The path to the Metaverse, in terms of public interest in the topic, took a leap forward last October when Facebook rebranded itself to Meta during a virtual conference – promising 3D spaces that “will let you socialize, learn, collaborate and play in ways that go beyond what we can imagine.” While many industry watchers chalked it up to Facebook’s “escape hatch” from multiple scandals – like its role in spreading misinformation and divisiveness and a very credible whistle-blower decrying its ethics – the Facebook announcement created a new hype cycle that’s caught on globally.
Many gaming-sector followers anticipate major changes to the medium during the next 12 months. In a recent trends-watch post via GamesRadar+ predicting what we might see from the global industry that just raked in USD $180 billion last year, The Guardian’s gaming correspondent Keith Stuart predicts:
“Now that Facebook has decided that the metaverse is the future, we can expect to be swamped with games offering vast massively multiplayer worlds with a heavy focus on social interaction and shared events. Minecraft, Fortnite, and Roblox have all shown the way, but the expected arrival of new AR/XR headsets from Apple, Microsoft, Google, and Meta, as well as the PlayStation VR 2, is likely to bring a new dimension (literally) to the concept.”
In reviewing the announcements from CES 2022, the world’s largest consumer-electronics event, many industry pundits such as CNET’s Scott Stein saw “hints of changes” to come, but also a lot of hype and “what’s old is new again” – from the arrival of smart glasses (again), this time in the form of 3D AR glasses with micro LED displays, VR headsets that are getting smaller, and a second life for “Second Life.” But there were some interesting advancements to debut this year, including a new Sony PlayStation for home VR and VR gaming, VR controllers worn on the wrist, and a new chip partnership between Microsoft and Qualcomm to roll out AR glasses that will work with phones and Windows devices.
About a week after this year’s CES wrapped up, the first major blockbuster deal of 2022 was announced with Microsoft’s plan to buy gaming juggernaut Activision Blizzard for nearly $70 billion in what The New York Times’ coverage characterized as Microsoft’s “biggest deal ever and one that places a major bet that people will be spending more and more time in the digital world.” A recent story from The Verge noted that: “With Activision, Microsoft is one gigantic step closer to game subscription dominance.”
With its popular gaming titles that span from World of Warcraft and Diablo to Call of Duty and Candy Crush, the Blizzard acquisition would give Microsoft – a longtime player in gaming hardware via its Xbox family of consoles, controllers and gear that’s been acquiring studios with popular gaming titles such as the sandbox video game Minecraft since 2014 – a “leg up” in becoming a major global force as a Big Tech gaming company, if the deal closes after regulatory approval in the next 12-18 months. In September 2020, Microsoft announced the acquisition of ZeniMax and its family of studios for $7.5 billion in cash that includes Bethesda Game Studios, Arkane Studios, MachineGames and more.
What exactly is the Metaverse?
Since Zuckerberg’s announcement that the Metaverse would be a big part of our collective futures, there’s been quite a lot of conjecture and confusion about what it all means and why it matters.
WIRED magazine’s Eric Ravenscraft, an Austin, Texas-based product writer and reviewer, currently has the top-Google-ranked explanation to address that question about what’s in store for us. He compares us talking about what “the metaverse” means today in the early 2020s to having a discussion about what the internet would be five decades ago in the 1970s: “The building blocks of a new form of communication were in the process of being built, but no one could really know what that reality looked like.”
Many of the businesspeople behind the future of the Metaverse see it being powered by crypto-based assets such as NTFs (non-fungible tokens) – one that Facebook’s Zuckerberg touts – but for some the crypto craze of the last few years has gone too far. For example, there’s been a recent backlash from angry gamers – as reported in a feature story in mid-January by The New York Times. According to the piece, “nowhere has there been more unhappiness than in the games community, where clashes over crypto have increasingly erupted between users and major game studios like Ubisoft, Square Enix and Zynga.”
