My heart is breaking for the lives of these adorable, soon-to-die virtual bunnies.
Image captured by author
Here's a grim little curiosity for you; a story about what can happen at the intersection of DRM and virtual pets, straight from the reaches of Second Life.
One of the biggest markets in this unfairly sensationalized virtual world is in so-called "breedables." These scripted, modeled and animated objects take countless forms—from cats to chickens to dragons to shoes to flowers— with the general premise being that someone buys them blindly (usually in egg or nest form) with certain odds of getting rare versus common varieties.
As their name might imply, breedables can be raised and "bred" with each other, which created a thriving niche of individuals breeding their virtual pets for resale. Beyond that, the features vary from brand to brand. Some breedables can play with toys and interact with their owners, some produce items as part of larger systems, some are more or less just decoration. Most need to eat, as a way to ensure their creators still get a cut of the action while their original product propagates without them. Most need to communicate regularly (if not constantly) with a database, to prevent any tampering.
Maybe you can see where this is going.
The Ozimals brand has been synonymous with virtual pets in Second Life for the better part of a decade. Their breedable rabbits were explosively popular when they were initially released, and arguably kicked off the breedable boom in earnest. With good reason, because Ozimals bunnies are adorable. Even though they came before Second Life allowed full mesh models to be imported and therefore had to be assembled from more simplistically sculpted lumps and bean shapes, they remain pretty darn cute.
That cuteness made them a must-have for many. From my time in Second Life, I recall there being a general hum of legal troubles around Ozimals that resurfaced every now and then, but fast forward a few years and the bunnies have managed to hold their own in an increasingly competitive breedables marketplace. You can even find plenty of third-party accessories like ivy-laced hutches and enclosures for them up on the Second Life Marketplace (a sort of Amazon.com for the virtual world).
Then Tuesday, seemingly out of nowhere, Ozimals' owner updated their blog with some harrowing news. The blog has since been wiped entirely, but a snapshot of the post is available through the Internet Archive.) They had apparently received a Cease and Desist order (the nature of which is not explained) and since they would not be able to challenge in court they would be removing their products from the market, including the Ozimals rabbits and a newer line of cartoonish birds called Pufflings. Support for existing products, they wrote, would cease on Wednesday morning. Databases would cease to function. No more communication means no more eating, and it should come as no surprise that every breedable is programmed with a consequence for starvation.
Some bunnies will escape this unscathed. Many breedables brands offer the option to make a single creature immortal for a fee, severing its dependency on the server while also typically rendering it "sterile". No more food needed—but no more babies, either. Ozimals was no different, having offered an item called an "Everlasting Timepiece" (before shutting down their store this week) that would essentially allow a mortal rabbit to ascend to virtual bunny godhood. That's what leads to this absolutely fascinating bit of their post:
Any bunny who is Everlasting will continue to function, as he or she does now: without cost.
Any bunny who is not Everlasting will be unable to eat and will hibernate within 72 hours.
"Hibernate" is a very kind word for it, considering that these bunnies are unlikely to ever be revived. In essence, every mortal rabbit in Second Life is going to starve to death on Saturday morning. A slightly quicker and kinder fate awaited the Pufflings, who were seemingly all tied in directly to the Ozimals server and as such were deactivated en masse when the plug was pulled. But the rabbits, whose database communication seems to hinge on their interactions with their now-inactive feeder objects, will have to linger.
Just something to think about over brunch this weekend.