an exploration of the Secondlife platform as an immersive environment, a poltical space, and as a generative medium for architectural design.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

the sustainability of an SL architecture practice

(file under long and boring)

last week lordfly digeridoo raised the topic of players charging real life wages for second life work in the second life forum (link). this was a few days after i privately gave him some friendly advice to not cut off his own nose by publically undervaluing his abilities when the market is ready to support more (link). he asked how much he should charge and whether this was fair. while many supported the idea, there were also many that thought it was a ridiculous proprosition. the truth in this matter is that real life wages for virtual world work has been a part of SL since 1.2. however, architects, a content creation industry to which lordfly belongs, just happen to be as incredibly undervalued in second life as they are in everyday life. moreso.

players do indeed make real life wages from SL if they are not architects, fashion designers like nephilain protagonist, skin texturers like munchlower zauis, land traders such as anshe chung, and certainly vehicle and weapon makers like francis chung, make tremendous returns for the time spent tinkering in a game. these players invest a lot of time and energy into their SL products and services and often at risk, to provide 3rd party content and services to the player community. surprisingly though, in a 3d virtual world, those that arbiter the environment of SL with the 3d virtual architecture are unacclaimed as succesful content creators.

1. the avatar is just a packet of pixels

one reason for this is that in everyday life our physical bodies make shelter a necessity while in second life architecture is but a mere stage set. while north americans by and large live in uninspiring shoe box apartments and carbon copied tract housing and mcmansions, work in just as ininspiring office towers, shop at warehouses like costco and walmart, and fine dine at lovely chain restaurants like denny's and pizza hut in the sea of parking lots due to some unexplicable cultural aversion to good architecture and urban planning, physical necessity requires the services of the professionals that oversee the development of our built environment. in secondlife, a consequenceless game slash visual chatroom that it still is, our avatar has no such needs. shelter is so unnecessary to the enjoyment of sl that the majority of players do not even own any land to build on.

2. i need new clothes to go to the club

a second reason for the virtual architects marginalization in SL is its relatively small market. for a player that does choose to have a home or a store, like in everyday life this player needs but a single instance which can provide a wonderful stage set for quite some time. so house shopping is not a frequent activity amongst players. meanwhile, avatar accessories, such as clothing and hairstlye, dynamic content such as vehicles and weapons, and emotive content such as cuddling couches and sex beds are the kind of things that relate directly to the activities that are the essence of SL, those being communicative and interrelative in nature. av accessories in particular, are much more useful in personal expression in SL as they are directly upon the avatar. a house is an indirect expression that is only in play when players playing upon that stage.

due to frequent per capita purchases, fashion designers in sl are able to leverage the mass market to support their income, while architects are not. for this reason it is no surprise that there are dozens of professional quality avatar accessory makers while arguably not yet a single professional quality prefab designer to my knowledge (except perhaps one - neil protagonist -who makes single room sky boxes which just barely qualify as architecture by insightfully recognizing the stage set role of virtual space in SL at the moment).

another thing to consider in the comparision of fashion and accessory design with architectural design is that owing to the av mesh and skeleton, all avs are essentially equal, while housing size demands also vary with the players teir.

3. building is fun and therapeutic

a third aspect of SL that i believe prevents skilled builders from finding success is that unlike scripting or texturing, at the beginners level, building is by far the easiest and most accessible. manipulating the basic geomotries is relatively easy, and there is no need for outside support. scripting, meanwhile, for those without any exposure to programming, is like learning a new language. that's great for the kids on the teen grid, but at age 30, unless you can sign me up for a structured course, i'll pass. texturing in photoshop not only has a similarly steep learning curve, there is a 600$ price tag on photoshop to contend with. when a player has to chose between dressing like a noob and living in a nice prefab or having a sexy av and living in the self made baby blue box with seams and with nice cylindrical stone textured tower with a cone on the top in the corner, they will choose the later. not only will they choose it, they will be over joyed with their creation and the feeling of satisfaction, as their childhood imagination takes hold and that baby blue castle is the same one prince charming lived in in cinderella.

after having recieved dozens of tours in the last few years of baby blue light prim castles, shiney retexture gnu sloped roof siggy romulus freebies (you know what i'm talking about, you all lived in it once), and sprawling flickerful three story peach coloured mansions from proud and jubilant builders nobody could ever convince them to give up their fun and sense of accomplishment in exchange for a technically superior prefab, nor should anyone ever want to.

4. zomg i won't pay a lot of money for something fake

and the final reason i believe that virtual architects are undervalued in secondlife is because it's still a world of hobbiests. custom 3d design is a time consuming process and if it is a custom project it is consequently very expensive. given the choice of buying a mediocre 3000 L$ prefab, building it themselves, or hiring someone with actual 3d skills at a rate of 3000 L$/hr right up to 10-15 thousand L$/hr, a player will choose the former two options. this drives builders on the lower end of skill level to work for pittances to enjoy their hobby, and higher end builders to refuse commissions. it's like the internet in 1992. who was hiring professional web designers then for their website?

what does this mean for frank llyod avatar?

is all lost for virtual architects then? will sl simply be unable to support a vibrant market for architecture? i certainly don't feel that is the case. i think the market still hasn't been tested with high quality and critical architectural design geared for SL. we have not yet seen the architectural equivalent to the dominus shadow. we are waiting for someone to spend weeks or months on a line of houses that will just blow our minds with their beautiful textures and mindnumbing primiliciousness.

in the mean time, the handfull of top end builders interested in working in SL quitely organize themselves for the next Wells Fargo or some more hand offs of welcome and orientation areas from the chronically understaffed LL art department.


