Thursday, January 7, 2021

2020: Year in Review

2020 was a challenging year in real life, with much drama and overwheling tragedy. Second Life would see it reflected here in some ways, as well as it's own special set of challenges. But there were some happier milestones as well.

In real life the big news was the Coronavirus Pandemic. Worldwide over eighty million caught the virus and close to two million perished, probably more as some countries can't or won't report all their cases. Both all of Europe and the United States each suffered twenty million getting sick, and in the US over a third of a million would die, with over half a million perishing in Europe. Most whom were infected recovered, some not getting sick, but some people were left with lasting symptoms from being short on breath after even light exercise to memory trouble and difficulty concentrating. In Second Life, there were numerous reminders of COVID-19. There were displays in health areas and discussions in numerous places. There were also memorials to those whom passed away. People also reacted to the toilet paper shortages with humor, virtual TP showing up a lot, and one avatar maker would take his talents to real life by making a tabletop game poking fun at the absurdity of it all. The biggest reaction was of people either spending more time in Second Life, coming back after an abscence, or showing up for the first time. While the Pandemic might have been good for the virtual world's numbers, it wasn't always good for the residents. While some merchants made more money with more people buying things, some landowners having lost their real-life sources of income would have trouble coming up with the money to pay for their sims.

2020 was also the year Linden Lab would find itself acquired by a group of investors.  In mid-July, it was announced by Linden Lab they were now under the ownership of an investment group led by Randy Waterfield and Bradford Oberwager. Waterfield was the chairman of an investment group.. Oberwager had founded and/or run five technology companies. Linden Lab's founder Philip Rosedale stated he new Oberwager and had high hopes for this development. Bret Linden stated the two had a good deal of knowledge of what Second Life was and wasn't, and that the deal allowed Linden Lab to continue to run independently and run Second Life. The reaction from the residents was that while some were optimistic things would continue to run well, some expressed worry that the new owners would either run Second Life badly or dismantle it. As to what attracted the investors, some wondered if they were confident the Pandemic ensured Second Life would be profitable for a few more years. Others looked at Tilia, the online payment service the Lab had come up with. But after a few weeks, the chatter went down.

In April, Linden Lab finally made good on something many residents have wished for a decade, the return of last names for accounts. But, there was a catch. A more accurate description would be last names as an option for new accounts as newcomers will still continue to get "Resident" for a surname. And the option is only available for Premium accounts, whom also have to pay a fee. Someone with a basic account would have to pay $52 for a change. A number felt Linden Lab was being greedy at a time some residents had lost their real-life jobs. Others felt with as many as there were asking for the return of last names, the Lab might have been worried about being swamped with requests. A smaller complaint was that the options for last names were lousy ones. But with Linden Lab committed to sticking with it's system of not offering a surname again after it's been discontinued, it's options were limited.

One thing on the minds of residents this year was the move to The Cloud. Work by Linden Lab on moving Second Life's data from it's old servers to Amazon Cloud servers had begun earlier. It continued throughout 2020, with the Lab announcing in November that half the sim data had been moved. And in December, it was announced at all sim data had been moved over, "We are now in The Cloud." But throughout this time, many residents complained about the number of glitches, saying they were getting worse and thought the move to The Cloud was to blame. Linden Lab finally had to admit that there were some complications, and asked the residents for patience. While some are optimistic that eventually the results will be lower fees and tiers, others feel the move was a mistake that will mean a buggier Second Life.

With the Pandemic, there were more people buying sims. And Second Life had it's biggest growth in years going from 24,740 to 25,555, with close to a thousand more private sims. But with Linden Lab moving the Grid's data to Amazon Cloud servers, it found that there was only so much growth that could be handled. So they announced there was a "limited availability" of new land, and not everyone whom asked would get the chance to buy a new sim.

In 2019, one of the big stories was the new continent of Bellisseria. In 2020, the Moles continued to work on it, expanding it to the east and doubling it in size. The area wasn't just homes and roads, but also wilderness areas and railroads. Late in the year, there were sims full of beach areas appearing to eastern Bellisseria's northeast, and when opened were full of the stilt houses that were announced by Linden Lab six months earlier at the SL17B. Linden Lab had just earlier announced a second new design of Linden home for 2020, the Chalets. Most likely, they will be available sometime in the spring or summer of 2021.

Despite all the resources going to the Cloud move and Linden Homes, there was one major technical development. In April, Linden Lab announced the Environmental Enhancement Project, or EEP. Under development since 2017, this was a successor to Windlight and offered more options in allowing landowners to change the sky of their lands to make day and night cycles longer or shorter, or make them like something out of a fantasy or science fiction tale. But at first only a minority of residents could see the results. For a time, those using the more popular Firestorm viewer could only see oddly-colored skies in sims making use of EEP. Finally in December, the latest Firestorm viewer was EEP compatible. But as a few residents using it felt their viewers were going slower, not everyone would make the change right away.

In May, Linden Lab announced it was slightly changing the official logo of Second Life. The change was minor, making the hand and eye symbol from bluish-green to blue and slightly changing the lettering of the words "Second Life" and making them black. But it was the first change in the logo since the virtual world first came on in 2003.

