Wednesday, December 19, 2012

A Critical Look at Second Life - Part 3 "Improving the Content Creation Tools"

A Critical Look At Second Life
Part 3 - "Improving the Content Creation Tools"
A closer look at all of the bugs, design issues and social problems
preventing SL and Linden Lab from achieving greater success.

Improving Second Life's Content Creation Tools!

 Second Life's content creation tools have always been fundamental to the entire Second Life experience. Every clothing item you wear, every sim you visit, every vehicle you drive in SL is created with these tools, and yet they have critical flaws and shortcomings which Linden Lab needs to become more aware of if they hope to increase their userbase.

 To Linden Lab's credit, since Rodvik Linden took over as CEO they have shown signs of addressing a number of issues by improving the content creation tools. The Experience Tools, allowing sim owners to provide a far more interactive and immersive SL experience, will be a huge step in that direction. Keyframing is already allowing content creators to provide experiences which were previously impossible or to intensive on sim resources to use.

  Why are tools like these so important?

 Because they allow content creators to craft much more engaging content. The more interactive content in Second Life is allowed to become, the more applications Second Life will have and the broader SL's appeal will be.

 More interactive features will also allow for more practical applications.

 Being able to walk through an educational recreation of ancient Rome becomes far more valuable to educators when they can populate virtual Rome with virtual Romans. When students are able to talk to and interact with historical figures they take away far more than they would walking around a crude, static virtual statue and reading a few notecards.

 Job training sims are far more effective when scripted events can be relied upon to work as expected, rather than HUDs freezing up and scripted triggers failing to respond.

 Due to Linden Lab's failures to recognize the importance of such tools, developers of these experiences now go elsewhere, finding plenty of game engines and other software packages which allow for far richer experiences.

 Second Life's relevance hinges on Linden Lab providing effective tools to create the content that draws people in. Non-Player Characters seems to be the next logical step after pathfinding, and would be a far more substantial step.

 Adding more tools is not the only way forward, however!

 At times it should even take a backseat when resources might be better spent fixing issues with existing tools.

 For example, after releasing mesh buggy and missing critical functionality, Linden Lab moved on to pathfinding.

 Pathfinding is a fantastic idea and long overdue, however what benefits the most from pathfinding are Non-Player Characters, fake avatars and other computer controlled entities. SL has no NPC features, we cannot rez a fake avatar to stand in as a character in a sim environment, meanwhile LL deliberately withheld the ability to animate mesh which could have worked towards that end as well.

 What's more is that with pathfinding out, content creators seem reluctant to use it. Partially because of the lack of NPC options provided to use them with, but also because there is little in the way of documentation or examples to show people the possibilities of these new tools and a lot of content creators are complaining that the pathfinding tools themselves are unreliable.

( Now, to be clear here, I am still in the middle of figuring out pathfinding with a scripter friend of mine and I do not want to say that the pathfinding tools definitely are broken until I have seen exactly what they're capable and incapable of. I will come back to this article in the future and edit in my thoughts on pathfinding once I have more experience with those tools.)

 If the tools do not work or perform as expected, this can create as many problems as the tools are intended to solve. Ease of use. Presentation. The quality of content available to SL users. Making sure the tools work should be a priority second only to keeping the grid itself up and running.

 And Linden Lab has a very nasty habit of introducing new tools with plenty of bugs, then never fixing them.


 Let's look at some examples of problems with the content creation tools directly affecting presentation, usability and quality of content available to residents, shall we?

 Rigged mesh is a fantastic feature, which has opened up many exciting new possibilities, however a cloud hangs over it right now in that all rigged mesh content created up to this very moment is already obsolete and none of it is compatible with Second Life's own avatar.

 What do I mean by this?

 The Second Life appearance editor allows people to create avatars of all shapes and sizes. Short, tall, fat, thin, muscular or lean. However, when rigged mesh was released a number of Lindens involved stated that they did not believe rigged mesh would be used much for clothing or other attachments.

 Anyone who actually used SL at the time could have told them they were mad, and since then clothing and hair have proven to be the undisputed number one use of rigged mesh.

 Despite this, rigged mesh is not compatible with the SL avatar's appearance editing options. If a pair of rigged mesh pants are made for a thin avatar, they will only work for thin avatars. If a hairpiece is resigned around an avatar with an unnaturally flat head, it will only be useful for avatars with similarly irregular features.

 This creates a number of issues.

 First, there is the obvious presentation issue. Since rigged mesh as clothing only works with body shapes similar to that of the person creating the content, and most avatars already have poor proportions due to issues detailed earlier, rigged mesh is currently reinforcing excessively large avatars, stork-like legs, tiny heads, small arms, etcetera.

 The SL community has created a "standard sizing initiative" as a work around for this problem, but the people behind this initiative have no formal art training themselves. The smallest sizes for men are still gigantic, the largest sizes for women still border on anorexia. 

Users are forced to make bad avatar proportions just to use new rigged mesh content.

 Other content creators simply refuse to deal with rigged mesh at this point in time because anything they create will have to be redone once rigged mesh is fixed.

Meanwhile, content consumers who do not wish to change their shape, a personal expression of themselves and a part of who they are, because the pair of pants they just bought was made for avatars twice their height yet half their bodyfat are left with no options but to wait.

 Ease of use demands that, if it's possible to adjust the size and thickness of your avatar then that should be reflected in the content creation tools that content made to be worn by avatars should be able to adjust with the size and thickness of the avatar.

 Prims accomplished this for years by being moddable/resizeable. Mesh is even more capable of this as demonstrated by the SL avatar itself (which is mesh) and former Linden Qarl's "mesh deformer", which adds in the missing functionality.

 Yes, Linden Lab has been working to add Qarl's patch, but it appears this has a very low priority within LL even though rigged mesh should not have been allowed to release without it and every day it's not fixed compounds the damage. Comments from various Lindens suggest that the project is not considered important and that they do not understand why residents are upset, there are also reports of Lindens being taken by surprise by the popularity of rigged mesh in clothing. All of this suggests deeper obstacles for LL to overcome if they wish to see Second Life become more profitable.

 When the people developing a product do not understand the product or what it is used for then there is a serious problem.

 Here's another example! Neglecting to provide a way to create animated mesh objects!

 If you wander SL long enough now you are certain to come across someone wearing a mesh attachment in the appearance of a follower/pet to the avatar wearing it. A mesh creature that appears to be animated!

