Friday, October 31, 2008

The OSS debacle: turning loyal customers into detractors

I've often said that Linden Lab don't appreciate the vast reservoir of goodwill which they have in their residents of Second Life (TM copyright all that stuff). Maybe because they are at the sharp end of a lot of criticism from residents all the time: in a complex virtual world there's a lot to go wrong, and in a successful virtual world there are a lot of people to complain about anything and everything that may have gone wrong.

But sometimes I just want to knock heads together! Some days ago Linden Lab announced on their blog that OpenSpace Sims (OSS) were taking up too many resources and costing them more money than they expected as a result, and so they were raising the tier fee (the monthly maintenance fee which landowners must pay) from $75 US to $125 US with effect from January 1.

Now, no one likes to hear that their bills are going to go up, but in the case of these sims, many people had bought them because they couldn't afford to buy a full island ($1000 purchase and $295 a month tier fee). For many of them the OSS was the fulfilment of a dream to own an island in Second Life. There are 199 pages of replies on the thread started on the SL forums and many more responses on other threads.

OpenSpace Sims were originally offered to people who already had a full island, as a way to offer extra open space (hence the name) to beautify the areas around full sims. On full private island sims, there is water all around an island, but it isn't usable outside the border of the sim. If you add an openspace sim with water you can sail or swim in it. At that stage landowners had to buy four OSS and had to have a full island to attach them to.

Originally you got a small prim - or object - allowance with the sims of 1875, which was certainly more than enough to put out a few trees and rocks to fill in the open space. Of course, people being people, they started to put houses, shops and clubs on OSS. Now the Lindens claim that they didn't foresee this, and it wasn't allowed by the rules of OSSs, but it is clear that a number of landowners had checked whether it was allowed beore they bought... Garth Fairchang for example has posted in the forum that he checked with Jack Linden (now forever known as "Price" Jack in the SL Herald) that this was allowed and he OKd it.

In any case, it seemed likely that the Lindens were pragmatic about the uses that people were putting the OSSs to, as they raised the prim allowance to 3750 and the rule that you should buy 4 was dropped. The price went down at some stage. Of course there was an explosion of interest. Many people were able to just afford the OSS and made sacrifices to do so.

I am infuriated with Linden Lab once again for handling things so badly. It seems to me that as they have given two months notice of the price increases, they could instead have flagged up the fact that there were problems, and that they were looking at them. They could have explained the problems and asked for help and ideas from the residents in dealing with them.

The residents would have made a lot of noise, but the difference in this approach is that they would have had notice that there *was* a problem - which came out of the blue for them. It would not have devalued their asset or made them feel that they had to abandon their sims. The difference is that they would have asked for information, would have wanted to know how they could avoid causing problems, which would have required LL to know the answer to that question.

Maybe they do know, maybe they don't. If they don't, it would be sensible of them to say that they are looking at it, evaluating it, trying to work it out. Well maybe not now... because instead of putting the residents on warning that there were problems with OSS, they simply announced the price increase.

The effect of this anouncment was to devalue, instantly, the asset that so many people had bought. You can't give away OSSs now, and people are abandoning them to avoid having to pay any more tier fee on something that they are going to have to abandon on January 1 anyway, when the new tier price goes into effect.

In an instant LL turned all those OSS owners who had felt at home in SL, and were making financial sacrifices to pay for their precious OSS, into people with no stake in the world, and a big grudge. Instead of carrying the renters and owners of OSS with them, they kicked them out to a place where quite frankly my dear they don't give a damn about SL or LL. What a waste!

Instead of carrying the residents with them, explaining the problem, asking for solutions - and the SL community is vast and intelligent and full of creativity- they seem to have taken a cynical decision to drop those people. Either that or they simply didn't understand the impact that their announcement would have. Both seem ludicrously reckless to me.

I love SL. I build there, have friendships and relationships there, I love the people I know there, I love building and being there. I love the fact that people there are kinder and more generous than people in real life appear to be. I love the chance that SL gave me to experiment and try things I would never have done in real life - the people I have met that I would never have had a chance to meet in real life.

I love the well of affection that we all have for the world and for our second lives. I just wish Linden Lab would learn to harness that for their own good, and not lay waste to it.

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