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I’ve decided to terminate my naive, creator’s relationship with Second Life. I realise it’s a whiny and melodramatic statement to make, but I can’t ignore a feeling that I’ve seen the light.. or chosen to accept it after years of ignorance.

What triggered my finite decision is an email; one of Linden Lab’s ‘editor’s picks’ in which the Lab promotes a sim or project happening on their Grid. Some are educational programmes or shopping events, but most are artistic developments like Nemo, a Jules Verne-inspired creation. Part of what causes my negative mood is the framing of such ‘picks’. In this one newsletter we are given an unrealistic portrayal of life on the Grid, as a 3D artist’s detailed and impressive work occupies a space Linden Lab wouldn’t dare to fill with a postcard from the chaotic ‘mainland’. The best work I have seen on the Grid is completed without any apparent concern for profits or sustainability, and I’ve seen a few favourites disappear altogether. Even those projects which charge for land rental or for services run a rickety trail as administrators seek to balance an appealing price with the costs they have to cover in maintaining their Grid presence.

Then Linden Lab come along, photograph the build and promote it as a reason to visit. Those who can support their own projects will no doubt reap some joy from this, as their work is promoted by an official source for all to see. But does the everyday creator stand to benefit from presence on the Grid, promoted or not? I strongly believe that this isn’t the case. With Extropia as my example, I’ve found an emotional and creative minefield. Work on the region has been fulfilling, has taught me a lot and has helped stamp some online world entrepeneurship onto my CV, but it has never made its financial backers any money. I believe that most projects manage the reverse in fact, sustained only by their creators’ passion and emotional investment in the work.

I’ve had to say “enough”, however. After nearly three years stewarding the region as its architect, I’ve managed only to keep those parts I’m responsible for steady, as they struggle up a downwards escelator. The design risks are obvious: in order to compete with the mainland and other developments on land rental costs, the region has to charge the bare minimum to run to cost. In order to support three regions we have to rent a lot of that land out, which means there’s little room to make money off the top. Even if the region is sustained on that income, it’s entirely within Linden Lab’s practice to swoop in and highlight the region as part of their own campaigns. End result? Linden lab makes money from our hard work where we’re left drained.

It’s often said that online worlds hold vast possibilities beyond that which Linden Lab’s own product offers, and I too have promoted the idea that Second Life is not the ‘be all and end all’. Yet software runs to trends; if at last there were a new world supporting user-generated content to the extent Second Life does, it’s likely its producers or backers would seek to deviate only slightly from Linden Lab’s models, further setting back the idea we can make money from them. I find it hard to devise a world of my own with this criterion because it assumes the developer would be content in a role as internet service provider (ISP). Though it has attempted to fulil this role it seems unlikely Linden Lab ever could, and so money remains a sore point.

I didn’t start working in online worlds because I wanted to make money. I did it because I relished the challenge and found a fulfilling and creative platform for my ideas. But the project is extremely costly, and the online environment makes it nearly impossible for a designer like me to earn any sort of living. Either I devote every waking hour to the design and maintenance of a world ultimately earning Linden lab more money than it would us, or I treat it as a casual hobby and risk it running huge debts. neither is a happy picture, and neither one makes good sense as use of my time.