  • At 11/12/2005 09:53:00 a.m., Blogger Prokofy Neva said…

    JWu, I have to challenge just about everything you write here. I believe you're writing it from a perch at what you believe to be the core of SL, but it's the old core.

    Have you looked up north? There are now something like 1400 servers, and that means literally hundreds and hundreds of new sims in the north. What's even more surprising is that a lot of these have land-owners and houses on them. And what's even more surprising than that is that a) newbies are getting a lot better at building as a whole because more and more talented people are getting drawn to SL and b) midbies and land-staking oldbies are commissioning builds or buying expensive prefabs.

    I'm not sure what you would call a "professional prefab". A prefab only made by a RL architect? But RL credentials are not a coin I'm going to accept in this realm. So I would say that "professional prefabs" in SL include people who consistently make a good product, have a wide variety of choice, have options like tinting and modding, have customer service, and various good placement devices. So these builders/architects include: Juro Kothari, Barnesworth Anubis, Ingrid Ingersoll, Desmond Shang, Cocoanut Koala, Tim Hoffman, Sherry Case, Bill Stirling, Tyra Valkyrie, Tyra Valkyrie, Planet Mars, Curt Kongo just to name an incomplete list of people from whom I buy houses, place them, and rent them.

    Now, I'm well aware that from your vaunted snarky architectury viewpoint, some of these people are making what you view as baby blue castles with cone tops -- paper-thin Victorian dollhouses. But in fact, that's actually a cliche. Some of their line might be like this; not all. Like the horrid Siggy Romulus prefab, there's no accounting for people's taste -- they could even do better with the newbie cabin or Free FLW house from the Lindens out of the library or the telehub content, but they don't.

    I think this entire thread with Lordfly angsting about charing $3000 per house and everyone else telling him to charge a little more or you telling him that the market can't sustain it, etc. is just terribly out of touch. My actual SL experience bears this out.

    What's happened is that a number of people who first started specializing in furniture or even skins and clothing have branches out to make houses as just another kind of more elaborate wearable avatar accessory. This point of view has helped them sell like hotcakes, and sell even at prices of $5000 or $10000 even for a prefab. They built up a customer base on the furniture or dress line, then added on a few houses, then a few more. They weren't bogged down by hobbling architectural concepts and visions about volume and space, but just made something around an avatar that was kind of like his 1501th attachment in his inventory. Their chief priority is privacy for av sex, and then camera angles for post-coital conversation. By staying focused on these very admirable goals for marketing to avatars, they have won the prize, whereas all the boys who graduated from architectural school are sitting crying in their warehouses with overstocked inventory.

    What I'm noticing is that people you've never heard of are taking commissions and doing very credible jobs. Sometimes they are just people who happen to be graphic artists or know CAD in RL, sometimes not. They might only build for a few friends and branch out a bit because they don't have that much time to spend in SL. I'm thinking of some architects I know like Galls Cain or Dook Buckenberger; Galls made an excellent prefab for a 512 among the best I've seen as to style and economy; Dook has a nice build he made in Zephyr for a friend. This is a lot of micro-brewing as it were, and offers an interesting possibility for being yet another engine of creativity in SL.

    At what point would you accept that an SL house-builder is an SL-architect? Are you going to insist on RL credentials? The danger there is the danger with all professions, especially neo-professions, where the practitioners, insecure and mindful of competition and losing their edge, put up roadblocks and barriers to apprenticeship to increase their value in society's eyes.

    The architects (uber-architects) who make the architecture school modern stuff with the porcelain toilet-bowl look and taut strung wires like an electric power station and the narrow neon-blue or green plasticine wall units like a CAT scan (the current fashion in architecture like stone or wood and angular squares in a FLW house were in the 50s) are not going to appeal to everyone's sense of beauty. I can appreciate them as sculptures or as solutions to problems in SL landscape but they'd be hard to live in and look at day after day, as you know.

    $3000 for a prefab now is more like the norm, than the exception. People who still sell prefabs for $200 or $500 are simply not confident of their buyers or subsidizing others' games. If anything, people like Myles Cooper have pushed this figure up much higher to $8000, through the use of heavy advertising around their stores on through SLEXchange.com where sums like $8000 or $10000 are charged for items like a house that has pools, garages, tinting, kitchens, etc. etc.

