Monday, November 24, 2008

A Second Life Lesson from The Hollow Earth

Tekelili Tantalus, like me, enjoys the cyclopean, monster-haunted dreamscapes of H.P. Lovecraft’s short fiction. When I ran across Tantalus’ island, known as Hollow Earth, I found free cavern boats to ride and a mysterious city underground, set amid the huge crystals and flowstone of an Openspace simulator. Only one part of Tekelili’s region is dedicated to commerce; he is a talented designer of furniture, jewelry, and other accessories with a Lovecraftian aesthetic.

While no shambling horror got me during my visit, I wondered constantly about another threat to Hollow Earth itself. Like others who have set up their SL homes in “Openspace” regions in SL, Tantalus must soon make an expense choice. For those readers who do not understand the fury in-world over a recent Linden Lab decision, consider Tantalus’ situation. By January 9, 2009, he and other Openspace landowners must convert their regions to a more expensive “full” (though, admittedly, more flexible) type of simulator or face a 66% increase in fees for the current spaces they use.

To be fair to Linden Lab, many residents purchased Openspace sims and, unlike Tantalus, used them as cash-cows to set up the equivalent of malls or apartment complexes. This violated the spirit of the Openspaces to provide low-usage regions to connect areas by water, wilderness, or air (these features inspired subcultures of flyers and sailors). To many in the SL population, the sudden decision to increase fees on users who ran small businesses, rented out land, or set up entertainment areas hurt not only those breaking the rules for OS regions but also these entertainment-minded avatars in their sloops and biplanes. To many, it seemed as if Linden Lab no longer wanted their business. Even my students, who are in-world only to work on their assignments, began encountering in-world protests.

Metaverse-watcher Gwyneth Llewelyn, at the end of a long and well crafted post to her blog about the Linden decision, still could not fathom their motives. One thing is certain, however; the downturn in the real-life economy has its virtual counterpart, and even before the Openspace decision, cash-strapped landowners were leaving Second Life or dumping their virtual real estate. Meanwhile, older residents recognized a shift of emphasis to customers who could in theory provide Linden Lab with a more consistent revenue stream. This is ironic; corporations can now build their own private virtual worlds for business-only purposes, but as one of Llewelyn’s respondents noted, to reach potential customers they need a well populated social world online:
To focus on corporates at the expense of individuals is suicidal: the corporates are only likely to have any long-term interest in SecondLife as a platform so long as there are a large number of people using it as individuals.

And what of individuals like Tantalus, whose $1000 or so of annual maintenance fees go to the company?
I'm planning to bite the bullet, and upgrading it to a full SIM, rather than risking the Homestead script limits as an inconvenience to those who visit the store and the caverns. I'm planning to do this sometime toward the end of next month, most likely, but certainly before the Jan 9th deadline on conversions. So, I guess I'm stuck doing exactly what LL prefers, but, in this situation it is the best choice.

So, Hollow Earth's future is that it'll be more costly, but, the extra beauty that can be added will be worth it. I've deliberately kept down the prim count and script levels currently, as it's on an Opensim, but when it's at full sim status I'll be able to invest a great deal more detail in the caverns. The village will increase in size, there'll be creatures, underwater details, and likely even some more caverns to find for a curious climber.
As I wandered the non-Euclidian spaces of Hollow Earth, I fretted that while Tantalus’ clever visualization of HPL’s landscapes might endure, we’ll see fewer such hobby projects in the future.

Incidentally and ironically, Tekelili Tantalus’s first name is the piping sound made by Lovecraft’s polymorphous Shoggoths, monsters made long before human history to serve the needs of godlike beings called Elder Things. Eventually the Shoggoths grew clever and destroyed their makers, and the Elder Things’ Antarctic city, at one point the wonder of the earth, became an icy wasteland.

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