rezzable--I suppose in the end I shall simply tell them to get in touch with Rezzable and see what they can work out, if anything.

So that’s all very cool, but I bet you’re wondering about what the experience itself is like--why am I so excited about this alternate grid.

Well for one thing, they don’t make you use Viewer 2.0, which, for the record, I completely and utterly loathe.

Instead HK uses a simplified version of the old SL viewer. One big difference, however, is that you cannot build here or create new objects. But you can fiddle about with some existing things--and that’s something I shall discuss momentarily.

So let’s start at the beginning: You go through a simple sign-up process and then you get to choose from a series of pre-made avatars (all with a distinct steampunk flavor as they were borrowed from or inspired by the steampunk look of the the educational “Steamfish” game that is on the primary Rezzable grid). You then go into a welcome area that includes basic instructions on how to walk, and teleporters that can take you to a travel center through which you access the various exhibits and environments.

The travel center, in the entry area.

The entry area is clean and attractive--suggestive of a temple/train station mash-up. At times, they have live helpers to assist new visitors. HK/Rezzable staff supervisor Angelina Rhode explained:

“It’s essential to be available to welcome people and show them around. Not everyone who visits the HK grid is an experienced user. I missed that in SL, not having someone guide you if you needed it, taking you by the hand and explaining how the basics of SL work. A virtual experience is something very different and new for many people and it’s important to have someone who can help you with your first steps, to show you where to customize your avatar and then explain how to get to all the exhibitions. Of course we have many signs which do that too, but to talk with someone feels better and you can ask questions the signs probably cant answer.”

I like that a lot -- the idea that there will be times when live people will be there. Yes, if you are used to working with SL, Heritage Key will be second nature for you. But the visitor who is new to virtual worlds has the possibility of getting help from a real person.

There are also tutorial areas where you can make changes to your avatar, get new hair and outfits and learn more about how to navigate, communicate, interact with objects etc. All the usual stuff you get in orientation areas of SL, but cleaner-looking, easier to follow, and devoid of griefing morons.

Tutorial area where various functional skills are taught.

Being the busybody that I am, I quickly found that even if you can’t make your own stuff in HK, you can manipulate most of the hair and outfits to suit individual taste and mix and match. There are also outfits and hair that can be obtained in some of the exhibits. For example, when I got to the “Life on the Nile” environment, I took a man’s tunic and stretched it into a dress, redid the armlets as bracelets to fit me, and then shortened the long hair I picked up in the avatar center. Later on, I got another set of beaded hair from one of the mini-games in that build.

Sitting at the cosmetics table in the scribe's house, where I got my new hair with beads and all. An informative primatar is located in this room (as is the case with many rooms of the compound) to provide interpretive information. The primatars throughout the build were created by the highly skilled Jasper Kiergarten.

So then you go on to the various exhibits and environments. These include, so far, an exhibition of artifacts from King Tut’s tomb, an immersion environment recreating the Valley of the Kings at the time of Howard Carter’s excavations in the 1920s, a series of recreations of Stonehenge (showing how it developed and changed over time, from its initial stages up to the present), and a “Life on the Nile” environment that represents an affluent scribe’s household in Amarna, circa 1350 BCE.

In the Tut exhibit, viewing a the three dimensional, 360 degree recreations of one of the inner coffins. Clicking on various exhibit elements brings up interpretive information about the object, as well as links to additional interpretive materials.

I liked all the elements. The 360 degree representations of the artifacts in the Tut exhibit are just mind-buggering awesome. They can be viewed both in relative scale so you get a sense of their actual size in real life, and as “blow-ups” so you can see the stunning detail. The Valley of the Kings environment can be viewed either just as a cool immersion experience, or you can take advantage of various game-like elements that allow you to “follow in the footsteps” of Howard Carter.

I especially liked the recreation of the tomb, which for the first time gave me a clear idea of how it was laid out and just how bloody cramped the damn thing actually was.

Inside King Tut's tomb. The sarcophagus has theoretically been "removed" so it is represented by a semi-transparent place holder object.

The Stonehenge experience was engaging and attractively done. This is what a virtual space is ideal for: allowing you to move around in a space, see it from different angles, interact with objects, carry out tasks (and get easter eggs in the process) and most of all to see change over time.

Stonehenge, the present day.

At first I wasn't real keen on trying out the various mini-games and "scavenger hunt" kinds of activities. Keep in mind that I'm a terrible museum goer. I never follow the path the designers intended for me; I generally skip reading labels; I don't like feeling managed or manipulated. But Viv kept encouraging me to try some of these elements in Amarna, and soon I found myself getting caught up in them, especially once my competitive instincts kicked in.

