Every few months, the Hivemind at Silicon Valley picks up a trend. Once it was ecommerce. Another time it was machine learning. Then, it was blockchain. Now, they’ve decided to pull all these trends together and wrap them into a neat little bow: the metaverse. That’s all well and good, but… what if I told you there was no metaverse?
Okay, well obviously there’s no metaverse now. No one is claiming that. Rather, they’re claiming the promise of a metaverse – that one day we’ll have a virtual world that’s much better than our own, with its own thriving economy, immersive games, conference rooms (?), and more. The point of this blog post is to say this promise is also zilch. There is no metaverse now, and there will be no metaverse later. I’ll be breaking this post up into 3 parts – the past, the present, and the future – to fully break this down.
The early days of the metaverse
The best place to start with this is that the metaverse has already been attempted. Depending on your level of knowledge, this might be strange to you – while the idea of a metaverse has existed for a while now, it seems like attempts at it have only been feasible as of recently, right?
Well, no. Prototypical metaverses have been in production essentially since the idea of a metaverse first came to light. Naming all previous attempts would be much too exhaustive, so instead I’ll focus on the three most famous: Second Life, Entropia Universe, and Worlds.com.
These games feature, in my opinion, all the central concepts of a metaverse: a virtual reality where people create avatars and can interact in a self sustaining world with a real economy that translates back into material wealth (Worlds.com is an exception to this last rule, as it does not have an exchangeable currency). These games peaked in popularity sometime within the mid to late 2000s, a period I’ll refer to as “The First Metaverse Revolution”. They got heavy press and media coverage for a time, only to fall into obscurity. What happened?
The first problem was that these three games failed to achieve the attention of two key demographics: traditional gamers and normal people. Gamers, who are notoriously against exchangeable currency, didn’t see any value in the games and instead went back to their worlds in Garry’s Mod and World of Warcraft, worlds which clearly did not have the attributes of a metaverse yet seemed perfectly fine. Normal people on the other hand, continued to focus on their normal lives, which they were shockingly content with. These metaverse games ended up with massive crashes to their player base, and grew into a pool of porn enthusiasts, fraudsters, and other generally unsavory characters.
The second problem was that the management teams behind these metaverses were woefully incompetent in terms of how to set it all up. I don’t say that to shit on a poor random Linden Labs employee – I’m saying that nobody knows how to manage a metaverse! I mean, how the hell does a small group of people develop and stimulate what is essentially a better version of life? With an economy, culture, society, all that jazz? But I digress – this conversation is better held near the end of this post. What’s important here is to know that the games became too unwieldy for their owners to handle.
That all being said, we are of course talking about the FIRST metaverse revolution. We’ve learned a lot since then, about building an audience, having the right technology, and even governing a virtual world. So, what does the metaverse look like now?
Candidates for the metaverse
I’ll split modern day contenders for the metaverse into two categories: blockchain and non-blockchain (since you people seem so obsessed with your ‘cryptocurrencies’). Arguably the biggest and most serious metaverse contender, generally speaking, is Roblox, which is not based in blockchain. Blockchain candidates consist of ‘games’ such as Decentraland and Axie Infinity, though very few of these are actually built out at this point. Some people have thrown out the idea of general MMOs like Fortnite or Final Fantasy XIV being metaverses, but these games hold no metaverse features and their developers have said they have no plans for creating a metaverse. So I’m not counting these ones.
We’ll dive into each of these. I’ll start with Roblox, a children’s building game developed around the same time as the First Metaverse Revolution. Roblox did not start with the intention of being a metaverse, but rather developed the plan later (“coincidentally” around the time of its IPO). Because of this, Roblox is sort of a “one foot in” scenario. It has worlds, but they are all split among a marketplace of games. It has currency, but it can only be exchanged if it is obtained via game development. It has a culture, but this is mostly made up of children since the game, up until very recently, was only ever marketed towards children. This poor strategic vision is worsened by other problems with its tech and security platform, with everything from a plaintext code that allows for bypassing of 2FA to a 72 hour network outage. Its language of choice for the engine, Lua, is nearly completely extinct save for its existence on the platform, leading to an oftentimes buggy experience. That all isn’t to say that Roblox could not eventually solve these problems – many of them are often signs of a fast growing startup – but the fact that the game seems to be held together with sticks and duct tape lead me to believe it will take one incredibly lucky roll for the game to reach its metaverse status.
