Riffs by Raph: Online World or Metaverse?

A lot of people are talking about the “metaverse”, and as a result, a lot of folks are wondering what the heck that word even means.

Frankly, it’s a reasonable question. But as someone who has actually built, launched, and operated a metaverse before, I have answers!

I recently spoke at the Digital Economy Forum, hosted in Korea by the Ministry of Economy and Finance, and organized by the Korea Startup Forum. After the panel, we got the question “what’s the difference between Second Life and a metaverse?”

Here’s the short-form answer:

Online worlds lead to multiverses which lead to metaverses. And just about no one has actual metaverses to offer right now.

Second Life is not a metaverse; after all, it’s just one world. A social online world oriented around creativity.

Online worlds have been around since 1978. They started out being text-only, and only for games. But around 1985, online worlds that were just for socializing and chatting came along, and in 1989 worlds meant for creativity were invented. These three kinds of worlds have been the three major types ever since.

  • Social worlds are used for classrooms, lectures, events, or just hanging out. Sometimes people play roleplaying games in them, but they usually don’t have game systems.
  • Creative worlds (like Second Life) also have many of these qualities, but they are designed to allow users to create content within them, which regular social worlds don’t usually allow.
  • Game worlds are what developed into MMORPGs: they feature game systems and combat and the like.

It’s pretty easy to confuse a social world or a creative world with a metaverse. After all, they often have concerts (with live audio -- sorry, Fortnite), classrooms, and lots of user-generated content. But really, the lines between all three types are blurry.

I helped make a game world called LegendMUD back in 1994 that had multiple games within it, including sporting events, a regular lecture series, live storytelling, and other activities. But it was still very clearly a game world where you mostly spent your time slaying monsters, and these other things to do were “extras.”

The next step up from this would be a multiverse. Pretty much all graphical online worlds have a single visual theme, you see. Merely hopping between shards of the same game? That’s just load balancing your playerbase, not building a multiverse.

In a real multiverse, there are multiple different worlds connected in a network, which do not have a shared theme or ruleset. This lets you hop between very different worlds, with completely different types of experiences.

This is the vision of the movie (and book) Ready Player One. Many connected virtual environments, running on common enough technology that you can hop between them. Roblox is a very good example of this sort of multiverse today, but it’s not a new idea, even though very few people have actually made something like it -- people were talking about “interMUD protocols” and even got them working, clear back in the 90’s.

The dream of the future is a metaverse. A metaverse is a multiverse which interoperates more with the real world. In most conceptions, it includes significant elements of augmented reality – such as walking around a real city and seeing virtual things. It includes shopping at actual stores via VR interfaces. If you attend classes, it might be a class that has mixed attendance between virtual attendees and physical ones. You might perform a job solely in virtual space, and get paid real money. It blends the real and the virtual.

It can still include worlds that are games, and worlds that are social, and worlds that are creative. But it also includes worlds that are digital copies of the real world (called “mirror worlds”), including stuff that doesn’t even look like worlds. After all, when you use Maps, your car is an avatar logged into an online world of real roads, and when you check Yelp, you’re actually reading tags on a virtual version of a restaurant.

In 2006, my team and I built a metaverse called Metaplace. Before it went away, it was a network of over 70,000 worlds. Users could make their own worlds -- and I mean, make them from the ground up, code and art -- and we developers also made dozens of them.

Some of them were puzzle games and some of them were RPGs. Some were platformers and some were battle arenas. But some were also shops connected to real world stores. Or concert halls, or classrooms, or even art projects. You, as the user, had a common identity across all of them, but you could look different in every world.

Metaplace could perform Shakespeare plays from XML files on random websites, it could display a walkable version of an Amazon storefront, it could source data from Google Maps or talk to Google Translate on the fly, host live concerts, and much more. Basically, it could do anything the web does, and put it in a virtual space.

Oh, we didn’t tick every box you might want today; it rendered in 2d, since there were no VR headsets back then, and cloud AR was a pipedream... and we sold the company to Disney before we got around to letting our users play to earn a living from their virtual work. But it was a true metaverse. (And I do miss it, and no, there’s literally nothing else like it on earth right now).

Most metaverse technology is still speculative. To get to today’s common dream of a metaverse, there are many interoperability questions to be answered, big questions about standards, digital object ownership, and more.

That said, we shouldn’t forget

  • you can walk around a real city and see virtual things in Pokemon GO
  • you could shop at a real store via a virtual interface in Metaplace a dozen years ago
  • countless students are attending real classes virtually via video chat today
  • worlds like Second Life can and do interoperate with the Web in a bunch of ways
  • and people have been making a living selling game gold since 1998.

In other words, a lot of those things that people dream of happening in the metaverse have happened in online worlds, because online world technology is the backbone of a metaverse.

That’s why I am skeptical whenever I hear someone say they are building a metaverse if they haven’t built and operated at least one online world before. After all, building just one online world is famously difficult -- take it from someone who has spent a quarter of a century doing it several times over!

So no, despite what many may think, “metaverse” is not just a buzzword. It is different from an online world. But metaverses presume multiverses, and multiverses are built from online worlds. They are all in the same family.

What does this have to do with Playable Worlds? Well, the answer is pretty simple, given what I’ve said, and you’ve probably connected the dots already…even so, I think I’ll answer it next week.

But… uh… the name of the company is a hint.