Mutahar Anas, a gamer and YouTuber with three million subscribers who was featured in the story by Mike Isaac and Kellen Browning, said: “People are being sold buzzwords” – and those pushing NTFs in games are “trying to sell you snake oil.” Instead, many hardcore gamers would like the industry to focus more on gamer benefits and improving gameplay – and not forcing them to buy products within games.
Yet, many global brands are already intent on “chasing money-making opportunities in the Metaverse,” including fashion brand Ralph Lauren – whose CEO Patrice Louvet spoke at NRF 2022, retail’s big annual event, in New York over the MLK Jr Day holiday weekend. Louvet views the coming Metaverse as a way to attract a younger generation of shoppers, and like many others, from Nike, Walmart and Gucci, are dipping their toes in by launching virtual experiences in the emerging digital world some are calling Web 3.0 – a.k.a. the next phase of the internet. Louvet noted during his featured NRF talk has partnered with Unity’s metaverse platform Zepeto and the gaming site Roblox, so players may dress their avatars in Ralph Lauren apparel.
Regardless of how exactly the Metaverse pans out, many of the world’s leading technologists agree there’s a major shift coming soon to what we know today as the internet – which completely upended and changed business around the world as we know it, starting just before the turn of the last century.
Tony Parisi – a Metaverse futurist, VR pioneer, serial entrepreneur and angel investor – recently penned one of the most extensive manifestos for what defines a “framework for the coming immersive reality” in a Medium post published last October titled “The Seven Rules of the Metaverse” – which are as follows:
- Rule #1. There is only one Metaverse.
- Rule #2. The Metaverse is for everyone.
- Rule #3. Nobody controls the Metaverse.
- Rule #4. The Metaverse is open.
- Rule #5. The Metaverse is hardware independent.
- Rule #6. The Metaverse is a network.
- Rule #7. The Metaverse is the internet.
The in-depth “Metaverse manifesto” by Parisi, who currently serves as the global head of AR/VR ads and e-commerce at Unity Technologies, is a fascinating read – and it concludes by stating the Metaverse will be an “enhanced and upgraded” version of our current-day internet that will “consistently deliver 3D content, spatially organized information and experiences, and real-time synchronous communication.”
Gaming-industry experts weigh in on the Metaverse’s rise and what’s coming next:
To set the stage for what’s next in the gaming sector in 2022 – with a focus on the Latin American market where gaming has accelerated during the past two years – LABS spoke with Carlos Silva, Head of Gaming at Go Gamers, a Sioux Group-led initiative based in São Paulo, Brazil that has brought together industry experts, professionals and academics for more than two decades.
The three most interesting trends he’s following are the maturing of mobile games and their growing global audience, new technologies rolling out such as cloud gaming – including Microsoft’s Xbox Cloud Gaming service, and more games that may incorporate cryptocurrency, blockchain, and NFT technologies. For the latter trend tied to crypto and NFTs within games, he’s watching the progress here for possible games and services expected to launch later this year from gaming leaders such as Electronic Arts.
Silva also noted an uptick in the competitive scenario – citing popular mobile games such as Garena’s Free Fire and Riot Games’ League of Legends Wild Rift that are widening the audience for mobile games in Latin America and around the world.
Along with today’s popular mobile games built around virtual worlds of gamers connected around the planet that are the precursors to the Metaverse of the future, Silva sees the expansion of cloud gaming services – such as the one Microsoft unveiled in beta that lets its gaming subscribers play 100+ console games on most devices with an Xbox Game Pass – expanding access to more players worldwide.
“This (cloud gaming) format allows you to play on any device without necessarily having high-end equipment” provides more access for many people as it’s a simple, affordable way to access many popular games using a subscription-based business model without requiring gamers to purchase new hardware, according to Silva.
Commenting about the rise of the Metaverse – a topic that has avalanched in media coverage and social chatter since Facebook’s brand-name change to Meta – Silva noted that the vision for this mega Metaverse via Facebook and other BigTech leaders is a broader one, but he already sees elements of its future in today’s games. But he, like many industry watchers, sees potential for the many disconnected virtual universes gamers play in today being connected together into one giant Metaverse of the future.
