Sunday, May 23, 2010

Letter to Blue Linden

Tigerlily Koi, Delora Starbrook, and I had a discussion one day in the Designers in Seclusion group after I had received an advertisement which is normally sent to new players on SL. (I had created an alt for RFyre business.) We stormed Blue Linden's office hours to express our concerns. ("Stormed" is a heavy word. Our three little avatars showed up and brought up the topic. Blue asked us to send an email, which you read below.)

We agreed what was most alarming was the tacit approval Linden Lab gave to promoting free things to new players. As I had written in a blog last October, I think Linden Lab needs to do away with suggesting to new players that life in SL is free. It's a cultural cue (and yes, T Linden, there IS a culture in SL, just as corporations have cultures and groups have cultures) that imprints on players the moment they enter, and they chase after the "free" experience on everyone else's dime and time (including Linden Lab's).

Here is the ad in question, marked up as sent to Blue.

Dear Blue:

Thanks for letting us come to your office hours this afternoon and bring up our concerns about an ad we had seen that had been sent out to new users.

I am attaching the ad with mark ups so you can discuss the points made with whomever has to see it.

We are concerned with the ad as it discourages users in SL from believing that they have to pay for content in SL. We understand the reasoning behind it, but we believe it ultimately encourages a culture in which content is devalued rather than valued. We would rather see you teach new users how to register to purchase Linden right off the bat. We would rather see, if anything at all, a suggestion that “gifts,” rather than “freebies,” are available to new users.

Underlying all this is a general concern among most content creators about “freebies” in SL. We believe neither Linden Lab nor content creators in SL benefit from the “freebie culture” that has become so predominant. By talking about “freebies,” by making them a main focus on the first pages new users see, you are devaluing the work of content creators and ultimately, the value of Second Life.

Freebies are just that. They are content that is provided without exchange of the Linden currency to be put into people's inventories. We understand the prevailing argument about freebies—that for new users they allow them choice in defining their look and help teach them the mechanisms of customizing their avatar. For those first few days, it's a boon to Linden Lab to have freebies exist—they entice users into one of the experiences of Second Life that is so fun—the customization of one's visual and aural experience in world. They teach users that their Second Life is their own and push them to continue in world.

The problem we have is that some users never get past this point, and an ad like yours doesn't help. Content creators have seen a glut of “freebies” in-world and that has had direct economic impact on them. This causes downward pressure on content pricing and also forces creators to devote time to making items to give out for free just to entice customers to see their other content, hampering their ability to spend their time profitably. This kind of time expenditure for content creators can't last. Eventually, designers who were providing high-end content will flee to other opportunities and other worlds as downward pressure on the pricing of their content continues going on. Ultimately, you'll have a large portion of the creators that provide income and quality content for SL gone.

What that will mean for Linden Lab is a hit on your bottom line. Content creators who currently keep sims for selling their goods (and additional sims on which to do their building and work in-world) will stop being able to pay tiers. Free content creators will not buy sims because they have no income to purchase them and they will not exchange Linden because they have no income to exchange out. And no one will be exchanging money in because, well, everything is free! (Except for uploads, of course.)

We can't imagine the glut of free content is great for Linden Lab anyway. As individual inventories fill up with “free stuff”—a lot of it less than ideal—landmarks, useless textures, 20 colors of the same multi-prim piece, scripts, etc., your asset servers will fill up. While you want users to have choice, we are sure you don't want them to have their inventories up to 100,000 items of junk. Additionally, every click for a freebie is a click—and another tax on your system. Each transaction seems microscopic, but it has to add up. We also can't imagine you want the XStreetSL databases full of such things.

We, as content producers, all have experience with freebies. We tried using them to build interest and traffic for our businesses. Our metrics show us that they do not generate sales for us or for our associates. When we have given out freebies on our sim or at other sims, we have never seen an appreciable increase in sales during the giveaway or after. We see a spike in traffic but not in sales. However, we feel pressured to offer them in order to simply break through the noise of all the other items being offered. They take as much time to make as content on which we put a price but they give us little in return.

What we concluded is that the audience that typically looks for freebies is not the demographic that brings money into Second Life. If we are looking for a promotion for getting money-spending customers to see our products, this is not it.