One of the simple mini-games scattered through the various exhibits--this one, located in the scribe's house, gives you a mask of the river god as a prize when you get the answers correct.

Of all the areas in Heritage key, my favorite, not surprisingly, is the Amarna build. A number of the HK exhibits had been done before in some form in SL, including Valley of the Kings and Amarna (the Stonehenge one is, I believe, completely new). but they were completely redone by a team that included Viv Trafalgar, Jasper Kiergarten, Ianthe Farshore, My Mackenzie, Pavig Lok and LT Bartlett.

Interacting with a primatar at the scribe's house. He asks you questions to make sure you "belong" there. If you can't answer, you apparently get dumped in the pond.

These folks did a superb job. Just to give you an idea of the kinds of people who worked on these projects, I would like to share with you a bit about Viv's background: she has taught at both the high school level (poetry, literature, and writing) and at the university level (hypermedia design, Flash, web design, etc.). She comes from a programming and a graphic design/writing background, and has an MFA in poetry and MA in Interaction Design and Publications Design.

As an educator and virtual artist, Viv made the following comment about HK:

“I love creating spaces where there's a lot of potential for imagination to play, but there's also a lot of learning potential...and I am in love with this platform because it is more open and new-developer friendly than some of the platforms I've worked on.”

In the immersion environment of the Valley of the Kings, 1920s,

OK, so it’s great, but is it perfect?

No of course not. Nothing is perfect. Especially something like this that is still a work in progress. For example, it usually takes me three or four tries to get logged on. Sometimes funny things happen with what I am wearing. Viv recently told me that periodically all the builders find that OpenSim has hidden all their inventory. As she says. “it’s still very beta...depending on what viewer you use it's got different ways of behaving...and then on the third Saturday of the full moon at 2pm it just decides to go down the pub for a's a bit like working with a cranky, but talented toddler.”

On the other hand it has been consistently improving. Viv further pointed out that, “A year and a half ago, the first opensim tests I went on--you couldn't have more than 8 people not moving or doing anything on the grid. Now? So much is's a huge growth and change rate.”

And not only is it technically improving, but the Rezzable people are taking a direct hand in making it work better for the audience. Yes...that's right: if you give them feedback they will actually listen. One of the things I passed on after my first visit was that I longed to be rid of the dreaded default “duck walk” and desperately wanted an AO. I was told that other people had mentioned it and they were working on it. Lo and behold, when I signed on today there was a gizmo both in the entry area and the Avatar Center distributing a free AO. Admittedly, it's not the best one I’ve ever seen (and slightly glitchy as it was in alpha), but it sure as hell beat the snot out of waddling around and feeling that compulsion to quack.

Are there other things that I don’t like about HK?

Well to be honest, there are some things that I wish had been done differently. I think the inclusion of multiple OOC signs, the steampunky-looking teleporters, and other OOC bits and bobs in the immersion environments does detract slightly from the overall effect of the experience. But at the same time, these elements are important for the “mini-game” and didactic aspects of the builds. I guess it‘s mostly a question of esthetics, and it’s certainly more important that the visitors actually see the pieces that they have to interact with in order to benefit from all the learning opportunities. If these features weren't as visible as they are, a lot of visitors would probably miss them altogether. Also, the freebie Egyptian women’s dresses were a little too fancy for my tastes, and I thought they looked a bit more Hellenic than Egyptian. But that’s just me being a persnickety old harpy. Minor stuff.

From certain viewpoints, the immersion effect is disrupted by the logistical and didactic elements, but they have to be somewhere, right?

The big picture is that I think this works. It offers that kind of improv theater/Kon Tiki/hands-on immersion learning experience that you hope for in a virtual world: it's essentially, as we say, "socially interactive self directed learning" reinforced through play--but in HK they have actually managed to utilize that dynamic combined with the kind of structured goals and desired outcomes that usually don’t seem workable on a platform like SL.

On a big reed boat on the Nile.

Yes, in SL we can have those self directed learning experiences--especially as they relate to world building and the skills connected with content creation, which you can’t do in a place like Heritage Key. But in HK, they have managed to integrate a form of that “exploration” experience with the communication of very specific messages designed by the educators and experts. And every time I go there, something new is underway, and its functionality keeps improving. I think Heritage Key represents an important step in the evolution of virtual worlds as a place to learn and teach.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Good, the Bad, and the Gorgeous--more firearms of the "Old West" in Second Life

Yes, I know I tend to write frequently about recreated historical firearms in Second Life. Hey, I like guns, they've been a part of my life since I was in my teens. Growing up on a small farm, firearms were a form of useful tool that you had to understand and respect, just like an axe or a saw, or any other technology we employed. But then my relationship with firearms evolved beyond that, into an appreciation of the gunmaker's art, and a love for the sheer beauty of what skilled machinists produced in the last century and a half--so I got into collecting, and recreational shooting, and ultimately working with firearms as an aspect of my professional life.

