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Open sourcing Second Life

Would a virtual economy survive?

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Comment The panic that broke out in Second Life last month over a copybot raised many questions about the security of property in the virtual universe.

Unlike most massively multiplayer games (if you can even call Second Life that), Second Life "residents" are allowed to actually own the stuff they create. So if you could copy endlessly, in what sense could you actually own anything?

The CopyBot itself may not have been quite dangerous enough to justify all the fuss it caused – but it highlights an interesting crossroads in Second Life's development. It had its origins in a project called libsecondlife, which is working on a project (informally endorsed by Linden Lab) to open source the Second Life game engine.

This suggests a fascinating possible future for the Second Life universe - But an open source strategy must surely make that fragile economy even more vulnerable.

Linden Lab has been talking about open sourcing SL for a while – and there are lots of good reasons why it might want to. The Second Life interface is pretty clunky, and the graphics engines are a long way behind the state of the art. A game like World of Warcraft leaves SL in the shade - possibly one of the reasons why of the million or more who have registered for SL, only a small proportion become regular visitors.

Linden Lab is a tiny company, struggling to develop its product at the pace it should. As CEO Philip Rosedale admitted in a recent podcast, "We as a roughly 100 person company are stretched to the limit."

If it can attract a sufficiently large community, an open source project would bring more development resources to bear on Second Life (though the open source community hasn't been terribly good at user interfaces in the past).

The first libsecondlife project that the ordinary resident could use would be a new client. As Jonathan Freedman, a member of libsecondlife, says: "The default Second Life client is rather limited. It is very feature full. So you need a decent system to run it." So one of the first things they could design is a simpler client for new members.

Big corporates like IBM, who are ardent Second Life fans, could host their own Second Life instances, and adapt it for other purposes – like training or conferencing. Open source developers could also work on better integration between Second Life and other projects, from simple web browsing to other online universes, such as WoW.

If you consider SL not as a game, but just a rather fancy 3d chat application, then that seems more or less what you'd expect. Instead of a single service provider, you have multiple interconnected service providers, set up by anyone who feels the need.

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