It’s safe to say that Metaverse race has a controversial reputation at this stage. While the people who invested in the project tend to call it the next big thing, the public find it dubious at best. Just check out the “What is the Metaverse” video on the BBC channel and compare the video’s tone with what the comments are saying.
The public’s cynicism towards Metaverse is not just a knee-jerk reaction to something new still in uncharted territory. There’s a good reason behind it. But before we get to that, let’s hear from Nicolas Vereecke, a proponent of Metaverse, who has perfectly encapsulated what this phenomenon – in its current form – has in store for us:
If you feel disturbed by what you just read, you have come to the right place (And before you ask, no, this is not satire. Here’s the link to the original post).
In a nutshell, what we get from Mr. Vereecke’s speculation is that we humans have ignored all the warning signs that 40 years of Cyberpunk fiction laid out before us: how corporate technology can make life miserable for us with the illusion of “progress.” Imagine living a life where you have to worry about how your friend’s blacksmithing career in “Elder Chains Online” is going, so you can make a few bucks from the blockchain market through his “expertise.”
…and here comes the Metaverse:
The issue with Metaverse right now is the paradox inherent in it. Metaverse is marketed as something for the whole world, the next step of evolution for the internet and social media, a place where you can virtually exist and attend meetings, go to concerts, work and make money, and mess around with your friends.
But here comes the paradox: It seems like a video game judging by how Metaverse looks and works. But not a good one, however. The definitive version of Metaverse that Mark Zuckerberg probably dreams about every night and has the potential to become Internet 3.0 can only work if it doesn’t look like a bastard child of The Sims 3 and Wii Sports.
Right now, Metaverse only appeals to gamers. It’s not a place like Facebook where even your grandma, uncle, and boss can join and share their thoughts. It looks too much like a game, but a game made by people who don’t know what makes games fun. Metaverse developers’ only exposure to gaming is featured articles on financial websites about all the creative ways gaming publishers suck their customers dry with micro-transactions, loot boxes, addiction loops, and auction houses. Your average investor and crypto bro thought to themselves: “how can we take a piece of that delicious pie?” and that’s how Metaverse was born, or at least, that’s how it looks like.
…But the problem with the Metaverse race:
Let’s ask ourselves a simple question: right now, why do we have to spend time in a Metaverse? There’s nothing fun to do there. Right now, the only thing Metaverse has got going for it is the social aspect and the possibility of making money through gamification and blockchain.
On paper, it sounds like a fabulous idea to go to a virtual concert by Snoop Dogg and accidentally see your classmate in the audience. While in reality, you are both sitting behind the computer, looking like Jenkins the Griefer. But the novelty factor wears off quickly. When people attended Travis Scott’s concert in Fortnite, it was cool because after it was finished, they could go back to looting, shooting, and the gameplay loop they were already interested in. Where’s the exciting gameplay loop in the Metaverse to go back to? The idea of logging on to a virtual world to attend a virtual concert – the experience is almost no different from watching it on YouTube – seems depressing.
It’s like you’re manipulating yourself to be satisfied with the mere shadow of real things: the shadow of attending a concert, the shadow of having a job, the shadow of real hangouts with real friends.
On the subject of friends, Metaverse makes the same mistake Facebook did: it bases its entire identity on your interaction with “friends” and then assumes this friendship comes easy. Many people think people migrated from Facebook because it was revealed that Zuckerberg was selling people’s data to the government. I beg to differ. People know Google is doing the same thing and still use it. As long as you remain cool and useful in people’s eyes, it’s crazy how much you can get away with. Facebook became uncool because it had a fundamentally wrong idea about how human interactions work.
The Facebook promise was that it’s a place where every person you know is registered, and you can look them up, send them a friend request and stay in touch. This idea seemed exciting at first, but then people realized their Facebook friend list is filled with family members they were trying to avoid their whole life, coworkers and classmates they barely knew, old friends whom they have nothing in common now, and that one guy who was constantly bugging them with invites to the lame Zynga game so they could win some in-game currency.
