Metaplace closing a warning for virtual worlds users

On Monday, Metaplace announced that the company was shutting down its virtual world. This virtual world wasn’t the first platform of choice for enterprise users. The game-like interface, the kid-friendly avatars, and the lack of true 3D graphics — not to mention the lack of business functionality — didn’t lend the world to enterprise use.

However, some organizations have been experimenting with holding events in Metaplace. In July, for example, President Barack Obama’s Ghana’s speech was simulcast in Metaplace.

Metaplace allows users to design their own virtual environments and to share them with others. In total, around 70,000 different virtual worlds have been created on the Metaplace platform.

“Over the last few months it has become apparent that Metaplace as a consumer UGC service is not gaining enough traction to be a viable product,” said Metaplace Inc. CEO Raph Koster in a statement.

Obama simulcast in Metaplace. (Image courtesy Metaplace.)

Obama simulcast in Metaplace. (Image courtesy Metaplace.)

In allowing users to create persistent environments, Metaplace has a lot in common with some virtual worlds — and its demise offers some lessons for enterprise users.

“We’ll see a shaking out in the virtual world’s industry in the coming months as both industry growth and increased competition leads to aggregation and attrition,” said Doug Thompson (aka Dusan Writer), CEO, Remedy Communications, and producer of Metanomics, a weekly Web and virtual world-based show that examines the serious uses of virtual world technology.

The next victim of this shaking out may be Forterra Systems Inc., which makes the OLIVE virtual world platform. Forterra focuses on the enterprise market, and counts Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman among its customers.

According to Erica Driver, an analyst at virtual worlds consultancy ThinkBalm, Forterra has just laid off 60 percent of its workforce and remaining assets are “likely to be sold.”

It’s a sad day for the emerging immersive software sector,” she posted on Twitter.

As the sector continues to evolve, companies can take a few steps to protect themselves against possible turmoil.

Covering your assets

Where are your virtual assets stored? Are they on your servers, or servers that you control? Or are they stored on servers owned by the virtual worlds company itself?

For example, if your region is located on the Second Life grid, then Linden Lab is in control of your assets. Their recently released Second Life Enterprise platform, however, allows a company to host regions on its own servers, behind a corporate firewall.

Metaplace is of the former type of world — all content is stored on Metaplace servers. With the shutdown scheduled for January 1, users only have a few days to try to recover some of their work from Metaplace. Unfortunately, this is also prime holiday season.

If a world is hosted locally, on a company’s own servers, then even if a vendor goes out of business then the company still has its own copy of the software and content. There won’t be any further development or support, but at least the company can migrate to another platform on its own schedule.

Regardless of where the world is hosted, the ability to make backups is also crucial.

In Second Life today, there is no legal way to make backups of builds, though third-party software exists to save individual objects or inventories. Some consulting firms are also rumored to have backup programs for entire regions, but there is a great deal of controversy about this since users would be able to use this to back up all objects on a region — including objects owned by others.

As a result, companies investing time and money building up areas in Second Life will find it difficult to create backup copies of their areas.

Other platforms, especially those focused on the enterprise platform, make it easier to make backups.

Vendor lock-in

If a vendor goes out of business, will you be able to take your assets and move them to a different platform? If a vendor uses proprietary standards for the virtual world, this can be extremely difficult — as it the case with Metaplace.

Many enterprise platforms, however, support common 3D standards. For example, Forterra’s Olive can import Max, Softimage, or COLLADA 3D objects.

The OpenSim-offshoot realXtend can also import 3D objects from external design programs, as can the new Blue Mars virtual world, and Second Life and OpenSim are expected to support this functionality next year.

As a result, if one of these vendors goes out of business, users are able to move the content to another platform.

With some platforms, multiple vendors support the same set of standards. For example, the OpenSim platform is currently supported by dozens of vendors, with the number of providers rising steadily.

If one vendor goes down, many others are available to step up.

OpenSim is substantially different from most virtual world platforms in that it isn’t backed by any one company. It is designed by the open source community, with backing from Intel, IBM, and Microsoft.

This creates additional security for users, in that there are a number of different providers supporting this platform. But it also adds risks, as well, since open source communities will sometimes splinter, get distracted by other projects, or just fade away.

There have already been some signs of this with OpenSim, with the splintering off of the realXtend platform.

However, with hundreds of different worlds now running on the OpenSim platform, there is also now substantial momentum accumulating behind OpenSim, and even efforts to bridge the gaps between OpenSim and realXtend.

