In this blog mini-series, we’re looking at the recent boom in communications regarding the metaverse from technology leaders; what are their goals? How will they arrive in the metaverse? How will it impact users? In this second part, we turn to gaming.

Fortnite (Epic Games)

CEO of Epic Games, Tim Sweeney, has let it be known that he believes the internet we currently use is being run by a select few companies who have created a closed system. He also believes that this closed system has been beneficial to big corporations and that “we [the public] spent the last decade being taken advantage of.” Speaking at the Global Conference for Mobile Application Ecosystem Fairness, Sweeney kept referring to “walled garden” ecosystems such as Google’s Play Store and Apple’s App Store.

This message has been heard loud and clear in recent months as Epic went to battle in U.S. courts with Apple. Epic believes that Apple created an anti-trust system in their App Store, taking large percentages of revenue from creators and publishers. This reiterates Sweeney’s beliefs and while Apple walked away from the battle unscathed, recent talk of the metaverse has made Sweeney more vocal in a want for a decentralised internet.

Epic Games has spent the last five years positioning themselves as a ‘metaverse aspiring’ company. This is occurring through their company acquisitions and their abilities to create universal graphics software. During the 1990’s Tim Sweeney began creating a videogame graphics engine which would power his upcoming game, Unreal. His creation tools were simple to use and powerful, allowing developers across the world to create new games. The graphics engine has passed through several iterations and is now responsible for powering thousands of games. Why is this important? Because it’s this engine which could in theory power the graphical user interface of the metaverse with developers big and small using it for their vision. In fact, it sort of already is. With Fortnite.

Fortnite currently boasts over 350 million players. What started as a battle royale focused on players fighting each other, has become a gaming platform with metaverse ideals. No longer pulling in users just to battle it out, people across the world come together for huge events, concerts, pop culture clashes and more recently Party Worlds – small pockets of digital space created by members of the community. Creators are building their own games and social spaces for players to join, jumping through portals between worlds, defying language barriers and allowing players to show off their skins, as well as their skills.

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Fortnite has been wildly popular for four years, pulling in billions of dollars, meaning Epic Games has sway – they have the money and influence to broker deals to make their slice of the metaverse appealing to users. Events within Fortnite have seen Marvel Comics characters take over the playing space, Star Wars premiered a scene from Rise of the Skywalker, there have been collaborations with Nike, Moncler, Balenciaga and Ferrari; concerts for musical acts, short film festivals and even historical events to educate the audience on important social issues. Tim Sweeney and Creative Director Donald Mustard have both expressed that they see Fortnite as a platform for entertainment, rather than strictly a ‘game’.

Hate it or love it, Fortnite is a pioneer of the videogames industry, constantly breaking ground. It was Epic Games who forced the hands of console publishers to usher in cross-platform play and cross-progression. This meant that players weren’t stuck within their console ecosystems and now PlayStation owners can play with friends who play on Nintendo Switch, XBOX or PC. This also meant that players could buy skins (costumes for the avatar) using V-Bucks, the game’s digital currency, on one platform and use them on all others – which is a key proponent of the metaverse.

With Epic Games’ most recent acquisitions they’ve begun to focus on expanding their platform in several ways. Buying House Party, the company is able to bring in-game video chat to the platform. Closing a deal on Sketchfab, Epic now owns the largest platform for 3D models which can then be uploaded and used within Unreal Engine. Most recently, the company purchased Harmonix, a studio known for music-based videogames (Remember Rock Band?) in order to produce higher quality musical experiences within Fortnite.

With the recent launch of Fortnite Chapter 3, which saw a record number of players swamp the servers, Epic Games are moving into a new era for the game. The next two years will be crucial if Sweeney is to see out his vision of the metaverse. It’s the time when Fortnite can grow as a platform – utilising community creators to develop shared spaces; partnering with more brands and celebrities for clothing and items; to create more immersive events and opportunities; to foster a communicative user base. Sweeney rightly believes that “no one company can own the metaverse” but he and Epic Games are doing all they can to ensure people are entertained when the metaverse arrives fully.

Roblox (Roblox Corporation)

Roblox CEO David Baszucki’s dream for Roblox is now coming to fruition. His goal when he set out seventeen years ago was to create a platform showcasing originality, creativity and community. His vision was similar to what we nowadays consider the metaverse – a place where people come together as digital avatars to play, chat, experience entertainment and express themselves. Speaking to CNBC earlier this year, Baszucki stated “Our whole company is really focused on the innovation to drive and shepherd this vision of what some people call the metaverse — or human co-experience — forward,”

For many years Roblox was considered a ‘children’s game’. It’s not hard to see why; most of the games are simplistic or driven by repetition and the LEGO style of the avatars make the aesthetics even more childlike. Exploring the Roblox front page, where they showcase games and experiences, can be overwhelming. There are hundreds of thousands of different ways to play, from horror stories to arcade games, pet simulators to role playing games. Driven by the thousands of creators who use Roblox to showcase their talent, the games and experiences are becoming more complex and tailored to wider audiences. This has seen an increase in older demographics.

