What Is the Metaverse?
July 9, 2021
Mapping the Metaverse: Transmission I
Despite thirty years of popular success, few critics have bothered to remark on the way Snow Crash parodies the clichés of the cyberpunk genre—and maybe because it's not exactly understated. Stephenson skewers 'em right to the dust jacket.
The story takes place in a cyber sendup of America, many years after corporations have divvied up outer space and most world governments have gone franchised. Our lead is Hiro Protagonist, a pizza delivery driver fresh out of the Mafia's CosaNostra University, who also moonlights as a "hacker"—a kind of artisan who lends code to the Metaverse. His business card reads: "Last of the freelance hackers. Greatest sword fighter in the world."
When he's not updating his freeware katana-combat sim (or the complementary program to clean up dismembered limbs), Hiro meets all-knowing AI constructs, tours imaginary nightclubs, and battles the priesthood of a viral religion. In the last act, the heroes foil a plot to hijack minds from the Metaverse using a digital drug.
You don't really have to squint to discern the smirk at its forebears.
The satire, it seems, is lost to us now, along with any cautions against melding with the machine. Stephenson's Metaverse—and its major thoroughfare, the Street—inspired a generation of game developers and technologists to realize a Metaverse of our own.
Fiction Is Forecast
There's a well-documented symbiosis between literature and innovation. Authors like Neal Stephenson take kernels of truth, scientific hypothesis, and contemporary achievements to their utmost conclusions. More often than not, their narrative dart throws become lodestones for tomorrow's innovators.
The game developers of today have modeled their ambitions after the Street.
As the central boulevard of the Metaverse, the Street is like a public square crossed with the ship of Theseus. Look in any direction, and you'll find leisure ad absurdum; all its pleasures and locales have been programmed by individuals.
In Snow Crash, Hiro Protagonist belongs to a creative underclass that conjures up the open-source wonders of the Street. These creators—or "hackers"—pay to lend code to an endless grid of available development slots. The result is a perpetual celebration of intermingled whim, and a bazaar for the slaking of human desires.
The Street inspired the legendary domains of Active Worlds and Second Life. More recently, NFT-powered MMOs have built constellated worlds that harken to its example. Unsurprisingly, the most profitable game studios of all time remain key players in the race to build the Metaverse.
The Internet, Redefined
Going off the rough outlines, you'd be forgiven for thinking the Metaverse was some kind of VR Chat with the addition of pay toilets. But you'd be grimacing at something that may replace the Internet as we know it. So what exactly is it?
Call it a canard, but it might be wiser to ask what it isn't. One teeny-weeny word can't come close to conveying the enormity of the Metaverse. Even the best attempts to define it are sprawling in scope. Since human brains are tragically heuristic machines, it's best to start small. Metaverse Roadmap, an advocacy group for advanced web tech, offers a fairly serviceable definition in their glossary of proposed terminology:
*Metaverse: The convergence of 1) virtually enhanced physical reality and 2) physically persistent virtual space. It is a fusion of both, while allowing users to experience it as either.*
A good place to start, but that's just the elevator pitch. Keep reading down the page, and the qualifiers run a mile long. It's generally agreed that the Metaverse starts at a theoretical endpoint where the Internet supplants reality—or at least binds more tightly to it.
The folks at MVR refer to the Metaverse as "the 3D Web," a future incarnation of the Internet that's synonymous with Web 3.0. In their view, humanity will transcend the screen and break the fourth wall of the web using virtual and augmented reality. We'll surf a pseudo-spatial plane projected onto our world like Freakazoid himself.
Others aren't so sure that's the whole story. It's one thing to remake the Internet as a virtual playground. Game developers and tech heavyweights are betting on a total cultural metamorphosis.
A truly realized Metaverse must encompass the sum of every virtual arena, every augmented reality projection you can name, and the Flatland of the Internet—all governed freely on a principle of interchange. It must eliminate the barriers between discrete experiences to form one continuity and mirror the way we live. Decentralized blockchain networks will help us port the things we own as readily as we carry our own identities.
The very technologies that will make Web 3.0 possible may inevitably produce a digital society tangential to our own. Those laying the foundations of the Metaverse aspire to approximate the collective will of its inhabitants.
Spurred by simultaneous trends toward decentralization and collaboration, the Metaverse will mark a synthesis moment where individuals create limitless worlds alongside their original maintainers, and where all entertainment coexists in a realm you could almost touch.
The difference between that and Web 3.0 may seem academic, but it highlights the elusive nature of the beast. Regardless of where you draw the line, we're chasing a moment where technologies still in development today will integrate so completely into human activity as to make our web experience indistinguishable from real life.
