Owners Lisa Pussycat and Sable Sunset run virtual club Republick for the pure passion of it.
Build your club in cyberspace.
Imagine, if you will, the sleek, darkly hued geometric surfaces of Bad Girls nightclub, outlined against the beach and night sky. The doorway is invisible, but to the sharply dressed patrons thronging to the club’s weekend rave party, it matters little: They can get in by flying over the top or walking through a wall.
As you enter, a sultry voice whispers “welcome to Bad Girls.” Inside, the space is cavernous, with plush chairs, a marble floor and spiral stairs leading up to the bar and lounge areas. On the sunken dancefloor, close to 50 people are moving to the DJ’s music. He occasionally breaks in like a radio jock to address the crowd directly. Buxom, half-naked blonde bombshells mix it up with steroid-pumped males; vampiric Goths with five-inch platform boots mingle with wolf-headed, anthropomorphic creatures, or “furries.” A woman conjures up an image of fireworks between her hands as other guests dance on air 20 feet above the floor. And periodically, money drops from balls suspended from the ceiling, raining five-dollar bills onto appreciative patrons.
Yes, this club really does exist. It’s one of a dozen anyone can attend for free in the limitless universe of massively multiplayer online games (MMOGs). Once considered the domain for socially challenged shut-ins, the world of online gaming has expanded to include over 10 million players worldwide. Sword-and-sorcery titles, such as World Of Warcraft and Everquest, have spun off their own economies for years, where people spend real money for virtual goods and services. And from that concept has come virtual worlds like Second Life, which have created brand new business opportunities via virtual reality. Some players have already broken away from reality as we know it to make their livings full-time from these games: They have become the land broker, fashion designer or club owner they always wanted to be. Yes, with the birth of this other world the illustrious occupation of club owner is accessible to almost anyone with the dream of running a fantasy nightclub.
So what does this mean for real-world club owners? In a business built on personal interaction and physical experience, the concept of virtual clubbing may seem outlandish and impractical. And currently, virtual club owners and employees do report great difficulty just breaking even, despite their substantial efforts. But this brave new world is worth learning about early. As technology develops, so does the potential for club owners to create a virtual club that could never exist in the real world, or that could be used as a tool to build up the brand of their brick-and-mortar club.
Dancing isn't limited to the dancefloor when you can fly.
Show Me The Lindens
Getting started in this virtual world is a bit of a process. Newcomers to the game initially enter Orientation Island and are given a 3D likeness, or avatar. They are instructed on how to alter their appearance; choose clothing, which they can alter at any time, along with their gender; and instructed on how to fly. Afterwards, they land on Help Island, where they can follow tutorials on how to build objects out of geometric shapes, or “prims,” and learn the basics of handling the game’s currency, referred to as Lindens. Finally, when ready, they can virtually teleport to the mainland, population 370,997, and continue on the learning curve from there.
Getting in is one thing; owning and running a virtual nightclub is another. Starting up and maintaining a club can be very expensive. It’s not uncommon for residents to shell out $850 to $1,000 for the initial virtual land purchase and build, and this doesn’t include monthly land rental fees, called “tiers,” charged by the game’s owners, Linden Labs in San Francisco. And then there’s the money shelled out for DJs and support staff, which can be anywhere from 150 to 300 Lindens an hour.
Granted, one U.S. dollar usually equates to about 250 to 300 Lindens, and some of these jobs are paid in tips. But it is not unusual for a club owner to spend up to $1,000 a month to host a virtual club. Moreover, while club owners can charge an entrance fee, they don’t for fear of alienating a clientele that is used to entering such virtual establishments for free. It’s no wonder that no virtual club owner I talked to for this article can claim to make a profit.
But already, there have been some well-publicized stories regarding real-world business entries into what Business Week has dubbed “avatar-based marketing.” The BBC recently rented an island in Second Life to simulcast their Big Weekend event in May, and NPR (National Public Radio) staged a live performance with Suzanne Vega in August. There are opportunities to present entertainment in this environment, and if established clubs don’t take advantage others will.
For example, a brief search of virtual clubs turned up Ministry Of Sound. The owner, Biffo27 Steele, admitted he had no connection to the British superclub but figured “this is a game, so I don’t think copyright laws apply.”
Move Over, MySpace
The Second Life set-up tends to favor one-off events over venues. It allows club owners to rent parcels of land and raise money for a build and a DJ. Participants/subscribers cannot only express their desire to see a certain DJ or band, but alternate at will between different possible settings or venues as easily as switching channels on a TV screen. The American Cancer Society recently raised $40,000 for a virtual Relay For Life staged in Second Life, where in-world participants walked through simulated versions of Mexico, Paris, New York and South Africa.
But before real clubs start their virtual builds, they need to look deeply at how people use Second Life, and what makes it different from real life. Sable Sunset puts it bluntly: “We run Republik at a loss, and have always known we would, because the business model for RL [game-speak for “Real-World”] clubs doesn’t fit very well into Second Life.”
For now, one can use the platform for marketing and branding, like a far more interactive MySpace page. But another strength of Second Life is the ability it gives a club owner to experiment: Using input from club aficionados the world over, he can constantly reinvent his venue, and cherry-pick ideas from other spots. In Second Life, you can bust a wall or move a speaker with the flick of a mouse.
For all its flash and freedom, virtual clubbing at best only approximates the club experience. But it does create a laboratory where people with nothing but their passion and creativity to guide them will most assuredly create the club of the future, allowing people who could never participate in it beforehand to try their luck or to just simply have fun. The settings and possibilities may change, but the fundamental desire to go clubbing does not. “Once there was a guy running around everywhere for like an hour,” recalls Jesse Murdock, owner of Bad Girls. “He said he was paralyzed in real-life, and that it was so cool that he could run here. That’s what he did, all day.”