In a meeting earlier today, InWorldz founders Tranquillity Dexler and Elenia Llewellyn announced a significant change to the InWorldz business model — the first such change in last 5 years. InWorldz will offer “Plus” user accounts, which will provide an affordable entry point to land ownership, particularly well-suited for “lite” users and new arrivals to the virtual world. And it will be managed by the existing residents of InWorldz, earning the region managers between $18 and $48 US per month.

“Lite” Users and the Barrier to Entry

Currently, virtual worlds can be partitioned into one of two categories: full-featured commercial worlds with a real economy, and one where most users are participating entirely for free (with no monthly budget). Many users are what I would call “lite” users, going in and chatting with others, hanging out in a club or an art gallery, but not really experiencing the full virtual world experience. And this leads to the user moving on to the next interesting thing that comes along, hurting retention. A problem in both commercial and open (free) grids, but especially in the commercial worlds, is that for many users there is no mental, emotional or financial investment in that virtual world. In many cases, that investment comes in the form of customization; changing their avatar from the default, or establishing a home and customizing the contents and feel of the home.

Without that mental, emotional or financial investment, a user doesn’t really develop any roots and it’s easy for a user to just move on at the first sign of boredom. It is understood, or at least assumed, that one of the things that helps anchor a user in a virtual world is owning some virtual land there. And in InWorldz, a region costs $75 per month, which is out of the price range of many budgets. Sure the user could rent a smaller parcel from one of the many landlord users in the virtual world, but there is no direct encouragement of this. Wouldn’t it be great if a user could just check a box on the grid website, and pay a much smaller fee, and be given a plot of land of a reasonable size and with a reasonable number of prims and allow that instinct for customization to flourish? Then when they do develop roots in the virtual community, they can be directly encouraged to upgrade to a larger or better parcel managed by one of the many landlords? (Or even buy a full region for their own use?)

This is all about removing a very large barrier to entry for new and lite users. This concept is an incentive for users with a much smaller bit of disposable cash than $75 for a region, and a larger portion of the 7000+ users from the 8000+ monthly active user base who don’t spend a cent in-world, to directly participate in the economy. It lowers that barrier to entry into something they are more likely able to invest in, encouraging mental and emotional investment in the grid and the people of the grid.

SL Premium and Linden Homes

On the surface, there are similarities with the approach that Linden Lab tried in SL: Linden Homes. While I believe the SL premium accounts were relatively successful, and provide the necessary boost of income to Linden Lab, I believe that Linden Homes is generally considered to have been a failed experiment — a direct result of a useless and fairly horrible program. Offering the user a 512 sqm parcel with 117 prims to be “creative” with is just bound to be problematic. It mostly sends the wrong message: that a small investment in that grid is useless, directly revealing how prims are heavily metered and costly in Second Life, and that you will probably never be happy with the restrictions placed on your investment. The homes themselves were crowded and not particularly enticing.

Offering a similar but better program in InWorldz helps to highlight one of InWorldz strengths: the much more affordable land parcels, that come with several times more prims to be creative with or to use to customize your home environment.

InWorldz “Plus” Users

The SL idea itself wasn’t a bad one; it was just implemented very poorly. InWorldz will do Plus user accounts better. For one thing, the land parcels themselves will be 2048 sqm, which is four times the size of the SL parcels. And within that parcel, the Plus user will have 1406 prims, or twelve times the number of prims an SL premium account gets. A user will actually be able to really do something with an InWorldz Plus account. And while a 64K sqm region could fit 32 such parcels, in InWorldz, the Plus user regions will have only 24 such parcels, leaving 25% of the region for shared land, parks, and other beautification features.

And the cost? In SL the cost is $9.95 per month; the InWorldz cost is only $5.95 per month, something that most people can afford once per month. It’s a much lower barrier to entry, and provides that mental, emotional and financial investment in the grid, owning land, having a home, and directly participating in the economy. It is a direct appeal to those thousands of “lite” users who see the much bigger investments as a barrier.

InWorldz will also offer a way for LSL scripts to identify whether a user is a Plus user or not (see the new iwIsPlusUser LSL script function). This will allow store owners and others to potentially offer perks or discounts to Plus users.

Even users with full private regions may wish to become Plus users. If their home is located in an isolated (unconnected) region, and the regions with the Plus user parcels are connected to the mainland, or I’z Straits and I’z Ocean regions, full region owners might treat their Plus land parcel as a kind of cottage, in a region with a dock for their boat, or perhaps an airstrip for flying. This provides the benefit of privacy and control with no neighbors for their home (full region), but an affordable “getaway” spot for a vacation cottage connected to the mainland waterways for recreation.

Retention: Dropping Anchor

It’s not for everyone, but it’s likely of significant interest to new users, and “lite” users, which is the huge majority of InWorldz residents. InWorldz needs to do something to encourage these residents to dip their toe and test the waters. InWorldz needs to get those users to drop anchor and adopt the grid as their virtual home. Providing very affordable land, that is large enough and capable enough to actually be used effectively is a way to encourage that dropping of the anchor, and the retention of those users.

Resident-Managed Plus Regions

The Plus user regions will be managed by existing residents. As Tranquillity Dexler outlined, “Each Plus region will have a land manager. This land manager must be an established InWorldz resident and land owner. They must have been on InWorldz for at least 6 months, and owned land for at least 3 months to gain access to managing a Plus region.”

The managers will not own the region, they will manage it on behalf of InWorldz. And in exchange for this, once 9 of the 24 parcels are occupied, they will receive $2 per occupant. This is just above one third of the funds from the Plus account, just for managing the region and trying to keep your Plus residents happy within the region. This means there is no reward — but also no cost — at first, but that payment will be between $18 and $48 US to the resident for managing a Plus user region, so directly in the hands of the InWorldz residents.

A Better SL?

To date, the model has been to offer something similar and familiar to SL residents, but to do it better than LL, with fewer restrictions, and fewer obstacles. To enable residents to accomplish what they wanted to do in SL, but could not, for reasons of business or SL grid management failures. This is yet another step to offer something familiar, yet different (and better).

There are residents who are so tainted by the Linden handling of premium accounts that they fear any attempt to offer these in InWorldz. But it is time to shake things up a bit, in an attempt to strengthen InWorldz and ensure longer-term success. Having more users drop anchor and create their own modest home adds to the number of regions, helping InWorldz, provides revenue to the users managing the regions, and may push those lite users past that “not spending a cent on virtual worlds” problem to the point where they start contributing to the economy. If you own a store or a club in InWorldz, this is exactly the kind of thing we need to do to try to jump-start resident retention and economic participation and help them to add to the world.

Update: Another blogger has shared her thoughts on this plan, from the perspective of an InWorldz (and former SL) resident. It’s a good read. See this link for the article.