Real-world woes shuttering virtual world There

Hard hit by the recession, the pioneering virtual world, which launched to the public in 2003, will shut down for good on March 9.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
3 min read

The pioneering virtual world There.com will shut down on March 9, a victim of the recession and the pinch on brand spending that had kept it going long past earlier troubles. The news was announced by CEO Mike Wilson on Tuesday.

The service, which launched in the fall of 2003, was a fully 3D social environment with a sophisticated economy, wonderful vehicles like hoverboard and hoverboats and, eventually, a wide variety of community-created content.

In its early days, There got the lion's share of the 3D virtual world attention, far outstripping even Second Life, which launched around the same time. In part, that was because There was founded by Music Construction Set wunderkind Will Harvey and because the company attracted tens of millions of dollars in venture funding.

While Second Life grew slowly but steadily--and, notably, with far less funding--There struggled to find its footing and quickly blew through its funding. It nearly went out of business several times before first selling off its intellectual property, which it eventually re-licensed, and then getting a new lease on life when Wilson, eBay's fourth employee, agreed to finance its ongoing development.

This promotional image on the front page of There.com is supposed to show avatars from inside the 3D virtual world welcoming people. But with the announcement that There will shut down on March 9, perhaps the proper interpretation is of a wave good-bye. There.com

Over the years, while Second Life became the virtual world media darling, There became the property that grew slowly and steadily, attracting spin-off environments for MTV and other youth-oriented brands. Many companies found themselves looking at There because of its controls on adult-oriented content and griefers, things that frightened many away from Second Life.

But in the end, There seems not to have been able to hold off the economic grim reaper forever. In his good-bye announcement, Wilson wrote, "While our membership numbers and the number of people in the world have continued to grow, there has been a marked decrease in revenue, which, in these economic times, is no surprise.

"Throughout the last year and this quarter, we have fought the good fight by churning out new features and revisions as fast as we possibly could. Our hats have to go off to the team, which have in a very short time introduced a whole new suite of casual games, a completely new foundation for our user interface, improved internal efficiencies for the product, real estate, a whole new level of community involvement, etc., etc. On top of that, we've revised our first user experience several times, making [easier] the whole process for registering and getting into the world (and continued to be amused when the same features appeared in other worlds.)

"But, at the end of the day, we can't cure the recession, and at some point we have to stop writing checks to keep the world open. There's nothing more we would like [than] to avoid this, but There is a business, and a business that can't support itself doesn't work. Before the recession hit, we were incredibly confident and all indicators were "directionally correct" and we had every reason to believe growth would continue. But, as many of you know personally, the downturn has been prolonged and severe, and ultimately pervasive."

There's departure from the scene will mean that the environment for immersive 3D social virtual worlds, already increasingly barren, will now be even more so. But perhaps because it chose a different financial model, privately-held Second Life publisher Linden Lab has managed to stay ahead of the recession and is said to be profitable.

For me, though I hadn't gone into There for quite some time, I always enjoyed the idea that I could go back in, jump in my wonderful hoverboat and go for a nice long ride. I recall the early days of There when there were regular hoverboat flotillas and when you could easily find people riding around on flying dragons. To all the fans of There who will now be without a digital home, there is perhaps only one suitable salutation: 'wave.