Beyond his career as an author, Neal Stephenson has become a sought-after futurist* in his own right. During a stint at Blue Origin in the early aughts, he helped aerospace engineers hash out the perils of interplanetary travel. Now he's defining corporate visions at Magic Leap, a startup that's pioneering mixed reality headsets for enterprise uses (such as the medical separation of conjoined twins).
In a world where narrative predicts reality, creative minds like Stephenson have put prognostication in high demand. We're asymptotically approaching a moment where all of humanity may interface with superposed digital experiences in real-time. Our devices will become portals to a persistent world tangential to our own.
Video games are producing the kinds of reality-blending experiences that will shorten the road to the Metaverse, and players are paving the way to smooth passage. Today's user-made Fortnite Islands could set the stage for next year's hottest concerts. Voxel artists are creating enthralling set pieces in The Sandbox in the same way that hobbyist carpenters bring furniture to life in Google SketchUp.
The Metaverse will be the eventual superposition of all realities, where the whole world gets to take part in a decentralized act of creation. Thanks to a new emphasis on user-generated content, millions are already living there.
Like any place in Reality, the Street is subject to development. Developers can build their own small streets feeding off of the main one. They can build buildings, parks, signs, as well as things that do not exist in Reality, such as vast hovering overhead light shows, special neighborhoods where the rules of three-dimensional spacetime are ignored, and free-combat zones where people can go to hunt and kill each other.
— Neal Stephenson, Snow Crash
You won't experience a real, live Metaverse if you can't find all your friends there. It must be open to everyone at all times and all places; it must earn the "meta" part of its name by being beyond everything we've ever experienced in the known universe.
In our previous transmissions, we discussed how Fortnite has changed the video game industry and the many ways Roblox resembles a social network. From their disparate ends of the gaming galaxy, the celestial tastemakers at Epic Games and the Roblox Corporation have offered their hands to anyone who wants to reach across the gulf. Either developer might issue the germ into a full-flowered Metaverse. Together, they're carrying the standard of a groundbreaking approach that gives gamers the power to wield the divine spark.
Games that permit cross-platform play (like Fortnite) and extensible content (like Roblox) are necessary precursors to the Metaverse, but these achievements alone don't capture the creative animus that must permeate it. Two of the biggest game studios on Earth are now looking to gamers to breathe life into their increasingly spartan worlds—and it's working.
You can't create your own weapons and avatars in Fortnite yet, but a recent overhaul to Creative Mode has rejuvenated its potential as a conduit for player imagination.
Since its introduction in 2019, Creative Mode has given Fortnite players the ability to create shareable in-game Islands and game types. To support the new feature, Epic Games highlighted top community creations on the game's main page, and even reserved a coveted block on the main Battle Royale map for a rotating array of user Islands.
YouTube and Twitch creators helped establish the mode's popular appeal by featuring user creations in widely-watched livestreams. Massive communities like Dropnite arose just to share Creative level codes. But diehard users soon began to bemoan the lack of content updates. Creative Mode was easy enough to use, but where were all the cool features they had come to expect from other games?
Those complaints have surely been put to rest. Epic Games has begun adding Creative Mode features and setpieces at regular intervals, alongside Limited Time Modes that encourage community collaboration. The recent Creative Summer Callout event added summertime water sports, boats, and surf boards for use in wacky game types and challenges. Earlier this year, the Creative Mayhem LTM offered the community's best "death run" obstacle course runners a chance at challenging their favorite Fortnite Creator.
The change started last fall with Creative Update v14.60, just a few months after Tim Sweeney vowed to add improved UGC integrations. Along with major stability updates and new features, that update added additional Islands to the mode's Creative Hub overworld. No longer was it a blank canvas, but a portal showcasing the most popular games of any given subgenre.
It's also worth noting that the update marked a subtle shift in brand communications. Overnight, "Creative Mode" became simply "Fortnite Creative." The name change is a reminder that Fortnite is all-in on becoming a fulcrum point to the Metaverse; now "Creative" is just another context in which you visit and interact with Fortnite.
We already covered how you could theoretically unlock a Battle Pass subscription for life with only eight bucks. Between the zany Seasonal updates, the colossal music acts, and the ability to own a share in a common geography, Fortnite could be considered predictive programming for the Metaverse. There's significantly less neon and a handful more chickens toting chain guns, but we're in the ballpark.
If you've never been pestered by a kid for a $10 Robux gift card, you must not know many kids. The game is a worldwide phenomenon for youth under 16. In the U.S., more than half of all kids are playing Roblox. The Roblox Corporation earned more than $1.2 billion from Robux sales in the first nine months of 2020. With average user spending hovering around thirteen bucks, that means most players only buy in once.
