How Linden Lab Hopes To Find Second Life In Mobile Creative Play

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Linden Lab, the company that created Second Life and grew that online community into one of the most colorful, varied online social networks in the world, is doing some very different things for the first time in many, many years. The timing is likely right: reports recently indicate Second Life is shedding users, with passive viewing becoming the dominant interaction method. Gaming industry notable Rob Humble, who previously worked with EA on the Sims franchise, took the reins at Linden Lab as CEO in 2011, and now the company is putting out mobile products that look vastly different from its intriguing, sometimes sordid past with Second Life.

Chief among Linden Lab’s new efforts is Creatorverse, an app which made its way to the iPad app store early this month, and to Android tablets this week, and which is designed around a very different type of collaborative, creative play from Second Life. You can think of Creatorverse as one-part LittleBigPlanet, and one part Prezi: users can jump in and draw whatever they want, and use various types of connectors and other tools to join their objects before running the whole thing live, which brings real-world style physics into play. You can create buttons to trigger actions, and even build a complicated Rube Goldberg machine out of the few simple creative elements Creatorverse provides. Then, you can share these with the community, build together and test out the creations of others.

So how does Linden Lab go from a virtual world that essentially parallels our own, albeit with a bit more freedom to let your freak flag fly, and a free-form app space where kids and adults alike can use controls designed for multi-touch surfaces to build whatever they can imagine? That’s a story that Humble took me through in an interview.

“For me, when I joined the company, it seemed obvious to me that the company actually was making shared creative spaces,” he explained. “You know, Second Life is an entirely user-made, 3D creative space, and I wanted to extend that concept to other platforms and other products. So we’re launching four this quarter, probably by the end of this month, and we just launched the first two.”

Creatorverse is one of those two recently launched titles, and Patterns is the other. Like Creatorverse, Patterns takes the idea of free-form creation and explores differently from Second Life. Users here create 3D spaces, as in Second Life, but resembles something like Minefield much more closely, allowing users to build shapes they can replicate rather than just simple textures. The game is available on Steam for Windows and Mac. Linden Life’s new approach is all about trying to tackle each channel where audiences are interacting with an approach appropriate to that delivery method.

“The next project is a web experience called Dio that’s really hard to explain, which I like. It’s sort of like Second Life without the graphics, or Facebook but trying to be more of a creative space,” Humble said about another one of its four remaining projects. “So it’s a web experience and you create your space, but within the spaces, everyone has their own avatar and avatars carry inventory. The way you navigate from space to space is via doors, and you can make things like a MUSH [multi-user shared hack] or hobby space very easily.”

The end result is a collaborative product called Versu created by former The Sims 3 co-worker Richard Evans and interactive storyteller Emily Shaw. The idea here is to tap into collaborative storytelling, something that’s been gaining in popularity in online spheres, as evidenced by the traction social writing startup Wattpad has seen. But with Versu, Linden Lab adds a gaming element to interactive storytelling that essentially allows players to create their own characters which then write themselves. It seems like a smart way to capitalize on the observer tendency that’s turned Second Life players into story watchers.

“It’s procedural interactive storytelling,” Humble explains. “Basically you set the motives and the behaviors of the individual characters and the plot gets generated as you go, and each time it’s different.”

Linden Lab is trying a whole bunch of different approaches, each outside of its comfort zone, in an attempt to suss out where users are now the way it did back when it hit on something that resonated with Second Life. Part of their approach involves looking to Second Life successors, like Minecraft. Linden is also reaching further back to the Internet’s first online communities to see if there’s still value in those, and playing with mobile gaming mechanics that have made Angry Birds and other similar titles so successful. The approach is experimental, to be sure, and runs the risk of incurring a lot of confusion like Peter Molyneux’s recent release with 22Cans, but Humble says he believes these new projects from Linden Lab thread the needle between innovation and fun, and should resonate with a new generation of creative online users.