Linden Lab Is About To Change Marketplace… Again.

So, hi gang! Before I get started I want to thank all those people who sent concerned messages while I was gone the past two weeks. Those got passed on to me by my editor and they were all very kind. In truth, I had simply been frantically trying to prepare for a long planned (and desperately needed) few days respite in New Orleans. The first week was trip prep (I was really, really jammed for time) and the second I was still out of town.

However having eaten my way through the Crescent City (So. Much. Food.) and having managed to find my way home to the Big Apple, I’m back. Thanks for your support and concern though — it was both unexpected and very sweet of you.

This has been a slow news month, at least in terms of news coming out of the Lab. There’s been a few things – namely the demise (once again) of a fix for group chat problems (XMPP – the Lab decided for a second time the feature wouldn’t scale and scrapped it), so it would seem the biggest news, at least from the Lab’s perspective, was the rollout of body physics (N.B. a commenter requested that I do a video about this, so just to let you know, the Gothika staff and I are working on it).

But all is not completely silent, at least not for those of us who are interested in Virtual World commerce. Because the Lab is about to start messing with Marketplace. Again. To quote Star Trek (and later, Chucklehead who used the sample) “Brace yourselves, the area of penetration will no doubt be sensitive.” Yes, I know, I’m a geek.

Recap on Marketplace

I’ve written about the Second Life Marketplace before. It seems that every time there’s a short period where merchants (and shoppers) can try to scramble to fix or get used to a new change, they roll another major change out, which re-starts the entire process all over again. For shoppers this is problematic, but for merchants it is an absolute nightmare. The more listings you have on Marketplace, the more of a problem it becomes to correct each time it happens.

There are back end problems that still remain, seven months after the change from Xstreet (the old system) to Marketplace. In fact there have been delivery issues recently on Marketplace that are so widespread and pervasive that the Lab has been forced to take action in the form of offering to refund their own commissions due to these problems. There are features and fixes sorely needed by the merchant community that have not yet arrived, forcing people to spend more time and energy than should be needed to get things listed correctly.

And yet… they’re about to mess with it again.

What is Changing and Why

The reason Marketplace is about to undergo a change once again is because of a new inventory system the Lab is rolling out in its viewers called AIS. The AIS acronym stands for Avatar Inventory System and it is a newer, presumably better, way of handling your virtual inventory.

AIS is being implemented for a variety of reasons, but the main reason being that the old inventory system (the one that has been in place all along) does not scale very well. Over the years, as accounts aged and people got heavily involved in content creation their inventories got much larger than were originally considered by the Lab.

The old inventory system just doesn’t handle large numbers well. Once you get to a certain point (the magic number is roughly around 60,000 items) the inventory system begins to fail in unpredictable ways. Most commonly, your full inventory count fails to load no matter what you do; so several hundred or thousand items will simply never appear in inventory.

They are neither gone, nor deleted. They simply don’t show up.

Relogging will often get you a different count, with different items missing. Which items disappear is not predictable, nor is the amount. This is obviously a problem for anyone, but particularly for content creators, who frequently need access to their full inventory to continue to work at a smooth and steady pace.

Until now, fixes were pretty much how they usually are regarding SL — up to the user to provide. You’d either have to keep relogging to find the thing you were missing, or reduce your inventory in some way, which is frustrating considering that either:

  • You actually need your inventory.
  • You have a large inventory of stuff you paid for, and the notion of having to box or dump it just to see what you have, seems to be a non-solution.

External inventory backups, not supported (or necessarily even allowed) by the Lab, such as Second Inventory and organizational tools such as (CTS) Wardrobe have become popular in order to work around the limitations and potential failures of the current system.

AIS seeks to change all of that. It handles inventory differently, and will load more than 60k items without problems, provided those items are organized in a way the system can handle.

I am told that what this means is that individual folders cannot contain more than 650 items. This is not a problem if you keep your inventory meticulously organized. It becomes a much larger issue if you don’t.

A disorganized, but large inventory takes an absolutely massive amount of time to get under control, if you don’t have a system in place to manage it. At this late in the game might be nigh impossible for many people to do.

But the reason that AIS is important to Marketplace is it will allow for a boxless delivery system.

The Magic of Magic Boxes

Until now, Marketplace and its previous iterations have functioned by the use of Magic Boxes. These boxes hold the inventory that a merchant has available on Marketplace.

When someone buys something, that item is delivered via the Magic Box, which keeps in constant communication with the Marketplace servers. Each box holds about 100 items reliably. When you run out of room, you simply add another box. There is no cost to put another box out.

magic boxes_001.png

Because the boxes are actual items within Second Life, they require an actual place in which to keep them. The photo above shows all of our boxes in our workroom on Cursed.