By connecting the whole world, Facebook made us realize maybe we don’t want to be connected after all. Metaverse is like that, but worse. At least with Facebook, you had to tolerate status updates and pictures. With Metaverse, this whole charade becomes a full-time commitment. You actually have to run the damn thing and walk around in it.
While I imagine being in the metaverse with friends can be fun for a while, it’s doubtful people you interact with over there would become real friends. It’s highly likely that if you go into Metaverse, you mostly have to deal with total strangers or acquaintances, then start developing misanthropy towards them because of the meaninglessness of your interaction and the realization that the only reason you’re talking to each other is so you can sell a piece of a digital asset on the blockchain. Oh, and also, there’s someone bugging you with notifications. But this time, instead of an invitation to a Zynga game, it’s an invitation to their little crypto scam group in “Clash of Guilds.”
You might say: but this idea worked for MMO games. Some of them indeed became social hubs. Hell, we have even heard the news about people finding their girlfriends on World of WarCraft. Metaverse is like an MMO, but an MMO based on your life! How can that go wrong?
Well, that’s the problem. Metaverse tries to gamify life, but life is something to be lived, not played. Life is too complicated to be replicated virtually, so any attempt will always look like a mockery of life rather than an alternative.
The one and only difference between video games and metaverses:
Since the people behind the development of Metaverse are programmers and engineers, not game designers for the most part, they misinterpret the success of MMOs. They don’t realize how much that silly Fantasy/Sci-fi world-building actually does for making the experience appealing. People enjoy spending time in World of WarCraft and Final Fantasy XIV because they find the world-building, story, narrative, progression, and cute imaginative places and characters appealing. Once they find the world appealing, any human interaction within it is a bonus, because even if it goes wrong, they always have the fantastical world to fall back into.
With Metaverse, you don’t have that. Interaction and connectivity are the chief attractions, so there’s too much pressure on them to work. There is no game design involved to ease you into the virtual world. It’s likely that your first interactions in the Metaverse will be boring, lame, meaningless, and awkward. You would never want to go back, probably. Even if you meet someone interesting and have fun together by some miracle, someone will likely get ghosted eventually because that’s how online interactions work.
Many decentralized metaverses are destined to have the lowest retention rate possible and become a wasteland of crypto scammers and internet vagabonds. The ones that belong to big corporations will probably keep dissatisfied users hostage through ads, promises, and addiction loops. With how things are going, a new horror subgenre will be dedicated to what goes on in your average decentralized Metaverse in the next decade.
All the problems Metaverse suffers at this stage come down to this: it looks like a video game made by people who don’t know the attraction behind video games.
Metaverses are made of ugly incongruent environments that remind us why art direction has become such a vast industry. They require highly demanding systems to run (not to mention an expensive VR headset for the whole experience) because they are made mainly by Unreal Engine 5 but are not optimized for it due to a lack of familiarity. A Metaverse that only a handful of people can run will never reach the user base it needs to function. Judging from the crazy hardware prices, at least now, it seems unlikely that the general populace can afford a high-end PC, anyway.
One of the main attractions of Metaverses is that you can make money and own property in them – which is the perfect symbol of how hard it is to own property in the real world – but unlike what Mr. Vereecke suggested above, none of this is new. There were already games you could make money from, the most notable example being EVE Online and its infamously complex economic system. It doesn’t matter if you can make money from Metaverse if it’s not fun to spend time in it in the first place.
And that’s why Metaverse needs video game developers because they are the only people who can win this race. Despite all the criticism, Metaverse has potential. After all, it’s the realization of the concept that sci-fi has been promising for decades. I know we really want to see a virtual world with a Matrix level of realism, but as they say: baby steps, right? With all the money and talent behind it, it would be a shame to see it turn into a hive for scammers and abandoned avatars. There is a way to prevent that: video game developers and Metaverse programmers working hand in hand and implementing ideas about interactivity that video games have been perfecting for decades.
After all, World of Warcraft remained cool longer than Facebook did.