Can Rod Humble resurrect Second Life?

A few years ago, after long workdays as the head of EA Play, Rod Humble started to take up painting. He adored the feel of it on his fingers. “Painting is more enjoyable a process than creating a piece of software,” Humble says. “You’re stroking this canvas, the colors are blending into each other. You don’t get to do that when you’re typing on a keyboard. But certain creative tools can add that joy of creation.”

While he taught himself to paint, Humble discovered the concept of palimpsest, in which a manuscript page on parchment has the text scraped off and used again and again. The previous words never truly disappear, but the author has enough freedom to write something new. It is a fusion of the new and old, of the indelible past and the unwritten future. 

No better term could describe the overhaul that Humble has pursued as the new head of Linden Labs, home of Second Life. You may remember Second Life as the subject of an orgiastic fascination immediately followed by collective hand-wringing and regret during the mid-aughts. Dozens of brands that headed into the virtual world space and found the digital landscape inhospitable. Despite a BusinessWeek cover story on SL, the general enthusiasm for virtual worlds dissipated. 

Yet Second Life kicks on, with humbler expectations for growth. The company says that it has more than a million daily active users and that it generated more than $75 million in revenue last year. That financial flexibility has given Humble the latitude to change the course of the company towards its motto as “makers of shared creative spaces.”

While Second Life may be the most obvious example of that expression, Humble sees his company’s future in building the tools that engender creativity. Much as Autodesk’s CEO is leading the charge to shift the company from engineering tools to a broader maker-centric mission, Humble wants to transition Linden Labs into a hotbed of creative R&D. Humble, who keeps one hand in pragmatics and the other in continental philosophy (the last conversation we had summoned Scottish thinker David Hume in relation to the mental states of the Sims) is quite good at turning a high-minded creative process into digital product. 

One initial challenge, however, is its own core product. Building an object in Second Life isn’t easy. There are tutorials and message boards, but for someone who wants to pop in and simply make something quickly, Second Life is intimidating. In fact, that was part of the barrier to the community’s growth. Despite all its fanfare and media coverage, actually getting started was a hindrance to casual users. “Second Life is a highly complex 3D space. It’s a high learning curve,” Humble notes. “A steep climb but rewarding and deep.”

Linden Labs plans to release four apps this year, all with the goal of fostering creativity. The first, Patterns, is a simple 3D-building game plucked from the universe of Spore. This month, Linden released the second, Creatorverse, a two-dimensional building app for iOS that’s somewhere between Photoshop and Rube Goldberg. Future releases include Versu, a story-telling toolset, and Dio, an interactive fiction collaboration with former Sims AI lead Richard Evans and writer Emily Short.

“I like rebelling against the tyranny of structured forms,” Humble says. Sims creator Will Wright’s approach to “software as toys” was an inspiration to Humble while the latter was at EA. The constraints that game designers typically place on their players are anathema to the more open-ended creative process that Humble sees as the future of play. “Instead of being told you need to do these tasks to proceed to the next air lock of fun, why not open those doors and give you the ability to fly around?”

“I like rebelling against the tyranny of structured forms.”

The Linden apps strategy hopes to bridge the gap between the tactile joys of painting and the more guided pleasures of digital makers. More importantly, Humble’s ultimate goal is digital literacy. As he struggled as an amateur, he found that his appreciation of the masters was heightened. The jazzy rhythms of Kandinsky took on new life as he was able to speak the painter’s language. Humble hopes that games like Creatorverse will foster a greater appreciation of the creative process behind designing digital goods. “The hope is that the more people make things, the more they have a richer language to express criticism.” 

Humble’s background as a game designer (and an indie developer by night) is embedded in his approach to growing the audience of the company. He represents the beginning of the coming exodus of high-level talent from the studio system of big publishers like EA to other creative domains like art, design, music, and elsewhere. Will Wright has moved on to worlds unknown; Gears guru Cliff Bleszinski has left Epic for greener pastures; Mario progenitor Shigeru Miyamoto is working on smaller titles. Games indeed may change the world, but it’s the realm of culture that could best use a game designer’s systematic touch. The coming decades may prove how valuable Humble and his ilk truly are.

The desire to move from games to digital toolsets, though, reflects a maturity found in Humble generation of game designers. For much of his life, he was in control of the player’s universe  and bounded their reality. But creating platforms and ecosystems affords a different set of pleasures. The joy is in watching others explore.