Saturday, 27 March 2010

The Ups and Downs of vSide

As far as Virtual Worlds go, I don't think any have had such a roller-coaster ride as vSide. When you think vSide, think Habbo Hotel, IMVU, and Club Penguin, and you are not too far off the mark.

vSide was created by Doppelganger Studios of San Francisco, founded in July 2004 by Andrew Littlefield and James Lee, and with Tim Stevens as its CEO. Interestingly, Littlefield and several others holding high management positions at that time had all come from BAE Systems.

vSide started life back in May 2006 as the PCD Music Lounge (or the Music Lounge, or just the Lounge for short), a hangout for teens, which one blog described as 1 part MySpace and 1 part World of Warcraft. Doppelganger said at that time that the big selling point for the PSD Lounge was the fact that any questionable content or sexual innuendos would be left at the door, as they wanted good clean fun for all teens to enjoy.

Gen Digital questioned this business plan:

How a nightclub can portray good clean teen fun, when most of the time you have to be 21 just to get in one, kinda goes over my head. What kid doesn't thinking about alcohol and meeting the opposite sex when they go clubbing?

That observation became somewhat prophetic, as we shall see.

In August 2007 The Music Lounge evolved into vSide, following a major redesign. Two new districts were added, RaiJuku and LaGenoaAires, to the existing New Venezia (where have I heard that name before?), and several suppliers of virtual goods were strategic partners, including Kitson and Rocawear. There was no user-created content in vSide then. All creating had to be done by Doppelganger.

Built on a modified Torque 1.3 game engine using Java and MySQL for the backend, vSide reportedly raised a further $11m in 2007, bringing the total of its investment to over $25. It described itself then as the New 3D Facebook.

In April 2008, Doppleganger formed another partnership, with Degrassi: The Next Generation, a very popular TV show. The press release said:

A virtual version of The DOT Grill -- so familiar to our show's viewers -- will serve as the hub for all Degrassi-related activity in vSide,"  Chris Jackson, Director of Digital Media and Merchandising, Epitome Pictures, said in a statement. "The notion that our fans will be able to interact with each other (and with our cast!) in vSide, while enjoying Degrassi video and music content makes vSide the perfect complement to Degrassi's existing on-screen and online presence.

Despite a lively community vSide generated insufficient income, and the following year Doppleganger announced that vSide was shutting down on July 16th, 2009. The assets of vSide were put up for sale, and Virtual World News reported the following:

A source has told VirtualWorldsNews that by the time bidding closed on vSide assets -- which included art assets, the code set, animations, characters, and modifications to the Torque Engine (TGE 1.3.4 codebase) on which the teen virtual world was built -- were sold at "fire sale" prices.

 Following the sale of the vSide assets, Doppelganger was acquired by Canadian company Hip Digital Media in August 2008 for a rumored $40 million, with Doppelganger having spent in excess of $26m on the development of vSide, and having successfully attracted brands such as Kitson, Rocawear, Pussy Cat Dolls, Tyra Banks and MTV.

ExitReality is an Australian company headed by Danny Stephanic, with offices in San Fancisco, London and Melbourne, and made a name for itself in creating 3D virtual worlds out of 2D web pages, by using a browser plug-in.

vSide and its forums were only down for a short time, and during that time its Facebook page said:
We know you all can't wait for vSide to come back online. That's why we're working late nights and weekends to make sure it happens asap. We don't have an exact date yet, but the vSide Forums will be up next week. More updates coming soon.
vSide opened its doors again in late September 2009.

So, where to now for vSide?

It still caters for a rather narrow demographic, and it is primarily aimed at the early teenager, who do not have the spending power needed to generate the kinds of income that Virtual Worlds need to survive.

It also severely limits user-created content, which will discourage many others from making vSide their virtual home. At present, user-created content is limited to creating clothing in the built-in editor, accessible via the My Design tab after hitting F5 to get into your wardrobe. Textures for new clothing items are created offworld, in programs such as Paint, Photoshop or Gimp. Once an item has been created, it needs to be submitted to vSide for approval, who will then pay you 100vBux, and your work is then theirs forever.

With a limited demographic, restrictive creation, and with established competitors such as IMVU, Habbo, and newcomers such as Frenzoo (backed by the formidable Anshe Chung), it is difficult to see how vSide can make a real go of this.

Time will tell.