Meanwhile, the existence of OpenSim and realXtend provides some security for users of Second Life and Second Life Enterprise, since the same content can be used on all three platforms. Even if something were to happen to Second Life’s parent company, Linden Lab, there will be alternatives for businesses who have invested in development on the platform.

Loss of community

When a platform disappears, however, it’s not just the content that’s at risk. If a company uses a virtual world in order to interact with customers or with a larger community, then that community vanishes as well — as is now about to happen on Metaplace.

Current Metaplace users will either move to other worlds or leave virtual worlds altogether. If they get new virtual identities elsewhere, they will most likely have new user names — making it difficult, if not impossible, to recreate the community of one social network on another network.

This will be the single biggest loss that comes out of the Metaplace closure.

Companies depending on the social networks offered by virtual worlds can take some steps to protect themselves, however.

They can try to collect identifying information about their community members that exists independently of any particular network.

Today, there is no central repository of virtual identities that associates email addresses, social network user names, and other identifies with a single real identity. These repositories may evolve in the future, but until then companies should do the best they can to collect as much personally identifying information as possible and not rely completely on the social networking tools provided by the individual platforms themselves.

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Maria Korolov

Maria Korolov is editor and publisher of Hypergrid Business. She has been a journalist for more than twenty years and has worked for the Chicago Tribune, Reuters, and Computerworld and has reported from over a dozen countries, including Russia and China. Follow me on Twitter @MariaKorolov.

17 Responses

  1.' Baloo Uriza says:

    I think this speaks more about virtual realities that aren't based on the SL Open Grid Protocol than anything. They picked the wrong technology and suffered as a result. This isn't news; if they didn't see it coming, they lacked foresight at a pretty fundamental level.

  2.' mandy says:

    This is an important shift. Thanks for posting. I must admit I could never understand why Metaplace went for such rudimentary graphics. I know it works for Habbo but if there was a serious intention to pursue the enterprise market, this was obviously going to be a (non) sticking point.

  3.' Poinky says:

    In the announcement from Metaplace, they specifically point out ways that users can save their content, and how they are a providing a site for the community to continue to live on ( ). These issues of storage and ownerships are not limited to virtual worlds – how easily could you backup your content from Flickr or Twitter, or your purchase history and reviews from Amazon if those sites closed?

    The fact that Metaplace is trying to address the issue head-on speaks very highly of their regard for their users.

  4.' Charlette Proto says:

    My issue is not about incorrect facts that you are reporting here nor the interpretation the likely implications e.g. Google Lively came and went and nobody cares and the repercussions of that amounted to absolutely nothing. Small in population "me too" virtual worlds and vertical market VW failures simply don't count, just recall the tech wreck of 2001 – the bubble burst, but the survivors with viable business models practically run the world now.

    So what about the 'issue' I'm concerned about? Assets, vendor lock-in and community. In reverse; yes there will be a universal VW avatar registry one day, but not any time soon and certainly not based on some registry of residents' email addresses – think closer to domain name register style delegation and authority.

    Vendor lock-in – what are you actually suggesting? OpenSim is a result of reverse engineering of the most successful, while at the same time very poorly designed VW system codebase with practically no population or content besides cloned SL material.

    Finally, assets – seems like you are advocating a move to legitimate use of CopyBot and related tools. Sorry, a total fail again. To a casual new user, the most attractive drawcard in SL are the unique avatar identities – unique being the operative term. To the majority of business users it is the broad range of creative possibilities until they find out how vulnerable their Intellectual Property is at which point they curb their enthusiasm.

    Sorry, but I have a feeling you are missing a few vital points regarding the significance of Second Life and the role of Linden Research (Linden Lab) at this stage of the user adoption cycle of the Virtual World paradigm.

    I may have a reputation for pointing out the problems with Linden Research business and technology, but I doubt that Lindens fail to realise that Second Life residents and their needs are the only chance they have in remaining relevant and viable in the furore. Further, I'm confident that LL don't underestimate the importance of enhancing and developing technology to support the integrity and protection of users' assets and their Intellectual Property, as being core aspects of likely growth opportunities for SL.

    Don't forget Second Life is still just a game without a plot, even if it enjoys an almost 'real' economy and its subscribers and freeloaders have long outgrown the system they play. Sincere apologies for the critical tone, but since your comments tend towards an authoritative voice, I'd hate if your interpretation was to influence the opinions of the wider world who simply don't have a clue and simply feed on hype.

