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Whether you’re operating an MMOG or a general-purpose virtual environment like Second Life, one of the issues that keeps coming up over and over again is ‘user experience’. The problem is that the more dependent any user’s experience is on other users, the fewer opportunities you have to provide a ‘good’ experience, let alone a predictable one.

Let me talk about the MMOG APB Reloaded for a couple minutes, then I’m going to talk about Second Life. I tried APBR out yesterday, as did many, many others – being that it is now free-to-play. The game is an MMOG action/shooter, and is focused pretty much exclusively on PvP (player-vs-player) conflict. When you’re ready, you’re assigned a mission, during which you might be arbitrarily grouped with other players of around your own skill level. An opposition team is formed with a counter-mission, and the two sides shoot it out over various objectives until there’s a winning team and a losing team.

Unless you’re already well-acquainted with the game, there’s not really that much to highlight exactly what’s going on until you’ve experienced it a few times. In my first half-hour or so, I was grouped up with a bunch of people who were … well, as bad at it as I was. We lost, and lost and lost, in fairly rapid succession. Then won one – mostly by accident, I think. Most of the players on both sides didn’t seem to be aware that they were even in a group with others on their missions, and overall unfamiliarity multiplied the problems.

Yes, we were brand new and pretty bad at it.

About 30 minutes in, I got automatically grouped with a player I’ll call Sam. Sam was presumably about as bad at the game as myself, because (after all) he got matched up with me.

Sam and I had a go at stopping the two players on the opposing team. We failed at the first objective, and the second, the third, and the fourth. Sam or I (or more commonly both of us) got waxed by the opposition. We got a few good take-downs in ourselves, but it wasn’t enough. When the fifth objective came up, I tackled it and managed to hold my own for five minutes or so, despite Sam not backing me up. He just hung back.

Clutching the whatsit I was supposed to protect, I scurried back towards Sam for assistance.

Sam promptly pulled out his low-damage pistol (instead of his assault-rifle) and shot my character in the face. Not a fatal shot, but two more of those and I’d be killed and have to respawn. “ur to dumb to play this game stupid!” he typed at me.

Then he shot me again.

And then a third time. Then, while I was respawning, the bad guys came and shot him and took the target object, and made off with it. When I respawned, Sam ran up to me in my new location and shot at me some more.

“ur to dumb to play this game stupid!” he typed at me, again.

“Okay!” I typed back. “I get it, alright? I’m completely new at this and haven’t had a chance to practice yet!”

I didn’t mention that the game apparently thought he was just as bad at it as I was, since it had grouped me with him.

Sam shot me dead again, and then again, while I was figuring out how to abort the mission or leave the group early. He said a few more insulting things that I wasn’t really paying attention to by that stage.

I eventually settled for telling the game to bring in an extra player to the group. When the unlucky sod arrived, I logged out, and deleted my character, then uninstalled the game.

Then I reflected that instead of Sam, I might have wound up with someone else – someone who was supportive and would have helped me along… and indeed helped me to be more contributory. There’s plenty of people like that online. That would have been a good experience, and if I’d had one, I might still be playing despite any number of subsequent bad experiences.

The same thing holds true with Second Life – only more so.

In Second Life, the users are also responsible for pretty much everything you see and hear. Only the tiniest fraction of content is first-party content made by Linden Lab. Less than a hundredth of a percent, I’d imagine. You could spend all of your time in Second Life and the odds of you running into first-party content is pretty much nil, unless you go to a finite number of places.

Second Life users are not, for the most part, skilled and experienced content creators. Some are, for sure, but it is a spectrum, ranging from the least skilled individuals, to highly creative teams. Many of those only really create for themselves or their friends. The number who create content for others is much smaller.

As such, the quality of content – most of which isn’t really necessarily intended for the entertainment or usage of third-parties (that’s you and me) – varies wildly.

And that doesn’t even count the personalities. You have just as much chance of meeting someone as irrational and objectionable as ‘Sam’ in Second Life, or at your company Christmas Party. In Second Life, however, it might be your first experience, and if it is a dud you are unlikely to continue.

This is not what you’d call ‘crowdsourcing’ the user-experience.

This is what I would call a ‘Secret Santa’ user-experience, only your ‘gift’ could wind up being the experiential equivalent of a handful of dung infested by biting insects instead of anything remotely nice. That’s because people are people, and people’s personalities don’t really change when they go online (well, not unless there’s something wrong with them, anyway – but that there is a subject for another day).

With Second Life, the only portions of the user-experience that Linden Lab has any influence over are: Billing, customer-service, communications, the official viewer, governance, stability, bugs and lag (check me, did I miss any?). When it comes to a user actually logging in for the first time, they can as readily wind up with the aforementioned handful of dung as they might get a rewarding and satisfying experience that brings them back.

The notion that Linden Lab actually has anything like what you might call ‘control’ over the Second Life user-experience (particularly for new users) is rather absurd. They could worsen it, but there’s little enough that they can do to actually make it substantively better, outside of working on the limited number of areas I mentioned above.

Yes, there’s more that the Lab could do to funnel new users to places where they are more likely to have positive experiences – and they’ve certainly attempted that in the past – but without dealing effectively with those other areas as well (particularly the viewer and governance), those efforts generally fall flat.

The solution, ultimately, is going to have to be a holistic solution, because the Lab’s past reductionist efforts to improve individual experiential elements provably hasn’t worked – or at least the Lab has told us that they haven’t worked. You can make your own judgments on that.

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