    Usually the pattern is that when people have a store that is finally doing well, they settle down and commission a house on at least 4096 or even half a sim. This is the middle class you are overlooking. The market isn't just blingtards buying Barbie-doll cardboard sets. This class of people are more likely to buy a $5000 or more prefab from madison Gardner or Azrael Rubio that has sleek lines, Asian look, or modern Colorado look that isn't far from what you would call "good architecture" even if you might crab about texture tiling or something.

    The single greatest thing to surprise me in SL lately is this appearance of really talented building on newbie squares. It's not just oldbies making alts, as I've found from talking to the people. It just happens that there is some kind of invisible learning curve/knowledge curve/word-of-mouth curve happening with SL itself. There are more than 75,000 customers associated with SL now. I know it's common to assume these people are just basics and blingtards. But in fact, a good chunk of them are urban professionals with disposable income and DSL lines and college educations just like yourself, so why underestimate them?

    We don't have the latest figures from LL about how many premium accounts are landowners. I'm going to guess from eyeballing the new continents that it has gone from the 6000 it was 3 months ago to probably something more like 25,000. Every single one of these landowners needs a building for a house or store; very few opt to make gardens only.

  • At 11/15/2005 04:20:00 p.m., Blogger jauani said…

    the question is of a sustainable practice, whereby one can make a substantial income from doing commissions in SL such that it would be a viable parttime or fulltime employment in real life.

    right now the rates that people are willing to pay the most talented of sl artisans for custom work is a pittance realtive to rates that could be earned with those 3d and 2d skills in other avenues.

    when i say there are no professional quality prefabs out there, it has nothing to do with RL credentials. it has to do with quality that people come to expect from other games, a quality of serious and skilled 3d and 2d artists. it is irrelevant if the person is actually employed as such in RL or if the skills have developed as a hobby. your contention is surprising as has been your own belief that "SL is a dog's breakfast."

    though there are a few talented builders in your list, i have yet to see a work of theirs that makes me say "WoW!" as in " beat that, World of Warcraft!" not surprisingly, none of them operate a sustainable SL architecture practice to my knowledge akin to SL fashion designers such as pixel dolls or caliente.

    Neil Protagonist has a few skyboxes, one of which really does reach this professional quality. his egyptian skybox is worth the visit to charteuse (not surprisingly, as it is well known that neil is a professional 3d game designer). if anyone has examples please point them out to me. so far i only know of that one.

    with so many talented builders in SL, i asked myself why do we so rarely see professional quality work, particularly in commissions. why don't competent builders such as barneworth, juro or lordfly get paid appropriate rates for their work? my conclusion is not, as you seem to suggest, that their is a lack of supply of talent, but that there is a lack of demand for it.

    i have looked at the prefabs on slboutique and slexchange. if their builders are indeed making a good return for the time they invested in them, i'm glad to hear it. i would be happy to be proven wrong about my pessimistic perceptions on the matter.

  • At 11/21/2005 08:58:00 a.m., Blogger Prokofy Neva said…

    Jauani, this claim that I said "SL is a dog's breakfast" is one of those forum illusions that many suffer from. I never said such a thing. In fact, what happened, the highly manipulative blaze Spinnaker started a thread in which he said, not quoting me, but putting words in my mouth, "Prokofy is Right. SL is a Dog's Breakfast." I didn't say it, it is too harsh a judgement, and he was just trying to pillor me AND use me as a puppeted stalking horse for his own agenda. Bleh to all that.

    Julia Hathor makes good Egyptian and Greek skyboxes or spas too. Check those out in Columbia on the island.

    I'll go look at Neil's but I have to shrug if you tell me stuff like "I have yet to see something as good as World of Warcraft." Sure, if you pay 3-D game designers RL top salaries, and put them in a space where no ugly user content clutters up the world, they can shine.

    The charm of SL is you can take any level of ability and still build and still call it home. Many people want that. We have yet to see if a) anyone will move into Levittown or b) anyone will move into Ingrid's sculpted, stylized rentals in Brown. Sure, she might go through her own winnowed commerce circle and dig up some friends/tenants that way. But on the open market? No. I doubt it. Why? I should know. I like Ingrid's houses, too, and they don't tend to rent as well as others. It's just a harsh reality of the SL market.

  • At 11/21/2005 09:48:00 a.m., Blogger jauani said…

    "Sure, if you pay 3-D game designers RL top salaries, and put them in a space where no ugly user content clutters up the world, they can shine." - Prokofy

    prokofy, if the sl economy is essentially real people paying real money for goods and services, then there is no reason for players to expect high quality for their money. we already see this kind of quality readily available in the avatar clothing industry. while the player comunity could not likely support custom building architecture practices, it does support prefab businesses.

    i don't see why 3-d game designers couldn't make such business in sl? a few already do. it's no secret that the protagonist's are pros. secondly, after working in sl for over a year or two, quite a few people who started learning photoshop as a hobby have become pros. playing sl has helped quite a few people in learning very real 2d and 3d skills.

    i agree with you that one of the charms of sl is the ability to build your own home. however the focus of this entry is people who build as 3rd party content providers for the sl community, either as prefabricators or custom builders.

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