People whose introduction to the concept of the metaverse started with VRChat, Horizon Worlds, and other social VR platforms may question why I choose to write so often and so fondly about Second Life, a virtual world which was launched in 2003, well before the advent of consumer-grade virtual reality headsets. My answer is always the same: Second Life is the perfect model of a mature, fully-evolved virtual world, with a vibrant ecosystem and a still-thriving community, which many newer metaverse companies would be wise to study, learn lessons from, and (in some cases) emulate.
Recently, Linden Lab (the company which makes Second Life) announced a long-overdue overhaul to the Second Life Destination Guide:
The latest version of the Destination Guide offers a modern design refresh (the first since 2010!), while also adding some useful new features that enable easier discovery of Second Life events and experiences. Web visitors may welcome the addition of a much-requested Search bar so that you can better seek and find the places that interest you, while category and search result pages now also have a “Sort by” option in the upper-right corner that allows users to filter the directory by “Newest” entries and alphabetically (A-Z or Z-A). Mobile users will notice that the Destination Guide is now much easier to browse and explore while on the go – which may come in handy to accompany our forthcoming Mobile Viewer.
Of course, there’s not just an external directory on the Second Life website; there’s also in-world search tools as well. (They need a bit of improvement too, but that’s the subject for another blogpost!)
Which brings me to the topic of today’s editorial: the vital importance of discoverability in the metaverse. I believe that this is something which many metaverse-building companies tend to neglect, or treat as an afterthought, to the detriment of their platforms’ communities—and to their corporate bottom line.
Let’s take VRChat as an example. In February 2021, I blogged:
Since I have upgraded my Oculus Rift to a Valve Index, I have been spending more and more time in VRChat lately. VRChat in 2021 reminds me of nothing so much as Second Life circa 2007, when I first joined: the wonderful sense of exploration and adventure, never quite knowing where you were going to land up and who you would encounter!
However, there is still one problem that I encounter in VRChat, and that is the topic for today’s blogpost: the need to set up a better in-world directory of worlds to explore. I have written about this topic before, but the need has now become acute. Finding cool worlds in VRChat has become something of a crapshoot, a time-consuming, trial-and-error process.
And since then, the problem has only gotten worse! It is an exercise in frustration to try and find worlds by topic, or by searching for keywords which might (or more often, might not!) appear in the world’s name. VRChat badly needs an official, external directory website of created worlds which is better curated and has more than just the broadest of categories.
There is a keyword search feature, but it lumps in user profiles, meaning you have to scroll down to the worlds whose titles and/or tags match what you typed in:
There is a desperate need for some sort of directory of VRChat worlds which offers the ability for people to describe their worlds in much more detail, and allows them to browse with more nuance (for example, sleep worlds). The closest thing to the utility of the Second Life Destination Guide is the volunteer-run Worlds on VRChat website, which seems to be mainly focused on Japanese-language worlds.
Why is this important? It’s vital, because social VR is, by its very nature, all about the community. A metaverse platform fails or succeeds by its ability to attract an audience, and making it easier for like-minded people to find each other, form communities, and build things together. It is a factor in whether a user visits your metaverse once, wanders around lost, gives up and logs out—or finds a friendly space catering to her interests, and comes back again and again!
For example, I just love visiting 1029Chris’ delightful bird sanctuary in VRChat. Now, let’s assume that I am a user is a newbie, who has heard through the grapevine that there’s this cool place in VRChat where you can feel bread to geese, but doesn’t know how to find it. She doesn’t know the name of the place. Even worse, she doesn’t know the username of the person who created it.
She puts on her headset and goes to the in-headset Worlds directory, or perhaps instead she goes to the VRChat Discover Worlds page on the VRChat website, and starts hunting. She enters “geese”, and finds three worlds, none of which are what she is looking for (while Chris has helpfully added the word “ducks” as a tag to her bird sanctuary, “geese” or “goose” are neither in the world’s title, nor its tags).
The poor newbie doesn’t know Chris’ username (1029chris), so she can’t search by the name of the world’s creator, to find it via Chris’ profile. After a frustrating couple of minutes, she gives up. She loses out on an experience that would have engaged her, and perhaps brought her back time and again, and perhaps would have led to further good word-of-mouth among other people, including other people new to social VR and virtual reality—leading to potentially more business for VRChat!
And that’s a simple example. How about this one: you want to find this cool place that you heard about in VRChat, where all you know is that you can change the backgrounds to all kinds of cool animated patterns—but you don’t know that it was created by 1001, or that the name of the world is Treehouse in the Shade, or any of the keywords used to describe it? It’s like finding a needle in a haystack!
You could argue that it’s too expensive for a company like VRChat to devote resources to build and maintain such a detailed and helpful directory of worlds for its user base. I would argue that it is a cost of doing business, a cost of investing in your community. At the very least, VRChat should be working with its community to enhance the discoverability of the insanely creative spaces its users are creating!
OK, end of rant. I am now getting down off my soapbox!
Executive summary: discoverability is a key factor in the success of any metaverse. Build it into your product. Make it easy for people to find cool worlds that match their interests, find each other, and build communities.
UPDATE 12:42 p.m.: I just had an experience that underscores the importance of discoverability! My Second Life avatar was exploring the cafés listed under the Cafés and Hangouts subsection of the new Destination Guide:
She teleported into Little Whiskeria, and while she was looking around the café/bar, the owner Lizzy showed up, and we got to talking. Lizzy invited me to an event that is taking place at 11:00 a.m. SLT/Pacific Time, so I am now making plans to catch a live performance (singing/guitar/piano) at Little Whiskeria!
That’s exactly why discoverability is so important: it took me from my interest (coffee houses) and immediately met that need in a very satisfying way, which will probably lead me to tell my friends about this place and come back for return visits!
UPDATE 1:13 p.m.: Here’s a snapshot of the live show at Little Whiskeria, a really good German/English band is on stage and the summer folk music café ambiance is wonderful, just what I needed on a wintry Winnipeg day!