Friday, January 3, 2014

2013: The Year in Review

By Bixyl Shuftan

2013 is gone, and as we head on to a new year in Second Life, it's time to look back to the old year's triumphs, tragedies, and tripfalls.

Probably the most important event this year was the tenth anniversary of the founding of our virtual world. June 2013 was when Second Life officially turned ten years old. In spite of glitches, crashes, griefers, Linden Lab's heavy-handedness, and other issues, the virtual world had defied the more dire predictions of naysayers who felt it was doomed. While some residents wondered if the Lab might go back to hosting the Second Life Tenth Birthday, also called the SL10B, it had no intention of doing so. So once again, residents came together to make the event happen.The result was twenty-one sims with many dozens of exhibits from communities, businesses, and artists (including one from Second Life Newser). Although the Lindens were never involved with the SL10B itself, they did mention it in the website as well as offering a free bear avatar to residents, the latter a reminder of the Linden bears that used to be given out.

Linden Lab would be busy trying to improve the Grid and viewer. "Project Shinning," begun last year, continued, with the process of avatar graphics "baking" worked on in to improve performance on the viewers. There was also "Project Interesting" of which the goal was to prioritize item rezzing so objects closer to someone's avatar would appear sooner than those further away. Unfortunetly, while these improvements worked with newer computers, residents using older ones to go about Second Life complained the changes were making their inworld experience even slower. Linden Lab would also pressure third-party viewers, notably Firestorm, to better conform to it's viewer experience with older versions of their viewer without recent updates rendered inoperative and useless.

Linden Lab's most controversial moves were two changes to its Terms of Service. In May, Linden Lab altered the ToS so third-party Linden exchange services buying and selling of Lindens was declared a bannable offense, and the exchange services were shut down. But residents complained loudly, that the official Lindex could take much longer to work than the third party exchangers, and some residents overseas could not, or would not use Lindex due to it's methonds of transfering money. Within a few weeks, Linden Lab made a partial retractions. Third party exchangers could operate again, but would be under closer scrutiny, and they could only sell Lindens. Only Linden Lab could buy Lindens back.

In September came Linden Lab's second, and longer lasting Terms of Service controversy. With no official annoucement other than users seeing the notice when logging on it had changed, Linden Lab had updated their ToS. Then it was discovered that the rules concerning the ownership of content had changed. In the past, the Lab had claimed they had limited control over one's content, but only to the extent of fixing bugs and keeping it on the Grid. The new ToS declared they had the right to take anyone's uploaded content and sell it to others. The result was an uproar from content creators, merchants, artists, and others. Many charged the Lab with preparing to sell copies of content made by residents without compensation for the builders. Tuna Oddfellow and Shava Suntzu made news when they closed down the Odd Ball and reopened it in the OpenSim world of InWorldz. Some ceased to upload new content. Others banded together under a group called the United Content Creators of Second Life to try and talk to Linden Lab. Linden Lab would make a few public statements, and made a few responses to the UCCSL's attempts at communication, as well as issuing "regret" over the confusion about the ToS changes. But as of year's end, the Lab had made no sign of repairing the controversial lines in the Terms of Service.

Other developments by the Lab had some hits and misses. In January, the Lab began producing new tutorial videos, with the popular Torley Linden as narrator. In the Summer, it came out with a new region for residents first entering Second Life: Learning Island. While not ideal, it was a great improvement over it's pervious newbie area. It also came  up with a place for newcomers after leaving Learning Island, Social Island, where they can learn at their own place. On the question of making Mesh garments fit better, the Lab ignored the Mesh deformer being developed by Qarl Fizz, and instead began working on a new experimental viewer for Mesh designers, with "collision bones" added to avatars there to help in making mesh clothes fit. Unfortunetly, the bugs haven't quite been worked out yet. The work on fixing "liquid mesh" as it's sometimes called will go on into 2014. "Occulus Rift," a 3-D viewer, got the attention of Linden Lab, and they decided to run experiments on how it could be used with Second Life. Among the staff, one Linden made the decision to leave. Andrew Linden, one of the longest employed at the Lab, announced he was moving on.

