"Fast, Easy, Fun" with Second Life founder Philip Rosedale

September 08, 2010 6:03 AM EDT

Second Life founder Philip Rosedale, recently returned as CEO, is faced with the enormous task of rebuilding a battered community and business. I talked with Philip about his plans to turn the service around, which he describes in the new goals "fast, easy, and fun."

I met with Philip in Second Life about two weeks ago, our first conversation since he stepped aside as CEO of Linden Lab, the company that created and operates Second Life. During that time, he served as chairman.

I started our interview by confessing that I was extremely pessimistic about the game's future. He asked me why, and I laid out my concerns:

In the two years he was gone from the CEO position, enrollment was flat. This year, Second Life had 792,000 avatars log in two or more times in February, increasing to 824,000 in April, the month after Viewer 2.0 came out. But after that, the user base declined, to 794,000 in August.

The two main projects Linden Lab worked on over the past two years were failures. One was Viewer 2.0, an updated version of the service's client software, released March 31. I like it, but I'm in a minority; Viewer 2.0 has proven unpopular with existing users, and failed to attract the new users that the company was counting on.

Enterprise flop

Linden Lab's other major project of the past two years was Second Life for Enterprise, an expensive, business-ready version of the service that failed to attract corporate users.

Linden Lab laid off 30% of its staff June 9, followed 15 days later by the resignation of CEO Mark Kingdon, who had replaced Rosedale as CEO two years earlier.

All of that news is bad enough, but it gets worse. While Second Life demands a midrange notebook or desktop computer, most users today are more likely to have netbooks, smartphones, and tablets, which run Second Life poorly at best. Second Life has gone from a bubble in 2007 to a backlash and butt of jokes in 2008-09 until it's finally nearly forgotten today. Outside of the Second Life community itself, I've only heard he game mentioned twice in the past few months, both by people wondering if it was still around.

Philip surprised me by acknowledging that every one of my points was valid.

But he also said he believes the problems are fixable, and Linden Lab is working on it.

"More work to do"

"I'm back, and the company is going through a change of direction. We're really regarding the situation as serious," Rosedale said. "We've got a lot more work to do."

He added, "That work isn't enjoyable in many cases, or fun." It consists of a lot of debugging and quality control that's tedious and unglamorous, but necessary.

One of Rosedale's main plans for resurrecting Second Life is make it possible for new users to come in quickly, without the long periods of work currently required to learn the user interface. That was also a priority of Linden Lab under Kingdon; when the company made frequent reference to "fixing first hour experience." Rosedale has encapsulated that philosophy into the slogan, "Fast, easy, fun." (Knowing Philip, the double entendre of that phrase is probably intentional.) Linden Lab will continue working on Viewer 2.0 to correct its limitations.

"You meed a model where you can get a URL, and you're in Second Life, and later you sign up. That needs to be the new user experience," Rosedale said.

Viewer 2 also needs to be beefed up for Second Life content creators, who nearly universally criticize the software as a giant step backward from the previous version. "We'll rapidly make the Viewer 2 codebase have the capabilities that everybody wants," Rosedale said.

Viewer 2.0 debacle

Development of Viewer 2.0 took a long time, and was done in secret. Second Life users didn't see the product until it was nearly done. The new strategy will be to do updates rapidly, on a weekly basis, and use open source development, an initiative Linden Lab calls Project Snowstorm. The fast, open project will help keep Linden Lab in the right direction, Rosedale said.

As another part of making Second Life more accessible, Linden Lab is working on making the service more accessible from low-powered machines. "We're testing some ideas on how to make SL accessible on machines that have no (or very low power) [graphics processing units]. That includes things like mobile and iPads, etc. We'll announce more when/if we have something working we are happy about," Rosedale said in an email follow-up to our Second Life interview.

I'll have more on my conversation with Rosedale later this week.

After my conversation with Philip, I appeared on the Second Life talk show Tonight Live With Paisley Beebe to discuss the changes at Linden Lab. Watch my interview here.

Mitch Wagner Follow me on TwitterVisit my LinkedIn pageFriend me on Facebook is a freelance technology journalist and social media strategist.