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Another week, another round of crazy acquisitions and metaverse hype in the game industry. While I’m very proud of the 30 or so sessions we had on the metaverse at our recent GamesBeat Summit: Into the Metaverse 2 event, I must admit that, like the rest of us, I’m getting tired of everything being called a metaverse these days.

I suppose we’re complicit in generating all that hype, but I hope we can be of service in sorting things out.

As noted at our event, Linden Lab’s Second Life deserves recognition for being a real metaverse and surviving since 2003, and its leaders Brad Oberwager and Philip Rosedale would like us to know that it’s still around. Take-Two CEO Strauss Zelnick called it an “abject failure” at our previous event and that his company’s Grand Theft Auto Online was a better candidate to be called a metaverse. But Oberwager would like us to know that Second Life has a $650 million in-game economy from the denizens who make digital things and sell them to each other.

“Why are people hearing about Roblox and Minecraft but not Second Life?” asked Ina Fried, chief tech correspondent at Axios, in a fireside chat at our metaverse event.

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Rosedale said people have built different things in different ways, and those worlds have done very well with kids. That has made people think about Second Life, which has seen its own rebirth in the pandemic with a more adult crowd. Of course, Second Life doesn’t have the numbers to deserve the title of being “the metaverse.” Roblox is far bigger with nearly 50 million people coming back every day, and Minecraft is drawing huge crowds as well.

“Many of the technical problems that keep virtual worlds from getting big are still there,” Rosedale said.

Linden Lab founder Philip Rosedale (left) and executive chairman Brad Oberwager.
Linden Lab founder Philip Rosedale (left) and executive chairman Brad Oberwager.

Rosedale acknowledges that the graphics aren’t quite good enough for us to confuse the metaverse with reality. When we get there — something Epic Games’ Kim Libreri believes will happen in the next five years — then we might be able to call these worlds metaverses. Or just part of the larger multiverse.

Regarding Meta, Rosedale said, “It presupposes a willingness to swap out face-to-face interaction for some kind of with some kind of technology-mediated interaction. We are absolutely not there yet. I look on it as the bad moments in Silicon Valley where we talk about things to talk about them but we are pulling the future too far forward.”

He also said that if you take Facebook’s business model and put it into the metaverse, you have a much greater chance of causing great harm — where your eye movements are tracked, and AI would decipher our personalities — that is an “end for humanity that we don’t want to find out about,” Rosedale said.

I would define the metaverse as a shared, persistent, real-time and social online space that has its own economy and feels like you’re inside an immersive and interconnected world. And it’s not just one world, it’s a whole collection of them. But I admit that we’re still pretty confused and getting more confused about this every day.

Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, changed his company’s name to Meta as he announced he will pivot the company to creating the metaverse. He announced this week that Meta Reality Labs, which is the company’s augmented reality and virtual reality division, generated $2.3 billion in revenues in 2021, but it lost $10.2 billion. Surely, if anyone deserves credit for trying to make the metaverse a reality, it’s Zuckerberg? Well, everybody believes Zuckerberg wants to build a walled garden, even though he says he wants an open metaverse built by many companies. And a walled garden is just like Disneyland in a world that will be full of virtual theme parks.

So I had to do a doubletake this week when I interviewed Anthony Kaan of Fandomodo Films this week about the company’s effort to create a metaverse for the supernatural. He and Liquid Studios are making films, a virtual university in The Sandbox, and other experiences all about supernatural things. Perhaps it might be better called a metaverse application, I suggested. But Kaan said the effort had been underway for five years and was bigger than one app. And Spire Animations raised $20 million to make animated films for the metaverse.

The folks at Sensor Tower looked at all of the metaverses that have been announced in the past three months, since Zuckerberg made the metaverse so fashionable. Sensor Tower said, “It turns out the buzzword’s proliferation into mobile marketing is escalating.”

552 metaverses

Unity bought Ziva to make lifelike people for the metaverse.

In the last three months alone, 86 apps have adopted the keyword “metaverse,” bringing the total of top apps that use the keyword to 552. Mobile games represent nearly 20% of all apps that reference the metaverse. I get a lot of these pitches about metaverses and I wrote about some of them every week, but let’s get real, people, even if we’re talking about something as imaginary as the metaverse.

Now we’ve seen a lot of fakery here, kind of like the fakery in nonfungible tokens (NFTs) in games. People are pulling the wool over our eyes. It reminds me of the early days of VR in 2016, when we were previously sold on the idea of the metaverse coming real soon. Back then, John Riccitiello, now CEO of Unity, predicted that we would see a “trough of disillusionment” with VR. And he was right, as VR tanked in its first generation.

As it moves on to its new generation, VR looks a lot more promising and it is steadily growing, as Meta’s own sales suggest. And I can predict that the same will happen here, with fake metaverses poisoning the well and causing investors to panic and pull the market down. The skeptics will be proven right when that happens.

Riccitiello’s Unity is building game engines that will be one the picks and shovels for building the metaverse. And like him, I try to take a longer view, and I believe that after that trough happens for the metaverse and we shake out all the scams and the fake ones, we’ll eventually get to the real metaverse. And it will be glorious.

Lifetime achievement

Phil Spencer is head of gaming at Microsoft.
Phil Spencer is head of gaming at Microsoft.

Lastly, as an aside, the Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences announced yesterday it would give Phil Spencer, CEO of Microsoft Gaming, its lifetime achievement award at the DICE Awards in Las Vegas on February 24. I’d like to congratulate Phil on a well-deserved honor and I’ll be happy to attend the Dice Summit in person and watch him get that award.

If anybody has a shot at building a metaverse, it’s Spencer, as he’ll be able to set up a subscription for various virtual theme parks like Call of Duty Land, or Halo Land, or Fallout Land — and keep us in there all day long or more. But let’s just hope he doesn’t talk about his metaverse too prematurely.

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