So you just have to indulge me when I wax poetic over of the work of certain SL weapon-makers.

As the title of this piece says, there is the good: in fact, there is a great deal of good work done in-world by content makers who produce very nice, functional period firearms that are quite respectably authentic. And sometimes what they make is really good.

Below is my Sergeant OHanlon alt with model 1873 Single Action Army Colt revolver that was made by Deadwood sim co-owner Caed Aldwych (Perceval Dryke).

It's proportioned properly, it has the right shape and appearance for a model '73 SAA, and by golly, it's not all tarted up with stupid movie-land crap like angels or crosses on the grips, or engravings of "hello kitty" on the cylinder, or any other Stoopid Shit. It looks like a frakkin' army-issue Colt revolver, it comes with some decent poses and anims, it shoots pretty well, and it functions like 6-shot single action is supposed to.

Does it have exquisite detail? No, it doesn't. Does it come with all kinds of extra optional animations and poses? No. But for crying it out loud, it's a freebie--it comes as a part of the complimentary "cavalry soldier" package that you can pick up at the Ft. Laramie entrance area to the Deadwood 1876 sim.

I shall repeat that: IT'S A FRAKKIN' FREEBIE. IT COMES WITH AN AUTHENTIC 1870's-STYLE CAVALRY HOLSTER AND BELT RIG. I have a couple of alts that use this gun and rig, because it looks good and does the job and was a cost-effective option.

You can spend a whole lot more of your hard-earned linden dollars on stuff that's not nearly as good. In fact, there are so-called "authentic" firearms for sale in-world that will cost you a shitload of money, but that are utter weaselcrap. I'm not going to name any names, but that's the bottom line: there are supposedly "historic" guns out there that certainly qualify as the "bad".

So, you might ask, what really bothers me with certain SL "historic" guns?

Well it's not just the ones that they are sloppily made, pig-butt ugly, and look very little like the actual historical guns they are supposed to represent. What really kills me are the ones that function in wildly implausible ways: ridiculously high rates of fire; bizarre reloading operations; and inauthentic magazine capacity. Holy Moses in his bathrobe, how hard is to look up a weapon on wikipedia and see how many rounds the fucker actually held?

OK here's the new rule: dumb-ass first person shooter games like "Gun" are not legitimate sources of accurate information about historical firearms. You need to actually understand something about what the guns looked like and how they operated before you can make an "authentic" or "realistic" recreation of an historic weapon. You can only use certain weapons in certain ways in particular time periods. Let me give you some practical examples of what it means to follow this rule. For example:

* You do not get to bring weapons into an 1860s or 1870s sim when those weapons--such as lever action and pump action shotguns--were not invented until the 1880s. Nor do you get to make shit up--like adding a lever action to a single shot muzzle loader.

* You cannot "dual wield" (fight with one in each hand) certain types of pistols in ANY fuckin' time period. Like Volcanics. They were LEVER ACTION pistols. That means they took two hands to operate, numbnuts. Not only were they crappy pistols that quickly become obsolete, but there is NO WAY IN ANY FUCKING UNIVERSE THAT YOU COULD USE TWO OF THE GODDAMN THINGS SIMULTANEOUSLY UNLESS YOU'RE A FUCKING OCTOPUS!

* Likewise, skip these foolish cut-down Winchesters you see here and there. That is an imaginary weapon created for 1950's and 60's TV shows and movies. I have yet to see any historical examples or evidence that anyone in the late 19th century actually fucked up a perfectly good rifle in this manner. It is NOT a useful weapon in this buggered-up form. In part this is because the Winny has a tubular magazine under the barrel--so when you cut down the length of the barrel, you also have to shorten the magazine and reduce its capacity. In effect, Mr. SL gunmaker, you can't make a cut-down Winchester and still script it with a 12 round magazine, and then call it "authentic" or "realistic." It would hold maybe five or six rounds after you chopped it. And don't tell me that it gives you more hitting power with a rifle round, because the earlier Winchesters used the same ammo as the Colt pistol. So all you did was make a clunky hand gun that takes two hands to operate.

And yes, I know that weapons like that are perfectly suitable for most "fantasy" old west sims where you also might have vampires and lycans running around, stripper poles in the saloon, and Northwest coast totem poles amidst the Plains Indian tipis. That's cool, if that's what floats your boat. Or if you're in a sim like old Sigil was--openly and unashamedly based on the genre of the spaghetti western--well, yeah, then you could argue that having a Hollywood reloader (ie, you never run out of bullets) is actually appropriate.