Linden Lab continued to diversify it's product line in 2013, with better results than the year before. In January, the Lab bought up Blocksworld. The "Legos meets Minecraft" iPad game was eventually proving a success, at one point doing better than the popular, and highly profitable, Candy Crush. This success was not matched by Versu, an interactive fiction program that didn't get much attention after it's release. In July, the Lab bought up Desura, a game service much like Steam, but which had more of an emphasis on Indie game developers. This move was met with rare general approval from those who heard the news.

Among technical developments outside Linden Lab was the Firestorm Viewer team making the decision to stop it's support of the Phoenix Viewer, on the grounds that it was becoming too difficult to work with. Philip Rosedale, the former Philip Linden, founded a new project "High Fidelity."

Besides the SL10B, there were a number of events in Second Life. On Valentines Day, the virtual world was one of the locations for "One Billion Rising," an event for womens' rights. From March to July was the Relay For Life fundraiser season,  which culminated at the end with the Relay Weekend walk around a track of a few dozen sims. Once again, a record ammount of cash was raised for the American Cancer Society. Veterans Isle was the scene of monthly benefit events for Wounded Warriors."Jamm For Genes" raised cash for genetic ills. "Feed a Smile" brought in money for hungry children in Africa. Other charities included Alzheimer's and diabetes.

2013 saw the end of the popular "Flufee" videos by Pooky Amsterdam and Draxtor Despress. But this wasn't the end of their efforts. Draxtor soon came up with a video interview program in which he would interview various creative personalities across Second Life, "The Drax Files." Saffia Widdershins' "The Blackened Mirror" show also made an impression with residents.

Some real-life media trends would make it into Second Life. The "Harlem Shake" videos included a few from Second Life (as well as one parody). The "What Does the Fox Say" song resulted in a few gestures, as well as a few videos (and jokes on residents wearing fox avatars). There was one real life entity that had made it's way into Second Life many regretted. It was revealed that the National Security Agency had been snooping on a number of online worlds, including Second Life.

Sadly, Second Life bade farewell to some residents whom passed away. In December, two noted personalities Alliez Mysterio and Osprey Therian died. They would be remembered with inworld memorial services. Others whom were gone included Abigail Compton, Fanci Beebe, Squinternet Larnia and Quantamis Navarathna. A number of private sims also faded from the sim. Although the number briefly went up this year, the overall trend of a slow decline continued.

 Outside Second Life, other virtual worlds made news. Among those taking an interest in virtual worlds was the Department of Defense, which ran projects to see how many avatars could operate normally on a Grid. But among grids outside Second Life, one began to emerge over others: InWorldz. Already higher in numbers than other OS grids such as Avination, it found it's numbers bolstered by Second Life residents giving the place a look first after "server side baking" issues made the bigger grid slower for those with older computers, and second after the "Terms of Service" controversy got a number of residents to check out other pastures. Late in the year, they would get their 90,000th account, and the number of people whom were actively using the world grew by over a third in several weeks.

Among multiplayer games outside Second Life, Minecraft remained popular, notably it's "Feed the Beast" modification. There were also "World of Tanks," the "War Thunder" air combat game, and others. "World of Warcraft" continued to make some news with it's "Darkspear Rebellion" and "Downfall," in which the Horde tyrant Garrosh Hellscream met his end. But the news of it's next expansion, "Warlords of Draenor," got a mixed reception, some commenting that Blizzard had put the game in maintenance mode as it's numbers continued to decline to under eight million, just over half of it's record high.

For Second Life Newser, it's been a busy year covering the news. The number of articles, adverts, cartoons, press releases, and other posts totaled almost a thousand. We've had some new talent join the staff, whom have been an asset in reporting about the people, places, events, and things across the Grid.

For Second Life, 2013 has been an eventful year of happenings good and bad, large and small. And now, a new year beckons. Whatever 2014 offers, we'll be there to bring the details to you the readers.

Bixyl Shuftan
Editor/Head Reporter
Second Life Newser

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