Where (And What) The Hell Is The Metaverse?
Back in December, and back in February, I had a very simple problem with the Metaverse - that it either exists right now or is so far from existing that we may as well be talking about flying cars. More recently, I spent a few days at the Augmented World Expo, a conference specifically about mixed and virtual reality and, of course, “the metaverse.” Despite spending several days surrounded by people discussing the Metaverse, walking around booths about the Metaverse, “trying” the Metaverse, and watching people give speeches about the Metaverse, I still cannot tell you what this term means.
Depending on the person, the Metaverse is a virtual space where you live, a video game, a virtual reality experience, or a filter on your camera that makes you look like a dog. It could be a virtual world you use on your computer or a full sensory experience like in Ready Player One. Apparently, this company is “creating a metaverse for Gen Z to play and interact with each other, and this company is creating apps that power “a mindful metaverse,” one that is “community-driven.”
Each one of these pablum-filled multi-million dollar “metaverse” companies is incapable of describing themselves outside of language reserved for only the most recently-concussed PR professional. To quote me:
The entire metaverse discussion is engineered by companies that are looking for new and innovative ways to raise funding and extract money from people. If the metaverse is a digital world in which you “live,” then it’s sort of already here in the form of virtual rooms and video games.It’s also so incredibly far away from the trite comparisons to Ready Player One and Snow Crash (neither of which are pleasant tales of the future!) that to act as if they’re even in the distant future is journalistic malpractice.
The reason that everybody speaks in such vague terms about the Metaverse is that they’re trying to avoid the uncomfortable truth that the Metaverse is either decades away or, for the most part, completely sucks.
For starters, you have to remove gaming entirely from the conversation about the Metaverse because considering Fortnite or Roblox “the metaverse,” you have to consider World of Warcraft, Ultima Online, or any other avatar-based game that’s ever existed “the metaverse,” at which point the Metaverse is entirely avatar-based chatrooms.
If that’s the case…how the hell is that going to be worth three trillion dollars? The Metaverse isn’t “the future” if it’s just different iterations of talking to people using a digital avatar, it’s the literal present, if not the recent past. There have been worries about the Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game industry (EG: World of Warcraft) industry declining for a while. If you’re saying “the metaverse” is talking to friends on Fortnite, then Twitter is the Metaverse, because I talk to friends on there all the time, and some of them have pictures that aren’t of their actual faces.
Calling Microsoft’s acquisition of Activision “metaverse-related” is like saying that the sea is a competitor to Diet Coke because both of them are liquids. The existence of interaction in a virtual world wasn’t the Metaverse before, but it’s been termed as such because - and only because - the billions of dollars being invested in the Metaverse require something, anything to point to and say, “look, this has worked before!”
Except it hasn’t worked before. When there is nothing to do in a game, people tend not to play it. Games that are bad and boring tend not to succeed. Online games that are too weird and time-consuming (see: Star Wars: Galaxies) tend to fall apart or require massive rehauls to stop players from leaving. MMORPGs - and any online space of any kind - require some sort of meaningful, replicable utility that tells you to do this instead of doing something else. Fortnite and Roblox have succeeded because they are both enjoyable spaces to hang out in but accessible and interesting games. I fully disagree that Fortnite is a “space” for “hanging out” - what it actually is is a game that is simple enough to play that you can play around in it and have a conversation, and without said dickery, you’d probably just call or text the people in question.
They do this because it directly resembles something many people already do - hanging out with people they know and doing something else as a group activity, a thing people have done for many years. The Travis Scott Fortnite event is almost a metaverse thing, except…if this is the Metaverse, it’s just a 3D art exhibit. It’s “immersive” in the same way most games are - that you’re focused on a particular thing to the point that you’re not doing something else - but past that, it’s just so utterly fucking drab. This is the future? This is the Metaverse? Being able to watch weird stuff fly around you in a video game? That’s cool, I guess? It feels like the present.
We’ve seen interactive yet not “playable” parts of video games for years. Max Payne has some chilling scenes that are very much not “games” but virtual experiences that you are part of, similar in structure to the kinds of “metaverse experiences” that many of these companies claim to be creating. This isn’t even to say that these are bad ideas - I think they’re probably the most realistic version of the Metaverse for the foreseeable future - I just find the idea that this is “the future” and “new” to be slightly annoying.