In 2019, the Linden Endowment of the Arts shut down after eight years of operation following a vote by it's committee, a blow to Second Life's artist community. About a year later in September, Linden Lab announced it's upcoming "spiritual successor," the Second Life Endowment of the Arts. The SLEA was scheduled to open it's first sims of exhibits sometime in January 2021.

Also in September, Linden Lab launched an online store to sell Second Life-themed merchandise. There were T-shirts and coffee cups with the Second Life logo. Curiously, although there were Linden bear pins, there were no plush Linden bears. Even more curious, Linden Lab didn't do the website on it's own but through the Redbubble online store service which was made for independent artists and not multi-million dollar corporations.

When 2020 started, the "next-generation virtual world" of Sansar was in trouble. After two and a half years, it had failed to gain much of a following, the high hopes Linden Lab had for it unrealized, and it had recently gone through layoffs in Novemeber 2019. Three months later in February, there was an even greater number of layoffs, with a few people and resources moved back to developing Second Life. In February, CEO Ebbe Altberg let on that the Lab was looking to either partner with someone to run Sansar or sell it. Then in March, Linden Lab announced Sansar had been sold to Wookey. While some were sad to see the former Torley Linden, whom stuck with Sansar, no longer part of the Lab, the more vocal residents viewed the news of the sale along the lines of "it's about time," glad Linden Lab was no longer spending money on it. Despite no longer being part of Linden Lab, Sansar seems to be holding it's own under Wookey. But the place looks less like it's on it's way to being an open-ended virtual world and more of a "virtual venue platform" in which most of the people, and money, come from the events held there. 

One feature of the Mainland, the pod car tours, had a scare when in August their owner announced she was closing them down following a 24 hour account suspension and lack of communication from Linden Lab. But once word got around, she and the Lab would talk, and the tours went on as before.

As every year, there would be many events held in Second Life. This year though, with the Coronovirus Pandemic making large events in real life. Burning Man, known for it's fans holding a spinoff event in the fall, would move it's festival online to a number of virtual worlds, including Second Life. Gen-Con, "the largest tabletop game convention in North America" would also hold it's events online, Second Life being a key part of it. 2020 being an election year, there were some political exhibits inworld. But the increasing bitter tone of politcal rhetoric resulted in fewer residents showing interest compared to twelve years ago, or even four years ago. With the "Black Lives Matter" protests in the United States in real life, they would have an impact inworld with two places inworld about the movement as well as at least one discussion. This year's Second Life Birthday, the SL17B, had "Vacations and Road Trips" as a theme. It would be distinguished by the exhibitors having greater freedom on what to build, in addition to the first time many would see the Environmental Enhancement Project feature in use for the skies of sims. But there would be no great revelations from Linden Lab as to what was in the future, aside from the next Linden Homes. This year's Relay for Life season, "Game On Cancer!" was a success, with over 200 teams raising over $300,000 USD worth of Lindens. On the Relay Weekend, over 1400 avatars walked the 49 sim track, the biggest in years. It's spinoff events, the Fantasy Faire, the Christmas Expo, and Making Strides also got attention. Other notable events included the Virtual Worlds Best Practices in Education Conference, which at least one discussion talked about how the Coronovirus crisis might lead to lasting changes in teaching, and Burn2, which did well despite being overshadowed by Burning Man moving to online.

Other changes that went on worthy of attention included the Confederation of Democratic Simulators having two elections free of drama, and Motecito Bay redesigning it's sim.

Sadly, Second Life would say goodbye to some of it's residents. The Coronovirus that had claimed so many in real-life claimed Ucello Poultry, a noted resident and former blogger of Bay City. Cerdwin Flanagan noted for her work in the Fantasy Faire, had also passed. So did Autopilotpatty Poppy of Caledon, Ertina Loopen of the Relay Rockers, and Zed Ravenhurst of the Relay's Team ACTS. William Beauclerc, noted for his work at the Builders Brewery, had died. For the Newser's home community the Sunweavers, it was discovered Tigerclaw Apps had passed away the previous year. Comcat Fenstalker, a member of the Relay's Maniacs whom occasionally went to Sunweaver clubs, also died. One passing outside Second Life caught the Newser's attention, Ferne Le'roy in the Final Fantasy MMO had passed from Corona and friends held an online funeral in the game.

Second Life would say goodbye to some places. Once the scene of yearly art competitions that awarded huge prizes, the last of the University of Western Australia sims was shut down this year. One community that almost closed down was Second Norway in the Blake Sea, the owner taking a financial hit due to the Cronovirus Crisis. But thanks to a deal with Linden Lab, most of it's sims were saved. The Yavascript travel pod tours were almost taken offline following a misunderstanding due to a 24 hour ban on the builder. But it was cleared up and the pod tours continued.

For the neighbors of the Newser, the Sunweaver community, the year brought some sadness with the passing of two friends. But there was also activity with a Relay season that brought an air show and a bumper car event. The Arcadia Asylum would hold an amusement park and a haunted house. A new club opened, the Bouncing Bunny Beach Club, and a 12 hour marathon event, a club crawl involving six clubs on New Years Eve brought in 2021 to the locals.

For the Newser, it was our tenth year of covering the news of the people, places, and events across Second Life. It's been a pleasure covering the news this past decade. And we look forward to continuing to cover it for years to come.

Bixyl Shuftan
SL Newser

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