Something that bums me out from time to time is knowing I won’t be around to experience the future. Sure, I’ll probably be here next week and next year. But I won’t be here next century or next millennium. As a natural optimist, I believe the world is getting better and better all the time. I want to see it.
But then I remind myself that someone from the year 1,000 would probably give anything to experience even the most mundane 21st century human’s life. I can cross the Atlantic Ocean in 6 hours. I can cook my food inside a stainless steel box. I carry every written piece of information on a piece of glass inside my pocket – and it has games too!
And then I remind myself of the incredible amount of progress that’s happened in my lifetime alone. I am lucky enough to be part of the last generation born pre-internet. Technically, the internet was around but it was only used by the military and university researchers, not the public. I’ve seen the world go from no Web to Web 1.0 (read-only) to Web 2.0 (read-write) and soon what they are calling Web3 (read-write-exist). It’s an exciting time.
So when it dawned on me that I’ve actually experienced the Metaverse, I was more at peace with the fact I won’t be around in a thousand years. For those of you that don’t watch this space, or don’t believe in Facebook’s (now Meta’s) announcements, or don’t spend a lot of time on Discord, allow me to fill you in on what the Metaverse is.
There’s no perfect definition yet because 1) it can mean different things to different people and 2) it’s still in its infancy. Along with Web3 and NFTs, the Metaverse is a buzzword and a punching bag for people that can’t see the forest for the trees. Like making fun of the internet and e-commerce in the 90s.
Regardless of its nascency, there are a few important characteristics that aren’t likely to change:
The Metaverse is a persistent digital world. Just because you log out doesn’t mean the party stops.
The Metaverse encourages communication and interaction. This happens via text chat, videos, avatars, webcams, memes, gifs, and upvotes.
The Metaverse has a robust digital economy. It can be powered by dollars today, LUNA tokens tomorrow, and space credits in a thousand years.
The Metaverse is an immersive shared space with digital assets. That NFT you bought will soon hang in your virtual living room for when your friends come over.
The Metaverse is a community. It’s inclusive. It is centralized and decentralized. It can reward good actors with tokens. Play-to-earn, create-to-earn, contribute-to-earn are all different models that crypto makes possible to encourage certain behaviors.
The Metaverse is interoperable. If I buy something in Roblox, I can take it with me into Fortnite, Slack, Call of Duty, or Walmart.
As a side note, incentivizing good behavior is a lot harder than incentivizing bad behavior. Rewarding bad behavior is how most of the internet works today. It works so well, Trump was rewarded with the U.S. Presidency thanks to his bad behavior on Twitter. Today, algorithms prioritize showing users things that will outrage them which equals more clicks and shares which means more ad revenue for big tech. If the Metaverse is to become the digital town square, it will need to change this model.
So to recap: the Metaverse is a persistent and immersive digital world, where you can interact with other people and bots, exchange goods and services across platforms, in the same space as your friends and family, and feels like a community with social norms.
And I’ve been there.
To prove it, let me take you on a journey to 2006. I’m in high school. My hair is longer than it should be. My jeans are tighter than they should be. I don’t need to wake up to pee in the middle of the night. Life is good.
One day, I’m visiting a friend’s house after school when he boots up his computer and logs into an obscure-at-the-time game called World of Warcraft. I watch over his shoulder as he rides on a gryphon over the streets of a kingdom called Stormwind. I have no idea what the goal is, but it seems cool.
“It seems cool” turned into ten joyous years of playing World of Warcraft with my friends. I created a character, adventured through a fantasy world called Azeroth, leveled up my character’s power, collected gear and weapons, and did it all within a Guild of real people from around the world.
And while World of Warcraft is technically just an MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game), I’m going to argue that it was 99% of the experience that the Metaverse of the future will be. It seems Microsoft agrees because they just spent 70 billion dollars to buy the company that created World of Warcraft.
World of Warcraft (WoW for short) was one of the first persistent, digital worlds available on the internet. A few MMORPGs existed before WoW, but none as popular. I guarantee you’ve heard of World of Warcraft and it probably conjures up a mental image of obese computer nerds that never leave their parents’ basement.
