While the metaverse might sound like some sort of idealistic, futuristic dream, it’s actually been a reality for the gaming world for close to two decades now. Sure, it’s come under the less snappy name of MMORPG (massively multiplayer online role-playing game) but the foundations of World of Warcraft, RuneScape and Second Life are what the metaverse is built on.
Those games drove technical advancements that have evolved into what the metaverse is today, but more importantly, those titles gave players a sense of exploration, creation and freedom to play the games their own way. They fostered independent communities as clans devoted themselves to niche corners of their preferred game. Played by a worldwide audience, those interactive, online games helped people find themselves with the support of others who had gone through similar growing pains.
Let’s start at the beginning. A metaverse describes any virtual-reality space in which people can interact with others in the comfort of a computer-generated environment. Think Fortnite, Roblox or Minecraft. Films like 2018’s Ready Player One might warn about the dangers of such an immersive alternative reality but, as the pandemic has proven time and time again with virtual concerts and livestreams, nothing will ever replace real-life experiences.
The metaverse isn’t just a lockdown fad, though. The past two years have shown us that a digital space benefits pretty much everyone, while companies like Adidas, Nike and Warner Music have all invested heavily in metaverse-related projects and new hires.
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“So why now for a metaverse? Well, technology has finally caught up with the lofty ideals of an interactive digital world, making it more accessible than ever.”
However, according to the 2022 State of the Game Industry report carried out by the Game Developers Conference, which surveyed 2,700 developers, 83% of them aren’t working on metaverse-related projects, while a solid third think the concept will never deliver on its promises. Likewise, John Hanke, the founder and CEO of the Pokémon Go developer and augmented reality pioneer Niantic, has called the metaverse a “dystopian nightmare”, while the creator of the PlayStation console, Ken Kutaragi, has gone on record as saying he can’t see the point of a metaverse.
It’s a strange stance considering the world of gaming has a long history of blending virtual reality with the real world. There was the Game Boy Camera in 1998 that allowed people to take and edit greyscale selfies, and most people still had a Nokia 3310 in their pocket while the PlayStation EyeToy was using a webcam as a controller in 2003. Nintendo’s Wii did away with wires completely for its Wiimote, and the launch of Wii Sports in 2006 helped the family-friendly console go on to sell more than 100 million units worldwide – a victory for new tech and proof that people will adapt if it’s accessible, fun and easy to understand.
Those same principles are the reason 2016’s Pokémon Go was such a global phenomenon. The game uses augmented reality software and GPS to allow players to locate, capture, train and battle virtual creatures, which appear as if they are in the player’s real-world location. Your everyday player might not understand the science behind how or why the game works but that doesn’t stop them from enjoying it. Those same ideals are true for the metaverse, which is the next logical step in gaming. Don’t tell the naysayers, but it’s already here as well.
Metaverse platforms like The Sandbox or Decentraland might allow users to buy virtual plots of land as NFTs but they also allow players the freedom to explore this ever-shifting digital world, interact with other people and play a variety of games. It’s an evolved form of sandbox games like Red Dead Redemption 2 and Grand Theft Auto. See, not so scary, right?
Elsewhere Epic’s Battle Royale Fortnite has more than 400 million registered accounts, with between 3 million and 8 million people playing at any one time. Its in-game radio stations are becoming more and more influential for bands looking to reach a new audience while high-profile collaborations with the likes of Ariana Grande (who reportedly earned $50 million (about £38 million) from headlining the game’s Rift Tour last August) and the NFL are turning the title into a household name. Likewise, Roblox became the most valuable gaming company in the US last year (overtaking Activision Blizzard), with 50 million users spending 10 billion hours on the platform in 2021.
So why now for a metaverse? Well, technology has finally caught up with the lofty ideals of an interactive digital world, making it more accessible than ever. Virtual reality has been in the pipeline since the early 1990s but it wasn’t until the Oculus Rift was released in 2016 that it became somewhat affordable. Nowadays a headset will cost you just £300, giving you access to a variety of VR games through a dedicated app store. Because of tech like this, there are now reportedly 171 million VR users worldwide – and it’s constantly growing, opening wider the door of metaverse possibilities.
Gaming isn’t playing catch-up either. Sure, chunks of the programme at this April’s London Games Festival and SXSW 2022 were dedicated to discussing the metaverse and its impact on gaming but really, this new public awareness about the metaverse won’t really change much for an industry that has always led the charge (and always will be leading it).
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“The ongoing success of the gaming industry is built on that ability to communicate with others. Breakout moments in gaming culture, like the success seen with Animal Crossing: New Horizons and Pokémon Go, are driven by a social aspect, where people can share and engage in one another’s successes.”
Gaming’s impact now goes far beyond console and PC titles. The BBC’s coverage of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics used green screen technology to build a virtual studio using Unreal 5, the same engine that runs Fortnite, while the 3D tech platform Unity (which works with studios like Riot Games and Respawn Entertainment) was recently approached by the US Air Force to help it develop its simulation system. Instead of being the butt of the joke, gamers are now celebrated as innovators.
Of course, there are valid concerns about the metaverse as digital law struggles to keep up with technological advances. At the end of last year, the British investigative game journalism YouTube channel People Make Games accused Roblox of creating “a real money stock market aimed at children”, while the NSPCC has said some metaverse apps are “dangerous by design” after a BBC researcher posing as a 13-year-old girl witnessed grooming, sexual material, racist insults and a rape threat in the metaverse platform VRChat. As with the worlds of crypto and NFTs, there are also concerns about fishing, rug pulls and cash grabs as various companies look to offer people a chance to invest in the future.
However, with trusted brands investing in platforms like Splinterlands and The Sandbox, those financial risks should be a thing of the past. As for conversations about the law, the online world isn’t the Wild West it once was. Individuals, companies and governments know they have a duty of care for all, and they’re becoming quicker to act on accusations of abuse. If they don’t, people will vote with their feet.
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“The online world isn’t the Wild West it once was. Individuals, companies and governments know they have a duty of care for all.”
That sense of community is perhaps the most important and exciting thing about the metaverse. It’s certainly one of the major things propelling it. Interacting with others has always been one of the main driving forces behind gaming advancements. It’s easy to look at graphics and console power to chart progression but it’s no coincidence that consoles have gone from a single-player experience to where we are today, with 150 people able to compete in a Battle Royale on Call of Duty: Warzone and 2,000 on a server in Amazon’s New World.
The ongoing success of the gaming industry is built on that ability to communicate with others. Breakout moments in gaming culture, as seen with the success of Animal Crossing: New Horizons and Pokémon Go, are driven by a social aspect, where people can share and engage in one another’s successes. That mindset is why the rise of the egamer has been so rapid, with some esports competitions being held in sold-out stadiums with millions of pounds up for grabs – and this summer being included at the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham as a pilot event (with separate branding, medals and organisation). That metaverse is just the next step, with a global audience able to craft their own communities. And the more people get involved, the more people will want to be involved.
For all the talk about revolutionary tech, at its most basic the metaverse just makes it easier to interact with like-minded people. As the online world has always done, it offers the chance to create safe spaces and bond with others over shared interests without being restricted to geographical locality. We might be discussing a virtual future, but it’s that human element that will be the key to the metaverse’s ongoing success.