Monday, January 27, 2014

Commentary: Rod Humble / Rodvik Linden as CEO of Linden Lab

When it was announced in late December 2010 that Rod Humble would be Linden Lab's new CEO, the reaction from Second Life residents was overall positive, from some even enthusiastic. The year before had seen a number of setbacks for Linden Lab and the Grid. A third of the company's staff had been laid off in it's "restructuring." Popular personnel such as Blue, Teegan, Pathfinder, Qarl Linden and others were shown the door. Overseas offices were closed down, rerouting all calls for technical help to America, which gave some residents from outside the US the Lab was turning its back on them. The fifty percent discount for nonprofit and educational areas was suddenly ended, despite Philip Linden and Linden Lab long touting Second Life as a place for learning. It was announced the Teen Grid would be closing down, and people worried that this would soon mean censorship or residents getting arrested in real life due to angry parents. These and other moves caused the morale of residents to sink. Rumors floated around Linden Labs was looking for a buyer. Some thought Second Life was headed for collapse, one publication saying the virtual world was on it's "death throes."

Rod Humble's resume was an impressive one, having worked for over twenty years in the computer gaming industry. Among his roles were his work on the Everquest multiplayer online game, and working on "The Sims." In 2009, Edge Magazine listed him as #2 of its “Hot 100 Game Developers.” Philip Rosedale / Philip Linden, whom had been acting as interim CEO after the unpopular M Linden stepped down, stated, “Rod is a great new leader for Linden Lab. ... With Rod's fresh insights and deep experience in creating and leading the development of fun, intuitive, immersive entertainment experiences that have attracted massive audiences of loyal users, he's the right leader to understand what makes us special and bring the next level of growth to Second Life."

Rod Humble looked forward to the job, "Joining Linden Lab is a very exciting opportunity, ... . Second Life is unique: it sits at the intersection of virtual worlds, avatars, and human contact. The Residents and developers of Second Life have built something very special, I am honored to join the talented team at Linden Lab to help expand this new frontier." A few residents questioned if someone from the gaming industry was truly the right choice, Second Life being a "sandbox" which was open ended and most games having fixed parameters on what one could do. But most were happy with the Linden's choice for new CEO, feeling he could deliver Second Life a shot in the arm and not only halt it's decline, but set it on course to growth again.

Rod Humble, who became known as Rodvik Linden, gave the impression of wanting to connect with the residents. He spent some time inworld, building a little, and on some occasions interacted with residents, such as his appearance at the Second Life Eighth Birthday, and more recently his trips to Bay City and 1920s Berlin. He also strived to "put the Lab back into Linden Lab," and Second Life's grid would see a number of developments with the goal of improving user experiences, such as "Project Shinning." He also had Linden Lab both acquire and develop several products, such as the Minecraft-like "Patterns" and the kid-friendly "Blocksworld." Probably their most important acquisition was "Desura," a distribution platform with a focus on smaller games from independent companies, or "indie" games. For better or worse, Second Life would no longer be the only product in Linden Lab's line-up. While residents on the whole understood how a diverse platform would mean a more stable financial footing, some worried this was a sign of the Lab leaving them behind.

Residents were generally happy during Rodvik's first year, although some felt the Lab was slow to act on the Redzone controversy. But in 2012, some actions (and non-actions) began to raise a few eyebrows. Official Linden events such as the "Kiss a Linden" on Valentines Day and the "Winterfest" with its "Linden Snowball Fight" were gone. Even the Second Life Birthday was no longer being sponsored by Linden Lab, the statement from the company suggesting the various communities should hold their own celebrations. To residents, it seemed like the Lab was distancing itself from the residents, only occasionally emerging from it's "bunker" to make reports with no name attached. Third-party viewers found themselves under pressure from Linden Lab, ordering them not to include features not on the official viewer, even if it was being researched in beta, what some viewer developers saw as the Lab saying "screw you" and people worried some teams would leave Second Life. Indeed at one meeting when one viewer team member hinted about leaving, a Linden answered "don't let the door hit you on the way out." Project Shinning, while approved by those with newer computers, those with older machines often complained their inworld experiences were becoming slower and laggier, not better.

In 2013 came two changes to the terms of service that raised not just concern but alarm. In spring, Linden Lab ordered third party Linden exchange services to cease operations, saying only their Lindex could buy and sell its virtual currency. Residents expressed alarm, some saying the Lindex often took a long time to make its transactions, and some overseas would not or could not use it, and there was some talk among some people leaving. Linden Lab would partially reverse course, saying third party exchangers could sell Lindens, but only Lindex could buy them back. Then in the Fall, with no other announcement than residents being asked to sign the Terms of Service upon logging in, it was noticed that the ToS had changed in regards to content creators, some interpreting them as to say the Lab could sell residents' content at any time without any input from the makers or offer a cent in compensation. At least two texture websites stated their goods could no longer be used in Second Life. Some content creators stopped creating and stated they would make no more until the terms would change. A few would move to other virtual worlds, such as InWorldz, which between Project Shinning and the ToS controversy saw people from Second Life getting accounts, and raising it's membership to 90,000 on paper. Second Life now now had small but growing competition from other virtual worlds. Residents repeatedly asked Linden Lab to change this part of the ToS back, but although Linden Lab issued a statement saying they regretted the confusion, they would not alter the few lines that had caused so much trouble. At least one resident commented Rodvik was partially to blame, saying his experience in the gaming industry made him inflexible in dealing with a product in which his company did not own most of the content.

It seemed the man whose arrival was greeted with cheers was now being seen, at least by some, as part of the problem.

In the midst of this were stories going around of some henious griefing incidents, such as the sim-crasher attacks on the Junkyard Blues club, with Linden Lab doing next to nothing about them. Indeed there were rumors that the dismissal of one Linden was because a griefer had complained, and so others were afraid to act. Fortunatetly later in the year, the Lab appeared to be doing more about griefers.

In contrast to M. Linden's departure, Rodvik's announcement was greeted with surprise, and maybe a little sadness. That there was no announcement for a week until Rod Humble himself told others did raise a few eyebrows, but the big news was that the head of Linden Labs for three years was gone. On a thread in the official forums, residents time and time again wished him well with whatever endeavor he was headed to. Of his performance, some thought he did great, a few thought he did poorly, the plurality seemed to feel he did an overall good job with some setbacks.

I think he did a good enough job considering the circumstances and the state of SL when he took over. When he was hired I would not have believed he would take the company as far as 2014. For a while there he seemed to breathe a bit of life and drive back into LL even if it was partially focused on products other than SL. Unfortunately LL and SL in particular needed someone to do more than just a "good enough" job. SL needed a visionary that would revitalise, if not revolutionise the whole product in order to regain the mass appeal we experienced during the boom years. Rod completely failed to deliver there. I wish him the best of luck.

And so Linden Lab's third CEO heads off into the sunset, leaving behind a virtual world no longer on the brink, but whose long term problems remain.

Other Comments: Daniel Voyager, Inara Pey

Bixyl Shuftan

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