J-Cast news (which, as I may have mentioned, I love for its critical reporting that goes well beyond any of the major newspapers, at least in terms of editorial perspective if not in access or resources) has a report on the “depopulated status” of the Japanese version of Second Life, the massive multiplayer experience popular in the US. A brief translation/abstract:
Nice streets, but where is everybody? Second Life “Depopulating”
More and more Japanese companies are opening so-called “virtual worlds.” Yet Linden Labs’ “Second Life,” which generated a major buzz in Japan earlier this year, has been in a notable state of depopulation, such that it is difficult to find users actually operating the service. What’s going to happen to these virtual worlds?
New Japanese entries to the market are close to overheating. On December 13, (journal/bookmark site) Hatena opened a members-only beta version of its “Hatena World” to 100 users. Meanwhile, Itochu Co. (trading house), Fuji TV, the Sankei Shimbun, Aeon (Supermarket chain) have invested in a “CoCore” a company set up to run another virtual world called “meet-me.” An alpha version is planned for this month.
But Second Life, which caused a stir when dozens of companies announced that they would set up virtual shops there, has become noticeably depopulated. A J-Cast reporter, sent on assignment to “visit” some of the famous virtual shops, noted many cases in which the buildings existed but no other avatars were around.
“Nagaya,” a sort of virtual Kyoto, was once considered a popular area for Japanese users. Back then, variously attired avatars could be seen chatting, but now there is no one. Softbank Mobile and Mitsukoshi, which opened for business in April and July, respectively, were similarly empty. Even “SIM (Island),” opened on December 3 by Kanagawa Shimbun, was deserted.
In a March 7 article (before the official release of the Japanese version in July) titled “Seven Reasons why Second Life Isn’t Popular,” IT Media (which is itself a great source for original Japanese Internet reporting) cited high system requirements, a lack of purpose, and “having to spend money to do anything,” “the most popular areas are porn and gambling” among others, noting:
“Second Life is still in the early development stage. Before reporting on it with excessive expectations and pumping it with corporate advertisements, the developers should concentrate first on bringing up creators that can make the virtual world interesting and building a healthy community.”
In response to this article, one blogger posted a defense arguing that Second Life is no fun unless you initiate conversations yourself, and that there have been successful examples of several avatars getting together. He was hit with massive criticism in his comment section.
Nomura Research Institute released a study called “Second Life Usage in the US and Japan” on November 9, which revealed how usage of Second Life was hardly widespread. In a survey of 100,000 Internet users in Japan, 53.6% replied that they were aware of Second Life, but only 2.4% actually said they used it. Of a further survey of 1,000 professed SL users randomly selected from that 2.4%, only 27.1% replied that they thought “it was interesting and I want to continue using it.”
According to a December announcement by Linden Labs, while there are 1.14 million SL users, only 40,000 are online at any given time. The lack of continuous users is contributing to the depopulation effect.
Why do I mention this? Because this project was picked up and promoted completely by advertising giant Dentsu. Often, the well-connected company that controls some 90% of the TV advertising market by some measures, has the power to make a “hit” out of thin air. But they are not invincible, and it can look pretty embarrassing in cases such as this where a massive publicity campaign is met with a collective shrug by the Japanese public. As J-Wikipedia explains, “As of 2007, Japan’s domestic media have aggressively covered Second Life, but many are suspicious of the vast gap between [this coverage and] average people’s recognition. Voices on the Internet are critical of the feeling that ‘Dentsu is leading an effort to start a trend by force.’ Dentsu itself has issued a statement that ‘the boom has died down a notch’ causing some to view this mass media-led commercial [campaign] as a failure.”
But as a Nomura source notes, this is only the 5th month since the release of the Japanese version, so things might pick up. But since the American SL itself seems more geared to attract media attention than an actual user base, I wouldn’t count on it.