 How is this done? The creature was animated in a third party programme, and each "frame" of the animation was imported as a full model into SL. The creator then linked 30 or so of these models together and used a script to have each model turn invisible, then visible in sequence, so it appears to be a single model being animated.

 The problem here should be obvious. If not, glance at your framerate every time the attachment comes into rendering range. These things are death to framerates. The modern day equivalent of 270 tori twisted and alpha textured in to hair was in 2007.

 If they kill framerates that badly, why do people buy them?

 Because, there is an overwhelming demand for animated mesh content. If LL doesn't provide the tools to do it well, the userbase will do it poorly, compounding SL's reputation for poor framerates despite looking like an outdated videogame.

Yet another example! Resource abuse in SL!

 In SL's earliest days, sims had a finite number of prims that could be rezzed within them, but individual land parcels had no limits. So a single parcel could eat up all of a sim's prims, rendering the rest of the sim useless to anyone else.

 LL rightly put a stop to this by introducing parcel level prim limits.

 Unfortunately, the same sort of resource abuse can just as easily be done with script use and avatar access, yet Linden Lab has neglected to do anything to stop it.

 A single 512sq.m. parcel can have 50 avatars piled up inside of it, preventing anyone else from ever entering the sim.

 For example, I recently purchased a small parcel  of mainland, just to use the free tier I had as a premium account. I've already set the land for sale again because I could never use it. There is a club on the far side of the sim that is always full of people, preventing anyone else from ever entering the sim. The club is a fair bit larger than 512sq.m., but it is still less than a quarter of the sim's size.

 If I can't unload the land that's money I've wasted and I won't bother with mainland ever again. Why would anyone who encounters such a problem ever throw their money away on land in SL, when they realize someone could easily prevent them from ever being able to use said land? How did Linden Lab not foresee this problem?

A single avatar can eat up all of a sim's script memory!

That about sums up the problem. A single avatar, by itself, can load up with enough scripts to bring a sim grinding to a halt. I've seen avatars do this on purpose. I was sitting in a sim just the other day when an avatar with about a thousand scripts entered the sim. When asked why they had so many scripts their answer was, "for lulz", followed by, "lol".

 You can AR an avatar for this kind of resource abuse, but good luck on ever seeing it dealt with. Even if a Linden bans the offender, it's not likely to be until days later.

A single parcel can eat up all of a sim's script memory!

 Forget the avatar, a single 512sq.m. parcel can fill up on scripts and prevent the rest of the sim from functioning as it should. LL put a misguided bandaid on this problem by tying scripts to Land Impact costs if you use mesh or convex hull physics on prims, however that was probably the worst possible solution they could have devised as it does nothing to prevent a single landowner from abusing sim resources, and at the same time it discourages people from using mesh or mesh physics.

 You see, Land Impact replaced "prim limits", which are in place to keep the number of polygons in a sim within reasonable limits. The more polygons on screen, the more difficult it is for a videocard to render the scene.

 What do scripts have to do with rendering? Unless they're specifically scripts that spew particles or flood a sim with texture changes, then absolutely nothing.

 Scripts should have their own limits, separate from Land Impact. A resource pool specifically for scripting resources. Having more scripts should not mean having less polygons to work with or vice-versa! They are separate resources and should have separate pools they draw from.

 On the other hand, texture maps do have a very significant impact on rendering, just like polygons, and should be included in Land Impact. More or larger textures should eat up more LI cost on an object, in such a way that encourages people to use efficient textures.

Most 512x512 or even 1024x1024 textures in SL could be replaced with a 128x128 texture and no one would see a difference other than significantly higher framerates and sudden lack of latency from downloading all those huge textures. Better still if people combined a dozen 512x512 textures into a single 512x512 using texture offsets to wrap the appropriate parts of the map around an object, just like is done with mesh model textures.

In movies and videogames all items have texture wraps like this.

In SL every individual sculpt or prim face used would likely have it's
own texture map the size of the entire UV wrap for this game model.

 Considering that textures are perhaps SL's biggest obstacle when it comes to performance, it is absolutely mind boggling that Linden Lab hasn't looked into any way of curbing texture use down to more reasonable levels.

 Speaking of texture maps, 32bit alpha textures require many more resources to render than 1-bit alpha textures. SL supports both, but content creators are only given the option of uploading 32bit. 1-bit is restricted to avatar masks and linden plants.

 This is also a presentation issue as videogames avoid using 32bit alpha for a reason, they do not render well when overlapping 32-bit alpha textures. The infamous "z-sorting bug", which has plagued Second Life since the beginning, is not an SL bug but an issue with OpenGL itself. Games avoid it, using 1-bit alpha wherever possible (because they do not share this problem, they render perfectly fine) and restricting 32-bit alphas to where the problem will not be noticeable.

 Linden Lab's much touted "Wilderness" sims for Premium users are pretty much a showcase for this problem.

 LL entirely failed to give content creators the ability to use those same work-around and to this day has not provided any explanation as to why!

 In addition to providing no restrictions preventing people from abusing sim resources, LL also does not provide users with the tools to manage their resource use even if they wanted!

 The Marketplace asks people to enter the perms and number of prims an object has, but there is no place to enter the amount of script memory an object eats up.

 Without knowing how to script an object to tell you the script memory you're using, there's no way for the average use to know that they themselves are actually the source of all the lag they complain about!

 This lack of focus on resource management and preventing resource abuse has been a huge obstacle to SL retaining users. When people complain about the "lag", all of these problems are the primary causes.

These particular problems point to a single issue, Linden Lab needs to rethink resource management within Second Life. Putting in reasonable restrictions on resource use, just as they did with prim limits (and attempted to refine with Land Impact), and enabling users to better manager their own resource use by providing them with better and more accessible tools.


 Improving the content tools can also improve  ease of use, which is critical to retaining new users.

 A common misconception is that ease of use can only come at the cost of the freedom more complex tools can allow for. This could not be further from the truth.

 As an example, let's take a look at the appearance editor.

 I have already explained how correcting bugs in the appearance editor can improve Second Life's presentation, but other improvements can be made which also make it easier for SL users to create their ideal avatar without being overwhelmed by options.

 The most ideal course of action would be to look at the appearance editing options from videogames which offer the most similar range of freedom. Games like "EvE Online", "City of Heroes" or "All Points Bulletin". Then think of how one could use those ideas in a more open virtual world which allows user created clothing and content the way SL does. There are plenty of options there, but it would require LL to redo the avatar and appearance editor from the ground up.

 While not impossible, it's easy to imagine this being a costly investment. Perhaps worth it in the long term, but let's assume Linden Lab is limited on finances and such an ambitious project is not something LL can realistically appoint resources to at this time.

