Second Life maker unloads social VR platform Sansar
What Sansar's story so far teaches us about the next crop of social platforms.
Image courtesy Linden Lab
After over five years of development, Sansar, a social VR platform built by Linden Lab, the makers of Second Life, has a new owner.
"Recently we were presented with an exciting opportunity: strike out on our own as a new entity, under new management with a focus on premier virtual events," said a statement on the Sansar blog. "We knew we needed to keep together our team and our vision, and the incredible community we'd built over the years."
Sansar, which was first officially released in 2017 after several years of development, is basically a more sophisticated version of Second Life, allowing users to interact in a graphically rich online world.
The sale happened just as everyone is looking for new ways of connecting with friends and colleagues around the world, and as companies forced into telework by coronavirus are considering AR and VR as a solution.
Sansar acknowledged the opportunity presented by the moment.
"In these challenging times, we know just how important it is to stay connected," it said in its blog post. "That's why we'll be working hard these next few weeks to bring people together with new shows and surprises. Meet-and-greets and live performances from some of music's biggest names. Virtual versions of the festivals you thought were canceled or postponed. It'll be the most fun you ever had staying home!"
Linden Lab did not reply to a request for comment, but in an announcement, the company said it was choosing "to streamline its focus to continue the development and operations of the leading virtual world Second Life and licensed money services provider Tilia."
Sansar's sale is reflective of the slower-than-expected adoption of high-end VR, but there's also a lesson to be learned about the way Sansar had been positioned — a lesson that's of significance to anyone building, or working with, the next crop of social platforms.
Sansar's new owner Wookey Projects is a bit of an enigma: The company, which has existed in various iterations since at least 2015, seems to have few people on staff, high turnover among executives, and an opaque business proposition. Founded with the intent to launch "a web-cloud social search engine focused on positive human interaction," Wookey at one point attempted a reverse takeover of a publicly listed company. Now, it seems to have pivoted to AR and VR and acquired Sansar to kickstart those efforts.
Linden Lab began working on Sansar all the way back in 2014 and started sharing it with the public in 2016 as a successor to Second Life. The online virtual world first launched in 2003 had managed to attract a dedicated following, at one point topping 1 million monthly active users. However, efforts to grow the platform beyond that core following produced some cringe-worthy moments: Brands built huge virtual outposts and then quickly abandoned them, John Edwards campaigned in Second Life, only to see his virtual campaign headquarters vandalized. An in-world interview was disrupted by flying penises.
Sansar was supposed to deal with some of these and other shortcomings of Second Life, while also future-proofing the platform for massive audiences to come. Where Second Life's locations could only be visited by a couple of dozen users at a time, Sansar allows brands to run parallel instances of the same experience, making it a lot more scalable. Second Life liberally allowed X-rated content within designated communities, and Sansar was meant to be a safe space without porn. Where Second Life also came with a significant learning curve for new users, Sansar was supposed to be easier to navigate and inhabit.
Sansar's development was also very much a response to the tech zeitgeist of 2014: Facebook had just acquired Oculus for $2 billion, and PC-based VR headsets like the Oculus Rift were being seen as the future of immersive gaming and entertainment. However, sales of PC-based VR headsets disappointed, as early VR adopters flocked to cheaper solutions like Sony's PlayStation VR headset instead. By last year, even Facebook had largely pivoted to its standalone Oculus Quest headset. Linden Lab never extended support to either headset, telling consumers that the Quest was simply "not powerful enough to run Sansar."
Sansar can also be accessed without a headset, but still requires a powerful gaming PC to run. This reliance on heavy computing allowed Linden Lab to and some of Sansar's creators to build stunning 3D worlds, but it also became a significant barrier of entry. Linden Lab never published official Sansar numbers, but available metrics suggested that participation lagging, and even company employees admitted that it "has not had explosive growth yet." By late last year, members of Reddit's Sansar community concluded: "Sansar is dead."
Of course, there's no telling what might happen under Sansar's new ownership. Sansar's blog post seems optimistic that Wookey's lifeline will continue and expand the comapny's vision for virtual communities. "We're ecstatic to be embarking on this journey with Wookey, and we couldn't be more excited for what's to come!"
There may be another reason that Sansar failed. From the very beginning, Linden Lab designed it as a social VR platform. A kind of metaverse, much like it has been described in science fiction books like "Snowcrash" and "Ready Player One." Studio exec turned VC Mathew Ball didn't specifically mention Sansar in a recent essay. about ways to build the metaverse, but he did call out this kind of top-down thinking as wrong:
"Consider the real world," Ball wrote. "Just making a mall capable of fitting a hundred thousand people or a hundred shops doesn't mean it attracts a single consumer or brand. 'Town squares' emerge organically around existing infrastructure and behaviors, to fulfill existing civilian and commercial needs."
The same was true for the metaverse, Ball argued. Instead of building a social canvas, companies were better suited to build apps or games fulfilling a specific need, and then organically grow the social layer once the user base is big enough. Ball cited Fortnite as an example for something that has been primarily positioned as a game but has since become so much more to many of its users.
Roblox a company that just raised $150 million in funding at a $4 billion valuation very much fits the same bill. It launched as a multiplayer online game in 2006, and has since become a blockbuster success story with 4 million peak concurrent users. Compared to Sansar, Roblox is a lot less polished, but it is a lot easier to create content for it. That, in turn, has allowed players in Roblox to build from the bottom up what Sansar was meant to be, as David George and Marc Andreessen recently wrote in a blog post about their decision to lead a $150 million investment round in the company:
"While pundits have been distracted by the readiness debates and questions over VR vs. AR, the foundations of a global metaverse have been quietly built in the background … in Roblox. With the company's focus on safety, persistent identity across worlds, and the ability to easily hop from one immersive experience to the other — tens of millions of which already exist on the Roblox platform — the company is well on their way to making the metaverse a reality."
A reality, one might add, that will ultimately unfold outside of dedicated social VR platforms like Sansar.
Janko Roettgers (@jank0) is a senior reporter at Protocol, reporting on the shifting power dynamics between tech, media, and entertainment, including the impact of new technologies. Previously, Janko was Variety's first-ever technology writer in San Francisco, where he covered big tech and emerging technologies. He has reported for Gigaom, Frankfurter Rundschau, Berliner Zeitung, and ORF, among others. He has written three books on consumer cord-cutting and online music and co-edited an anthology on internet subcultures. He lives with his family in Oakland.