Designing for Second Life

It may come as something of a shock to those still getting to grips with life to discover that millions out there are already enjoying a second. Though perhaps what's most surprising is that this 'other life' is providing some forward-thinking people - including several artists and design studios - with a very real source of revenue.

Launched in 2003, Linden Lab's Second Life differs from other massively multiplayer online games in one critical way: it has no core gameplay. While other online experiences promote communication between participants as part of a cooperative or competitive gaming experience, the purpose of Second Life is essentially to do nothing more than explore, make friends, gain status and build up a whole new persona in the process.

But the two things that really make Second Life interesting are that it's a world driven by money, and that it's one whose very appearance can be shaped by its residents. Here, trading is actively encouraged. Virtual possessions and activities often carry a virtual price tag, and users looking to accrue wealth, items and real estate rely on Linden Dollars. Virtual money is hardly revolutionary; what is, is the way users can buy Linden Dollars with real cash and also exchange virtual wealth for money in a real bank account.

The upshot is that Second Life is a place where people can make money by plying a virtual trade. And it's also a place that ad agencies are realising has the potential to give corporate clients a new kind of venue to market and advertise their products. With a degree of interactivity that goes far beyond what's possible on websites, agencies and design studios can create virtual spaces where it's possible to hold a launch, a virtual concert, or create a showroom to display a virtual 3D version of a real product.

Brand immersion
"Second Life is all about brand immersion," says Justin Bovington, CEO of design studio Rivers Run Red. "It's a great place for gaining an understanding of future trends. A perfect example is the work we do for Reebok. We test products, getting focus-group feedback on colours, textures and designs."

With Second Life gaining so much coverage of late, some have suggested that the whole phenomenon is being overhyped and that corporate interest isn't likely to last. Bovington disagrees. "Clients wouldn't be interested unless they were getting something back," he says. "And with companies like IBM and Intel taking it incredibly seriously as a platform, Linden is even now working to launch it as an operating system of sorts."

For designers looking to dip their toes in the waters of Second Life, the success enjoyed by Jacqui Farley (or Sachi Vixen, as her Second Life avatar is known) proves particularly inspiring. Although she possesses a background in the creative arts, Farley arrived in Second Life with little more than basic Paint Shop Pro skills. She now runs successful Second Life shop, Adam-n-Eve, with business partner Damen Gorilla. The success of retailing to users has also attracted corporate clients.

"I was asked to help someone on a corporate job who desperately needed some complete avatars," she recalls. "I was introduced to a rep of a film promotion agency and have helped them with projects in Second Life for 300, Die Hard 4.0 and Transformers."

Now running the two strands of the business side-by-side, while further expanding her own design skills, Farley's in no doubt that designing for Second Life can be a lucrative affair. But she also has a word of warning: "There are lots of people who make content in Second Life, but those who are actually earning a living from it are a significantly smaller proportion."

Design for life
But if the number of Second Life users earning a living running virtual design shops is, for now at least, rather small, the opportunities for designers able to create online environments, events and experiences for larger clients is markedly more promising. As well as the aforementioned IBM and Intel, many other major, marketing-savvy companies, such as Toyota, Sony-BMG and Microsoft, are now represented in Second Life. Servicing these companies is a small but growing number of studios partially or completely focused on virtual design work. Alongside Electric Sheep Company and Millions of Us, Bovington's Rivers Run Red currently leads the way.

"Demand from our clients means our work is now completely based around Second Life," says Bovington, "and this year that'll turn over around $3 million."

For artists looking to get a foot in the door, it's worth noting that Second Life content must be created using basic built-in tools. There's no way to build models and texture using off-the-shelf packages.

Many of the basic skills required - texturing, modelling and so on - are, of course, similar to those needed for work in the videogame industry. The difference, says Chris Parks, a concept artist at Millions of Us, is the lack of specialisation. "Although we follow the same production pipeline as most games companies, none of our artists handle just one specific task," he says. "Modellers often texture as well, animators will sometimes program, and concept artists will create textures."

Whole new world
Though the building blocks may be similar, the process of designing an 'experience' is very different indeed. While game levels are relatively linear, the Second Life world is more open-ended and user behaviour far less predictable.

"Second Life is a unique design medium with a very complex social net that takes time to understand," stresses Parks. "If you want to design successful projects you need to know your limitations, freedoms, what works and what doesn't work."

Opportunities for artists hoping to work within Second Life are, for the moment, somewhat limited. But given that the market has only really existed for a year now, this is clearly just the beginning. If predictions for its continued expansion and the growth of other virtual worlds prove correct, then 3D spaces such as this may well become the standard for online socialising, browsing, business communication and shopping.

"Second Life is going to have a huge impact, but no one's really tapped the creative potential of it yet," says design guru Neville Brody. "It's currently just a model of a physical space, but has the potential to be a whole different kind of model, one where you can do things you can't actually do in the physical world."

And that's when the opportunities for artists could get really interesting!

Second Life is free to download and play.

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