  Can Linden Lab learn from the appearance editing features of other software without redesigning the SL avatar from scratch?


 Let's look at where other appearance editors succeed over Second Life's own and see how we can learn from them and apply those lessons to the existing appearance editor and avatar.

 When you start in Second Life, you're generally asked to select from one of several pre-made avatars and then sent into the world with no further explanation of customizing your appearance. This is a relatively recent change from previous versions of the new user experience which would provide a very brief explanation of the appearance editor, and a small set of alternate clothing. Neither experience really provides a user with many options or really provides them with the means to customize their appearance from the start.

 Considering how central the avatar and avatar customization is to the SL experience, this seems like a mistake.

 Let's look at an alternate approach.

 In City of Heroes, APB and other games past and present, when you logged in you would first find yourself in the appearance editor. You're given a plethora of options and could easily spend hours crafting a character before stepping out into the world.

Look at all those sliders!
  Not so different from SL, aside from the lack of clothing options within the appearance editor itself. The SL appearance editor might even have fewer sliders to tinker with, but that does not mean that the interface is as simple as those found in the above examples.

 What LL can learn from is how many games break down the appearance editing process into simple steps, starting them off with basic options and then letting them delve into the sliders to customize those options further if they choose.

So simple, yet even more freedom than SL for shape making!
(Also, even CoH totally gave you a scale to know how tall your character is. Why is that so hard for SL?)
 For example, when you first begin creating your City of Heroes character, the game would present you with several general body archetypes. You could be a trim, wiry character. You could have an average, yet fit, build. A more heroic, athletic build or you could even be a hulking mass of muscles!

 You start off with that simple selection of four body types and are provided similarly simple selections for face, hair and skin. At each of these stages you are given the opportunity to delve into a menu of sliders and fine tune the shape to your exact liking!

 Compare this to Second Life, where a new user is given their pre-made avatar and ushered into the world. All of the male avatars have a very similar shape, both in size and body type. Same with the female avatars. If you want a completely different body type, good luck! You need to dive straight into the sliders, and as shown in the Presentation section, there's a lot of obstacles in your way towards making a decent shape for yourself.

 You pretty much need at least a two year art degree and spend several months learning the ins and outs of the SL appearance editor. Then, maybe you can create a pretty good shape for yourself.

  This scares off potential new users. No one wants to be ugly, so if they can't make an avatar they're happy with, and quickly, it prevents the user from getting attached to their avatar and Second Life.

 Linden Lab can fix this, pretty easily at that!

 Learn from these games, add an extra level to the appearance editor, where users select a general body type, face and skin.

Actually, looking at it now, you could totally get rid of the gender tab and just use the little checkbox.
 After user has selected a body type, face and skin, then give them the option to dive into all of the sliders and personalize their creation further!

 If LL fixes the problems with rigged mesh and then introduces a new selection of starters using mesh attachments, they can even have users select their outfit from the start and the rigged clothing and hair will adjust itself automatically with the avatar's body shape.

 I would also suggest that Linden Lab needs to completely replace the art assets the viewer uses for system skins.

 Do you remember system skins? Nobody uses them anymore because they look like this!

And this is one of the better system skins!

 The thing is, SL actually uses a system very similar to that used by Bethesda's Elder Scrolls and Fallout games. Yet the skins in those games look far, far better! It all comes down to the art assets used.

 Like Skyrim or Fallout 3, the SL skin system works by layering different textures on top of each other, with varying degrees of opacity, and letting you tint each layer with a basic colour picker. That's simplifying it, but you get the idea.

 The problem that separates Second Life from Skyrim is that SL uses very flat, pixelated textures which appear to have been created by a programmer. A little effort into renovating the system skin assets and you would be able to create a skin that looked as nice as one painted in Photoshop using nothing but sliders.

 If LL followed all of these steps then creating an avatar a new user can immediately identify with goes from becoming a complicated task for advanced users, to one of the simplest things anyone can do in SL, as it should be!

 LL really cannot afford to underestimate how much importance customizing one's unique avatar is to engaging and retaining new users. They've provided the freedom for creativity, now they just need to work on the ease of use to allow every new users to dive in right away without feeling overwhelmed or disliking their own avatar's appearance.

 And if Linden Lab is feeling ambitious, they could take this even further, improving the Outfits panel and intertwining it with the appearance editor, allowing users to select attachments by their attachment points while editing their appearance in the appearance editor.

 Perhaps allowing people to take screenshots they can then link with outfits and individual attachments, to give a picture representation of the outfit/attachment in question.

 Just an idea, but Linden Lab needs to be considering options like this. Other than the introduction of sculpts and then mesh, SL has barely changed over the years. Even the move from the 1.x UI to Viewer 2 was a very minor change.

 And it's not just the big changes that help, little improvements can make a world of difference.

 Letting landowners set multiple teleport points on their land. Adding simple vendor features like splitting profits and delivering multiple items. Adding a slider to the appearance editor which lets people scale the size of their avatar while maintaining proportions. All of these are small details which would improve the SL experience.

Improving the Content Creation Tools Recap!

Trying to recap all of that could take almost as long as the section itself so I'll try to be extra brief.

  • The tools are important because they affect all aspects of Second Life, from performance (framerates and "lag) to Presentation, to the ability of content created within SL to engage users.
  • LL needs to continue to improve those tools which allow content creators to produce interactive content, such as games and educational installations. NPC's and the ability to animate mesh would go a long way here.
  • LL needs to understand how problems with the tools can hurt how well SL performs on any given hardware. Poor resource management tools lead to lag and negatively impact the overall user experience. Poor content creation tools, such as the lack of 1-bit alpha and rigged mesh releasing incomplete, lead to lower framerates and nasty, unavoidable graphical glitches.
  • There are ways LL can improve existing tools to take tasks that are presently very difficult (such as avatar creation) and make them exceptionally easy. LL needs to understand that this is critical in retaining new users!

 Everything so far leads to the next, and final, chapter in this series, where we will talk about improving the new user experience.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

A Critical Look at Second Life - Part 2 "Bringing Content to People"

A Critical Look At Second Life
Part 2 - "Bringing Content to People"
A closer look at all of the bugs, design issues and social problems
preventing SL and Linden Lab from achieving greater success.

Bringing Content to People

 One of the three major complaints often heard from new users and ex-users is that Second Life offers nothing to do! Long-time SL users will often dismiss this complaint as showing a lack of imagination and initiative on the part of the person doing the complaining but the fact is Second Life has some very real failings in helping users, especially new users, find content or communities relevant to their interests.

