I’ve had many friends who became immersed in virtual worlds over the years, some to the point of no return, but I was never infected by the virtual bug. It’s my own fault, for sure. I’m terribly shy and a horrible social networker. Even the fact that virtual worlds are designed precisely for people like me—who need the safety of an avatar in order to feel comfortable in certain situations—has never been enough to bring me out of my 2D closet. Until a few months ago ... after my first tour of Red Light Center. Now I’m hooked. I find myself returning throughout the day, daring myself to experience the full measure of the worlds that often seem to teem with activity and energy, sexual and otherwise, but always intensely sensual.
My plunge was not coincidental. I’d been tasked with writing an article about the 3D virtual world phenomenon when AVN asked Utherverse to do a presentation about building a virtual world at the August AVN Show in Hollywood, Fla. But I knew little more about Red Light Center, Utherverse, or any of the company’s other virtual properties than that they existed.
I knew about Utherverse founder Brian Shuster, of course; he’s been a prominent figure in adult entertainment for several years. In fact, I had heard him speak on the topic of virtual worlds years ago at a Sex in Video Games conference in San Francisco, when he was already building RLC (or had already built it), and his vision for a 3D environment that combined an immersive experience with actual commerce was already crystal clear in his mind. The rest of the real world just hadn’t quite caught up yet, not only in terms of the technological capabilities necessary to make the virtual experience as engaging as possible, but also in accepting the sustainability of these environments.
And for good reason, it turns out. There have been consistent obstacles preventing the durable success of most virtual worlds, which tend to scale up quickly and then steadily taper off. After an initial burst of activity and media attention, they either sustain the buzz or not, and even if they do maintain a loyal user base, sustaining internal business models is the real challenge. Linden Lab’s Second Life provides a perfect case study. After launching in 2003, it became the darling of the media; a lot of money and attention was poured into it, and for a while there a few news entities even assigned reporters to cover the goings on, implying a permanent relationship with the non-virtual world.
But while the promise of Second Life as a generator of wealth got one of its avatars on the cover of BusinessWeek four years ago, a month ago a Bloomberg profile painted a portrait of a company in trouble if not peril. “In Second Life—Linden Lab’s immersive, 3D game that allows players to trade real dollars for virtual dollars—a nice stretch of mainland coastal property that would have fetched around $65 in 2007 today goes for $16,” wrote Matt Robinson. Culprits include not just the financial crisis but an increased interest in social networking sites. Well over a thousand companies still use Second Life, but many large brands have abandoned it, and Bloomberg concluded that the “virtual world’s once explosive growth has slowed,” and only last month, its CEO resigned on the heels of a 30 percent thinning of the company workforce. Second Life isn’t dead yet—far from it—but the fact that it’s still trying to find itself after this many years raises more than a few doubts about its future viability.
Vancouver-based Utherverse, on the other hand, while not currently as large as Second Life in terms of actual size or active users, appears to be in a serious expansion mode. Utherverse president Zak Zarry has made clear his intention to continue creating new virtual worlds at a pace that only Dubai used to exceed, and the numbers seem to support his intent. The company claims an annual growth rate of 25 percent, a registration base of over 5 million people, and an active user base of 600,000, with an average of 200 new users daily. Considering the fact that recent months have seen the closure of several once-popular virtual worlds—including Forterra, Metaplace and There.com—Utherverse’s success is about more than just luck, or sex. Indeed, within days of There.com’s closure, “Therians” found a new recognizable home at ThereNew World.com, courtesy of, you guessed it, Utherverse. (There.com founder Will Harvey also founded IMVU, a massive 3D world that boasts a user base of over 100 million users and monthly revenues in the $2 million range, the vast majority—about 90 percent—coming from micro-transaction sales of virtual goods and currency, generated either by direct sales to users or through user-to-user transactions.)
As of March, Shuster was placing Utherverse’s annual revenue in the $10 million range, with the main revenue stream being its VIP subscriptions, which allow virtual world builders to obtain better tools and accessories with which to design and develop worlds, and also from the licensing of its technology to businesses, as well as online advertising, leasing out virtual real estate, and commissions made from transactions made in its virtual economy, using its virtual currency known as Rays. Shuster laid the foundation of Utherverse’s success in a very rough economy on the company’s determination to evolve organically, even as the pace has seemed to quicken.
As I spent the last month or so exploring as many nooks and crannies of the various interconnected Utherverse virtual worlds as my insane schedule would permit, it was easy to become overwhelmed in so many different ways by the experience. So many places to visit, and so little time. So many new businesses under construction, and so much room for more of them. So many new people to meet, and only one life in which to do it.
Community-wise, it became quickly apparent to me that a culture—or a multitude of cultures and subcultures—had developed over time, and that it would take nothing but time to be able to either understand or infiltrate them. (I even discovered a few complaints in profile blogs by longtime users of cliques of regular users ganging up to harass innocent newbies—just like me—who unwittingly broke rules of etiquette.)
The tribal clashes are inevitable, though, and in truth only make the experience more of a challenge and its realization more authentic. I don’t know why some virtual worlds fall apart while others maintain, but it seems to me that Utherverse’s focus on sex may have something to do with its enduring popularity. While it’s true that there are many non-adult businesses in Utherverse—aka Virtual Vancouver—and the company goes out of its way to emphasize its interest in developing non-adult commerce, I can’t help but feel that the original decision to accept and embrace sex as its beating heart has been one of the main ingredients to Utherverse’s success.
The reason for that is simple. Once you know you can have all the sex you want, it quickly recedes as the most urgent activity of the moment, unless the moment requires it. Instead of constantly policing their own and others’ behavior, people and their avatars are free to engage with one another more honestly. A certain tension is released with the acceptance of sex as a desired and encouraged activity. Yes, sure, there needs to be a sufficient number of people inhabiting the worlds, populating the clubs, attending the events and just hanging out on all the streets, in all the parks and in all the retail stores for there to be enough commerce to support the infrastructure of the entire edifice, but that goes for brick-and-mortar cities, too.
All I know is that there are times during the day when I find myself anxious to log back in to my new Utherverse obsession, where I haven’t a clue what to expect or with whom I might dally. As I learn how to “use” the world, I find the ease of interfacing with the virtual avatars and their online profiles (with “real world” details) almost dizzyingly seductive. It really is like living in a universe immediately parallel to the one in which I already exist, but with far fewer boundaries, if any. Also, I’ve begun to fixate on ways to exploit Utherverse to further enhance its experiential potential and perhaps even find some heretofore hidden revenue streams. As complex and intertwined as Utherverse already is, it still retains a thousands hidden mysteries just waiting to be discovered and realized for the benefit and enjoyment of the multitudes—though I think my impetus may in fact simply be to get laid more frequently by floating goat heads, tight-bodiced working girls and winged sex fairies.
Representatives from Utherverse will construct a virtual world from scratch at a demo for attendees of The AVN Show on Saturday, Aug. 7 at 2 p.m. ET. The AVN Show takes place Aug. 5-8 at the Westin Diplomat Resort & Spa in Hollywood, Fla. For details, go to AVNshow.com. This article originally ran in the August 2010 issue of AVN.