What We Talk About When We Talk About the Metaverse
Decentralization means the metaverse will be weirder, different and even more amazing than we originally imagined.
Since this is the inaugural article on Building the Metaverse, I wanted to take a moment to think about what this word means, how it has evolved, and what the future may bring.
“Metaverse” is a word that conjures different meanings to people: to some, it’s an immersive virtual-reality experience within a persistent landscape; to others, a specific technology stack; to some, it is a vision of future society.
About 14 years ago, I asked one of my favorite science-fiction authors, Charlie Stross, to write an article for me about the future of games. He had to say this about the metaverse:
The really interesting question is whether things will converge on a single overarching metaverse with games or business meetings happening in different places, or whether they’ll fracture and we’ll see even more divergent environments cropping up.
It is now possible to say that neither of these futures has entirely come true.
In Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, the metaverse is run by the fictional Global Multimedia Protocol Group, an entity controlled by the real-life Association for Computing Machinery. In Ready Player One, the OASIS virtual reality is owned by a corporation called Innovative Online Industries — and the plot largely revolves around its control. Although social networks seem to follow winner-take-all economics, it seems that virtual spaces have far too much variety and experiences to follow the same path.
Stross was closer to the truth when he wrote about the fragmentation of virtual worlds. Fragmentation is happening because games, virtual realities, and online communities are based on experiences that are far too varied to fit into one particular landscape. These experiences include the immersive 3D VR environments envisioned by Ready Player One. Fragmentation includes experiences on your phone: Candy Crush and Star Trek Timelines and Genshin Impact. It’s Netflix on your living room wall or projected into a virtual surface in a simulated theatre inside the Oculus. It includes third-person inside 3D within Fortnite. It is Decentraland and Sim City and Roblox. It includes both the asynchronous and the synchronous, real-time and turn-based. It is client-server, downloaded, or streamed.
The metaverse is the collective set of online, connected experiences that one can have. The common theme is that the “player” is connected to an online framework that permits live content changes, live social connection or live monetization. The keyword is “live.” The metaverse is a living multiverse of worlds.
The other “multi” is that the creation of games and virtual worlds has become multi-disciplinary, requiring knowledge of game design, game theory, behavioral economics, analytics, databases, music, AI, GPUs, graphics, branding, performance, user experience design, storytelling, software engineering and a hundred other talents.
One way to approach the metaverse is to invite people into walled gardens that provide the extensive technological scaffolding for this creativity. Indeed, this has already yielded impressive results in certain settings. In exchange, the cost for this is the high rents you’ll pay and the limits on creativity imposed by the owners.
Another approach to these monolithic silos in which creators are hemmed-in is a “metaverse for all.” In this, the defining characteristic is decentralization. We already see this in the realm of decentralized finance (DeFi). To unlock the creativity of the world, we’ll need similar patterns to play out in the space of virtual worlds and games. Technologies, interfaces and business services are emerging that allow anyone to mash-up, mix, build around and be compensated for creativity. This sort of metaverse demands the ability to create and exchange assets among games, worlds and environments — and a decoupling of the rules, content and technical underpinnings. Creative work will need to be freed from programming and technical impediments that cause the multiplication of processes, workflows and domains of engineering knowledge.
In this future, the AI that drives a chess table could power a game on a phone or executed within a table manifested in virtual reality; the art that represents the assets could come from a marketplace that properly compensates creators; and participation in live chess tournaments could be driven by a live events engine with ticket sales that fund the organizers.
Walled gardens will contain the expansive theme parks that you’ll enjoy visiting — but they won’t be the only destinations. These theme parks will include games, experiences and artistry made by individual innovators and tiny, creative teams… who can choose whether they’d prefer to access the large audiences inside these realms, or strike out on their own and retain their independence.
That’s what I (and others who write for Building the Metaverse) will cover: we’ll write about the giant theme parks, the amazing experiences, the enabling technologies and the avenues for individual creativity. We’ll cover the decentralized tools and interfaces that support the ecosystem. We’ll discuss the business considerations, business models and new economics of this future.
Welcome to the metaverse: weirder, different and even more amazing than we originally imagined.
If you enjoyed this introductory article, you’ll love this deck I assembled to capture many of the topics I cover on Building the Metaverse:
After you’ve flipped through that, please enjoy a few follow-up articles. These are everyone’s favorites:
Market Map of the Metaverse. I categorize 160+ companies into 7 industry layers, and include a concise comparison of Roblox, Unity and Epic.
The Metaverse Value-Chain. How value flows through the 7 industry layers.
The Experiences of the Metaverse. I dive into some of the specific experiences that people will have — and are already having — in the metaverse.