  There have been some improvements in this area in the past couple of years.

 The Destinations bar was a great start, directing new users to currently active locations on the grid, picked from among, what the Destination editors consider, the best SL has to offer. It's one of the better inclusions to the new user experience since SL's beginnings. Very useful for users new and old alike!
This is great! Maybe LL should point new users at it?
 But there's so much more Linden Lab could do here.

 First off, a new users is tossed into the deep end in Second Life with absolutely no direction. Less so now more than ever, as it just drops a new avatar into a random sim, sink or swim! I'll go deeper into the new user experience later, but for now I'll just say, use those first moments after a person logs in to point them in the right direction! Don't rely on an in-world, sim-based tutorial, at some point during a new user's first steps into the world, have the viewer itself bring up the destinations bar for them, point them at it! Show them how to bring it up themselves!

That's just one little example of something LL can do to point people at content. To really bring content to people, Linden Lab needs to start seeing the opportunities they have to blend content with the social aspects of Second Life which already connect SL users.

 When users complain about LL trying to make Second Life "more like Facebook", it is the superficial changes which provide no benefit to SL users and the disruptive (in the bad way) changes which actually interfere with one's ability to enjoy SL. These are the kinds of changes LL should avoid, while embracing social elements which draw people in-world and cultivate communities within Second Life.

 For example, some time ago, Linden Lab introduced Interest Tags to profiles as a way of connecting people with each other. Click on an interest tag and you'd see others who shared your interest. Click on the Recommendations tab of your profile and you'd get a random sampling of people who shared at least one interest with you.

 Linden Lab needs to expand Interest Tags to groups, land, Marketplace listings and events. Interest tags were perhaps the most exciting new feature to be added with the profile improvements, and yet their full potential has never been realized or even explored to any degree.

 When Linden Lab first introduced interest tags the only use they found for them was to spam SL users with e-mails recommending they befriend random strangers because they happened to share an interest tag. You can still receive these random friend recommendations by clicking on the "Recommendations" tab of your profile.

 This is a tragic waste of a potentially fantastic feature.

 Imagine for a moment that, instead of random strangers, Linden Lab recommended groups, locations and even events which had shared interest tags applied to them.

 People don't want a list of strangers who share one or two one-word interest tags, that's not how people socialize! If you instead supply them with locations, groups and events that are relevant to their interests, recommendations, both via e-mail and the profile tab, become valuable, especially to new users who are looking for just such content!

 Once people join those groups or go to those locations and events, then they will meet people there who share their interests and have the motivation to socialize with them! This works far more reliably than throwing a list of strangers names at people and telling them to make friends, because this is how we socialize in real life! We meet people first and then make connections based on shared experiences!

Now, and this is very important, to ensure that interest tags are not abused for search/traffic purposes, I would strongly recommend that Linden Lab limit the number of interest tags which can be applied to groups, land and events. Let avatars add as many as they please to their profiles, they are the ones doing the searching, but a shop or club would only be able to apply maybe three to five (at most), forcing them to make their tags actually relevant to their content.

 You see what happens otherwise in existing shop descriptions. How often are terms like neko, grunge, steampunk, sex, etcetera used in the search description for a shop that has absolutely nothing to do with those things? Simply because they are popular search terms? Constantly.

 Event listings as they currently exist are practically useless!  Being able to search based on interest tags, and having events included in the profile Recommendations tab, would be a serious boon to people looking for events!

 That's not all LL could do to bring content to people via profile features.

 In addition to expanding interest tags, adding a calendar to both individuals and groups would be extremely beneficial to cultivating community gatherings in-world.

 Let groups tag land as a group hang-out, this should not be limited to land the group owns as larger clubs and sims tend to have an invite only landowner group and a separate, public community group. It's vital that the public community groups be able to tag the land as a group hang-out, and it could be beneficial to allow groups to tag multiple locations as group hang-outs.

Then, when an event is posted for a location listed as a group-hang-out (group owned land would be automatically tagged), it appears in that group's calendar! I would also allow the group owners to have the ability to restrict the calendar to group members, or to keep it public so anyone can see group events.

 This allows group members (and random visitors if able to see the landowner or community group's calendar) to easily browse all listed upcoming events, as far in advance as SL allows people to list events!

 It gets better if you then allow people to copy event listings to their own personal calendars!

 This serves two purposes! First, it makes it super easy for people to keep track of events they'd like to attend! Do not underestimate how important that is in drawing people in-world and cultivating communities! I'd even start with the idea that when an event is added to a group calendar, every member of that group gets a prompt asking if they'd like to add the event to their personal calendar.

 Second, if a person's personal calendar is set public or visible to friends, then others who visit their profile can see what events their friend has listed and copy them to their own profile if they'd like to also attend!

 ( Of course, it would be important to give people the option to restrict their calendar to friends, or set it private entirely. People don't always want to share their activities.)

 There are still many more ideas LL should strongly consider. A full fledged group social page containing a feed wall, chatroom, etcetera. A feed wall for land locations in SL, so visitors can leave comments for others to read (LL added something like this when the new profiles were released, but then removed it some time later) and more.

 Even if LL only applied the ideas detailed here in this article, and managed to introduce new users to these features right from the start, it would greatly increase the ability of users new and old to find content, communities and activities relevant to their interests, increasing the likelihood that they will remain in SL longer and form the social ties that will keep them in SL for a long time to come.

Bringing Content to People Recap!

Make new users aware of the search tools at their disposal!

  • During the new user experience, show a new user how to open the Destinations bar and the search window. Make sure they know how to use these tools!
  • Show new users how to open and edit their profile! Encourage a new user to enter their first interest tags, explaining it will help them find content relevant to their interests!

Make Interest Tags useful!

  • Allow owners to apply a limited number (like, five) of interest tags to land, groups, events and Marketplace listings!
  • Use those tags to add land, groups, events and marketplace listings to LL's "recommendations" mailings and the "Recommendations" section of a user's profile. MUCH more useful than recommending people talk to strangers!
  • Very important to limit number of interest tags that can be applied to groups, land, events and Marketplace listings, otherwise people will cram in as many as allowed to the point where they lose effectiveness. Again, five seems like a good number. Maybe even three.
Add a Calendar to both group panels and avatar profiles!
  • Let groups tag locations in SL as "Group Hang-outs"
  • Events on land owned by groups, tagged by a group as a hang-out, will be listed in those groups' event calendars.
  • When an event is added to a group calendar, the members of that group will recieve a prompt asking if they'd like to add the event to their personal calendars.
  • Personal calendars can be set public, friends only, or private.
  • Non-members can copy event listings from public calendars (of groups or individuals) to their own calendar to keep track of events they might like to attend.
Remember! Features like these bring content to the users and naturally cultivates the kind of social interactions which give new users ties to the SL community, which keeps them coming back! Consider other ways social tools can be used like this!