    (A qualified opinion of an independent SL resident backed by extensive experience. XOXO)

  5. Charlette —

    I'm writing specifically from the standpoint of enterprise users here in this publication. Enterprise users need virtual worlds for training, education, collaboration, prototyping, new employee onboarding, meetings, and conferences.

    Enterprise users are only concerned about copyright issues to a limited extent. For example, corporations would not hesitate to put up thousands of pages of content up on the Internet just because those pages can be easily copied. If they are, corporations have legal departments to go after those infringing their rights. (Of course, they keep proprietary information on internal sites — similarly, they can run virtual worlds behind a firewall when sensitive information is at stake.)

    As far as I can see, the issue of copyright protections for virtual content is a smokescreen to keep Second Life closed. The price of basic virtual content is about to drop to zero or close to it. As soon as Second Life allows full mesh imports, we're going to see content from all the 3D depositories on the Internet flood the world, such as Google's 3D Warehouse. Manufacturers already make virtual copies of their furniture, appliances – even factory equipment — available to the public. Since creating a simple virtual object is trivially easy — especially if a company already has the model stored somewhere in its design databases — it can easy make give-away items available for free as promotions. Clothing manufacturers can give away free copies of clothes. Car manufacturers can give away free virtual cars. Home builders can give away free virtual copies of homes — the idea being, once you spend some time in your virtual dream house, you might want to actually move into it in real life.

    So what will designers do? Some will migrate to custom work. After all, there are many, many companies all around the world making custom websites for clients. And yes, they worry that their work will be copied — but not so worried that they stop what they're doing. The copyright protections that currently exist, weak as they are, are enough to keep the business world moving along and the Internet to keep growing.

    Some designers will move up the food chain, producing complex virtual products integrated with back-end databases or server-side modules. These cannot be easily copied by users (though they can, of course, be reverse engineered by "fast followers").

    Other designers will step up their marketing and community-building efforts. After all, Yahoo! started out as a simple directory of websites — easy to copy the entire thing. Copy, paste, voila! You've got a duplicate of Yahoo! on your own site. And if you change the layout a little bit and write some of the text, you're even covered legally — data collections are not protected by copyright. What makes Yahoo! survive is its collection of users who are tied to the service by having an email address there, by belonging to groups there. It survives because of its name recognition.

    Finally, some designers will do a combination of all of these — improve their content just a little bit, do a little bit more content work, and maybe move to a less expensive location (such as an OpenSim-based grid) to reduce costs.

    The future opening up of Second Life — whether to mesh imports or to teleports to OpenSim — may well completely wipe out the thousands of pro-am content designers who make just enough in Second Life to cover their store rentals and refuse to change the way they do business.

    I do feel some sympathy for them. But my primary interest is in companies that are currently running viable businesses, employing people and contributing to the real economy, for whom virtual worlds will be a game-changing technology.

    Fortunately, there is still time left. Time to take some marketing classes. Learn how to script server-side code. Or time to start developing a reputation for high quality and on-schedule custom work.

    Or designers could start looking around for other worlds to move to. Most professionally-run virtual worlds (such as Blizzard's World of Warcraft) or social networks that distribute virtual goods tend not to have too many opportunities for mom-and-pop shops. Large, well-run companies tend to want to do business with other large, well-run companies. They'd rather make one big licensing deal with Disney to get their branded goods than with a million small shops that make products of various degree of quality, and little to none brand name recognition.

    Blue Mars is one possibility, but it already allows mesh imports. As a result, designers here will need to be comfortable with third-party 3D design software, and be able to product virtual goods significantly better than those already available for free in this format.

    Another possibility is to move to a Second Life clone that promises to keep the world closed for ever. They will have smaller customer bases, but also correspondingly smaller rent payments.

    Finally, any designer can set up a private OpenSim grid running on their home computer, for free. (Check out the Diva Distro.) They can give away goods that are out of season, and sell new, fashionable items for PayPal Micropayments. With a home-based grid, they'll be limited to a handful of visitors at once — their broadband connections and computers won't be able to handle higher traffic loads. Butt then again, if they're lucky enough to see substantial traffic, they'll be able to handle OpenSim's low hosting rates (some hosting providers charge less than $20 per region per month).

    But it's definitely time now to start planning. The times, they are a-changing.

    — Maria

  6.' Ener Hax says:

    The issue of branding loss from Google's Lively, and now Metaplace, are significant. They reflect on all virtual worlds to a certain degree.