A client of mine makes virtual 3D spaces - from a car showroom to a digital version of a baseball park (yes, I am being vague, this isn’t about my business) - which I call metaworlds, and to me that is the only present of the Metaverse that exists. Interactive, immersive 3D spaces make sense - as I’ve said, people are used to walking around 3D spaces in video games, and I believe that consumers will absolutely use these spaces. Being able to experience something from real life in a virtual form is the foundation of the entire professional sports videogame industry, and if there’s actual utility in the space versus a vague “hey dude, come hang out,” it’s going to work, and it’s going to be the only thing that actually happens in this space that matters. While I find Travis Scott annoying, virtual 3D music experiences make a lot of sense, and I’d totally try one out. Many other people would.
Why? Because these are extensions of actions that we perform in real life, using the computer to make them extranormal. A weird, cutscene-esque concert in Fortnite is different to seeing Travis Scott in concert, and uses one media (a virtual space) to enhance the experience of another (music). A digital car showroom is more efficient, can be done from anywhere, and lets a customer do something they’d do in real life. It makes sense.
The problem is that the majority of ‘metaverse’ companies seem totally lost as far as what the Metaverse is and why consumers should use it. And they’re the ones getting the funding. Want some NFT-laden vaporware? You’re golden. Want to make a game in Web3 that Andreessen Horowitz can use to profit on your tokens? Here’s $600 million for you to get funded from, and another $100 million from whoever Cronos is. More NFTs? Sure. Web3 entertainment company? Of course, have $24 million. A “platform [that] would make places, events, communities and people across different metaverses,” one that is being founded before the concept of the Metaverse is even really validated? $7 million dollars, no questions asked. While there are companies that appear to be doing something more than playing Connect 4 with adjectives, the majority of what I’ve found seems to be “we have found a euphemism for the blockchain and it’s working.”
I haven’t even got to Meta, or the state of Virtual and Mixed Reality. Had Meta rebranded in 30 or 40 years, there might have been something for them to point to other than entirely made-up bullshit. However, as Virtual Reality stands, it is still extremely early - using an Oculus Quest 2 is fine, but it’s still uncomfortable, clunky and buggy, continually breaking immersion and making some people physically sick. There are good games, but nothing that makes owning a VR headset essential. Meta’s Horizon is a deeply ugly experience, one that is so inferior to Zoom or any other form of modern communication that the only reason to use it is to upset or nauseate your colleagues, something I can do efficiently over Zoom. Wearing a VR headset for a prolonged period of time sucks, and even when it doesn’t, it still feels weird.
I will accept that Virtual and Mixed Reality are real cases of “it’s the early days of the internet.” My problem is that surmounting the challenges that we’re facing will take multiple meaningful breakthroughs in technology, including but not limited to entirely new forms of cameras and headsets we can’t imagine at this point, along with sensory interfaces that will absolutely come under the purview of the FDA. While there will be incremental developments that bring us closer to what Mark Zuckerberg lied about, we are still so far away from truly immersive virtual experiences - which will necessitate tricking our senses into believing we’re “there” - that I’m genuinely offended that so few people have called Zuckerberg a liar.
So many of these conversations are borne of the idea that there is a “metaverse” or connected “metaverses,” and so few of these conversations consider what that means or if it’s possible. You couldn’t post preview links to Instagram on Twitter for nine years because Facebook/Meta/MakeMyNudesFight.com didn’t want you to. Do you really believe that there will be persistent online worlds that allow you to transfer your experience between them? And that’s before you get to the actual issues of interoperability - which range from impossible to ridiculous depending on how intricate both systems are. Chris Pollock has written a great deal about this.
Sidenote: If your answer is “Web3!” please, please stop reading my newsletter. The same financial interests - and many worse ones - are controlling the Web3 “metaverses” and guess what? They’re going to be limited by the crappy technology too. Not going to spend any further time discussing this, I don’t care.
The long (and yet somehow short) answer here is that the Metaverse either has existed for decades or won’t exist in any meaningful way until the technology catches up. If you believe you are going to be physically jumping into a virtual world, feeling and seeing things as if they’re really there, you are being sold a line of shit by people that want to monetize your naivety.
I'm still amazed that nobody ever mentions Second Life, the hugest hype cycle of 2006-2008 - and Second Life still exists!
Second Life is just a sandbox you can do stuff in with your fursona. (OK, it's basically just furries now.) Linden Labs makes its living renting server space to users who want to build their own corner of the world. It's not unicorn valuation stuff, but it is an actual profitable living.
The Metaverse keeps offering Second Life But Shit, On The Blockchain. I submit this is not a compelling offering.
[1998: reads Neuromancer in high school]
[becomes convinced that a virtual reality dataspace is the greatest, most necessary thing in history and not a dystopian hellhole chock full of hackers, criminals and grifters]
[2021: adds .meta to twitter handle]