Whenever a grid closes unexpectedly, there are always some users who are surprised and unprepared. They didn’t make offline backups of their builds, didn’t get their OAR or IAR exports, didn’t move their in-world social networks to a more permanent — or, at least, different — platform like an email list or a Facebook or Google group.
Making backups is a good strategy in any case. Even if your virtual world doesn’t shut down, you might accidentally run afoul of its terms of service or annoy the grid owner one too many times and have your account closed.
So backup everything. Your builds. Your landmarks. Your shape. Your friends. Your groups.
And try especially hard to make those backups if you notice any of the following signs:
1. You don’t know the grid owner’s real name
There are still grids out there run by people under pseudonyms. I have nothing against people exploring alternate identities online. But if I’m paying them real money, I’d like to know who they really are.
When a grid owner keeps their identity secret, they protect themselves against angry customers calling them up and asking for their money back, or angry customers taking them to small claims court, or potential new customers remembering how their previous grid project ended in disaster.
Yes, those are all very good reasons why a grid owner might want to use a pseudonym. Good reasons for them. Bad reasons for you, the customer.
2. The grid isn’t a real company
This one is tricky. In some countries, companies have to be registered. In the United States, however, all a company owner has to do is add a one-page Schedule C to their tax filings at the end of the year. It’s ridiculously easy to start a company in the United States.
I love this country.
But it means you have to look for other signs of reality. For example, prudent grid owners might register their companies as limited liability corporations — LLCs. This insulates the founder from personal responsibility for the company’s debts, so you won’t be able to sue them to get all your virtual currency back. But it also means that the owner takes the company seriously enough to pay the fees to create the corporation and take on the additional administrative responsibility that goes with it.
Another sign of professionalism is registering the grid as a safe harbor with the US Copyright Office. It costs $105 and protects the grid from lawsuits by content creators. The grid will lose the safe harbor status if it doesn’t comply with other rules, such as taking down infringing content quickly, and banning users who repeatedly upload stolen stuff to the grid. By filing for safe harbor status, a grid is showing that it plans to grow big enough that copyright infringement lawsuits might become an issue.
You can check whether a grid has filed for safe harbor status by looking at the directory of registered agents — the list of people who are responsible for taking down infringing content on websites, in virtual worlds, and in other places where users might upload it. Linden Lab is on the list. So is InWorldz. So is Virtual Highway. Even Kitely has registered, even though it’s not based in the U.S., since the safe harbor rules protect companies against lawsuits by Americans, who are particularly lawsuit-happy.
You can also check to see if the grid’s website lists a real company address, has a form or contact person for infringing content take-down requests, or has a phone number you can call if you have questions.
3. The grid is a one-man shop
There’s a lot of work, stressful work, that goes into running a grid. It’s too much for one person to handle. If the grid grows to any size, the community-building functions, sales and marketing tasks, and technology support requests grow quickly.
If the founder can’t take weekends off, can’t sleep, doesn’t have time to eat, burnout comes quickly.
Plus, if the founder can’t find one or two friends to help him run the grid, that’s a bad sign right there.
Check to see if the grid has an “about us” page that lists the grid’s managers and their jobs, has their real photographs, links to their LinkedIn profiles and other indicators that these are real professionals who are putting their credibility and reputations on the line for this company.
4. The grid is run on some guy’s computer in a basement somewhere
There’s nothing wrong in having a grid on your home computer or laptop. I have a little family mini-grid that I boot up once in a while for my kids to play on. But I wouldn’t rent out land on it.
Unless they’re running heavy-duty servers with resilient storage and regular off-site backups on a high-speed business connection, a home computer is just too risky for a commercial grid. A hard disk could crash, or a kid could spill a pitcher of lemonade on it, and wipe out everyone’s builds. Then there’s performance issues and bandwidth issues. And if their Internet service provider notices that they’re running a bandwidth-intensive business on a residential line, they might cut the grid off entirely.
Find out where your grid is hosted and what kind of backup systems it has. Solid, reputable grids will be happy to tell you all about their multiple data centers, redundant RAID storage arrays and full daily backups. Fly-by-night grids will make excuses.
5. The grid doesn’t even have its own domain
A domain name costs around $10. If a grid owner can’t even shell that out, and uses a DNS service or, even worse, a numerical IP address for the website address, that’s a very big red flag.
Now, there are plenty of school, non-profit, personal, or test grids set up without registering domain names. That’s fine. No need for them to spend money if they don’t have to.
But when a for-profit grid skips this critical step, it’s a sign that the owners have a very bad understanding of basic marketing concepts. And that’s not a good thing.
This is not legal advice
This list is not fool-proof. Plenty of virtual worlds that do everything right still close down, like There.com. Though There.com recently reopened. So maybe this list is fool-proof after all.
Anyway, what I’m saying is, be prepared. Make backups. Don’t keep more money in a virtual currency account than you can afford to lose. Set up Facebook or Google groups for communicating with your in-world friends instead of relying completely on the grid’s communication channels — particularly important if you have a business, and don’t want to lose touch with all your customers if a grid goes down.
Finally, just because a grid is run by some friendless anonymous penniless guy in his parent’s basement doesn’t mean it has nothing to offer. And if you’re that guy, I apologize for casting aspersions. But seriously dude, register a domain name, rent a server, and find someone to share the work with. Your customers will thank you.