Many people rent space for the sole purpose of having a spot to keep the boxes. They must be rezzed inworld (rather than held in inventory) for them to work. So there is an entire market for very small parcels, designed to specifically hold Magic Boxes.

In addition, smaller stores, which might otherwise forego the expense of maintaining an inworld shopping location continue to do so, simply to have a space to keep their Magic Boxes available and their Marketplace business running as smoothly as the Lab will allow.

But using the AIS system, Magic Boxes would no longer be needed. Inventory would be taken directly from the merchant’s personal inventory and delivered to the buyer. This system is now in beta testing. I admit, I declined to participate in the beta project — after the disaster of the migration, which took me five full months to correct completely, I was not willing to risk another disaster just to help debug this new system.

Pros and Cons

From where I sit, the pros to this system are few and far between. In fact, I couldn’t think of any, until I was told (and rightly so) that, for example, this would solve issues of delivery and communications failure in the case of a sim crash, and would also reduce script load and potential lag on the sims where those boxes would have been stored. It also reduces (to a small extent) prim count on a sim, but even in our case that only adds up to 22 prims at the moment, and most people won’t have nearly that many.

The cons of this idea are a bit more numerous. First of all, it requires a certain level of inventory organization. Because the Lab to date has not created a means by which user-created inventory folders can be locked (something I personally created a JIRA about many months ago), the chances of accidental deletion are something that need to be realistically considered. Many people do not have a clearly organized inventory, something that one would need in order to be able to figure this process out without becoming rather hopelessly confused. Due to the chances of mishap, several people have suggested creating or using an alt account just for Marketplace, but I point out that is even more work than the Magic Box system is now.

Added to that is the very real fact that Marketplace, even as it stands now ,has serious flaws on the back end which have yet to be addressed. Changing a fundamental delivery mechanism this way, whilst those flaws still exist, and at a time when delivery failures have become so rampant (so much so that a statement has been made by the Lab about them) does not exactly inspire a whole lot of confidence in their ability to pull this off. I don’t know about you, but I smell a potential disaster in the making.

However, finally and perhaps most importantly, is the little tidbit I mentioned before, about small store owners maintaining in-world locations simply to have a place to store Magic Boxes. The Lab has been pushing Marketplace hard over the past several months. In the short term, it’s easy to see why — they make money off every transaction, while in-world this doesn’t happen. But this push to favor Marketplace over in-world shopping has some serious negative long term consequences.

I admit, I prefer to shop on Marketplace, but that was true before it was called that. I enjoy in-world shopping about as much as I enjoy it in real life, which is to say not at all. But I am in the minority on that topic, and lots of people would be deeply disappointed if their favorite stores were to become ‘marketplace-only’.

For large scale merchants, this probably won’t happen, but for smaller ones there is often little advantage to keeping an in-world store presence, especially as the Lab seems to be on a headlong crusade to throttle in-world shopping in order to boost Marketplace’s presence.

The fact remains, however, that land rentals and tier(the monthly fee for virtual land paid to the Lab) are a major source of income, not only for land owners but for the Lab itself. Tier prices are almost usuriously high, considering that the rule of thumb is for tech prices to drop once that tech has been in circulation a long time.

This has not happened with sim tier payments, however. The cost of a full sim in Second Life is $295 USD a month — far, far more expensive than it is on any other virtual world grid. People rent out a lot of land in order to make that tier payment.

If one throttles in-world shopping and encourages a boxless system, it will also encourage a marketplace-only presence on the part of smaller merchants. Rather than pay a commission to the Lab and rental fees in-world, they can cut their overhead expenses by ditching the in-world locations. But this has a cumulative effect. The more people who decide to go Marketplace-only, the fewer parcels of land that need to be rented, which eventually leads to sim closures or abandonments, costing the Lab money and decreasing the overall in-world experience.

The notion that people will use those same sims for other, non income generating things is at its most benign, naive — and at its worst, absolutely delusional. In the long term, this could cause serious problems with in-world land in Second Life, as so many sims are devoted to a commercial experience.

At the moment, this system is only in beta testing. It is unknown at this time when it can be expected to roll out for use, but Brooke Linden has said that at least for a time, people will have the choice as to which system they use. In our case, that is very likely to remain a Magic Box system unless we’re forced to change it.

But the notion that a new, improved inventory system in general is starting to roll out onto the grid is great news indeed. We’ll see how the rest of it plays out.

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