Ultimately, of course, anyone can make anything thing they jolly well want in SL--it's one of the joys of the platform. But if you are going to call what you make "realistic" or "authentic" then I think you ought to put in some effort and research time in order to actually warrant using those terms.

I am not embarrassed to say that yes, I am an authenticity snob when it comes to my old west technology.

If you too care about the quality and authenticity of the weapons you're using, why spend a lot of money on dross and sludge when you get something as gorgeous as this (the rifle, not the nudie picture):

That's the Kiergarten Armoury Sharps rifle for hunting and target shooting, which we have discussed in an earlier piece. It actually looks like an 1874 Sharps, and it functions like one as well, requiring you to reload in between each shot. Yeah, it's not too handy in a wild-eyed, grief-fueled shoot-em-up, but by damn, that's how a single-shot rifle actually worked.

And it's only $400 lindens.

Let me say that again: it's only $400 lindens.

And Jasper Kiergarten keeps making cool, gorgeous stuff like this. He just sent me an example of a Sharps model 1869 military carbine. This was a Civil War issue weapon that was converted at government arsenals after the war to fire the new .50/70 cartridge--a great many of these were used by the U.S. cavalry until the 1873 Springfield "trapdoor" was put in service. Look at the image below--you will note that not only are the parts of the action textured to look like case-hardened steel, but there is actually a goddamn saddle ring on the left-hand side of the stock.

Now that might not seem important to most of you, but let me ask you this: how do you think troopers hung on to their carbines when they weren't using them? Velcro?

They had a carbine sling that hooked to the ring, so that they could carry the carbine hanging by their side (conveniently at hand--not slung on their back). Now all we need is for someone to make a jacket layer version of the carbine sling, and we're all set.

Anyhow, that's why I like Jasper's work. It looks really damned good, it works like it's supposed to, and it reflects his understanding of how the guns were actually carried and operated. It's all in the details, like that dang saddle ring. After all, how many other weapons have you seen in-world that should have a saddle ring on them, and actually do?

So if you can get something that good looking and detailed for a few hundred lindens, what can you find if you're ready to invest some serious money?

Holy dog crap on white toast, I am so glad you asked me that question. I've already told you about wonderful--but pricey--weapons like Ernst Osterham's boxlock double-barreled shotgun. But here's something in the same class that you haven't seen yet:

This is a SAA Colt cavalry model with the 7.5 inch barrel made by Lockmort Mortlock. My crappy screen shots don't do justice to this gem of a recreated historical firearm.

It's not just that the proportions and the shape and design that are spot on--it's the freakin' detail. The screws in the frame are there. And they are different sizes like the actual thing. You can see the spring in the extractor rod housing. You look on the top of the barrel, and you know what you see?

That's right, the markings telling you who made this and where.

So is this cheap? No of course not. Lock currently has the civilian version of the SAA for sale (4 inch barrel), and it runs around $1,500 lindens.

BUT in addition to the gun, you get a great belt and holster with options for how many rounds you want in the bullet loops; you get options on different finishes; you get different firing poses including single-handed standing, double-handed standing, and double-handed kneeling; AND you get accessories like an ammo box that you can click on and reload the weapon.

Frankly I can't wait to see what he's going to make next. Lock is a true artist, as well as a sincere and enthusiastic firearm historian. Lockmort Mortlock's products are available in the vendor area of Ft. Laramie in the Deadwood 1876 sim.

Come on, do I really have to generate the slurl for you? Show some ambition and initiative.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Linden Lab and selling the fantasy


Iggy O has posted on the “In a Strange Land” blog regarding a recent Linden Lab marketing piece that evidently appeared on the SL web site. I’m unclear if it has shown up in other contexts as well. But it certainly is “interesting” for a number of reasons. I don’t know if it will beget a reaction from potential new customers...but it certainly got a reaction from many existing ones.

Iggy’s reaction was, I think, representative of what many thought:

“So this vision is the best that Linden Lab can do for us today? This is pretty far from what creative residents have built on Linden Lab's infrastructure. The Lab currently seems to be casting about, wildly, for customers. The campaigns flail back and forth, from the far slicker and interesting 'put some steam in your punk' images that ran a couple of weeks back to...this.

It's The Sims....”

My own initial response, which I posted on the “Strange Land” blog was an extension of this:

“ is rather suggestive of something I have always suspected about the Lindens--even back in the "Philip" era.

The people at the company simply don't "get" the majority of us. It is not just that they don't understand or appreciate the diverse majority of their customer base--they seem to be downright embarrassed by us. They may even be a little bit afraid of us. Otherwise, I believe they would have followed a strategy encouraging their staff to more aggressively engage with the residents on their own turf rather than from the safety of "office" hours.