Let’s move on to blockchain games. This one I have to speak more generally on, because – as of writing this article – there is no real blockchain metaverse. There are promises of blockchain metaverses, such as Decentraland’s promise that its acreage will one day be a part of a wider game, but there is nothing currently under production. This leaves most blockchain metaverses looking like far-off pipedreams at best and borderline ponzi schemes at worst. Yet, as I’ve mentioned before, this is something that time will prove the answer on.
The logic of the metaverse
Well, it’s high time we got to the meat and potatoes of this article. As I mentioned at the very beginning, my main argument isn’t that there is no (current) metaverse, but that there is no metaverse period. In other words, you can’t make a metaverse. I address my reasoning as follows, in order of (in my opinion) least to most importance.
Firstly, keeping tech up to date is a bitch. We already talked about this issue when we mentioned Roblox, and it’s also what made the first generation of metaverse games fall. Some games, such as Entropia Universe, have rebooted into more modern engines – but the games still hold this old philosophy on technology that, for an ambitious project like this, cannot hold. A similarly utopian idea, EPCOT, also fell to this same idea. It’s worth noting that EPCOT is often used as a model for the metaverse.
The next issue I promised to bring up is that of managing the metaverse. Having a traditional corporate team working on and updating something of this scope just isn’t gonna cut it. Blockchain games have tried to cull this problem by making the game creation decentralized and thus democratic, and in theory this could work. But it’s also worth mentioning that democracies have a well known problem of failing in their birth years, especially with outside interference (interference that the metaverse is bound to get). I suppose with enough iterations this problem could perhaps be solved, but it does put a dent in the metaverse logic.
My third point is one that my design brain personally finds vital, but your mileage may vary. It’s a problem of aesthetics: a game with every style at once is going to be ugly. The reason (well… one of the reasons) why the Ready Player One film was panned was because you had all these IPs, characters, and styles in this world and what you ended up getting was just shit on a canvas. It’s the same reason why urban planning exists: sure, one cool looking house might be neat, but if you have a million different houses each with their own unique style it starts looking like throw up and less like art. When you put all the colors of the rainbow together, it makes black. This is by no means a game-breaking argument, but it’s something that I think more people pay attention to than you may think. Games like Garry’s Mod, Roblox, and VR Chat get around this by having each “place” be isolated from every other game, thus giving some resemblance of a theme. And that works. But if the whole point of the metaverse is that it’s a unified world, then how is this problem going to be approached?
Another, more existential issue to the metaverse is that it might already exist, we just don’t think about it that way. Because, let’s be honest, the metaverse is the Internet. It follows all the rules of the metaverse. We have our anonymous avatars, our cultures, our societies, our exchangeable currency. The only thing is that it’s not in VR. Well, okay – it actually is in VR. But I suppose it’s not a game, and the fact that it’s not a game is a vital issue to fix? I’m not seeing the logic here. The Internet seems to have already brought in all the advantages and disadvantages that Neal Stephenson and others proclaimed about the metaverse, and in this case I’m pretty sure everything else is superfluous.
But we can also go one step further, and I think this is the point which really drives the nail into the coffin for the metaverse. It might be – just might be – the case that people are perfectly fine with the real world, thank you very much. Sure, the real world comes with its problems – but I don’t see any crucial issues with IRL that the metaverse could possibly fix. What, the real world isn’t as fun? Is that really such a crucial issue that we need to get at? Is that even really the point? Should everything be more fun? Say the metaverse did exist. At the end of the day, you’re unplugging into the real world. It’s your real hunger, life, currency, relationships, etc. that matter. What is the metaverse then, besides just a neat little toy?
Sure, it’s true: the future often starts off looking like a toy. But the difference is that you can’t see any future in the metaverse. Machine learning right now is a toy, used to generate funny faces and make especially interesting text adventures. But there’s a clear point 10 to 20 years down the line that you can see where machine learning will be vital in our lives. There is no such line for the metaverse. I’m not saying you shouldn’t try to make a metaverse at all – by all means, go ahead and try. But temper your expectations, and understand exactly what you’re building for.