You would be out of step if you didn’t believe the press and hype that metaverse was a hot new thing. After the dust has started to settle and after reading as much as I can find on the topic, I am not so sure there is much to be discussed, yet, that is really new. Let’s explore for a few moments what is meant by metaverse.
At the end of the day its a neat idea, if conflicted for several reasons. What is it? Is it one thing? If you believe the hype it will effectively be a digital twin of the universe. Or if we were more modest, a digital twin of our own world. Even that is a bit of a stretch. Do we have, or will we ever have, one unified digital twin of our own world? I doubt it. In fact we have many metaverses already today!
Example of a Metaverse
If you have ever played Warcraft – and I have for too many hours I care to admit – then you used a good example of a metaverse. Warcraft is a Massively Multiplayer On-line Role-Playing Game or MMORPG. Some of the characteristics of Warcraft and the many games like them include:
- The Warcraft world persists. If you leave (log off to go to bed or back to work) the world and events and players that remain continue. If you were talking with some when you logged off, all the other “person” saw was that you disappeared. They probably just walked off to find something else to do.
When you log back on, you mostly pick up where you left off. Certain events that took place the last time you were in the world are still happened. Things may have happened while you were away. That being said, some parts of the map (world) re-set every day, such as dungeons. This is analogous to a mall, a coliseum, or an ice skating rink closing at night, re-stocking or cleaning up, and re-opening up the next day. Players go along to shop, fight, or play, and the whole thing re-sets the next day even though the rest of the world in which these dungeons sit exist continuously.
This is not the same as attending class at school however. In that sense, each day builds on the last (assuming we learn and remember something). The core world is a wide-open memory space where all players exist at the same time. This is different to when one or more enter a dungeon. The two experiences are quite analogous to what goes in our the real world.
- There is only one instance for you- at a time.
Even this is a big rogue. For Warcraft there were (and are) many instances. One might favor the thousands of players who reside, physically, on the west coast of the USA. They all want fast ping and for efficiency the actual servers are optimized for that geo-region. For EMEA, there might be a totally independent instance.
At one level of complexity these instances are duplicates. No single sign-on/player can exist at the same time in more than one. You could join different instances at different times, and yes your “life” or experience could well be different in each. But in effect they are meant to be duplicate worlds and in terms of contiguous experience, the closes thing to what we feel in life, you would consider a single instance.
- Role Playing is what makes this personal.
The RPG angle is where player’s tailor their virtual selves into the role they want or desire. Boys dress up as girls; girls dress up as wolves; and wolves dress up as – well – rogues. The list is endless. At the end of the day, every player can end up with what is meant to be a unique set of attributes and definitions. Players have freedom within the boundaries of the roles the developers came up with.
At the same time players and friends would work together in the game world. They might:
- Enter a dungeon and work as a team to best a boss;
- Share the experience points gleaned from such success
- Share in the wealth from the defeat of the bad monster
Remember, the dungeon re-sets overnight but the players gained experience, as if going to school.
More than One?
As the previous section was titled, Warcraft is an example of “a” metaverse. And that is a huge problem. To be factual metaverse really could be more than one thing:
- Unitary, as in meta-universe – just one
- Multi, as in meta-multiverse – as in many – even if they are duplicates or parallel
And that leads to a lot of problems and challenges with the term metaverse. Many folks use the term but they are not talking about the same thing. If you ever played Sims you have experienced a local, possibly PC-based metaverse. In single-player mode on your own PC you could live our a kind of life where your own digital twin grows up, marries, ages, has a child, and eventually dies. Sims was not the first to do this but in effect Sims was a meta-multiverse game. The “verse” part was very small for sure, but the principle is there.
Then there was a unitary “verse” attempt with The Sime – Sims Online. In fact Sims Online was even more fun. That was close to being a MMO in that players now “lived” in a shared space, not unlike Warcraft’s shared memory space. However, like to so many other similar attempts, that metaverse was shut down years ago as the game did not work out as panned. Our collective Id’s led to a debauchery of the idea of Sims Online. One of my other favorites was Matrix Online. Who can remember Ultima Online? Almost every such metaverse has met its demise or big bang and went defunct. Several of them have come back in different formats as hard-core lovers of them might create a variant. But they don’t tend to last long.
From Local to Global and Interoperability
So let’s park the idea of local verses and instead focus on shared-memory spaces. The question becomes is there one or are there many? Does Facebook really think there will be one? Does Facebook want to build it? Manage it? How many such worlds or markets have existed where one visionary or vendor suggests there is room for only one provider? This is what, for me, leads to the most complex part of the idea.
For any single vendor to build a single metaverse they would need to build it themselves or work with a number of partners. This sounds like any other IT-based market to me. How many markets work well with a set of partners? In the world of online massively multiplayer life (or “verse”), the dreaded word of interoperability will raise its head. Either all partners will have to confirm to the owners rules for participation (aka a cloud platform and mandated integration rules), or a community-led effort to develop standards that are open for all will need to emerge. How many times has that worked out well, and where has it persisted and added value to the community such that it survives?
From Adam to Eve
I used to play Eve Online and this MMO is still alive and well. I loved the idea of a real persistent universe where I could go mine for gold in space, be the first to explore a huge galaxy, and join in massive space battles with people from around the world. It worked well for about 3 months. Then it got pretty boring. It would have taken me many more months to make the money I would have needed to get a big enough battleship to survive any encounter. So I gave that up. But the idea is there.
So I am left back at the start. We have all seen metaverses for many years; the idea of one metaverse to rule them all (and in the darkness bind them?) is also not new, but does not often happen in the free world. Even I wrote a short story (1999) about a metaverse – one – where the whole world was literally duplicated in its entirety. The twist was that time itself was sped up in some parts of the metaverse and some nefarious baddies took advantage of the opportunity. The result was murder, mayhem, and millions of dollars for some. And then the metaverse become more valuable than the real universe…and everything came to a crashing end.
One thing I am sure of. Those folks who are probably best able to work out how to build the metaverse that works probably fall into two camps:
- PC (not console) game developers and designers that have successful MMO experience
- Marketing and Strategists who have made a lot of money working out where to develop such MMOs
Beyond that, I would hesitate to forecast that we wont agree what “a” or “the” metaverse is for some time.
Last word: I read “Synthetic Worlds: The Business and Culture of Online Games” (2006) by Edward Castronova some time ago. Well worth the read.
Update (post publication of original blog).
As if reading my mind I just saw this note published by Gartner with a definition of multiverse. The note is Emerging Technologies: Critical Insights on Metaverse and the definition is: “Metaverse is a persistent and immersive digital environment of independent, yet interconnected networks that will use yet-to-be determined protocols for communications. It enables persistent, decentralized, collaborative, interoperable digital content that intersects with the physical world’s real-time, spatially oriented and indexed content.”
The note says “Several companies, such as Meta Platforms (doing business as Meta and formerly known as Facebook), Microsoft, NVIDIA, Tencent and Roblox, have been envisioning metaverse — and building their own versions of the metaverse“. This could have been written thus: Several different vendors are developing their own metaverses. So should such metaverses be united? Integrate? Interoperate as if they were one? Also, I am not sure how a digital world will intersect that of the physical world. But at least it seems that my thinking about interoperability is spot on. Oh well.