Alright, in doing all of that LL can successfully bring users and content together much more effectively than SL currently does, this means the complaint that "there's nothing to do" is completely addressed, right?


Yes, users will be much more capable of finding all of the content SL has to offer them, but that content is still limited by the tools Linden Lab provides to content creators.

 In Part 3 we will take a closer look at the Second Life content creation tools, where Linden Lab has succeeded and where they have failed, as well as what features Second Life needs to draw users in more effectively.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

A Critical Look at Second Life - Part 1 "Presentation"

A Critical Look At Second Life
Part 1 - "Presentation"
A closer look at all of the bugs, design issues and social problems
preventing SL and Linden Lab from achieving greater success.

"Assuming SL improved performance enormously, from region crossings to lag to render times. (big assumption I know but roll with me here) What would you do to insure new users "stuck"?

Right now after performance our biggest issue is not getting new signups or even people to experience SL for a bit, its turning them into long term users.

Any thoughts on what you would do? We have some ideas but before pulling the trigger I would be curious what folks thoughts are here."

 This was the question Rod Humble, CEO of Linden Lab, posed to the Second Life community in the middle of 2012. It's a valid question, SL has been open to the public since about 2003, we're nearing the ten year mark and it still has a lot of difficulty retaining users. The grid itself has been shrinking as people tier down and sell off or abandon sims and much of the mainland is empty.

 What should LL do to change that?

 Well, first and foremost Linden Lab needs to take a critical look at Second Life, why people leave, what people complain about, and Linden Lab's own attitudes towards those complaints over the years.

 As I often say, there is not a single problem which pushes people away from Second Life, it is a combination of various bugs, missing/broken features and presentation issues. I've covered a number of these issues in previous articles but right now I want to take a comprehensive look at Second Life as a whole, the problems holding it back, why they are problems and solutions to those problems.


 Before a potential new user even decides whether or not to log into Second Life, Second Life's presentation forms an opinion in their mind. First impressions are important and right now the common perception is that Second Life is ugly.

 Whether or not you agree with that perception is irrelevant, the important thing is to acknowledge that this is how SL is commonly perceived and to question why this is such a widely held belief so one can then take steps to change that perception.

 I covered a lot of Second Life's presentation issues in detail with the two part article "Beautiful Second Life" but I'll recap here. It all comes down to presentation.

Promotional Imagery needs to entice potential SL users into creating an account and logging in!

First a quick tip of the hat to Linden Lab.

Until relatively recently, the imagery used to promote SL, from the SL website to advertisements around the web, has been lackluster.

A promotion image I grabbed off the SL website at the time I was writing "Beautiful SL".
The foreground avatar's hair doesn't fit her head. The man in the
background has arms too short to reach his own groin.

 Shortly after I published "Beautiful Second Life", Linden Lab did drastically improve the imagery on the SL main page and seems to have shown remarkable improvement in their imagery used on the SL Marketplace website!

Newer SL promotional imagery!
 There's still work to be done in this area, and not all of the newer SL website images have been fantastic, but still this is a huge improvement over how LL presented Second Life even a year ago.

If LL can keep that up and carry it over to their advertising materials then they're sure to draw more people in to take a look at SL. But what then?

 Presentation is more than screenshots on a website. It includes the whole of the new user experience and Linden Lab's community resources within the grid itself. In these areas LL's presentation is still very much a detriment to Second Life's ability to retain new users.

 I've written volumes on my frustrations with the Linden starter avatars and they've seen no real improvement in years. They are gigantic (some of them are 7-8 feet tall!) and have extremely poor proportions (tiny heads, stork-like legs, short arms).

9 heads tall when they should only be 7.5 or 8 at most? Arms just barely reach their groin?
Legs are 2/3 of their height? Must be SL avatars!
 While the newest ones use avatar alpha masks to hide pieces of the underlying avatar shape, some of those still being offered to new users use "invisiprims" instead, wich look like this with deferred rendering (aka: shadows) enabled:

The avatar's feet should be hidden, but Linden Lab disabled invisiprims
about a year ago, so the feet are still visible, clipping outside the boots.
 It's important to note that they're not entirely bad. The creator is clearly talented and many of the clothing and attachments are actually pretty high quality. It's also unclear how much time the creator was given. A little support from LL and a little quality control could make these avatars fantastic.

 Case in point, this is the "Male Action Outfit" avatar from one of the more recent sets of SL starter avatars.
"Hello, ladies."

 And here is an alternate version. The only things I changed were replacing the skin with a freebie off the Marketplace and the shape with my own 6'3" "Heroic Male" shape, which seemed appropriate for the "action hero" theme.
I intended to release a full set of improved starter avatars, full perm,
to the public. However, it turns out that some (but not all) of recent starter
avatars no-transfer, preventing any such improvements from being made available.

What a difference skin and proportions make! The clothing textures, hair and various attachments are perfectly fine (aside from the use of invisprims on the boots)! They're actually pretty high quality.

 The creator's strengths are clearly in the realm of clothing and attachments. This shows throughout the starters, although this quality is not always consistent throughout the various avatar sets. Still, that is exactly this sort of quality control which should come from LL when accepting content from the community. Playing to creator's strengths and accepting only content which meets their requirements. The person you want to use is fantastic with attachments and clothing, but not so strong with shapes and skins, use their attachments and clothing then pass the avatars off to someone better with shapes and skins to polish them up for release!

 Even regarding the shape, I cannot hold the creator wholly accountable and even most of the best shape creators in SL would make the same mistakes. They are typical of SL avatars. 7' tall, legs far too long, arms too short, head to small. These are all common traits in SL avatars, and this is a problem for Linden Lab if they want more paying customers.

 Your average person is not very familiar with human proportions, not on a conscious level, but they know when something looks "wrong", even if they can't say why. SL's poorly proportioned avatars translate to "bad graphics" in the minds of most who look at them.

 So why do SL avatars generally have such poor proportions? I delve deep into the issue in my article "A Matter of Proportion", but it can be summed up with two major problems.

