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Interview: Rod Humble On Second Life

Just before Christmas it was announced that EA's Man In Charge Of The Sims, Rod Humble, had upped sticks and moved to the peculiar worlds of Second Life. Fascinated by this decision, we tracked him down to a tower made out of penises, sat on a throne of eyeballs that sing copyrighted Disney tunes, and asked him some questions. (Please note, while Rod Humble does live in a tower made of penises and sits on a throne of eyeballs that sing copyrighted Disney tunes, this is in no way reflective of his activities within the world of Second Life, nor his work at Linden Labs.) He tells us about why he made the move, ways to get around the perceived inaccessibility of Second Life, and the plans to roll out new tech that will make the world look "dramatically different".

RPS: So, well, cor. You’re no longer Mr Sims. You’re Mr Second Life! That took everyone by surprise. What was the reason for the change?

Rod Humble: I had a blast at EA, I had been there 6 ½ years which is the longest I have worked anywhere. It was just time for a change for me. EA is a great company and I am very pleased to see my old colleagues doing so well.

RPS: No, don’t say how lovely it all was. Is EA currently a place where innovators and ideas people can move freely?

Rod Humble: [laughs] You know me too well, It really WAS all lovely. The team at EA is committed to quality and innovation, I think that shows in the great products they put out, I mean …they also put up with me making art games all these years!

RPS: It must be quite a striking change of atmosphere, from the pixelated innocence of family-friendly Sims, to the world of giant cocks and floating torture chambers. How are you finding the transition?

Rod Humble: When you get an open-ended creativity tool like Second Life, then its content mirrors the Internet’s content themes, it covers what people are interested in. So yeah you get all sorts of themes including subjects that have always been popular with humans... What has surprised me is the diversity of themes, I saw a fashion show, did a tour of various gardens, went to a sci-fi convention all within Second Life. That was really cool. So some things are different than my previous job but some things are very familiar, the high demand of hair styles for example is common to almost any avatar system I have seen.

RPS: Do you think Second Life can be understood as a videogame? If not, what is it? A country?

Rod Humble: Excellent question. I cannot even define what a game is for you, let alone a video game (neither could Wittgenstein so I don’t feel too bad).

What makes Second Life so intriguing to me is its hard to define nature. I have heard people call it a virtual world, a game, the 3d internet, a social media platform.. the list goes on. I like that kind of unresolved ambiguity, I think it shows something that is not yet fully evolved and has exciting new roads to discover. Right now we have a new world that is literally made from the ground up by our customers. Every creation adds to whatever it is Second Life is, its only when you take a step back you can start to get the shape of it. The more tools and better service you give customers the more interesting it all becomes.

RPS: I think an outsider’s perspective of Second Life is of a rather inaccessible community, rife with furries and 4Chan raining down wangs on everyone’s heads. Are we right?

Rod Humble: I think its fair to say it is rather inaccessible, certainly the UI and first user experience is tailored more for old hands and is still difficult for new users to figure out and then finding things is harder than it should be. When it comes to the content I love our diverse residents –whether they’re humans, furries, robots, tinies, or whatever they choose to be. I would note that because we are an open-ended creativity tool where you can make a house, a chair, an island, a creature, an outfit AND be able to program their behavior we get a vast swathe of content. If you let the human imagination loose then you get all sorts of things, just like the Internet.

RPS: With user hours having declined over the last year, what do you hope to bring to revive that digital world? What are your ambitions in your new position?

Rod Humble: I am have just joined so I do not want to lay out particular project vision things until going a bit deeper throughout the whole company. But the basics like ease-of-use, good service and performance are constants that we will work on immediately. More broadly though I want more people to use Second Life and experience its wonders. My dream would be that in the future most people would have a Second Life avatar and house and would use them on a daily basis for all sorts of things, meeting with other folks, playing games, attending events, the whole range.

RPS: We’ve heard rumours that Second Life will be relaunching with new tech soon. Any truth to that? And can it be updated, or are things now so entangled the only direction for a fresh look is a complete restart?

Rod Humble: It is not a relaunch, but we are working on a new capability for Second Life. There is a project in beta (not so sexily entitled “mesh import”) which will be a large leap forward graphically, and it also improves performance. We will be rolling it out this year. The world looks dramatically different with that content.

RPS: Do you think the project has a future with a subscription model, on an increasingly free-to-play internet?

Rod Humble: I feel like Darren Bent in front of an open goal…*

We are free to play!! I would invite anyone to setup a free account and once in world search for “sandbox” , go there and start making things! Or pick one of the locations in the guide and start meeting folks. All that is free, plus (literally) millions of items are free within Second Life which you can go get and use. I went to the mainland and got a free motorbike then went on a road trip across the whole thing. It took me hours and hours finding all sorts of crazy stuff.

If you like it then you can subscribe and get your own house and Linden dollars to spend! Or if you prefer just buy some single items on a case by case basis with no monthly fee at all.

*my apologies, I am an Aston Villa fan.

RPS: Is that some sort of stately home? If the business is to crank up profits, are you willing to upset a few of the dedicated to make the game more accessible to outsiders?

Rod Humble: I think our current customers would love to see more folks come in, people and their creations are what makes Second Life interesting. The fact that many of them run businesses that generate real income adds to that. I don’t think it would be an issue assuming we don’t break anything as we do it.

RPS: Or can the core idea be increased? Are there any plans for an Entropia-style licensing of unique worlds as SL spin-offs?

Rod Humble: I think the core idea can be increased, and hopefully we can talk about that in the months ahead. Right now I wouldn’t rule out any partnership or ideas along those lines.

RPS: Finally, what’s the scariest thing you’ve seen in the game so far?

Rod Humble: I was walking around the mainland when I entered someone’s lot, I froze stock still… I heard MY voice talking coming out of another room... That freaked me out. What happened is someone had linked to one of my E3 talks and were streaming it through YouTube through their TV. It had just been announced I was joining so I guess they had thrown it up there for folks to see.

RPS: Thanks for your time.

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