The lessons from Blue Mars

I’ve watched the development of Blue Mars down the years and felt a tinge of sadness with the announcement yesterday from Avatar Reality, the owners of the Blue Mars platform, that development of the pc platform for Blue Mars has effectively ceased due to a change of direction towards the mobile market.

So far the blogsphere has been discussing the technology failures of the platform.  Yet the the failure was even earlier than the choice of technology, they identified the wrong market and initially designed their system around delivering for that.  The initial push was towards large organisations with professional developers creating what I call “show-and-tell” content, designed along the lines of websites where you would use the equivalent of a google search and go to what was effectively a stand alone environment for a look. It was never designed to attract consumers to set up home or become anyway attached to the platform or their avatar. From what I remember of the early days there wasn’t even a basic inworld communication system between avatars.  It wasn’t an oversight, they openly said that was a deliberate design decision based on the approach they were taking. Consumers were completely out of the equation.

When the content creators from Second Life moved over in early 2009 the limitations of the design were revealed.  Early on there appeared to be a tension between what the creators wanted to do with the platform against how Avatar Reality envisaged it being used. Eventually it settled down and Avatar Reality did attempt to deliver what was needed to turn the platform to a more consumer focussed environment but it was really too late – the basics came slowly and they missed the boat with capturing the imagination of those consumers who did come to check it out.  The bar is higher these days, I suspect most early adopters come from Second Life or other platforms and expect a basic level of functionality and experience – shopping, ease of use and avatar customisation are a requirement – no matter how rudimentary.  Without those, there’s no reason to stay and on the whole they didn’t.  Without content creators, consumers are bored and without consumers spending there’s no justification for content creators to invest time and money in the platform. A vicious circle for a start up.  Jim Sink, the now ex-CEO of Avatar Reality, said in his final public meeting that they acknowledged that the lack of social tools hindered user take up and that the current pc platform technology is just not flexible/cheap/easy enough to deploy for them to deliver what was required within the financial constraints.  Again the tension between what they originally envisaged and the reality of their actual market is apparent in his statement that despite their QA, user content creates platform instability and that will increase now they’re reducing the QA oversight.  

So, finally the investors got tired of waiting for their investment to show a return.  50% of the staff are now redundant and Avatar Reality has changed tack and have moved to the more traditional role of almost full control over the platform and content and gone for the current next big thing. Whether their staged approach will work is another matter.  Having an avatar in a room that you can dress up and not do anything else with is probably not a great intro to the potential of Blue Mars but I’m not a Facebook app fan so I have no idea how basic the apps are that appeal to the masses.  I don’t think Blue Mars has enough customer goodwill to be able to overcome the initial limitations it is handicapping itself with in this rush to move into the mobile market and I still don’t believe Avatar Reality understand consumer behaviour or needs.  I suppose we’ll know soon enough, since they plan on launching in February on Apple.

It’s funny, but after listening to that I came away from listening to Jim Sink with the distinct impression that although Avatar Reality is slick and professional they just don’t understand the consumer market which is why they couldn’t capitalise on it for the pc platform and may actually be the reason why they fail again with the mobile platform.  Doesn’t that failure to understand sound familiar?  Yet, I think it’s a good demonstration of why Second Life still survives, Linden Lab aren’t the barrier to Second Life that Avatar Reality were, so up to a point we can work around Linden Lab and their failures to support us. We can create content despite the instability in the platform, we can interact and generally live our virtual lives – despite their best efforts to get in our way.  That is the key strength of Second Life and is reinforced yet again with the failure of Blue Mars.  Let’s hope Linden Lab learn that lesson well.