Yes, back in Rosedale days, someone at the lab had a more sincere appreciation for a certain element of the artsy-freaksy cool creator class people, but they still seemed confused, unsettled and uncertain with regards to the rest of us loonies, especially in the historical/literary/rp based communities. They weren't terribly supportive of us, and certainly never acknowledged us.

So is this new focus on marketing to "norms" all that different from the days when they focused on celebrating and recognizing (they really didn't do marketing in those days) a different particular limited class of people?

I think I feel a Dio Rant coming on.”

Basically, I think that reactions of people like me and Iggy come from a sense that what happens in SL--and the majority of the people you will encounter on the grid--are not represented in that advertisement. I have spent a lot of years in this goddam pixelated vale o’ tears and covered a shitload o’ territory in my time, but by Gawd, I don’t think I have ever seen a happy white suburban family quite like those photoshopped folks in the picture...not even as a parody, or in some kind of bizarre John Cheever-esque vision of suburban hell.

That just isn’t us. Those people are not in SL, at least not in the places I’ve explored.

So I was ready to let go with both barrels and have some fun with it. But then...instead of spewing the usual verbal pyrotechnics framed within the context of my SOP of “shoot first and then maybe think about it a decade or so later,” I thought, "well, maybe there’s some rational reason for this." I tried to think about it as if I was a marketing person, and look at the situation through the filter of that peculiar world view. And yeah, I could see how you would design marketing pieces that feature what isn’t on the grid as an element of your efforts to broaden your customer base. You don’t market to the people who are already here, you market to the folks who ain’t.

Now just to be sure, I thought it would be nice if I could get someone from the Lab to confirm my suspicions on this. So I wrote to T Linden the following:

“Hi Tom,

I would very much like to have a comment from a Linden about the recent trend in LL marketing that seems to de-emphasize the creative aspects of life on the platform, and instead pursues a market segment that appears to be more "The Sims" type of audience, as is suggested by the recent marketing piece showing a happy nuclear family in front of a boxy suburban house.

I would assume that part of the strategy here is to try to go after a market segment that you have not already significantly engaged--as you currently have with the existing "creative" type resident population. I could argue that it makes sense for you to put your marketing emphasis into going after people who aren't already in the fold. But it would be nice to have someone from the company to actually state that...or whatever the strategy might actually be.”

And bless his heart he wrote right back to me:

“Our marketing strategy contemplates *both* creatives (with the value
propositions of "create your world" and "make money from your
creations") and to consumers (what you might call the "sims"
demographic) who need to buy/consume the experiences and products that creatives create.

One dynamic here is that b/c the ratio of consumers to content
creators in SL today is something like 20:1, and in the broader world
is probably something like 100:1, we have to spend disproportionately
to acquire consumers. As a result, that marketing and message is much
more visible, so I can understand where you are getting the impression
that is our focus.

Later this year, when we ship Mesh import (enabling a whole new set of
content creators, content, effects, and experiences) I expect we'll
lean our marketing mix towards acquiring new creatives - as there are
100s of thousands of users of 3D studio and Maya for whom SL is a bit
of a black box today, with unfamiliar tools, characteristics, etc.”

So yeah, it was about what I figured.

But I also found T’s reply interesting with his distinction between “consumers” and “creatives”--especially as I consider myself a mixture of both: one of those people who is a probably considered a “creative” in terms of social/educational situations and interaction (rather than much actual stuff-type content), but who relies on other content creators for most of the virtual buildings and artifacts I use to enhance and augment the situations and interactions I help organize. At the same time, even with my limited building skills, I do enjoy sometimes making stuff if no one else is making something I want or need. So it’s not always clear who is a creative versus a consumer.

And just a thought...if the lab is going to try attracting more of the “consumer” market segment, are they perhaps selling those folks short by offering things like a jolly, idealized, whitebread suburban lifestyle as the product to be consumed? Yes I know, that old white picket fence ideal is a powerful mythology these days, as economic, socio-political and environmental considerations make that lifestyle even less of an attainable reality than it was in the post-WWII “good ol’ daze.” For many people it is as much of a far-off fantasy as Battlestar Galactica, Hogwarts, or 1870s Deadwood.

Nonetheless, I would hope that as the Lab seeks to engage these “consumers” who are needed to grow the population in-world, they balance this one sort of fantasy with the others that can be attained on the platform. Even the “consumers” have the potential to be “creatives,” not only of stuff, but even more so, of shared narrative. Don’t just assume they’re all boobis americanis, longing to settle in a virtual Levitttown and crank out 2.5 prim babies.

Don’t sell them short. Show them more of the different “lifestyles” that people in world have evolved--historical and futuristic, literary and arts-themed, mechanoid and fur-covered.

