Tech companies say the Metaverse is coming, but PC gamers know it’s been there for years
This article first appeared in PC Gamer Magazine Issue 378, December 2022 as part of our Tech Report series. Each month we explore and explain the latest technological advances in computing – from the wonderful to the downright weird – with the help of the scientists, researchers and engineers who make it all possible.
It’s been over a year since Mark Zuckerberg announced that Facebook is now Meta, telling us about a bold new vision for interoperable, connected and immersive 3D worlds where we could do everything from play, to socialize, to to productivity tasks, and then us a nightmarish mix of permanent lockdown and the Mii Channel.
The metaverse has been trending before, being passed around by tech entrepreneurs and industry fortune tellers, but at that moment during the Facebook Connect conference, the world really took notice. When a company with the profile and resources of Facebook — then the sixth largest company in the world by market cap — is doing that much, we should probably start paying attention. That was the thought of 2021.
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Just over a year later, Meta’s watched more than half of its enterprise value disappear. It doesn’t even rank among the top 30 companies by market cap right now. Zuckerberg himself watched his value plummet by over $700 billion. Meta’s own metaverse, Horizon Worlds, is attracting 200,000 monthly active users, a headcount well below the 500,000 the company was reportedly hoping for in its first year.
It’s hard to imagine a worse start for a company wanting to own the Metaverse, and for us to spend all of our time there. One can indulge in a touch of glee at watching a man so laissez-faire about our privacy data get it wrong, but the fortunes of the Metaverse are not tied to Meta. Zuckerberg’s specific vision has so far foundered on the obvious issues right at the announcement – that the Horizon Worlds avatars look shockingly simple. That there isn’t much to do yet. That the technical entry point is VR, an expensive and inconvenient platform that also hasn’t found a mass-market audience in the eight years since Facebook bought Oculus.
However, the Metaverse is something else. Something bigger, not tied to VR and not tied to any particular company. It is defined most clearly by author Matthew Ball, former Global Head of Strategy at Amazon Studios, who outlines seven principles.
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Ball’s vision of the metaverse is a persistent, synchronous, and living space with no concurrent user limit, housing a fully functioning economy, offering unprecedented data interoperability, and populated with content created by a variety of creators. No mention of VR goggles, legless avatars, or working at a pretend desk in a dystopian future.
But what’s striking about Ball’s definition of the metaverse—widely recognized as the best yet—is how much it reads like early World of Warcraft design documentation. If this is the future, then we’re way ahead of the curve in PC gaming.
Persistent, always-on worlds with massive player counts have been central to our experience since Ultima Online. Modding has transformed games from authenticated, closed experiences to platforms that host the imaginative output of thousands – we only have to look at how far UGC’s Half-Life or Skyrim have taken them from their original release form to prove it. EVE has shown us how a fully player-regulated economy can function and sustain itself.
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More recently, Minecraft and Roblox have blurred the line between game and platform. Under the banner of these two games, worlds of experience await that have little in common apart from blocks. And footballer favourite, Fortnite has smashed IPs, emulated high street drop culture with its limited edition brand collaborations and hosted virtual concerts attended by millions.
What we don’t currently have in the PC gaming landscape is interoperability – that is, the power to take a weapon skin we’ve earned in PUBG and use it in Modern Warfare 2. Our virtual property stays in the closed ecosystem where we unlocked it. bought or earned. And here’s the thing: That’s absolutely fine.
Never in over 15 years in the gaming industry has this author heard anyone complain about not being able to transfer inventory items from one IP to another. If the desire for interoperability had been in our own ranks, the games industry would have responded to it long ago. But it didn’t, so it didn’t.
And that sums up the biggest challenge of the metaverse, especially among PC gamers: It’s not solving a problem. Our frustration with our chosen pastime revolves around increasingly predatory market practices, insidious payment models, and bloated development budgets that stand in the way of innovation. We are not demanding a centralized DLC economy. We’re perfectly happy that our chosen MMO exists in one corner of our lives and that our favorite racing game sits entirely separately. Because even if we could adopt a sword from FFXIV, what possible use would we have for it in Forza Horizon 5?
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Convenience drives tech innovations to mainstream acceptance, and without a clearly identifiable problem to solve, the metaverse currently has no such engine. Its most vocal evangelists are finance whales and tech giants who see dollar signs rather than a brighter future, and neither they nor anyone else can yet make a compelling case for committing to this possible new future, which Intel estimates would require 1,000 times more computing power than we currently have.
Even if Meta’s Horizon Worlds reveal didn’t look like it was morphed into a Mii and plunged into the deepest circle of mundane online interactions, the company’s value might still have imploded so much simply by clinging to an abstract future concept clung, which currently offers us no tangible benefit. And nobody feels that more than PC gamers, to whom the futuristic concepts of the metaverse are old news.