Pioneers in virtual worlds Philip Rosedale of High Fidelity; Matthew Ball of Epyllion Industries; Raph Koster of Playable Worlds; Frederic Descamps of Manticore Games; and Sam Englebardt of Galaxy Interactive, met up digitally at GamesBeat 2020 to talk about the promise of the Metaverse.

“The Metaverse stirs up a lot of debate in terms of what it is, how it’s coming and when it’s coming, what we’re all going to be doing in it, and so on,” said Englebardt. “How should we think about this term, this often-used, sometimes misunderstood term? What are we doing here? What are we talking about?”

It’s hard to describe, as opinions vary quite widely, Ball said.

“To some extent it’s not really knowable today, and it’s impossible to technically achieve in its fullest version,” he explained. “At the same time, we do understand some of the underlying elements, but even where that’s the case, it misses the substance.”

It’s not altogether dissimilar from the internet in the 50s through the 90s, he adds. We knew some of the elements. We knew file transfer. We knew real-time communication. And yet all of those core dynamics that we look at today, whether that’s the social web or the types of content we produce, those were really still in a process of discovery as recently as moments ago, as we’re seeing with TikTok and other virtual experiences under the coronavirus.

But in general, Ball said, the Metaverse we think will be a persistent, synchronous, live, living universe that affords each of us an individual sense of presence, a sense of agency where we would participate in an extensive economy that transcends individual experiences and perhaps even the physical and digital world.

Koster thinks of the Metaverse in terms of virtual worlds — and of course one of the characteristics of worlds is that they’re full of life. An expectations that has grown over time, as people participate in virtual environments of all sorts, is that they expect the environments to react to them in plausible ways. There is an artificiality behind most games and behind quite a lot of digital experiences, he adds, where everything is authorially controlled.

“I personally believe that the evolutionary path of Metaverse-style technology is going to be toward more robust simulation,” Koster said.

Physics simulation is getting pretty common, but if you think about the way in which we interact with the world, physics is only one small part of it. There are so many other ways in which we expect the world to be responsive to things we do, to evolve and change without doing us doing anything, without us touching it.

The idea of a robust simulation is very much at the heart of what we’re all looking for and trying for, agrees Rosedale. He points to Minecraft, which is closer to the idea of a robust simulation in many ways than anything else we’ve seen.

“It’s simple, and we may not like how it looks, but it does have a certain sense of physics and physicality to it,” he said. You know that if you click a certain number of times, the block you’re clicking on is going to disappear. And if you can keep doing that, you’ll have dug a hole.

“There’s a magic to that that lies at the core of what we’re trying to get to,” Rosedale said. “And of course the challenges of getting to it are considerable.”

Technologists have been working on this for some time, but the sheer amount of computation required to create something emergent or interesting at scale is still vast, even compared to the internet we have today.

One of the dangers is to focus too much on simulations and technology, said Descamps. MMOs even 20 years ago had sometimes more of an immersive nature than most of these simulations today. And, he said, 10 or 12 years ago, some people in the game industry were very negatively reacting to social games, saying they weren’t even games at all, and people who were playing them weren’t even gamers.

“Guess what? They were games, and they brought a whole new definition of games and gaming,” Descamps said. “The Metaverse is going to be mostly defined by immersion, for sure. It’s going to be social. It’s going to be participative. It’s going to be collaborative. It’s going to be UGC. It’s going to be dynamic, very malleable, very open-ended.”

And it’s not going to be always authoritarian and top-down, he adds. It’s the idea that the users, or the players, could also be, even have to be, the creators. They have to not just participate and consume, but also change and manipulate the world environment — for instance, in a virtual classroom, if you move a desk, you’re creating something different, a new experience for the next person who comes in.

But in today’s competitive, capitalist day and age, can you just build something interesting and expect people to populate it?

“Wherever you come out on that spectrum, what’s going to get everybody into this world in the first place?” Englebardt asked. “Ultimately, is this a Field of Dreams, and if you build this world everybody will come? Can we believe, in today’s day and age, with the competition for people’s time, that we can just build something interesting and expect people to populate it? How are we going to get them there and why is it going to be critical that they spend a meaningful amount of their time in it?”

The panelists spoke about how to get buy-in from users and getting players to spend a meaningful enough amount of their time in it to make it function as a real parallel world.

“I see the Metaverse as more of a multiverse, a multitude of universes that are connected,” he said. “We’re going to allow the users, the creators, the players, to build [it] themselves. Whatever we’re going to try to impose, they’re going to change it.”

So while the Metaverse is not quite here, if we are considering incremental innovations to how you can create a game, how realistic the physics are, the simulations, the economy, all of those innovations are happening right now, Ball said.

“That doesn’t require any belief in the multiverse or the Metaverse per se,” he said. “What’s important about what Tim and many other technologists believe is that ultimately it’s not going to be something that one person does. The collective experience that allows this Metaverse or multiverse to be better is the fact that it isn’t a walled garden. It’s something that is an exchange, not just between creators, but between worlds, between businesses, between ecosystems.”