Oh, and one other thing, before we wander off onto other subjects: while I get the whole idea about marketing to the people who aren’t your customers yet, there still is the need to keep the existing customer base happy.

In other words: you provide exciting, engaging marketing materials to hook the people you don’t have in the fold yet...

...and you provide good responsive customer service to hold the people who are already in your camp.

Please remember LL, that you need both new and existing customers. Don’t hide in those offices--there’s a world out there that isn’t as scary as it seems. And you really don't have to be embarrassed by us.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

A Deadwood story -- Plain Jane, part 5

At this point in her interview with JJ Drinkwater, Martha “Calamity Jane” Canary paused and looked around.

“Dio?” she asked in a small, almost child-like voice. “Ya got any o’ Miz Estwee’s pie about? I am feelin’ a mite peckish.”

“Yep.” answered Dio. “Got some o’ her apple crumble. I shall fetch plates for you an’ JJ, should he care to join ye. An’ fer that matter, when was last time ye had anythin’ o’ substance fer vittles?”

Martha looked sheepish at first and then defiant. “I am quite sure that I ain’t got the goddamndest recollection...but that don’t matter bein’ as the likes o’ me kin live off’n seegars ‘n red eye quite nicely, thank ye very much...why, I kin...”

The older woman held up the gold 20 dollar piece. “No ye cain’t. Goddammit, girlie, ye know I was wooin’ John Barleycorn for a many a year m’self. Hence, I understand all too well what drinkin on a em’ty stomach’ll do to yer innards. So hesh up raht now ‘fore ye win me this bet only half way through the afternoon.”

Martha Canary laughed and mumbled something about “yes mother.” Dio then brought over plates of Estwee’s highly regarded apple crumble for her and the writer, even though JJ had not actually asked that she bring one for him.

In fact, he had not said anything at all throughout this exchange. He appeared to be lost in thought--very deep thought. Suddenly he roused himself and looked at the young woman across the table from him, fixing her with a gaze that that was both piercing and at the same time tinged with empathy.

“Martha,” he began in a slow, clear voice that picked up momentum as he spoke. “You were perhaps thirteen years old...your parents were both had no other relations to draw upon for support...and you got your siblings placed with families that would care for them, but you were on your own?”

Calamity Jane nodded enthusiastically. “Yessir! Master o' m’ own fate. Captain o' m’ own ship, by Gawd!”

“I have to ask...what did you do to get survive?” said JJ Drinkwater.

“OH hell, scribbler, it were better than mere survival.” The young woman grinned. “I followed the railroad camps as the line got built through Wyoming an’ Montana, an’ spent time around the army posts like Fort Russell an’ Fort Sanders. Yeah, I did things to get I said before, singing songs in saloons fer spare coin...then I moved on to dancing in the hurdy gurdy houses...sometimes, I was doin’ a bit o’ laundry ‘n cookin’ fer the boys who built or guarded the line, an’ the ones haulin’ the supplies. Then as I got older, yeah...I got into workin’ the road ranches, sellin’ m’ company. But don’t get me wrong. It was a great time fer a gal like me. Bein’ aroun’ sojers, teamsters, ‘n the railroad’ often bein’ like a mascot to ‘em...I also learned all manner o’ things...useful things like handlin’ firearms passable well; how to win at cards; the way’s o’ proper drinkin’ ‘n cussin’’ even how to handle a team o ‘ mule or oxen.”

The boisterous activity in a dance hall or "hurdy-gurdy" house of the type that Martha Canary worked in.

The writer sat back slightly surprised at this answer. He looked over at Dio, who nodded, chuckling, “She ain’t pullin’ yer damned leg, there JJ. She’s a right decent bullwhacker an’ muleskinner. She ain’t the best lady teamster I ever seen, but by God, she’s better’n a good many o’ the men who follow the trade. Martha’s got the two mos’ important skills ye need fer it--she handles the big whip like one born to’ she kin cuss like one o’ the divil’s dockhands.”

JJ turned back to Martha. “So...rather than what is related in all these stories...stories about you being a scout...fighting were...a camp follower?”

“Yeah...purty much sums it up, I reckon.” Calamity Jane agreed. “But mind ya, I did actually go on a couple o’ military expeditions.”

“Indeed? I had heard a story that you were on General Custer’s 1874 Black Hills expedition, and...”

“OH HELL NO,” Martha interrupted. “I warn’t never along with any o’ the column’s commanded by Yella Hair. But I did go along on Mr. Jenney’s expedition in 1875, with the rock men lookin’ to confirm the presence o’ gold in the hills. Well...I was along with ‘em as far as their camp at French crik, an’ then the officer o’ the troops that was with ‘em, he found out I’d been passin’ m’self off as one o' the young men o’ the column, an’ he sent me back with the supply wagons to Ft. Laramie. That was m’ first time in the Black Hills!”

