Maisie Williams learns about the world’s leading mobile metaverse
Maisie Williams talks to Pocket Worlds’ co-founder and CEO Anton Bernstein about how the Highrise app is forging ahead with the metaverse’s creator-centric future.
Since the advent of the world wide web, internet surfers have always dreamt of a utopic bridging of tech and the human experience. With the many virtual worlds of the early aughts seeking to provide us with that intangible freedom – be it space for unlimited transformation in the customisable avatars of Second Life and Habbo, or watching a serial killer soap opera play out on a family of unsuspecting Sims – that vicarious, on-screen way of living has formed the modern-day blueprint of what brands are now cashing in on as the metaverse.
Anton Bernstein’s Highrise is such a space blazing a new trail in the digital realm. Hybridising features of social networking with that of a virtual gaming paradise that exists in your pocket, the app and its user-created rooms take immense inspiration from the micro-economy of Burning Man, a sprawling, Nevada-based festival founded on notions of unrelenting expression, scarcity and communication via trade. Currently boasting a user base of more than 10 million members, the app sees such principles coalesce in a unique online experience moulded entirely by the insights of its creative audience.
For HUNGER Maisie Williams and Bernstein unpack the world’s most pertinent questions about the metaverse, from blockchain ownership to the infinite possibilities that online social spaces like Highrise pose for the modern world.
Maisie Williams: Doing this edit has been really great fun. What I love about it is that it’s going to an audience of people who know nothing about this – like, the only sort of experience they have of the metaverse is that Mark Zuckerberg video. So I want to start off with the basics – could you describe for us what the metaverse is.
Anton Bernstein: I’ve heard it being described a few different ways, and one that I thought was pretty interesting is that the metaverse is more a time than a place. What was meant by that is, when people are computing, they’re in environments and experiences that are a lot more interactive, where they have an identity, and present identity online. For me, I’m focused on this idea of ownership, because we’ve been spending so much time in blockchain and crypto. I think once you have property and ownership, you really establish an identity and a sense of meaning around all the content that you own online. Blockchain enables this because, when you own that content, it’s decentralised. It’s not owned by any one corporation. It’s almost like owning real physical goods in the real world, as opposed to owning something that some corporate overlord puts in a database somewhere and can delete tomorrow. I will say, though, I think that term, metaverse, to some degree, we’re already in it, right? Like, what is this Zoom call?
MW: Absolutely. And when we talk about the blockchain, do you see that as the everything market for being able to own property digitally?
AB: Yeah, I think so. I mean, it’s definitely the technology that enables it. Before blockchain, there was no way to have real property rights online, because all of those property rights would be dictated by some centralised authority. So if you have a hat in Fortnite, it is only because Epic [Games] says you have a hat. And Epic can come in and delete that hat at any moment in time. With the blockchain, there’s actually no such thing as deletion, you cannot delete. You can only kind of append to the chain – we can’t go back and remove something from the chain. All of that is stored on thousands, if not millions, of different nodes, and so there’s really no way to manipulate that.
MW: It’s like a dress code to an exclusive restaurant – like, the clothes still exist but you might not be able to use them in this particular place.
MW: When we look at Highrise, and your approach to building out this digital space, it’s very influenced by gaming. What role do you feel gaming plays within the metaverse and Highrise?
AB: We’ve always had a hard time defining if Highrise is a social network or a game. People have constantly asked, and I think the reality is it’s just more similar to life in general, which has a huge component of game or play. Now we use the term “experience”, so some of those interactive experiences feel like games and some of them might feel like podcasts or feel deeply social, like when you’re talking to someone over voice chat or text. But play, I think, is a core component of life. Once you give people more interactive tools, they essentially find a way to play, and so in the case of the games that people play on Highrise, we don’t invent those games, our users invent them. We give them some basic tools to express themselves, and they’ll take those and make like a Pageant game with it, or they’ll make Truth or Dare.
MW: I would love for you to outline the early behaviours that you have seen in Highrise already.
AB: So we have a few different features that enable some interesting behaviours. One is a mechanism where you can tip other users and other players – you’ll tap on their avatar, go into a direct message and you can send them gold, which is our hard currency and can be purchased with cash. That has enabled some really interesting experiences where people will create a room and then, for example, they’ll enable voice chat. In our case, you have to pay some gold to enable voice chat – we do that to prevent toxicity – and then you might make a karaoke room where you’ll have judges. If somebody sings really well, then people in the crowd will send them tips. There’s this economy that emerges around these singing rooms, and people have actually created events where every Sunday night there’s a type of American Idol happening in Highrise.