 First, and most obvious, because Linden Lab has always started people off with awful proportions. Most people do not alter their shapes all that much, often only making adjustments to height, muscle mass and chest size. Also, again, people do not generally have a professional artist's understanding of proportion, and so would be unable to correct a poorly proportioned shape on their own.

 Second, and less obvious, the appearance editor itself is riddled with bugs, poorly chosen ranges for slider settings, and plain old bad design. Arms are skewed too short for women, so much so that a tall woman (around 6' tall) will need to max out the arm slider to keep them in proportion, and much taller than that (SL women avatars tend to be 6'4" or taller) simply cannot make the arms long enough even maxed out at 100 on the slider. Legs are skewed too long for both genders (moreso on women), the torso muscle slider for women maxes out at 50 (I'm detecting a trend here, for the record women avatars also have a shorter max height than their male counterparts). A height slider set to 50 (the midway point) will result in an absurdly tall avatar and the height displayed in the appearance editor is incorrect, off by more than half a foot, encouraging taller avatars!

 Luckily, this is an easy fix. Linden Lab needs to improve the quality of the starter avatars, improve the default male/female new shapes and fix the bugs in the appearance editor. It's really that simple. These should all be things pointed out by Second Life's art director, but an art director does LL no good if they do not listen to said art director and act on their recommendations.

 The same problems in design and inconsistencies in quality also plague the Linden maintained environments within SL, such as infohubs, welcome areas and the starting environment all new users arrive at upon their first log-in to Second Life.

 SL's camera placement is the same as you might find in an early 3D game from the mid 90's, floating 2-5 metres or more above the avatar's head, looking down. When you zoom the camera all the way in, it is still 2 metres above your avatar's head, which you can only see the very tip of.

The default SL camera placement, at it's standard placement (top)
and zoomed in as far as it can go before mouselook (bottom).

The height of the camera forces one to keep it zoomed out to see
their avatar in relation to their environment and forces content
 creators to build over-sized, resource hogging environments.
 This takes the person out of Second Life. They are not the one exploring this virtual world, they are merely controlling that tiny person they are looking down upon from above.

 It also creates a problem where environments must be huge and open to accommodate the camera. Any ceilings must be 5-10 metres high and 20-30 metres wide in all directions. For comparison, the average ceiling height in your average home or office is about 2.5m.

 Camera placement in third person videogames has been steadily improving since the 90's, it's long past time for LL to join the modern era of third person virtual environments and improve the SL camera.
The "over the shoulder" view, first used in Resident Evil 4 over seven years ago,
is the standard for all modern third person videogames, from
GTA 4 and Fallout 3 to Dead Space and Oblivion.

It translates very well to Second Life.
 I've written about camera placement in detail in one of my earliest articles, "A Matter of Perspective" and followed it up with an abridged version with only the instructions on how any SL user can improve the SL camera just by changing some numbers in the Viewer Debug window.

A Matter of Scale

 I have addressed the issue of scale in Second Life in thorough detail with my article, "A Matter of Scale", so I won't waste too many words on it here.

 It's enough to say that this issue is a combination of avatar size issues and SL's poor camera placement. Also that it affects Second Life in three significant ways.

      1. Ease of use - As no content creators can build around a universally understood sense of scale, content cannot be made which content consumers can expect to work without a substantial amount of effort on their part.

 For example, if human avatars could be reliably expected to fall within realistic human sizes (5-6', give or take a few inches), furniture could be made at that set scale and work with most human sized avatars out of the box with no effort on the part of the consumer.

 Since the average human avatar in SL varies much more drastically (anywhere from about 5' to a whopping 9' with a nearly 3' difference between men and women being almost standard), it is pretty much guaranteed that any purchased furniture will need to be resized before it will work with the consumer's avatar, and is unlikely to work with even most of the avatars that person associates with.

      2. Presentation - Avatars are not in scale with each other. Furniture is not in scale with most avatars or the room they all inhabit. All of which makes SL look "wrong" to the casual observer.

 Gigantic/monstrous avatars, such as aliens, robots and mythical creatures, are impossible without using animation hacks to make the avatars excessively tall. In most literature, movies and videogames, a minotaur is depicted as 6-9' tall. To get that same effect in SL a minotaur must be 9-15' tall. The Predator from the movie of the same name was 7'2", to achieve the same affect in SL an avatar would need to be 11' tall. Put simply, when giants are normal, no one can be a giant. Even though SL avatars are capable of being anywhere from 4' to 9' tall, the freedom of avatar creation is thus artificially restricted to "normal" and "short".

9' tall "gigantic demon beast" next to typical 7.5' SL male.
9' tall "gigantic demon beast" next to 6' tall male.

 Scale cannot be used to effectively convey size even in environment design. A cathedral sized room has little or no impact on the visitor because the entire concept of scale is thoroughly diminished.

Walking into this enormous cathedral is far more dramatic when your camera is
near eye level rather than  3 metres above your head and looking down at you.

The feeling of scale is further diminished when your avatar is
9' tall and the pews only come up to your ankles.

     3. The Bottom Line - The scale issue impacts the pocket book of every single SL user and Linden Lab themselves via land. Land is a static size in SL. You cannot buy 512sq.m. of land, grab a corner with your mouse cursor and scale it to the size you need. It will always be the same size.

 If an avatar is 8' with a camera floating an additional 4metres over their head, then that 512sq.m. of land is substantially smaller than it would appear to a 5'10" avatar with their camera tucked neatly over their shoulder. A room that would be too cramped to navigate for the former could appear to be excessively large to the latter.

Would you believe that EVERYTHING pictured in this set of screenshots fits... a 2048sq.m. parcel using only about 400 prims total? And it predates mesh!

The shop/bunker alone would fit in a 512sq.m. parcel easily, with room to spare.

 In addition, larger builds eat up more resources. Prims can only be made so larger, if you're building larger then you are forced to use more prims. With mesh the LI cost increase is much more dramatic, as mesh increases in cost the larger you make it.

Would you believe all this and much for fits snugly into only 1/4th of a sim?

Not pictured:
Underground grotto
Secret dungeon bunker
private residence skybox
ground level landscaping
multi-level treehouse club
and more!
 How does this affect LL's profits? Easy, it means fewer people buy land.

You still get the people willing to spend more money on larger parcels and full sims, but you lose everyone who just wants a small parcel on which to build a home for themselves. There are far more people willing to spend the money for a 512sq.m. parcel if they could only fit their skybox and furniture into it than there are people willing to buy a 2048sq.m. parcel

 Linden Homes are a perfect example of this in action, via a costly work-around where Linden Lab "cheats" their own system to provide a 512sq.m. parcel to residents, with a pre-made house which does not count against the parcel's prim limit.

