It's been a wild two years for the so-called "metaverse." When Facebook changed its name to Meta in 2021, I was not enthusiastic about the future it was offering. Looking back on that year, I think a lot of my cynicism on the topic was fueled by how executives seemed more excited about the prospect than any developer or tech user I'd run into.
Since then? Meta's pivot to the metaverse business has cratered the company's stock. Would-be metaverses (metaversi?) like Decentraland and The Sandbox aren't seeing impressive numbers, and even Roblox, the user-generated content platform with maybe the strongest use case for the term, has been grappling with some revenue struggles.
Reading that news, and just...you know, thinking about the metaverse still gives me plenty of reasons to be cynical about living in a world inspired by Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash or Ernest Cline's Ready Player One. But the 2023 Game Developers Conference State of the Industry report has some interesting new data that's inviting me to take a different perspective.
Though the survey's results show plenty of healthy skepticism on the concept of the metaverse, it's a different kind of skepticism than what it showed about the possibilities of blockchain technology. That actually makes a fair amount of sense. Developers working in the game-making process have a better sense of how technology can be developed, and a virtual world filled with interesting activities and sellable goods is easier to conceive of than using multiple Slurp Juices on one Ape.
If developers are to be believed, the assembling of the metaverse will come to pass if companies pursue products that are—well, useful. Or meaningful. Or even just fun! There's no reason to throw away your connections to our beautiful, messy, imperfect real-world if the virtual one is just gonna be filled with Mark Zuckerberg's dead-eyed plastic avatars.
Here's a look at what they had to say.
Devs think Fortnite has the best chance of becoming a metaverse
I will be completely honest, that sub-header is completely ridiculous to read. Fortnite? The cartoon-y game where you
build bases that you defend from zombies play as various licensed brand characters (and some original ones) in a battle royale showdown?
But it's what the data shows. When asked which companies/platforms are best-placed to deliver on the promise of "the metaverse concept," 14 percent of survey respondents checked off "Epic/Fortnite." 7 percent replied "Meta/Horizon Worlds," and another 7 percent said "Microsoft/Minecraft."
Do those numbers look small? Yes. 10 percent of respondents responded with "other," and 45 percent selected "none—the metaverse concept will never deliver on its promise."
That means nearly half of developers are convinced the metaverse will never happen. Notable on its own, but I can't help staring at the datapoint that it's Epic and Fortnite that won out over an array of self-proclaimed metaverse platforms
Now to be fair to our respondents, there's probably two reasons for that. First, Epic Games CEO Tim Sweeney has loudly and proudly shared his ideas for an open-source metaverse, and sung the praises of open, creator-driven platforms.
Second, Fortnite does represent a vision of the metaverse popularized by the book Ready Player One and its film adaptation. If the metaverse is a place where *literally checks a spreadsheet* Robocop can fly an X-Wing while Master Chief does a silly dance on a nearby cliff...yeah that's possible in both Fortnite and Ready Player One's OASIS.
Though Fortnite's Battle Royale mode is the big driver for the game's business (and where most of that Master Chief/Robocop palling around will occur), it's Creative Mode where Sweeney's philosophies are being put to the test. Whole studios are being spun up to make content for the mode, and in theory, it's a hub for individual artists and game-makers to earn revenue inside Epic's would-be metaverse.
As The Verge noted in June 2022, it's a platform that still seems to favor large companies over individual creators for the moment. If you want to make something cool and sell it in Creative Mode, you have to get players to use your Creator Code when making a purchase, and then you'll only earn 5 percent of the revenue from that purchase. woof. If Sweeney really wants Creative to take off, hopefully there will be more lucrative options for creators in the future.
Criticisms aside, Fortnite Creative is putting Sweeney's ideas to the test, and it's likely the company will have new advancements in that space as it integrates newly-acquired studios like Harmonix into its operations. (Virtual concerts are still super cool!)
But let's swing back to the licensed IP crossover for a minute. What's wild is that even though this practice is now widespread across Battle Royale games like Call of Duty Warzone and PUBG: Battlegrounds, it's still Fortnite that jumps to mind when you talk about these licensed integrations.
Epic has absolutely earned brand recognition here. It feels like every time a new "collaboration" drops, my social media timeline is filled with meme-adjacent videos of goofy mashups.
The developer deserves credit for convincing so many brands to let their characters play together like this. Marvel and DC haven't really let their heroes play together since 1996, and Disney's leash-loosening here lets the family-friendly cast of Star Wars hang out with WarnerDiscovery's adult-oriented Rick Sanchez. Real-life stars like Ariana Grande and Travis Scott have blessed the game with their avatars, and crossovers with other game devs have now let Bethesda's Doom Slayer wear an Among Us backpack in Fortnite.
These crossovers are relatively looser than what the respective brand owners would have allowed in the past. But there's a key word there: "relatively." If Sweeney's vision of the metaverse were to truly manifest, wouldn't it require more open-ness from copyright holders?
Dungeons & Dragons and the struggle of open game licensing
Let's divert briefly from the talk of the metaverse. You probably heard in the last couple of the weeks how Dungeons & Dragons publisher Wizards of the Coast is in hot water for trying to update its Open Game License. TLDR: The existing license lets other publishers and content creators make money off of D&D in a relatively open environment (and retain their copyright on said content), and the new OGL would have restricted that.
Thanks to some old-fashioned shoe-leather reporting from io9's Linda Cogna, we have some details about why this controversy came to be: Wizards of the Coast wanted a buttload more money and control over D&D-themed content. But undoing over 20 years worth of licensing practices has a high cost, and a fan campaign to mass-cancel subscriptions do the company's D&D Beyond online play platform has led it to reverse course.