Most importantly, our philosophy is that time spent producing content of the level that most residents enjoy is worth some compensation. We are real people spending substantial real time on content. Second Life has given us the opportunity to be compensated for our time and skills, and Linden Lab in turn receives a portion of that compensation every time we pay tier, move money in or out of the system, or upload textures. Offering “freebies” devalues those skills and time for us. It sets into the customer culture a belief that this work should be free. And it furthers the notion that replicating content and redistributing it (called “intellectual property theft” by some) is condonable. In the end, it will set into the minds of consumers the idea that what Linden Lab offers should also be free.

We realize that Linden Lab is a private enterprise; our success is yours and yours is ours. We also realize that the push for a “free” Internet is part of a greater culture that pervades the entire grid. Certainly, for example, offers free content. However, they don't offer it on their splash page nor do they offer it without a certain amount of diligent user awareness. We know that virtual goods is a multi-billion dollar industry with much more potential. Linden Lab has told us this. How would you deny us all this little piece of the pie? How would you cut yourselves off at the legs by letting your new users think life in Second Life is a no-cost proposition?

We want Linden Lab to succeed. We want you to retain new users. However, we want these to be spending users. Rethink your ads and your marketing approach. Consider what you're really selling and sell it well. Cut us all in on the deal so we can help make Linden Lab grow.


Harper Beresford
Delora Starbrook
Tigerlily Koi
from Designers in Seclusion

P.S. A few days after this letter was sent, my account received another email with this graphic:

This is what we like to see!

Quick note: I do not think LL issued this ad because of my letter. However, Blue did email me that day to something more along the lines of, "Is this what you meant?" I do not attribute this ad to this letter. But I DO feel they heard.


Raven Haalan said...

ROCK and ROLL! What a superb bit of feedback to the Lab. Nothing to add, nothing to take away~

insertfunnyname said...

This is a very well-written response, Harper, and it offers a perspective that needed to be presented. It also points out flaws that needed to be addressed.

However, I disagree with part of your premise. You're speaking from the content providers' stance, which operates from the assumption that you have an expectation to be paid for content. While this is understandable and LL has supported this assumption to a great extent, I don't see that it's fair to say that this viewpoint is more valuable than the viewpoint that players on an ostensibly free game should expect free content.

It always puzzles me to see this debate over freebies. It only comes from the shop owners -- those who make money off SL -- and I am not a shop owner, so I don't have that bias. But to me, the vast majority of real content in SL is offered to the public for free, and when the "content providers" start to speak as one, they don't acknowledge that the /places/ we go and look at and enjoy every day are content. Someone pays for those, and it doesn't cost us a thing to go explore them. It's only when you bring in the expectation of earning money off of sales of products that people get up in arms.

As for freebies themselves...well, I disagree that the audience that looks for freebies is not the demographic that brings money into Second Life. I disagree pretty emphatically on that, and my wallet backs me up. Freebies are a good way for me to gauge the quality of a shop's products before I buy, and those shops that catch my attention with good products get repeat business. Those shops that put out trash...don't. It may be that most freebie shoppers don't spend money...but in real life, most people who look at advertisements don't buy products, either. It's the ones that do that make advertising worth it.

Harper Beresford said...

funnyname, I have heard many people tell me that they purchase after they receive their freebie, but really, if you look at metrics, one rarely sees a spike in sales. There is no long term advantage. And the traffic it generates registers for one day only and only registers if an avatar is on the sim for 5 minutes or longer. If they tp in to grab and then leave, it amounts to nothing. I have metrics that SHOW me in dollar amounts that putting out a freebie amounts to no increase in sales. We have put GIFT CERTIFICATES in freebie sets. Nothing came of it.

What it amounts to is that it takes a *substantial* amount of time and skills to make the content people enjoy. (I can guarantee you a pair of shoes from Maitreya has 80 hours of work in them.. and that's after all the skills to do that have been learned!) It HAS value. If content creators don't get *something* from this, they will stop making content of quality. It's that simple. You'll revert back to the less-than-ideal stuff that we had many years ago. Or stolen content.