The popularity of the platform is guiding the ‘metaverse aspirations’ of Roblox. Many of the most popular experiences are created as hubs for players to join and express themselves using original clothing designs and accessories all paid for by the digital currency Robux. They act as a place to play out a role. Entering any of these games will showcase the players identity, however that may look and these players can jump from game to game, with their friends, allowing an almost seamless experience.

The key there is ‘almost’ seamless because each experience must be loaded from the Roblox homepage. However, there is always a sense of a large, sprawling cityscape underneath the games and experiences. If this is one day realised, by players walking from one game into a portal which takes them ‘home’ before they walk into another portal to the next game, we step even closer to the metaverse.

Because everything else is there – Roblox is partnering with big brands to showcase products through interactivity, like the recent NIKELAND experience and the British Fashion Awards. These opportunities not only elevate the Roblox name, but they offer experiences for the user to obtain new clothing which can be worn within any other Roblox space.

Much like Fortnite, Roblox is teaming up with music acts and film publishers to launch concerts and experiences which allow for a fully immersive experience. These moments pull in vast crowds; when Roblox hosted Lil Nas X, the concert attracted over 30 million people. Several movie studios have spent advertising capital on creating Roblox spaces for fans to feel like they’re part of the project for movies such as In the Heights, Ready Player One and Wonder Woman.

Users can treat Roblox like a metaverse space, bouncing from one experience to another. They might solve a murder mystery with friends, then select a new experience where they decorate their houses, adopt pets and trade them with other players, before going to a skatepark sponsored by Vans. All of this is accompanied by a robust chat system which is, for now, text only, but will soon feature VOIP communication.

Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP) will soon be the way the Roblox Corporation wants users to engage with one another. Developers for the platform have been discussing the concept, building in safeguards for the younger audience and testing its boundaries.. Eventually anyone will be able to talk to anyone else, simply by walking up to them – the conversation volume will even increase as the person gets nearer.

These metaverse intentions come to the fore after a blockbuster year for the platform, where the corporation entered the stock exchange at unbelievable valuations. This was boosted by the recent COVID-19 pandemic, where schools closed down and kids were left to play and explore Roblox. It didn’t take long for the same schools to start interacting with Roblox, developing lessons around certain experiences as institutions started distance learning. Creators, teachers, students and parents began to see the benefits of having access to Roblox – a place where everyone can join in, even if they only have a smartphone to do so.

As time passes, the Roblox experiences will become bigger and better, as well as more detailed. Creators will begin to cater to particular audiences, either keeping their fingers on the pop culture pulse, or reacting to the needs and wants of educators and legislators. Creators have masses of flexibility in creating the spaces they want to see and they’re remunerated for it. Creators not only make revenue from the Robux people spend in-game, but they can sell their designs to other creators, crafting a creator led economy. 

All the pieces are on the table and Manuel Bronstein, Roblox’s chief product officer, believes that Roblox is creating a corner of the metaverse. Talking to Wired he said,  “These experiences are not just in a single category, like gaming. In fact, we see them as a combination of media, gaming, entertainment and commerce, and the future of social interaction.”

Game Over?

It’s often the entertainment industries which further technological advances and in recent years, it seems gaming pushes the boundaries. The PlayStation 3 was a large factor in Blu-Ray being adopted as the industry standard for physical media storage. As we near the embrace of web 3.0, it’s gaming doing the heavy lifting again. It’s no surprise given that videogames have been implementing metaverse ideas for so many years. We only need to look at games such as World of Warcraft (2004) which created a vast digital space built on communication, trading and community.

Software is a large factor in driving the metaverse and companies like Epic Games are crafting the tools needed for other developers and creators to build the future. All multiplayer games test the waters of interaction, digital currency adoption, architecture of shared spaces, community led decision making and server hardware limitations. Then, on top of these details, is the hardware and the core demographic. Gamers generally are the ones to spend on new hardware like Virtual Reality headsets or beefy gaming PCs. Plus, the younger audience often gravitates towards new ideas such as cryptocurrency, NFTs, decentralized space and digital expression.

If you want to know where the metaverse is heading, look to gamers.

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