Does a tabletop role-playing game controversy have anything to do with the metaverse? Well yes. Wizards itself is in the brand crossover business now. The company has previously up several internal cross-brand collaborations between Magic: The Gathering and Dungeons & Dragons, and most recently it's announced that brands like Assassin's Creed, Doctor Who, and Transformers would all appear in various upcoming Magic: The Gathering sets.
If you view Magic: The Gathering as a base platform with functional rulesets, then like Fortnite, it can be a place where other brands farm out their presence in the collectible card game space. Magic's own narrative and branding is deliberately broad (to allow sets that come from a wide variety of themes), and it's not that intrusive for Optimus Prime to be in a deck with...okay, look, I don't know enough about Magic to know what kind of deck you'd put Optimus Prime in.
And so Magic is Wizards' Fortnite Battle Royale, and Dungeons and Dragons is kind of its Fortnite Creative. And we are now witnessing the tension between an open creator economy and a major brand that wants to turn out multimedia properties like the upcoming film Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves.
So let's return to Fortnite. If it were to successfully scale up its metaverse ambitions, and Fortnite Creative evolved into a place where creators could make unique games, clothing shops, and other experiences on the platform, at some point a company is going to roll in and go "hey Epic, we really don't want you to let players dress our characters in some of these outfits."
And that's a tame example. We aren't even talking about the extremes of where this content can go. Companies will have strong opinions about how players express themselves in this space, and many will run the hell away from any sexual content and overly violent experiences. But plenty of creators will want to explore that realm.
"Well if they don't like it, they can go work on another metaverse platform." But...can they? Any metaverse approaching what Sweeney has pitched will be operating under similar guidelines. In some ways Fortnite's licensed crossovers have legitimized a kind of underground practice that you see in other user-generated content spaces.
In Roblox, creators have made big businesses out of riffing on the copyright of other companies. In Halo Infinite, players have gotten mods working that recreate Star Wars: Battlefront 2 (don't ask me which one). I'd argue that the unauthorized use of copyrighted characters is a defining feature of an open internet.
Fortnite's vision of the metaverse imagines a happy medium between the Dungeons & Dragons debacle and a wide-open world where Kylo Ren is smooching Spock. Sweeney seems to reckon he can will that world into existence. After the OGL uproar, I'm really not sure it can be done.
The metaverse needs new technology to advance
I've waxed poetic enough on creativity and copyright. Let's talk some technological brass tacks.
The metaverse (like web3) has been sort of a solution in search of a problem. Do people dream of spending their lives in a virtual world? I don't...actually think so.
But last year, Meta showed off some neat prototypes that make it seem like interacting in a virtual space could be pretty cool. I particularly liked its facial capture technology and exploration of using hands to interact with digital interfaces. If these tools could help us interact with games in different ways, maybe an open-world framework using augmented or virtual reality could work around them?
Developers seem to agree. In open-ended responses to the question "what does the metaverse need to become sustainable?", developers gave plenty of responses centering on technological advancements.
One respondent gave a lengthy analysis that merited its own page in the survey results (and if, dear reader, you're the one who sent in that response—I tip my hat to you). "The 'metaverse promise,' as it stands, is nothing," this individual wrote. "The people trying to sell it have no idea what it is and neither do the consumers."
A cynical take—but one bolstered by suggestions. They went on to talk about the need for games and platforms that support highly interactable environments. "Unfortunately for the VR industry, VR games practically require environments dense with small interactable to provide a AAA equivalent experience," they wrote.
Another respondent commented the metaverse "needs to be viewed as an irreplaceable part of people's lives," and that it can only manifest as part of a massive hardware leap, like an advancement in neural interfacing.
And developers do seem to feel that the whole effort must be as open-source as possible. "The metaverse must be built by its own users in a platform that is meant for public use," one wrote. "Any version of it that exists solely in the hands of one corporation and as an ad platform, virtual work station, or virtual real estate market is doomed to fail eventually."
What's next for the metaverse?
Has any of this data changed my personal opinion on the metaverse? Yes and no.
Looking at the numbers, I'm more convinced that a chunk of developers want to create immersive virtual worlds bolstered by creator economies. I can definitely take that in good faith, and I think efforts to build those worlds can have plenty of good outcomes.
I do think that the people funding these worlds will want to see financial returns, and pursuing such returns on these platforms comes with a number of ethical land mines. Many will seek more control and ownership of intellectual property than metaverse idealists would like—and plenty of those idealists seem willing to compromise on that point in the hopes of bringing virtual worlds to life.
I think my biggest takeaway however, is that the metaverse is destined for conflict. Fortnite's position as a metaverse market leader is buoyed by a mix of good-faith technologist ideals and savvy IP exploitation. But the latter strategy is undoubtedly headed for its own version of the D&D OGL debacle. At some point, the open desires of users will clash with a brand that's licensed its intellectual property to appear in the game.
Such clashes will seem small at first, but I have no doubt that zealous executives or overstepping fans will force a notable reckoning. If the United States could loosen its copyright laws so that companies like Disney don't get to own half our culture, such a conflict could be quelled before it ever begins.
But have you looked at Congress lately? I doubt that's happening any time soon. And so the metaverse will build and build—and a fight over IP is likely to follow.
Game Developers Conference is a sibling organization of Game Developer under Informa Tech. The 2023 State of the Industry report was produced in partnership with the Game Developer editorial team.