Firestorm Viewer has proven to be the paramount third party viewer available to use with the virtual world of Second Life® (SL) and OpenSim. It has been developed by a team of volunteers and is free to all users. Jessica Lyon, the Firestorm Project Team Leader said, “We estimate we have roughly 400,000 users. The number of users we have on Firestorm and/or the user share percentage we have in SL and OpenSim ONLY serve as a reference or thermometer of how well we are doing in our mandate to improve the user experience. Sure, we are proud of our user numbers, but only because it proves we’re doing a darn good job.”
Second Life is a large and active virtual world. Since its bright and hopeful beginnings over a decade ago, the popularity of SL has decreased a little but not in a significant fashion. User data is hard to pin down and usually several years old. Several sources suggest usage is around 650,000 or more active users a month and with perhaps thirty to forty thousand users at any given moment. So, as a non-game based, virtual world SL is, and has been, a most successful and active option for 3D immersive activities.
Linden Lab® (LL), owners of SL, have revived a dormant initiative to attract new participants. Usually, prospective users go to the central SL web site, register for a free account and run through a common orientation experience. After that new users are set loose to create their experiences. SL is not a game; it is a space where people can create anything they wish. Getting started, when one is dropped without any particular direction into a vast virtual world, is quite a challenge. To ease this challenge Linden Lab has worked with user groups to create Community Gateway Centers. These are regions supported by web portals that each have a particular focus and that provide a custom path to registration, orientation and getting started. Hopefully, these will appeal to potential users’ interests and make getting started in SL easier.
The Firestorm team was selected to establish one of Second Life’s new Community Gateway Centers. They have set up six regions to provide a diverse orientation space for new users. Users come to this space via a custom Firestorm-operated web portal that has a number of interest-focused points-of-contact. The web portal developed by the Firestorm team is an alternative entry point for SL to the LL entry point.
As for why they developed this major SL presence, Lyon said, “I believe whole-heartedly in Second Life and the residents within it, and I want to see it continue to thrive and prosper well into the future. In order for it to prosper and continue, SL needs a constant flow of new residents because there are always residents leaving too. There is also the concern I have that, when the Lab releases Sansar, their marketing will switch focus to Sansar, and SL will not get the same kind of attention, the fear being that without a steady flow of new signups SL can suffer from attrition. In simple terms, we are doing this gateway effort in hopes of benefiting all of SL. The Firestorm project doesn’t actually gain anything except perhaps a healthy Second Life future.”
Regarding the goals for the Firestorm Gateway, Lyon says, “Ultimately my hope is to have a higher conversion and retention rate with our gateway than LL has with their landing regions. I’ve always believed from my time as a mentor that if given the opportunity I could create a better environment for new people. If we succeed in surpassing LL’s, then it’s my hope they will have a hard look at what we did and try to mirror it in some way. Firestorm has always been about improving the user experience, and this gateway effort isn’t far from that. Now we’re improving the ‘NEW’ user experience as well.”
The Firestorm team did a survey of their users and found that about 72% of the respondents said they will direct their non-SL friends to use the Firestorm portals. So, the first step is to see what word-of-mouth brings in terms of new users. “Our next effort is to throw some money at it and see what happens,” said Lyon. “So I’m budgeting US$2000 for marketing and advertisement. Canary Beck (Marketing Director) will stretch that out to be as effective as possible, and we’ll see what comes of it. If we do well, as in better than LL’s conversion rate, then I’m going to approach LL to see how they can help us market moving forward, since ultimately attracting new users into SL is most beneficial to LL.”
According to Lette Ponnier, Firestorm English Support Group Lead, “Firestorm’s only truly massive and obligatory expense is the licensing, without which the viewer would lose its render engine and would have to use lower-quality components.”
The need to pay the licensing fees and server costs led Firestorm to run a successful fund raising campaign in January that raised over two million Linden dollars in two days. The Firestorm team are all volunteers, and the funds will pay primarily for the viewer’s software licenses and server fees with the surplus going towards supporting the Gateway Center. The speed with which the fund raiser goal was met was astonishing and shows the strong loyalty of Firestorm users. Along with bringing new users to SL, the Firestorm gateway will introduce many of these users to the Firestorm Viewer.
Managing the Firestorm Project seems to be a huge job. Lyon said, “There is no time for RL… lol. I formed the Phoenix Firestorm Project from the Emerald debacle back in September 2010 by grabbing some of the trustworthy devs and support staff from the Emerald team along with some new recruits, and together we re-branded the Emerald Viewer to Phoenix, stripping it of any bad code that may have been present. Phoenix was based on the Emerald code, which was based on LL 1.23 and quickly becoming obsolete anyway, so we had to start working on the LL Viewer 2 code. We started developing Firestorm (based on LL Viewer 2) shortly after that and released the first Firestorm preview build around January 2011.
As for real life, I’m not even sure what that is anymore. It is a real practice of time management, but it’s important to note that I’m only a small part in what happens here. I’ve been incredibly blessed with being able to find the best people. The team we have is second to none by way of character, reliability and ethics. The Firestorm TEAM is what gets things done. Very proud of our team.”
To close, Lyon affirmed, “I’m counting on SL remaining a popular and viable virtual world, and in fact we’re trying to be part of keeping it that way. We do it with our viewer work, with our support and education initiatives, and with this Community Gateway. We will remain part of it as long as we remain a team. Right to the last day we intend to be here.”
- Link to Orientation Island at the Firestorm Gateway Center
- Link to the Swamp Lodge at the Firestorm Gateway Center
- Link to the Social Club at the Firestorm Gateway Center
- Link to the MadPea Ghost Town game at the Firestorm Gateway Center
- Link to the airport at the Firestorm Gateway Center
- Link to the underground mine maze at the Firestorm Gateway Center
Written and Photographed by Deepthinker Oh