The young woman smiled and shoveled the last bit of apple crumble into her mouth. “Say Dio, could I get me another cuppa joe here, t’ warsh the pie down?”

While the older woman refilled the coffee mugs all around, Martha Canary continued her narration. “T’other military expedition I went on was Crook’s campaign against the injuns in June o' 1876. Got to go along on that lil’ jaunt by dressin’ an' workin’ as a muleskinner in the pack train o’ the column.”

“What happened that time?” asked JJ

“Oh, well, damn if I didn’t get caught once agin, an’ was sent back to Ft. Fetterman with the wounded after the fight on the Rosebud.”

The writer looked pensive. “Tell me, Martha, what possessed you to want to go along on those expeditions?”

Calamity Jane smiled. “Goin’ with Crook...well sir, it certainly was an adventure...but mostly twas fer bizness purposes. As a matter o’ fact they was two o an’ another workin’ gal known as ‘Little Frank.’ She dressed like a feller too, ‘til we got caught. But they was a surprising amount o’ money to be made on a trip like that.”

Quite actually, JJ Drinkwater was not particularly surprised to hear this. Marching through the wilderness, there wouldn’t be anything else for the men to spend their pay on. Even if the girls only managed to conceal themselves for a short while, a couple of prostitutes obviously would do very well working amidst a column on campaign. But Martha Canary’s next statement did catch him a bit off guard.

“On the other hand,” Martha said with a sigh, “I went on the Jenney expedition in order to be with this fella--a sargint in the army--who I fancied more than others. Just so ya know, Mr. scribbler, I ain’t always flexible with m’ affections. In point o’ fact, I prefer to be settled down with an agreeable man. An’ I have done times, steadily enough to regard the fella as m’ husband--tho’ without benefit o’ clergy, o’ course. It’s in between those occasions that I have turned to whorin’...”

It was at this point that JJ Drinkwater had something of an epiphany. In her wandering from place to place, attaching herself to closely-knit groups--soldiers, bullwhackers, railroad navies--not to mention floating in and out of more-or-less monogamous relationships with “husbands”...Martha Canary probably was looking for a new family, a place to belong...a situation to fill the void once occupied by parents and brothers and sisters...

And her habitual sessions as bar-room raconteur and every man's congenial drinking buddy...ultimately, that too was most likely about wanting to feel “at home” someplace. Even the temporary companionship of saloon “pards” can seem like a form of family for a little while, especially when the companionship is lubricated by the sharing of plentiful liquor and some whacking good stories.

JJ paused for a moment and then asked his next question in a quietly earnest voice. “While we are on this subject...the subject of men for whom you formed a particular affection...might I ask about your connection with James Butler Hickok?”

“Hehe, WILD BILL!” laughed Calamity Jane, “now that was a MAN!”

Suddenly Martha stopped and looked over at Dio, who was frowning...and who had resumed spinning the gold double eagle. She smiled wanly at the older woman and sighed before continuing.

“Yessir, Wild Bill was one hell of a man. He warn't a’feared o’ nothin’ this side o' Satan’s outhouse. He dressed ‘n acted like a real’ was probbly the finest pistolero, cardplayer, former scout an’ sometime lawman you could ever hope to meet. An’ no...while I thought he hung the goddamned moon, he had no interest in me. Bill ‘n me never took up together. He’d jus’ got married to some lady from Ohio, after all. But we got here in the same wagon train, ya know...ya see, I’d kinda gotten in a little bit o’ trouble around Ft. Laramie ‘bout the time that Charlie Utter’s outfit was restin’ up near there for the last leg o' their trip t’ the Black Hills. The provost marshal at Laramie kinda suggested it might be a good idea if’n I accompanied the Utter party to the gold fields.”

Martha chuckled and took a big swallow of her coffee. “I knew some o’ the boys who was workin as teamsters fer Colorado Charlie, an’ they talked him into lettin’ me jine ‘em. An’ in all honesty, there was, in fact, a man I formed an attachment to in that party...but it warn’t Wild Bill. Twas Charlie Utter’s brother, Steve. We got on quite well, him an’ me..fer a while anyhow. But Bill...he...he liked me...I think. I made him laugh sometimes...’til he got irritated with me, an’ then he’d send me off ...or one time, he give me some money, tellin’ me to get cleaned up an’ dressed like a gal...”