While I am sure that was true for a small percentage of players, it was never my experience. The people I hung out with in-game were smart, kind, well-functioning members of society. They had jobs, values, family commitments they upheld, and the few people I knew outside of the game had good personal hygiene.
When you log out of WoW, the entire world and those people continue to hum along without you. Real-time events like holidays come and go in the game with the seasons. You can log out while the sun is casting long shadows, and log back in a few hours later as the moon reflects on the water of a nearby river.
World of Warcraft was the first experience I had using Skype and Ventrilo to talk with those friends and strangers. We could also use text in a global chat box that anyone on the server could see. You could send a private message to someone, make your avatar wave at them, and group up at meeting stones to go off and kill powerful monsters.
People had reputations in-game and they mattered. If you stole a piece of loot, you couldn’t just change the name of your character like you can change your Twitter handle today. You were branded as a thief and would be ostracized from future groups.
Then there was the Auction House. An interconnected market where you could buy and sell items from other players for in-game currency called Gold. And just like the real-world, as the game got older and more people made more Gold, inflation set in. When I first started playing, 40 gold was an incredible amount and would take hundreds of hours to earn by killing and looting NPCs (non-player characters). When I quit a decade later, I could make 40 gold in 10 minutes.
Many people, myself included, made a mini-game out of the existence of the Auction House. I could reliably buy certain items and materials for a certain amount of Gold during the middle of the week, and sell those same items for more on the weekend. There were supply and demand patterns based on when the most people could log in and play. It’s no wonder I enjoy investing and picking stocks – even when I’m not very good at it.
You might be thinking, this is all great but it’s not as immersive as the real Metaverse will be. No virtual reality headsets? No augmented reality glasses? No haptic feedback? This isn’t the Metaverse.
To which I would say, do you really think I saw my desk, or the air in between my eyes and the screen, or heard my mom telling me dinner was ready during those moments of adrenaline rush while fighting a huge dragon with my level 80 Night Elf Hunter while the voices of my friends cheering and yelling nearly broke my headset?
It was complete and total immersion.
And if we did our jobs correctly, often times after showing up for weeks and months on end to try our hand at a particularly difficult battle would we be rewarded for our efforts with a piece of equipment or a new weapon that dropped off the boss of a dungeon. We would equip it and walk around town with a new air of superiority. In this way, we were showing off our NFTs 15 years before any Bored Ape went for 10 Ethereum on Opensea.
This is why my World of Warcraft subscription ranks in the top 10 of my favorite purchases I’ve ever made.
But it’s really hard to recreate those moments. Some games have come close. But I’m not sure it’s going to be possible. You have to remember, 2006 was the first time most people were able to use voice chat over the internet. 2006 was the first time most people had internet fast enough to handle servers with thousands of characters logged in from every corner of the globe. It was novelty at its finest.
The biggest difference between my Metaverse and the one of the future is that it seems to be a foregone conclusion that no single company or institution will own the Metaverse in the same way no single company or institution owns the internet. It will be interoperable. Built on open standards.
As an analogy, if I bought a piece of equipment off the Auction House in WoW, I would be able to wear it into my game of Fortnite. That’s currently not possible and is one of the only parts of my Metaverse that won’t look like the future Metaverse.
WoW came close – there are certain in-game items that can only be obtained by playing other games outside of WoW or by visiting real-world events. But it was all controlled by Blizzard (the parent company of WoW). But today, if I buy a shirt from H&M, I can wear it into J. Crew. This needs to apply to digital worlds, too.
Interoperability not withstanding, these same experiences are what we mean when we talk about the Metaverse.
Interactions with real people, immersion in a 3D world, digital assets and markets that connect them all. My hope now is that the elements I loved about my Metaverse make it to the Metaverse of the future.
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I hear ya, this is very well-communicated. And yet… I’m out haha. This all sounds exactly like Ready Player One to me!