Grids should consider zoning

A couple of days ago, Second Life merchant Darrius Gothly proposed a plan to reinvigorate Second Life’s land market by  zoning regions residential or commercial.

Today, Second Life does have some zoning. Content aimed at teenagers is confined to the Teen Grid, for example, and adult content to the Zindra continent.

And there’s a discounted land option for educators.

The problem with setting virtual land prices is that virtual land is both a location — where the view and neighbors matter — and storage space on a server.

When it comes to the server space there is already a kind of zoning in effect.

VIRTUAL WORLD HOSTING IS LIKE WEB HOSTING

When the Internet was new — back in the old days of the mid-90s — it was reasonable to pay around $20 or $30 a month for Web hosting.  Of course, if you had technical skills, you could host the website for free, on your home computer, and then deal with all the hassles of running your own Web server.

The following hassles all applied to running your own Web server — and now apply to running your own OpenSim server as well:

  • If the computer is turned off, or the Internet goes out, your site goes down.
  • If too many people try to visit at once, your site goes down.
  • If the site has a lot of graphics, your visitors will get a lot of loading delays.

Self-hosting works well for educators and companies setting up internal virtual environments for classes, meetings, and collaboration, especially if users access the environment via a local ethernet connection.  It’s also a good option for companies already hosting websites on their own servers, who have the in-house expertise, and the hardware and bandwidth, to run these kinds of applications.

Companies looking to test OpenSim out, and people looking for low-density regions where they can have a house, create art, or practice their building or scripting skills can pay under $20 for a low-traffic hosted region from an OpenSim hosting company (up-to-date list of hosting providers is here).

If one of these regions is over-loaded with object, scripts, or lots of traffic, performance will start to suffer and visitors will experience lag and crashes.

Then you’ve got the mid-priced regions — $25 to $50 per 16 acres. These usually have voice enabled, groups, and some payment options — either PayPal, PayPal Micropayments or the new multi-grid OMC currency from Virwox. Nice for office meetings, small-group training sessions, and other kinds of moderate usage.

The high-end regions are between $50 and $150 each, and include dedicated servers and plenty of dedicated memory and bandwidth for maximum performance. Perfect for a store with heavy traffic and lots of scripted product displays, or a popular event venue.

Each of these is an “empty ground” region. You pick the location, whether a hypergrid-enabled private grid, or part of a public grid like OSGrid. If you’re joining a public grid, then space allocation is usually on a first-come, first-serve basis. Then you build whatever you like on it, and terraform it to your taste.

In many ways, putting up your own grid is like putting up a new website. You have to list it with search engines and directories, and get people to link in — in OpenSim, that means you need to have in-bound hypergates on other grids that will take visitors to your destinations.

Far Away region on Grid4Us.

VIRTUAL WORLD LAND RENTAL IS LIKE REAL-LIFE LAND RENTAL

If you were putting up a store in real life, and you store was big enough, you might consider putting it out in the middle of nowhere. (Our local Walmart used to be in the middle of nowhere. But it had things we needed, so we made the drive.)

But you’re more likely to put your store near other stores, or on a high-traffic road. That way, you’d get more impulse shoppers. Also, people would be reminded of your store every time they were in the area, and when they needed something, they’d know just where to go. Finally, given the choice of going on a shopping trip to a place that had one store, or a place that had several, many opt for the place with options, and make up their mind about what store exactly they were going to visit after they got there.

In virtual worlds, this is equivalent to putting your store in a central retail area, or next to a popular virtual hangout or travel portal. There are no roads in virtual worlds since users can teleport or fly from location to location. But some virtual locations will have people movers — trolleys or gondolas or other transportation systems to move visitors around the most popular destinations.

However, I haven’t seen many — well, any — instances of well-zoned, mixed-use grids on the hypergrid. Maybe they exist hidden behind a registration wall somewhere, but with 100 different active grids now — and growing — who’s going to bother creating all those accounts to find out?

What I’ve been expecting to see are some planned, developed medium-sized grids, with a clear commercial center, well-marked tourist attractions, residential areas, and a clear sense of place.

Instead, grids seem to be random collections of regions with no obvious thought put into planning out how visitors can best explore the grid. Some grids offer teleportation boards at the main entrance, which is better than no navigational help at all. But they don’t take advantage of the spacial navigation abilities hard-wired into our brains — we like to move around and explore when we get to a new place, to get a sense of where we are, to get a feel for the community. No grid makes this easy.

Probably Grid4Us comes the closest with its thematic unity across regions — a traditional German countryside look, very pretty, and a nicely designed shopping region at Ellis Island Shops. However, there’s a lack of a clear navigational narrative, the shopping region is mostly isolated from other areas, and the central landing point of the grid doesn’t invite exploration.

Some ideas to encourage exploration:

  • Inviting street names, such as “Street of the Clothesmakers” or “Castle Road” or “Seaside Boardwalk.”
  • Plenty of maps showing both local views — with interesting destinations clearly marked — and big-pictures views of the world, to help visitors orient themselves.
  • People movers. Even given the limitations on vehicles crossing region borders, trolleys or trains can take visitors from one corner of a region to another, or carry them around a mega-region.
  • Teleportation boards to line-of-sight destinations. The walk up to the castle is nice the first time, but can get boring for repeat visitors who just want to get to the destination. Don’t expect visitors to create a landmark for everywhere they go — not only do landmarks currently not work across the hypergrid, but it’s easy to have so many landmarks that you quickly lose the ability to manage them.

Zoning encourages casual exploration because it forces grid administrators to plan their grids, and by clustering commercial areas together, making them more convenient for visitors to find.

maria@hypergridbusiness.com'

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.