As for free content people put up on sims for people to look at, I agree. One can wander SL free-of-charge seeing the beautiful sights. That doesn't belie the truth that people showing you those sites have to pay for them to be there. This is why Svarga closed down; this is why other sims are going away. And this is why many of those sims never change. One rebuild of a sim and the hours that go into it will never be replicated again.

Additionally, when it comes to avatar customization, you are using that content to create your *own* experience. That should cost something. It costs something to IMVU users, it costs something to WoW users. It SHOULD cost something to SL users.

I am not saying LL has to do away with "freebies" altogether. I am suggesting they should not make a centerpiece of recruiting new users. And I am not sure WHEN anyone said this was a "free game." That's the biggest problem here... it's not. Since when did anyone come to think that?

Vaki said...

But it is, and has always been, billed as a free game. Much of the content may not be free, but the game is, and it is in LL's best interest to continue billing it as a free game to draw in new users. It is understandable that they would want to highlight the idea that a new user could create a beautiful avatar for free. This is their advertising.

As for the lack of correlation between freebies and a spike in sales, perhaps you're looking for an immediate return, and that may not be how your customers work. Have you tried asking them? Personally, I will enter a new store and look for free or cheap items that I can take home with me and wear for a while. Since I generally can't demo clothes, these will tell me more about the quality of the products than photos on a wall will. They will tell me about how easy the product is to resize or how detailed the textures are (for instance, think about how bad the pictures at Bare Rose are, but how amazing June Dion's work really is!). I go home and wear my finds -- generally over a long period of time, seeing if it's something I still like after the New Shiny has worn off -- and decide if I like it enough to go back and shop. If I do, I go back.

As a consumer and a builder, I get frustrated when shops that should know better put out more or less unusable items as parts of hunts or promotional events. I'd rather see a shop simply not participate than put out trash that tells me that they don't want my return business.

I'm not trying to disparage your viewpoint. It's a valid position, and I do agree that the ad LL had put out was probably a bad one. I'm just trying to offer a different that suggests that it isn't about entitlement, and that there are a lot of layers to the issue.

GiveMeABig Oh said...

I don't think that Harper or any of us are saying that we are entitled to compensation. I agree with Harper's position. One of the most important issues that we all face today, in SL and in RL is the concept of intellectual property. In an increasing global market, and increasing numbers of nations who do not care or do not enforce trade laws or practices that respect intellectual property rights, we see a continual challenge to all creators. We as a society and as a planet rely on our creators to move the human condition forward. We need hard working, intelligent, innovative, and creative people to bring new ideas, new designs, and new creations to the market.

Without these people, we will not solve issues as significant as global climate change, hunger, and disease. If the profit motive is removed because you are unable to protect your intellectual property, the world's economies will grind to a halt. This is the very foundation to what has allowed human cultures to progress and thrive.

I know you may think that I am making this much larger then it is, but I really don't think I am. We must all cherish and protect everyone's right to their intellectual property. It is the only stuff that you can truly call your own.

I don't believe in a utopian world where the means of production become so foundational and simple, that intellectual property becomes unnecessary (yes, some used to call this communism). I've been to the Soviet Union and China...some of the most capitalistic societies I've ever experienced.

SL represents to me a pure form of this great experiment we call society. It is just pixels, but it is also the pure stuff of what makes us what we are. Behind those pixels are real people -- emotions, relationships, thoughts, and intellectual property. What makes it work are those same human forces that drive economy based on a shared understanding of value, ownership, and creative thought.

Nothing is free. Don't let anyone fool you into thinking that it is. In SL, everything you see was created by someone, and required an upload (10L) to bring in that texture. It costs real USD to host those servers, and push those bits down an Internet pipe. Even content created by LL costs money because behind that work are real employees, real rack space, real electrical bills, real bandwidth costs, etc. Its just that much of what you see is subsidized by the profits earned by LL from those who do invest currency inworld like content creators -- land tier, island fees, uploads...

Harper is right...if you tip the population toward living off of the "free" aspects of the grid (aka the subsidized aspects), then sooner or later, those that are paying the subsidy will leave because there is no profit for them. There are no taxes in SL, and to expect only some of the population to pay for all of the benefits of the grid is to stick your head in the sand and ignore real world economic forces.

Thank you Harper, Tigerlily, and Delora for rasiing this issue with LL and with Blue Linden.

GiveMeABig Oh