Crashing the System
Snow Crash debuted when the Internet was still a Sunday hobby at DARPA. Who would have thought it would dictate its future? Thirty years on, the novel has become a view through the looking-glass. From its pages came a shared, digital daydream that's quickly becoming reality.
It's not just a future where all video games interact, like Ready Player One. Nor is it merely a kind of virtual reality powered by digital money. We're talking about a place so illusory that you can only interact with it using cutting-edge technology, but so democratized that everyone can visit, at any time, and help shape the landscape on parcels they own.
Even though they're working off Stephenson's blueprint, you've got to give credit where it's due. The Street predicted the course of open-source application development, the user-generated commodity, and the eventual meeting-of-minds between freelance creatives and megalithic gaming studios.
If there's anything Neal failed to anticipate, it's that the Metaverse would metastatize from its most popular games, and not the other way around.
Titans of Tomorrow
In a global industry that generated nearly $180 billion in 2020, Epic Games and the Roblox Corporation are true colossi. Since releasing Fortnite in 2017, Epic's annual returns have grown to $5.1 billion—2.8% of total industry revenue. It is now the 8th most profitable gaming company in the world, beating out the likes of Sega and Take-Two Interactive (whose holdings include Rockstar Games).
The growth of Roblox is no less incredible. After going public in March, the Roblox Corporation announced that its flagship game now attracts 42.1 million daily active users, who collectively spent 9.7 billion hours in-game in Q1 2021. To put that in perspective, that's 1,107 millennia squeezed in before April.
Earnings for the same period ballooned to $387 million. As Roblox expands its market capture of kids over the age of 13, it's expected to crush conservative estimates of $1.5 billion on the year. The truly remarkable thing about the success of Roblox? All their revenue originates from a 50% cut of the in-game Robux economy.
When the leadership of these companies says they're making a Metaverse, the rest of the industry takes heed.
When the Metaverse arrives, it will raze all borders. Games from erstwhile competitors will trade assets, exchange currencies, and permit players to jump seamlessly from one experience to the next with their friends in tow. Roblox and Fortnite may yet find themselves among myriad destinations on a transverse superhighway that connects all games.
It would seem counterintuitive for any developer to enable off-platform flight, but these companies are showing the industry just how profitable interoperability can be. They're just blazing two very different paths there.
Epic Games has leveraged its position like a battler royale wields a Drum Gun to the face. Fortnite's runaway success was the "forcing function" responsible for the emerging standard of cross-platform play. CEO Tim Sweeney makes no bones about it: Epic will summon the cooperative spirit of the Metaverse, whether the industry likes it or not.
Roblox, on the other hand, doesn't seem too concerned about forcing anyone's hand. According to Roblox CBO Craig Donato, the company is "so obsessed" about what they're doing that they're not "looking over [their] shoulder." While Epic Games seeks to brawl its way to the Metaverse, Roblox is quietly nurturing its germ in a sprawling, self-referential playground.
1 Giant Leap 4 Metakind
Though they're working from different philosophies, both companies are helping to rough out a future where reality and digital realms are indistinguishable. Humanity is headed for a place where games, socializing, and trade extrapolate to Infinity. Just as the earliest human civilizations arose from the waterways of Lower Mesopotamia, the Metaverse will take root around a limitless font of creative energy.
Unlike the Street's intrepid hackers, individuals on our Metaverse will use sophisticated creative tools with no prerequisite learning. But they'll exhibit and carry their creations across an ecosystem of seamlessly interlinked digital experiences.
Venture capitalist Matthew Ball has written a Metaverse white paper that outlines milestones for getting there. If we add in commentary from the pioneers at Epic and Roblox, we can envision a true Metaverse that:
- is always on, and persistent across sessions;
- can be experienced live, with real-time immersion;
- hosts audiences of any size;
- incorporates a fully-functioning, free market economy;
- spans seamlessly across platforms and devices;
- permits digital assets to be carried across Metaverse experiences;
- must allow individual content makers to nourish worlds.
The Metaverse will bring about a future epoch of human society where play is a job, creation is commodified, and anyone can make something durable enough to be carried to the context of any experience. Early adoption will be critical to that mission. Epic Games and Roblox aren't the only ones vying to establish the bounds of the Metaverse, but they're setting the tone for others to join the effort.
The people behind Roblox and Fortnite will become defining voices of the proto-Metaverse (whose annals you will undoubtedly read at a virtual museum between matches of Mortal Kombat with a friend in Vietnam). Whether they'll be heroes or villains remains to be seen.
In our next transmission, we'll consider how Roblox has already had a major social impact in the lives of its users.
NEXT TRANSMISSION: Roblox Puts the "Me" in Metaverse