 Through my own work in SL I try to demonstrate tha,t with more efficient use of resources and scale, an individual can place a larger, more detailed house on the same parcel of land, fully furnish it and simultaneously have it appear more spacious than the Linden Homes due with typically over-sized avatars with poor camera placement.

 And make no mistake, given the option to scale down, those already paying for more land would not tier back, instead they would happily keep the land they have and simply make better use of it.

 Simple supply and demand. Everyone wants more land, but has a limited amount of money they're willing to spend. If they can get more value for their dollar, they will do so. If the perceived value fails to meet what they are willing to pay then there is no sale!

How to "fix" the scale issue in Second Life

 Again, I'd refer readers to "A Matter of Scale", which provides a more detailed explanation of the problem and solutions, but I will recap here in brief.

 There is no simple fix to this issue. Second Life is about a decade old now and this problem has beem compounding since the start. LL can, and should, begin to alleviate the issue and then let time take care of the rest.

 So how should Linden Lab approach this issue?

  1.  As already mentioned above, fix the scale and proportions of the starter avatars.
  2. Correct the height displayed in the appearance editor.
  3. Improve the SL camera placement as demonstrated in most modern third person videogames.
  4. Lead by example in creating better scaled library content and Linden owned Premium and public areas.

 There are many other ways Linden Lab could improve presentation to make SL more appealing, but if they only addressed the above issues they would still be in pretty good shape as far as presentation goes.

 Presentation recap!

 Improving the Starter Content!

  • Continue with improved promotional imagery for the SL website, Marketplace and advertisements!
  • Fix the proportions and size of the starter avatars. 
  • Improve the skin textures of the starter avatars.
  • Quality control for avatar clothing and accessories. Most of them are great, but some stand out as poor. When contracting content, play to creator's strengths!
 Improving the Appearance Editor!
  • Provide brand new default male and female shapes when people create new shapes.
  • Increase the max arm length for women, this may affect existing shapes but nearly all for the better and it's extremely easy for people to revert if they notice and don't like it.
  • Fix the torso muscle slider bug for female avatars so muscle mass continues to increase past 50, this may affect a small number of female shapes, those who do not like the change need only revert their torso muscle slider to exactly 50 and their muscle mass will be as it was before the fix.
 Other SL Visual Presentation Improvements!
  • Going forward, improve the quality control over Linden public areas such as infohubs and starter areas.
  • Improve the default windlight sky settings.
  • Improve SL's camera placement.
  • Addressing "the scale issue" makes land more valuable which means more paying customers for Linden Lab and a richer, more detailed Second Life.


 In the next installment we examine how Linden Lab could introduce some new features, as well as taking a closer look at an often forgotten existing feature, to better showcase Second Life's plethora of content to users new and old alike.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Random Content Creator Tips!

Here's a couple simple, easy, but often overlooked tips for Second Life content creators!

Always design sculpted/prim attachments around the smallest shape possible!

This is pretty important actually. The way Second Life is set up it is exceptionally easy to stretch attachments larger, but if you're working with fine details you'll often be including prims that are either as small as possible, or very near. This means that most attachments can not be shrunk. The size you have designed it around is the smallest size avatar that attachment will fit without considerable patience on the part of the wearer.

 On the other hand, if you design around the smallest possible avatar shapes, then that attachment can be enlarged to fit any size avatar, greatly increasing the amount of potential satisfied customers you'll have.

 This is increasingly important lately as more and more avatars are shrinking down to more reasonable, human sizes.Avatars under 6' tall aren't rare anymore. Avatars about 5' tall are increasingly common, especially among women.

 When putting together an outfit, avatar, or attachment, try to design around the lowest possible Object Detail settings.

 If you've ever played with the graphics preferences, the first thing you'll notice when you turn down object detail is that a lot of your attachments may no longer fit as well as they did at higher detail settings. Sometimes with extremely embarrassing results such as body parts poking out of prim shirts, or bald spots where your head peeks through your hair.

Here's the trick.

An attachment that looks fine at low object detail settings will look fine at high object detail settings, but the reverse is not true.

 So when putting together your look, designing a new outfit or complete avatar, turn down your object detail settings while setting everything up!

 Again, for content creators, this broadens your market considerably, making your content look excellent to people no matter how powerful their computer is, or what settings they run SL at! For everyone else, it's a simple tip to help avoid embarrassing wardrobe malfunctions you might otherwise not be aware of!

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Beautiful Second Life part 2

Beautiful Second Life
Why Linden Lab needs to present a more impressive
image of Second Life and how they can achieve that.

Part 2

 Ok, so we've shown how LL can encourage better looking avatars in SL, what else could be improved to make SL more visually appealing and nurture better looking content from the userbase?

 LL needs to start providing better looking public areas.

That means the tutorial/orientation sims, the welcome areas/infohubs and any other "Public Works" projects.

 How do I mean? Well, most people taking a look at SL are probably familiar with virtual worlds already. Videogames have been creating immersive, interactive virtual worlds to explore for several decades now, and when people look at Second Life's visual's they're going to be comparing it to the likes of these:

"Borderlands" for the Xbox 360

"Dead Space 2" for the PS3
"Twilight Princess" for the Nintendo Wii
"Shadow of the Colossus" for the PS2
"World of Warcraft" for the PC
These are the expectations set by about ten years of videogames. In contrast, this is the face Linden Lab puts forward for Second Life:

This was the Second Life website's mainpage image for a while. You can bet this is Photoshopped to look better than a straight screenshot, too.
Another one taken straight from the official Second Life website. The hut is cute, but this showcases how users struggle balancing resources against detail and generally isn't a good shot to use in promoting Second Life.
The Wilderness, a new area designed to test the new pathfinding features LL is adding soon is a huge step up from the average Linden developed content, but it's still not blowing the socks off of anyone.

What you can't see here are the alpha sorting issues resulting in an obnoxious flickering wherever one plant overlaps another, which is to say everywhere, because SL does not allow users to upload 1-bit alpha textures.

 But let's look at how good Second Life can look.

The Cyberpunk City of INSILICO
The sci-fi horror sim, "Doomed Ship"
(I always find I have my highest SL framerates in this sim.)
The floating island of "Milk & Cream"
 Would you believe that none of these three SL screenshots were taken with higher end features like shadows enabled? Also, all three predate the addition of mesh. My point being that it does not take a powerful computer to make SL look good if a sim is well made and employs good windlight presets.