She laughed and slapped her knee. "That was somethin’ it was! Good ol’ Steve, he done took me to the Whitewood crik an’ give me a hand with the scrubbin’...Wild Bill an’ the others claimed they din’t even reckanize me when I was done gettin’ all dolled up. Bill made much o’ askin’ t’ be interduced to this ‘new lady’ when I come around to show him how I looked...but no..that was what m’ connection with James Butler Hickok amounted to. It was kinda like bein’ a mascot to the sojers or the bullwhackers agin...or mebbe...mebbe like a lil’ sister who ya tolerates an’ then lose patience with after a spell...”

Martha Canary’s voice had softened and taken on a slightly plaintive edge. “I took it right badly when that mud-eatin’ cocksucker McCall shot Bill in the head. Took it even worse when that miners’ court let him off an’ jus’ tol’ him to get the hell out o’ town. McCall got what he truly deserved in the real trial in Yankton. But that warn’t gonna bring Bill back. Things jus’ warn’t the same with any o’ us after his killin’...”

JJ Drinkwater nodded. “ did people come to start calling you by the ‘Calamity Jane’ nickname?”

“Well ya see, pard, it’s like this,” answered Martha in a very serious tone, “they’s actually a number o’ Calamity Jane’s from here to’ it’s just that when someone like me enters the scene, all peace an’ quiet is generally disturbed by the great rumpus I will sooner or later set in motion...we's like a calamitous event that stirs things up! But I think I am most likely the best known o’ any o’ the Calamity Janes...”

Dio nodded in agreement. She rose and stood behind Martha Canary and placed a hand gently on the plain-featured young woman’s shoulder. “Yessir, that’s a good explanation fer the name...this here gal is like a force o’ nature...some calamity like a whirlwind or a flood or a wildfire that’ll turn things upside’ like she says..make one hell of a distrubance...but some o’ us think it’s a bit more’n that....Martha’s had her some hard luck o’er the years. We all catch some bad breaks...part o' goddam life...but ye kin argue that she’s had more’n her share in her time.”

JJ Drinkwater closed his notebook. He was not going to disagree with Dio’s assessment.
to be continued...

Sunday, April 4, 2010

The new Deadwood sim -- progress report one


At present I am very much convinced that doing the restart was the right thing to do. The sim not only looks remarkably unique, it's been full of players doing some fine rp, and some very interesting things are going on. People are setting up their rp businesses, including...yes...a by Daisy guessed

So, in a nutshell, much to my great embarrassment, I have found that it was simply too hard trying to have Dio not be a regular presence in the sim. Being Dio is just way too much goddam fun. She and Daisy have taken on some tents and begun taking in washing, as you can see here in the image above.

Nonetheless, I have been bringing in my other alts as well, trying to get some mileage out of them and developing their unique personalities. And they are already getting work too. Here is Malachi panning in the Whitewood creek. He's already done pretty well and made some alliances with other miners. By tonight he had created a sizable pile of "tailings" alongside the creek.

Incidentally Caed and Estwee have come up with a great panning activity--you buy the pan at the Bighorn store, go wade out into the creek, and then you can work the pan and hunt for "gold" that can exchanged for goods at the assay office. The one additional thing I did to enhance this activity (besides putting out some gear for ambiance) was to run a "rooftop crouch" pose while carrying out the panning activity. The anims worked beautifully together with the the avie actually squatting in the shallow water while working the pan, creating an overall very authentic representation of what it is like panning for gold in a stream.

I'm enjoying this all immensely.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Deadwood 2.0 opens

At 5:00 PM SLT time today, a group of avatars assembled on the parade ground of the recreated Ft. Laramie which serves as the entry area for the newly rebuilt Deadwood 1876 sim. Chief builder and sim-co-owner Caed Aldwych gave an introduction to how things were organized and what everyone would see in the new rp area: a more historically authentic build representing the mining camp of Deadwood as it appeared in the spring of 1876. Caed explained how certain buildings that should be there weren't in yet, how others that shouldn't be there had been slipped in for various reasons and that some of the terraforming remained to be done, but that in general, it was ready for us to begin to use it. He then lead us down to the new town.

The group departs from the fort. Ft Laramie was chosen as the build for the entry and orientation area because historically this post was the starting point for numerous wagon trains and traveling groups that were organized for the trip to the Black Hills in 1876.

The new town itself is very different from the old one: much more primitive with numerous cabins and tents, and only a few buildings made from cut lumber instead of hewn logs. A great many of the trees still were still standing and the entire feel of the build is very "rough and ready" in the frontier sense...the setting is very pretty but the town certainly isn't.

The new Main Street

Caed informed us that as time moved forward the log structures and tents would gradually give way to buildings sided with planks, and some of which will rise two stories, rather than just one. In the meantime, however, it is not a fancy place. I stopped and had a drink at a saloon and bath house that consisted of a large tent with some planks set up out front for a bar, and single wooden bathtub under the canvas. It's going to be a real different experience, I think.

A saloon tent on Main Street