We also have another mechanism called trading, where you can trade not just items with each other, but gold, and that has created a massive secondary market in High Rise. We release content into the game, or into the app, for just 30 days. And then after that you have to get it from other users. So that creates this environment where people are talking to each other in auction rooms and somebody will stand on a podium and say, “I’m selling this thing,” and people will then try to put in bids for it.
MW: Coming at this with a very sceptical way of thinking about all the worst parts of social media, and the metaverse exacerbating them, what is it that these users gain from being on Highrise that they lack in their own life?
AB: A common critique is people are going to be spending all of their time playing games on the computer, and that’s actually not the correct framework to look at with. I think the correct framework would be, “How much time do you already spend on the computer? And can we replace that time with something that’s richer, more interactive and more engaging?” In terms of our users, a lot of Highrise is about making friendships and relationships online – not so directly that it’s this desperate “Will you be my friend?”, but indirectly through play and other experiences. It’s not necessarily a replacement for real life, it’s actually an improvement of computing, an improvement of software.
MW: I wonder if you could outline the governance and how you sort of rule that in Highrise – how is it different from Web2 and these other platforms that we feel are just consuming our lives for money?
AB: The way that I look at it, Highrise is a digital nation. In the same way that there are plenty of countries that I’ve never been to, but have a bunch of business and commerce going on in them, they have their own currency and their own economy – I see Highrise the same way. It’s just in the cloud, it’s digital. But we’re introducing our own token and our own currency, and we already have an economy where people are tipping, trading and transacting with each other. Then we take a fee to power infrastructure and security – the two things that are most important for us. In the case of a typical nation, you need to provide physical security, so your police and army, etc. In our case we need to provide mental-emotional security and prevent bullying and predatory behaviour, all that kind of stuff.
Roblox is a competitor to us, but the contrast is Roblox takes [a huge] commission on everything, so if you’re a creator, on Roblox you’re only going to end up seeing [a small amount] of the value that you generate as we move into blockchain. Our business model is pretty different because we have our own token that undergirds everything, and a big token reserve, so we’re going to flip the model and take 20% and distribute 80% to the creators in the community. Then, from a governance perspective, we’re going to be rolling out Land, which is basically parcels of land that entitle you to be able to build your own Highrise. Think of it as a Discord, or a subreddit, or even maybe a Minecraft server, where you can recruit your own developers to build experiences in your Highrise. We’re still gonna take care of the security and the infrastructure, but you determine the rules beyond that.
MW: That sounds very cool, and completely new. And as you plan to develop Highrise further, do you feel it’s important to push this experience to new people and make sure that it’s being defined by a wide demographic?
AB: I would say three things – one is the way that we’re structuring Land. If you have Hunger World, it’s designed to compete with our Highrise. We’re providing you with the game engine and then you build the experience, the games and the universe that you want to see. That’s one way that you attract other users, through your brand and visual identity. Two is, as we build a better suite of tools to be able to build richer experiences, that should attract a wider variety of people. Maybe you were really into the karaoke rooms but now you have a whole new experience with a first-person shooter that’s going to introduce a totally new demographic.
The third is the economy. A lot of this is driven by the idea that you can earn an income building experiences or interacting in Highrise by charging for whatever you want to charge. But it’s not token-based yet, so right now it’s still a hard currency, you can’t take it out. As we introduce the token, that token will be liquid, and it will be exchangeable with other tokens, like US dollars or USDC and other cryptocurrencies like Ethereum. I think that will change the dynamic where you’ll have a creator class that’s earning a real economy and earning real income, and also have a speculator class that’s actually speculating pretty heavily on the world.
MW: It’s really inspiring to hear about how much value is placed on creators in the early adoption of this kind of platform.
AB: I think it’s really important that economics strongly favour the creator. That’s one of the big promises of blockchain and crypto in general – you don’t have that centralised actor who is the authority who defines what is real and what isn’t real, that’s defined in a decentralised way. When you remove that, most of the economics actually go to the creators, not to the rent-seeking middleman – so I’m really excited for that. I think that just unlocks so much more creativity, and a lot more value in wealth redistribution too.
MW: Thank you for breaking it down like that. It’s so valuable. I really hope that this changes people’s minds who weren’t so sure.
AB: That would be great.