Roblox has enlisted the help of an entire generation to hammer out the standards and protocols of the Metaverse. Today's youth can buy lifetime access to a world that welcomes their creative input for a few spare dollars. Roblox players create millions of in-game items per year that can then be sold for Robux, which can then be converted back into real-world money.
User-generated content will be the engine that keeps the Metaverse going, just as it was in Neil Stephenson's impenetrable subculture. In a presentation aptly titled "The Future of Gaming Is UGC," Roblox VP of Developer Relations Matt Curtis attributed the game's success to the prolific output of its player-creators. Because its players "intuitively understand what's relevant to the community," they are therefore the best ones to help design the next best thing.
Last year the company introduced engagement-based earnings to financially support the people building the most resonant Roblox experiences. As Curtis says, this should allow anyone with a great idea to create "for creation's sake." Kids are now better acquainted with digital ownership than most Bitcoin maxis. They're earning digital and fiat currency for things created in a digital world. When you factor in how extensible the items themselves are, Roblox has created a perfect analog to help its young user base understand the digital assets of the future. Though they're not backed by NFTs, users can carry the items they've purchased across the platform.
Not everything is interoperable; your white puma from Adopt Me! wouldn't do you any good in Murder Mystery 2. You can, however, pop into most any experience in bespoke garments of your own design, or transfigure yourself into a skin from another game. The ability to bring owned items across thresholds establishes not only persistent narratives, but persistent identities. You get to be you, styled in your style, and really ownin' what you own.
To create the building blocks of a larger world—or enable users to inject individually-prescribed realities into it—there must be a meaningful locus of exchange. By the same token, the aspirational interoperability of the Metaverse will require a new set of common standards.
Just as the Internet gave us the universal (and unpronounceable) GIF format for visual representation, the technology that powers the Metaverse must interact using a shared vocabulary. We're in the period of necessary discord that will produce those standards. Venture capitalist Matthew Ball explains that competition will define them:
To use a meta analogy for the Metaverse, consider SimCity. In ideal circumstances, the “Mayor” (i.e. player) would first design their mega-metropolis, then build from day one to this final vision. But in the game, as with real life, you can’t just “build” a 10MM person city. You start with a small town and optimize for it first (e.g. where the roads are, schools are, utility capacity, etc.). As it grows, you build around this town, occasionally but judiciously tearing down and replacing “old” sections, sometimes only if/when a problem (insufficient supply of power) or disaster hits (a fire). But unlike SimCity, there will be many mayors, not one — and their desires and incentives will often conflict.
We can only discern the strongest foundations of the Metaverse once today's architects duke it out with competing models. The LaserDisc and the 8-track tape have long been banished to Valhalla—but they got the last laugh on cassettes, CDs, DVDs, and iPods. Physical formats have been outmoded by digital analogs; cryptocurrency is already displacing traditional money.
The writing is on the wall. Roblox's UGC marketplace mirrors the interoperability of a blockchain ecosystem. Epic Games CEO Tim Sweeney has stated a public fancy for decentralized economies. Tomorrow's experiences will incorporate in-game economies that offer unlimited ways to monetize unique products of the imagination.
It's certain that market interests and future technology will make the Metaverse possible, but that's just the initial spark. Once provisioned with the tools to create the Metaverse, its denizens will become its inheritors: users will give the universe form with their own creative content.
You may not believe it, but the Metaverse will run on decentralized infrastructure. Salad just might become your passport to its every experience.
Some are calling the Metaverse our "next great milestone as a networked species." Epic Games and Roblox aren't the only ones vying to establish its bounds, but they're doing pivotal work to convince others to adopt an individual-first philosophy where creativity is prized. The next step is ensuring that we can explore our imaginations with everyone we know.
These prototypical Metaverses are encouraging everyone to participate in a decentralized act of creation. Gamers will interpolate their identities into digital experiences like never before. Embracing UGC permits individuals to define the landscape and interact with it at an ever-expanding volume of contact points.
In the short term, more and more digital experiences will embrace their own creative trade economies. Salad aims to help you contact that user-generated civilization by unlocking the dormant value of your home hardware. Think of Salad Balance as prepaid minutes for the Metaverse. Every time you run Salad, you earn valuable income that can enrich the nascent Metaverse and grow the decentralized platforms that will power it.
*The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy defines "futurist" as: "A sort of job for lateral-thinking creatives, especially those with a bent for turning things inside-out. These self-styled Tomorrowtech seers are highly allergic to utopia, but obsessively building it anyway, just to prove a point."