Artificial Intelligence

The metaverse is already winning, you’re just looking in the wrong place

Looking at some of the more sensationalist headlines about user numbers in the metaverse, it’s easy to wonder how the big brands got it so wrong.

Despite pouring billions into building its flagship metaverse experience Horizon Worlds, Meta is reportedly struggling to gain and retain users. Other big names like Sandbox and Decentraland don’t seem to be doing much better. General interest in the metaverse has cratered; Google search interest in the term is down over 80% worldwide over the past year.

Simply looking at these heavily capitalised projects might suggest the metaverse dream is dead. But depending on how you define the term, some metaverse platforms are totally killing it today — Fortnite has 30m active users and Roblox has 37m.

So how can companies like Meta take a page out of the gaming playbook and bring people to new metaverses?

Lessons from videogame fundamentals

The success of Fortnite and Roblox are a result of both platforms creating absorbing and dynamic games that have both engaged players and excited creators for years. Both of these titles fall into the box of “virtual spaces where people meet, socialise and play”, a box that could also include games like League of Legends, World of Warcraft, Grand Theft Auto and Minecraft.

The first thing that metaverse builders should be thinking about if they want users to hang around are some time-honoured design principle from games. These include things like feedback loops, level design, sound design, movement, controls and camera angles, to name just a few.

Making a good game involves thinking hard about all of these factors and more — it’s an incredibly time-intensive, laborious art.

“It needs to be more than just being able to take a selfie, take a walk or dance around in a virtual nightclub”

One of the most key parts of that is the “gamification” of the experience — the way that game designers build rewards and achievements into their titles. This is what provides the impetus for players to do more than just complete a game: it’s what keeps users coming back and gives games longevity.

The satisfaction that a well-designed game gives its users is based on how players are rewarded for their time and actions in the virtual world. It needs to be more than just being able to take a selfie, take a walk or dance around in a virtual nightclub. Actions in virtual worlds need incentive — too many metaverse experiences only offer a restricted set of actions, with incentives based on earning crypto, commonly:

  • Exploration
  • Trading
  • Time and effort based currency earning
  • Customisation of avatars
  • Creation of environments

While these are all key ingredients in virtual worlds and experiences, they are not on their own enough. What metaverse experiences currently lack is the core of what makes gaming experiences great: original game design, solid control mechanics, great audio design, reinforcement loops, tight level design and so on.

Another key lesson that metaverse builders can learn from games is the importance of community-driven evolution — in other words, listen to your community of players and respond to their requests for new features. Games that survive well today understand the “gaming-as-a-service” mantra — the need to provide an evolving entertainment service over time, embracing user feedback.

Metaverse builders would also do well to learn from games like Roblox and Minecraft that enable creativity in virtual worlds. By fostering users’ imagination and letting them build things, you make them feel like they’re a part of that world and, with examples like Roblox, it’s largely young creators that keep coming back to build again and again.

Don’t throw the metaverse out with the Web3 bathwater

The tech world’s tendency to schadenfreude makes it tempting to completely write off the metaverse after its slow start.

Clearly crypto is going through a very tough time, and with the recent demise of FTX things are not looking much brighter in the short term, and the impact this is having on Web3 and gaming should not be underestimated. Crypto and the decentralised dream that followed it was a big part of the vision of the metaverse — it was meant to be the currency of this new vision of the internet — so crypto confidence directly affects metaverse confidence.

“Once the financial incentive of playing these experiences is stripped away, then what remains is what has always been important in virtual experiences: the joy of play”

Many of the core mechanics built into metaverse platforms rely on monetisation through blockchains — acquisition and trading of NFTs and pay-to-play mechanics are two of the most common mechanisms here. But once the financial incentive of playing these experiences is stripped away, what remains is what has always been important in virtual experiences: the joy of play.

Companies that have bet heavily on the metaverse are making cuts too, most notably Meta of course, and the global economic situation is certainly not helping.

Despite the metaverse being in its infancy, user numbers being lower than hoped and the current troubled waters of Web3, I still strongly believe the sector has massive potential to launch new and exciting gaming vessels. That’s as long as these ships are built on reinforced gaming hulls, though.

It’s gaming and the joy of gaming that will entice and retain players on metaverse platforms, at which point layering Web3 functionality on top to enrich the experience makes perfect sense.

Gordon Midwood is cofounder of Anything World.

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