    When approaching a decision maker to ask about implementing a virtual world presence, these failures make it more difficult to justify the value of a virtual world presence.

  7.' Charlette Proto says:

    @ Maria's response to my comments

    I'm surprised you would bother with such a comprehensive attempt to be condescending at my comments. Sorry, but you could have googled a bit, you haven't said anything new to me and while I could argue over 90% of your arguments I can't be bothered wasting time on it. Frankly your proclamations remind me of the librarians' reactions to the web circa 1995.

    However; I must point out a few things; maybe you don't understand how Blue Mars works and consequently its potential to ever be a virtual world (it exists on a users' HDs like a game sold on DVDs). Similar limitations of content creation and creativity exist in WoW even though it is server based system. And as far as OpenSim goes – I think you can see what it is based on and how it fails to deliver any hyper/meta grid functionality for the handful of users who maybe online at the same time in a dozen or so of the public servers. Personally, I can't identify with a world of paperbag skins and system clothes with a few blatant CopyBot rip-off from Second Life mixed in. BTW in a corporate setting LL prices aren't actually the barrier to business viability, but to the contrary, the $20 per region charges you mention are aimed at semi-professionals you seem to think constitute SL commerce. As far as 'mesh' import goes, you overestimate its impact on the creative possibilities in SL and believe me, mesh will result in more lag, rather than amazing new possibilities.

    Finally, I suggest that you shouldn't make references to what others should 'try' when you have no idea and can't be bothered to check their credentials – this just isn't a good collaborative spirit. There is no need for you clarify the Virtual World / Metaverse etc paradigm for my benefit – I'm only too familiar with the academic perspective, current state and future expectations and especially the reality of the situation.

    (A qualified opinion of an independent SL resident backed by extensive experience. [Also in OSGrid, OpenLife, Blue Mars and an ex of Lively.])

  8. UPDATE: Erica Driver has just posted a report about the Forterra layoffs and the actual size of job cuts was 50 percent, not 60 percent.

    Read her report here:

  9.' Anizia says:

    The points you make about content Maria are valid. But as others pointed out too, this is a problem for many other websites or games. I am finding that our clients want VW's setup either on their own hardware for inhouse use or their own servers. In a professional sense content always comes from offline sources anyway. Having content ripped off and resold illegally is more an issue than whether the clients will lose it if the VW company goes down.

    I think what's changed most is that the days of one company creating and marketing a whole world and controlling the inner space are passing. Hypergrid and interconnections between grids and worlds are the next step. Most companies want complete control of their VW space and want to chose who they allow in. Secondlife was a great concept and got the ball rolling, but it doesn't make any sense to let a single company control the virtual space anymore. Servicing others VW's spaces with digital assets,is a hugely growing area for us. Where those spaces are hosted is less of an issue, other than for reliability and tech advantages.

    Opensim fulfils many of the new emerging needs in ways most others do not, its cross compatability with similar operating environments like realExtend and Secondlife etc… is an advantage not a hindrance. Inworld and trans world ecommerce is a big issue however, digital media can always be uploaded, backed up or downloaded, Solving common means for etrading and ecommerce in virtual worlds is essential to the use of VW's as anything but entertainment or education or virtual live meeting envirnoments.Also the ability to seamlessly move inventory automatically from one VW database to another inworld is paramount. My clients already ask for this, even on a simple level like "can I play my powerpoint presentation inworld, make changes or get live responses then have the uers download it to their inventory." Well of course that can be done through web browsers, but it kind of defeats using a virtual world in the first place if you have to go back to your web browser in a live inworld corporate meeting. We are a long way from integratiing that into any virtual world software I have seen. Of course the integration of Flash, Flex and Ajax functionality to an inworld environment would also be a key to bringing the outside web world into the VWs and in the end, this is what will have to happen if the public and businesses will ever fully adopt VW's in their everyday use..

    Personally, I think the only way forward is in full integration with the existing web browsers. That's where peoples heads are, it took ages for the masses to accept even using a thing called a web browser! lol, Even today, a lot of people don't know what firefox or opera are, they think the online world is run by Internet Explorer. Asking them to choose between 4 or 5 different VW 3D browsers that don't work or look the same as their beloved internet browser, may seem a small ask, but the masses aren't called sheeple for nothing! lol

  1. December 22, 2009

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  2. December 22, 2009

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  6. December 24, 2009

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  7. February 2, 2010

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  8. June 20, 2010

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