Two reasons why Minecraft is succeeding where Second Life failed

Söderhavet’s redesign of Sweden’s digital identity is not the first time that we’ve worked on a nation-branding project. Back in May 2007 we helped build Second House of Sweden, Sweden’s embassy in the virtual world of Second Life.

That project proved to be a remarkable PR coup for Sweden, with major global news outlets covering the inauguration of the embassy by Sweden’s foreign minister Carl Bildt.

As we now know, the rapid adoption of Facebook and Twitter soon monopolized mindshare, helped along by the rise of smartphones. Second Life’s star began to fade — Sweden’s official presence in Second Life was toned down in 2009, and the embassy was turned off in January 2013.

Today, another contender is vying for (virtual) world prominence: Minecraft, by Sweden’s own Mojang AB. So what’s different this time around? And will it be enough for Minecraft to avoid the fate of Second Life?

There are two major aspects to Minecraft that give it a leg up on Second Life: Ease of use and access via mobile devices. Let’s take each in turn.

Second Life has a steep learning curve; learning how to build 3D objects in that vector-based world is similar to mastering a CAD program. Conceptually, Minecraft is a lot simpler; its worlds are rasterized, built from cubic blocks not unlike digital Lego. A little effort in Minecraft immediately yields rewards, whereas in Second Life the apprenticeship is long and arduous.


View of the Colosseum, made by Empire Legacy.

Even a child can get going with Minecraft, and many do. The nature of the platform promotes collaborative play focused on building things; Second Life also promotes collaborative play, but focused more on adult role-playing pursuits.

No wonder, then, that Minecraft users are younger on average than Second Life residents. But the simplicity of Minecraft is not a handicap. Users have built complete functioning computers inside Minecraft, while Britain’s national mapping agency, Ordnance Survey, has used Minecraft to construct a huge rasterized scale model of the UK.

Arguably, Minecraft is to Second Life what Twitter has been to the blog: Because it takes far less effort to publish a tweet than a blog post, far more people have taken to tweeting. Minecraft enjoys those same dynamics vis-à-vis Second Life.

Mobile access
Minecraft’s relative simplicity is also technological — it requires less computer power to play, with lower minimum system requirements. Visits to Second Life, in contrast, are often accompanied by the whine of a computer fan as the graphics chip pumps out the most realistic scene possible. Second Life’s original codebase is also older, from before smartphones were a viable platform for 3D interactive experiences.

The upshot is that there has never been a Second Life viewer for mobile devices, while there is a mobile 3D viewer that lets you explore Second Life but not build in it, Minecraft has full-featured best selling apps for smartphones. And because these devices are always with us, Minecraft is always available for a casual session whenever the opportunity strikes.

Web access
Second Life’s popularity has also been hampered by the lack of a web client. When we managed the Second House of Sweden, this was the most frustrating aspect of the platform: We could not seamlessly convert web traffic on Sweden’s popular web properties to “foot traffic” in Second Life. Every new person tempted to visit had to first download and install dedicated software, create an account and then acquire an avatar — all substantial barriers to adoption.


eLearning 2.0 conference, at the Second House of Sweden atrium.

Many of the social events that took place at the embassy — such as a Swedish short film festival featuring live Q&As with the directors — were truly innovative, and took advantage of features unique to Second Life. Had these events been immediately accessible via a browser, most everyone visiting could have partaken. Instead, only a small percentage ever succeeded.

What about web access for Minecraft? There is an out-of-date, free demo version of Minecraft that works in a web browser, but it requires the Java plugin to play, so you might as well download the dedicated client.

The 3D web, finally
Meanwhile, technology has progressed, and web browsers are on the cusp of a plugin-less 3D revolution. HTML 5 comes with support for WebGL, a 3D graphics API standard supported by all modern browsers. WebGL in turn can now easily be accessed via tools such as Three.js, a Javascript library that greatly simplifies building 3D environments for the browser.

The results are spectacular — especially this trailer for Gravity. The only thing still keeping browser-based 3D experiences from going fully mainstream is the lack of native support by mobile browsers. Although WebGL is available for Chrome and Firefox in Android, it’s not yet sanctioned for Safari in iOS (though it can be enabled on jailbroken devices); the only question is whether Apple will bless WebGL for mobile use.

Until then, there is little incentive for Mojang AB to make a universally accessible browser version of Minecraft. But this hasn’t stopped others from developing open-source tools for building browser-based Minecraft-like games — witness voxel.js.

What all this amounts to is that this field is soon ripe for another disruption — this time by an immersive 3D experience developed natively for the browser, navigable also on mobile devices. Within a year, all the pieces could fall into place for this to happen.

A Second Life comeback?
Recently, there has been a small flurry of articles proclaiming a comeback of sorts for Second Life. Its viewer application is constantly improved, support for the Oculus Rift is imminent, and usage statistics show a remarkably persistent core of committed users.

In fact, there are over 50% more concurrent users today — an average of around 48,000 at any time — than when Second House of Sweden launched in a blaze of hype in the middle of 2007. (It then stood at around 30,000). That’s still below a peak average concurrency of 65,000 users in early 2009, but it shows remarkable resilience for a 10-year-old open-ended world, and easily places it among the 5 most popular games currently being played on the Steam gaming platform. Even post-hype, Second Life has proven stunningly sustainable.

In overall registration numbers, Second Life and Minecraft are quite close just now: There have been 35 million accounts created in Second Life’s lifetime, compared with 33 million registrations for Minecraft. But Minecraft has achieved these phenomenal numbers in around half the time it took for Second Life, helped by a broader choice of distribution channels, including mobile and Xbox. There is no public data on concurrent player numbers for Minecraft, though these are bound to be higher than Second Life.

(How do these open-ended worlds in turn compare to the most popular mission-oriented games? A World of Warcraft game saw peak concurrency of over a million concurrent players in China, with other games boasting global concurrent play of up to 5 million. Skype, meanwhile, sees concurrency rates of 40 million, while Facebook and Twitter must see far far higher concurrent users.)

It is clear that Minecraft is still on an upward trajectory, both in terms of hype and users. The hype surrounding Second Life is long gone, meanwhile, but its user numbers are stable now, with a loyal fan base built up over many years. What would it take for Second Life to start growing again? What if it were to embrace a compelling new technological platform? A browser-based viewer, powered by WebGL, might just be the ticket.

And if neither Second Life nor Minecraft ventures into browser-based 3D, something new will, making itself accessible to billions of devices on the very first day it launches.

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