Why Google Lively Failed

Posted on Nov 23, 2008

This week Google pulled the plug on Lively, the virtual world platform introduced less than five months ago to compete with Second Life. There are many speculative reasons why Lively was doomed from the start (which I all but predicted), but the product’s demise can be attributed to one essential failing: in developing the beta, Google didn’t work to their strengths.

According to the statement issued from the Mountain View headquarters, Google decided to cease development on Lively to devote more efforts to growing its core business offerings of search and advertising applications. With a weekly login of only 10,000 users (Friday’s Linden Lab statistics cited over a half-million users in the past seven days), Google recognized that these numbers did not demonstrate a sufficient capitalization opportunity for a company of their size and scope. Despite Google’s reputation for experimentation, cutting ties to Lively represents both a constrained advertising economy and the company’s emerging maturity:

“This is a watershed time for Google,” [Internet analyst Greg Sterling] said. “They grew up under this enormous boom where engineers were free to experiment with products like this. Now Google is seeking to grow under pressure from the economy, and it may be trying to do so in a more planned way. So the freewheeling nature of its earlier culture may be giving way to reflect their status in the market.”

There’s another lesson, Sherman said: “Don’t launch a half-baked product.”

“There’s a lot of power and potential with all the Google offerings, like instant messaging, Google Maps, Google Earth, Google Checkout,” Sherman said. “But a lot of these things weren’t integrated [into Lively]. It was very disappointing.”

This is a very important point, one that is worth expanding upon, for I believe that the failure of Lively is broader than the exclusion of critical feature sets. In my opinion, Lively was doomed from the start because it didn’t convey the core values of the Google User Experience team: to design and develop digital environments that are, in their words, “useful, fast, simple, engaging, innovative, universal, profitable, beautiful, trustworthy, and personable.”

There are ways that Lively could have succeeded if certain things had been put into practice at the beta stage. Eric Krangel of the Silicon Valley Insider mentions such critical items as Mac operability, failure to integrate the Google advertising platform, and a preponderance of users interested only in sex or violence. I considered these recommendations in the context of Google’s Ten Principles of User Experience and discovered some critical shortcomings, which I think can be universally applied to any virtual world technology:

Make the Virtual World Experience Personal

Google’s UX principle number one is “Focus on people – their lives, their work, their dreams.” Krangel makes a great point about platform vendors who believe that once a technology product enters the public domain, it will cultivate value simply by existing. This can be true in some contexts, but market penetration sometimes needs to be coaxed through persuasion and trust. I’ve written before about the decorporealization of the user as she/he navigates an environment through the persona of an avatar. Lively’s comparatively crude personalization and poor integration with social media services were limiting factors.

Make the Virtual World Experience Rewarding

Google’s UX principle number four is “Engage beginners and attract experts” and principle number nine is “Be worthy of people’s trust.” On my first visit to Lively, I noticed that the arrow-key controls were counter-intuitive. After overcoming that initial cognitive block, I entered a communal room where my first experience with another avatar was the receiving end of a punch. This is of no personal consequence to me, but it’s difficult to sell virtual worlds as a marketing platform when their value proposition is exceeded by an unsavory reputation:

[L]ike Second Life, [Livley] doesn’t look like it’s going to be an effective place for marketers — unless they want to associate their brands with sex and violence.

Google says there’s to be no sex in Lively, and it won’t let your avatars get naked or copulate. But a look at the service’s most popular “rooms” tells you where Lively’s head is at. Key words like “sex room” and “adult chat” dominate the listings. In the non-sex themed rooms, female avatars get approached and “kissed” without their consent.

And then there’s Lively’s other popular venue: “Fight Club.” Lively is pre-installed with a number of surprisingly violent animations, including the popular “crush.” Crush takes a cue from the old Road Runner cartoon and drops an anvil from the sky to slam the target of your ire. There are other options, though: You can also choke someone, or give them a boot to the groin.

Provide Something of Value to Virtual World Participants

Google’s UX principle number seven is “Plan for today’s and tomorrow’s business.” Too many vendors in the field believe that their responsibility to the marketplace stops when a technological product is released. The organization I’m currently working with understands that campaigns must be integrated across all disciplines: creative execution, account management, brand development, relationship building, technological innovation and strong, timely messaging. Virtual worlds are really just like any other communications endeavor, and from a marketing perspective they should be considered as such.

Sustain Innovation on a Global Scale

Google’s UX principle number six is “Design for the world.” This is where the company had an opportunity to tie other product offerings into the immersive world experience: such as chats and mapping features. For the 3D Web space to truly have any traction in today’s commercial Internet, platform providers must determine some way to integrate with the text-based Web. In July of 2008, Google seemed to be the most logical candidate to meld these two dichotomies.

This is not to denigrate Google’s efforts to enter the virtual world arena. If nothing else, the Lively experiment should serve as a reminder that user-centric design methodologies are applicable to any context. It will be interesting to see if virtual worlds pursue a path of greater confluence with existing Web applications, or if platforms continue to emerge and recede into the digital landscape.