How do you navigate an immersive virtual world that’s still mostly conceptual yet manages to generate billions of visits and even more dollars? Buckle up, because the deeper you go, the weirder it gets
One of the most buzzed-about destinations of 2022 is barely developed and widely misunderstood, starting with the fact that it isn’t, strictly speaking, real. And yet despite that existential disadvantage, the metaverse has managed to attract some of the world’s biggest brands, from Sotheby’s to the NFL, who’ve set up shop in the virtual universe to drop capsule collections, mint NFTs and auction off multimillion-dollar digital artworks. Along the way, the metaverse also became the hottest concert venue of pandemic-struck 2021, with A-list performances by Ariana Grande, Lil Nas X and Justin Bieber, all in avatar form.
Which is all fine, but what is it, exactly? The term itself, coined in Neal Stephenson’s 1992 sci-fi novel Snow Crash, is already headed for middle age, while the technological capability to actually create a fully immersive, interconnected virtual world remains a dream locked inside the mind of a yet-to-be-imagined super-computer. Still, the headlines keep coming, from Ralph Lauren’s winter-themed virtual fashion retail village to the hyper-realistic “meta-human” avatars that are being generated by Epic Games’ Unreal Engine digital creation studio. For a universe that doesn’t yet exist, the metaverse is surprisingly, if intangibly, real.
The Lay of the “Land”
Whatever you’ve heard about the metaverse, the reason you’ve heard of it at all is almost certainly Facebook’s October 2021 announcement that it would be investing “many billions of dollars for years to come” into the space, during a presentation in which CEO Mark Zuckerberg declared, with the fervent, unblinking enthusiasm of a newly initiated cult member, that the company was also changing its name—to Meta. Based on the rendered animations and demos shown during the announcement, the rebranded tech giant’s idea for its namesake future seems to boil down to a very boring Matrix taking place inside a Nintendo Wii, where you hang out, work and take exercise classes in fully immersive 3-D.
But such a hyperscale interconnected virtual world is only one of several possible futures for the metaverse, and it’s not everybody’s first choice. Right now, “the metaverse is kind of the merging of crypto and gaming,” says Karinna Grant, cofounder and co-CEO of the Dematerialised, a creator of and “marketspace” for digital fashion, accessories and collectibles. Crypto may provide some of the metaverse’s funding and much of its vocabulary, but gaming is its technological bedrock, a digital-native industry with billions of global users that’s been creating immersive universes for decades.
Some of the biggest multiplayer franchises, including Fortnite, Halo and Minecraft, have evolved into self-contained worlds with GDP-level in-game economies. Consider these titles and those like them—developer-controlled storytelling gameplay that also includes shared social spaces and experiences—as the moneyed establishment of gaming real estate in the metaverse. Of that group, Fortnite has locked down the most high-profile collaborations, activations and merch, including virtual Air Jordan sneakers and NFL jerseys, takeovers by Star Wars and Stranger Things and high-fashion avatar outfits—aka skins—and accessories designed by Balenciaga. Across the philosophical sound are the creator-led platforms, gamified world-building engines and marketplaces that don’t rely on any form of contest or competition. Chief among these is Roblox, a global online platform that’s like a massive virtual rec room and hangout, with over 10 million designers creating virtual experiences and items for its nearly 50 million average daily users.