This article was originally published on my LinkedIn newsletter, Tech Support.
At the end of 2021, The New York Times published a story about the first wedding in the metaverse, touting it as some novel experience. Articles like this show how a lot of marketing and money have likely gone into selling the public on an experience that is not at all new. The massively multiplayer online role-playing game EverQuest was released back in 1999 and players have been holding in-game wedding ceremonies ever since, even calling on high-level employees at the publisher, Sony Online Entertainment, to officiate.
In December 2021, someone spent $450,000 to purchase a virtual plot of land next to Snoop Dogg’s NFT house in the Snoopverse, a virtual world the rapper is developing within The Sandbox, a metaverse based on the Ethereum blockchain. Meanwhile, the Metaverse Group, a real estate company focused on the metaverse economy, bought a piece of land in virtual platform Decentraland for $2.43 million. This, too, is nothing new. By the 2000s, millions of users’ avatars were already buying digital assets, virtual land, and advertising space in Second Life, an online virtual world developed by Linden Lab.
Virtual hangouts and events, digital currencies and economies, custom avatars? Online video games have provided spaces for these activities and concepts for decades. In fact, online games already give us the most compelling selling points associated with the metaverse, generally with greater graphical fidelity, more sophisticated social systems, and at a significantly larger scale. Despite its rebrand, Meta’s attempts to monopolize, monetize, and homogenize digital spaces does not make its iteration of the metaverse a shiny, new thing.
Today, online games currently provide users with the most successful metaverses with the likes of Roblox (with 158 million monthly active users), Minecraft (with 126 million monthly active users), and Fortnite (with over 78 million monthly active users). On the other hand, the uptake for Meta’s social VR platform Horizon World has been minimal with just 300,000 active users each month — and that’s after Meta spent $10 billion on its metaverse division in 2021.
What today’s metaverse does offer that Second Life did not is more barriers to entry. In Decentraland, users need crypto wallets for the game’s proprietary cryptocurrency. To access Mark Zuckerberg’s “digital future” in Horizon Worlds, users must purchase a $400 Oculus headset from Meta.
Video games even beat the metaverse to virtual currencies and economies. Many online games have in-game currencies or digital assets, such as outfits and powerups, that can be purchased with real-life money. For example, epic space battles in EVE Online, released in 2003, can cost literally hundreds of thousands of dollars in IRL cash. In early 2020, a spaceship in EVE Online sold for over $30,000 (with all proceeds going to help the Australian Red Cross). EVE Online’s economy is so complex that its developers employed its own economist to manage the market. Similarly, Runescape, released in 2001, also has a player-driven economy that bears many similarities to real-life economies, with item prices fluctuating based on in-game supply and demand.
Still, a metaverse must be interoperable. “Interoperability” is the ability to unify economies, avatars, and systems across platforms. It is a necessary characteristic of a metaverse — and an extremely lofty goal.
In order for a metaverse to be truly interoperable, tech giants like Meta will have to collaborate with other companies, including competitors, to connect their platforms and services. However, given the history of aggressive acquisition strategies, tech companies are more likely to consolidate than cooperate. Look no further than Meta’s “copy, acquire, kill” strategy since its 2012 acquisition of Instagram. After purchasing Oculus in 2014 for $2 billion, Meta, then-Facebook, continued gobbling up other VR- and metaverse-related companies. Companies like Meta are searching for a new monopoly. The result will be a series of walled gardens.
Alternatively, in Minecraft, anyone can create their own world. A world can be hosted on your local wi-fi or, for a few dollars a month, you can rent a server and hang out with far-flung friends. Servers can be made private or left open for anyone to join. You can create a vast private playground for you and your friends to build and explore or join an open hub for tens of thousands of other players to compete in minigames. If you don’t like one world, another one is just a click away.
Rather than creating a single, walled-off community, Mojang, the company behind Minecraft, lets its players create their own.
However, many companies want a piece of the metaverse pie. From Wendy’s creating its very own metaverse to Nike designing NFT shoes, the metaverse project is an attempt to consolidate the internet by cobbling together disparate franchises, intellectual property, and brands.
By bringing all your favorite brands under a single corporate umbrella, Meta and other metaverse companies can try to sell you an experience that will keep you long enough to collect your data and advertise to you. For all the waxing lyrical about a social virtual space, the tech giants’ vision of the metaverse is a soulless, Hotel-California-style, digital shopping mall.
Since its release in 2017, Fortnite, developed by Epic Games, has showcased its mastery over the art of the crossover, featuring licensed characters from Star Wars, Stranger Things, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and many other franchises. Epic Games takes familiar and well-known characters, throws them into Fortnite’s cartoony blender, and spits them out as characters players can purchase.
Just as Fortnite crossover events and the occasional Ariana Grande concert act as surefire ways to maximize engagement from new and existing players alike, the consolidation of brands in the metaverse is a way to mitigate business risk. If fans of disparate franchises are cohabitating in a single, consolidated space, there is a greater likelihood that new products will find success due to the sheer number of consumers in that space. In exchange, new products never truly have their own unique brand or identity. After all, Fortnite itself had to shed its original story and design as well as its horror tone to become a host, albeit a very profitable host, for more recognizable characters.
That is to say Fortnite has found success in allowing its community to play as people and characters beyond the confines of its world, like Keanu Reeves and Captain America. Fortnite’s brand collaborations are typically well-received by its players and feel like exciting experiences. On the other hand, Meta’s “branded content spaces” feel hollow and consumerist. But if money talks, then Sony and The Lego Group’s $2 billion investment in Epic Games for “the company’s vision to build the metaverse” is loud and clear: the metaverse should be fun.
The truth is, the most interesting and exciting things about the metaverse already exist in online video games, which provide a virtual space people choose to spend time in, socialize, and most importantly, have fun. There is a reason to be in those virtual spaces: to play the game! That reason is essential. People wouldn’t boot up Fortnite in the first place if there wasn’t a game to play.
That’s what makes these corporate dreams of a social metaverse so bleak, inauthentic, and greedy. Meta can build its virtual world, but there’s no reason to be there. While big tech spends billions in marketing to convince you the next big thing will be here some day soon, not a single existing virtual world has captured corporate meetings and e-commerce. Online video games, however, continue to find success by catering to a more fundamental desire: to be connected as people, not as workers or consumers.
Perhaps the best uses for cyberspace are fun and games after all.