 So what is the deal? If SL is capable of looking as good or better than many popular, professionally produced videogames, why do the Linden sims and marketing screenshots all look so bad?

 Well, a large part of it is just that LL does not hire professional artists to create their in-house content. They hire resident creators called "Moles", who are often amateur hobbyists who just happen to like building in SL. LL then provides them no real direction or support, as there is no in-house art team.

 As a result, the environments created for Linden Lab suffer from a lot of recurring problems. Like a lack of proper scale, poor lighting, inefficient use of resources and no real sense of design.

 Because of these issues Linden owned sims are often low on detail and content, spread out over much to large an area (making it a chore to wander between points of interest while exploring) and generally don't lead visitors through them like a proper environment (real or virtual) should.

Worse yet, the SL userbase as a whole is less likely to be exposed to quality builds which showcase Second Life's true potential. Such environmental pieces provided to the userbase via the Library, which new users often make use of to see how things are made, provide poor examples and instill bad building habits.

 The obvious solution here is to hire better artists to build better environments, but it's not entirely that simple.

 You have to realize that there are flaws with both the default SL visual settings, and the content creation tools themselves which make it extra difficult to create good looking environments in SL.

 First, there is the whole issue of scaleI've written an entire article on that problem alone, so I won't repeat it all here. To summarize, almost all content in Second Life is built to double scale or larger.This spreads content out over a larger area (making sims more tedious to explore, those interesting buildings in the distance are twice as far away if the sim is built double scale) and puts a greater strain on resources while making it more difficult to create detailed, content heavy environments. In addition to making it more difficult to create better looking builds, this problem of scale also limits us creatively, by giving us a smaller land area to work with, respective to the size of our creations.

 And why is everything in SL, from avatars to buildings, so oversized?

1. LL starts new users off with 7' tall avatars and provides incorrect height in the appearance editor.

 This is solved easily enough by reducing the size of the starter avatars and correcting the bug displaying incorrect height in the appearance editor. Doing these things and given enough time, the trend will eventually be towards smaller avatars.

Can't see! Ceiling too low for the SL camera!

2. The SL camera placement is set unreasonably high above the avatar. forcing ceilings to be higher, forcing people to build larger in general.

 This can be fixed simply by changing some numbers in the default camera placement presets. Instructions for doing so are HERE.

 Correcting these two issues and building Linden owned sims to more sensible scale would not only help Linden Lab create more impressive and engaging locations to draw new users into SL, but would free the userbase to take better advantage of scale in their own builds.

 To be clear, tho, building to scale does not always mean building small. Linden owned builds should, primarily, be accessible by avatars of all sizes. However, that means building larger structures while maintaining correct scale. Windows smaller avatars can see out of, tables, countertops and chairs scaled to realistically sized human avatars with doors and ceiling heights accessible for dragons and werewolves.

 As many of Linden Lab's builds are large, open affairs, this shouldn't be a problem. The idea isn't to restrict access to avatars of larger sizes, but to demonstrate scale.

 Second, there is the issue of efficient use of resources. Linden builds often have a much higher land impact than they should need for the amount of detail present. Linden builds should demonstrate effective use of the tools available, including sculpts and mesh. This would allow them to showcase more detailed environments, while providing examples of how to create more detail in SL to the residents who examine these builds while learning how to create their own content.

Currently there are no tools in the viewer allowing the creation of either sculpts or mesh, despite the fact that user created in-world tools have shown how easy it would be to create a client-side sculpt creation tool that users familiar with prim building would find easy to use. Linden Lab should investigate the possibilities here.

 In addition to good use of sculpts and mesh, Linden builds should demonstrate effective use of SL's native prim building system, demonstrating how more detail can be pulled from using cut, hollow and other prim features.

 Providing full perm versions of well-made structures used in Linden owned builds via the Library could be a very good learning tool for new residents. Providing poorly made content this way hurts the ability of beginning builders to learn good building techniques.

 Finally, there is the issue of poor windlight defaults. "Windlight" is Second Life's sky and atmospheric shader system. Proper windlight settings can make all the difference between an environment in Second Life looking awful or gorgeous, yet LL insists on using exceptionally poor settings for the defaults.

Here is a scene using the default sky settings:

And that very same scene with custom windlight settings;

 Better windlight defaults would come at no performance cost to users, yet they have such a profound impact on visual the visual quality of Second Life. Few users see anything other than the defaults, except possibly when they enter a sim with it's own estate windlight settings. Others find the default settings so bad they stick to a single daytime preset and so never see the world as those around them do.

 Beyond the problems, there's a few things Linden Lab really needs to keep in mind with their future building projects.

 Lighting is often overlooked or poorly done in Linden owned builds. When creating public environments, Linden Lab should look for people capable of making good use of lighting, including high end features like projected lights. A good environment designer can balance the two so that whether or not a visitor has shadows enabled, the lighting should be suitable.

Linden builds are often guilty of using default settings on light sources when they use lights at all. A plain, white light with the only change being to increase the radius. These lights look horribly unnatural and tend to wash out nearby textures.

What's wrong with this picture?
This screenshot demonstrates a Linden infohub where the visible lights (the lanterns) do not cast any light in-world, but the potted tree does!  The effect, of course, is off-putting. Darkness around all of the visible light sources, light being cast around the trees where no visible source is to be seen. Worse yet, every single potted tree in the infohub was a light source and there were 12 such trees on this terrace alone. This means constantly flickering lights for everyone without shadows enabled.

 Lighting is so important to environment design that movie and game studios both tend to hire professionals that focus entirely on that.

 Sound is another issue Linden Lab needs to be conscious of. Although it doesn't show up in screenshots, use of sound is vital in environment design, yet most Linden builds are entirely silent. Even in their "Wilderness" sim, an SL showcase currently being promoted to SL users with Premium accounts, very little use of sound. There's even a huge, multi-story waterfall that is entirely silent.

 Like windlight, the camera FOV settings can be used to make SL look better without impacting user performance and framerates. I've found upping my FOV by a few levels (pressing ctrl+0 about 5 times) adds a much more cinematic sense of depth to SL's visuals, a trick used by a lot of modern videogames.

 In closing, Second Life can be gorgeous, but few people, whether they're active Second Life users or people who've yet to try the virtual world, will ever know this unless Linden Lab makes a point of showing them.

 Well made starter avatars, well made public environments like the Welcome Areas and Infohubs, and visually impressive windlight defaults can all be employed to showcase the potential in SL's graphics capabilities.