Of course, that vision for “there can only be one” Meta(verse) could get a BigTech company like Facebook, or rather Meta, in regulatory trouble down the pike as The Metaverse emerges before us.
There’s already an 800-pound gorilla in the Metaverse: Roblox
Regardless of how you define it, you can’t discuss the Metaverse without talking about Roblox. A massive, free online gaming and game-creation platform, Roblox is one of the most successful players when it comes to the Metaverse of today. And with its IPO last year, it has more resources than ever.
Looking at the numbers, the 16-year-old global behemoth offers more than 40 million games (Roblox calls them “experiences”) created by more than 9.5 million community developers. During the last 12 months, Roblox saw its number of active monthly users increase more than 25% year-over-year from 146 million in 2020 to 202 million in 2021.
Its daily active-user base has more than doubled during the same timeframe – clocking in at 43.2 million in 2021 compared to 19.1 million in 2019, and the gaming platform’s users are overwhelmingly young — 67% of them are less than 16 years old and only 14% are over age 25.
While there’s no lack of immersive 3D games on the platform, Roblox experiences go beyond gaming to include events like concerts by Twenty One Pilots, Lil Nas X and a fashion exhibit by Gucci. And, in collaboration with the Boston Museum of Science this year, Roblox will launch Destination Mars: The New Frontier, an educational, exploratory experience.
LABS was curious to learn how Roblox defines the Metaverse, about any challenges the company faces and what its virtual worlds might look like in the near future, so we checked in with Roblox’s Chief Product Officer Manuel Bronstein.
While other metaverse companies such as Meta, Zuckerberg’s high-profile rebranding of Facebook, may have different perspectives, this is Roblox’s take on what defines the Metaverse:
“We envision the Metaverse to be a fully immersive, interoperable, vast and diverse universe of user-generated 3D experiences that have an underlying shared fabric – providing people with identity, social connections, economy, safety and civility,” said Bronstein.
Safety and civility: And just like that, we run smack into the most daunting challenge of building a metaverse world. Apologies to Dante, but “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here” could apply as easily to the internet as it does to the gates of Hell.
And yet, as we sometimes say in the U.S.: “This ain’t Roblox’s first rodeo.” Currently, the company uses both human and artificial intelligence to find and remove content that violates community standards. Algorithms scan for, and review, inappropriate content.
Safety tools, like text filters, block profanity and the sharing of personal information, and Roblox employs more than 4,000 people around the world to moderate and police the platform.
“We’ve invested heavily in infrastructure and systems to ensure the safety of the Roblox community,” said Bronstein. “We’ve created systems designed to enforce real-world laws and extend beyond minimum regulatory requirements.”
Acknowledging that safety measures are dynamic, Bronstein added that Roblox plans to develop flexible frameworks and tools that will allow the company “and the ecosystem to tune policies based on user context, location and the experiences they enjoy.”
Bronstein describes the Metaverse as a deeply immersive, visual and emotional journey that is co-experiential. It has evolved rapidly from fairly simplistic to highly complex in less than 10 years.
Communication plays a huge role in the future of the Roblox Metaverse. The company believes the Metaverse is for everyone and, therefore, they must create communication capabilities that work for everyone. This is a complex goal because people have different communication needs, depending on the context. Here’s just one very basic example: the difference between having a private conversation versus shouting a greeting across a crowded dance floor.
Last September, Roblox rolled out a beta version of Spatial Voice to select members of its developer community. The technology is designed to make conversations within the Roblox-created virtual spaces closer to the way we converse with people in the real world. Bronstein’s blog post provides a comprehensive look at the importance and future of communications in the Metaverse.
What’s next for Roblox as we head deeper into 2022? Building a platform for people of all ages. During his presentation during last November’s Roblox Investor Day, Bronstein noted strategies designed to drive growth in the 13+ year-old demographic.
This commitment includes investing in platform features — such as more diverse avatars, improving natural-voice communication, and introducing more highly personalized recommendations, dynamic policies and experience guidelines. Developing new content categories, which Bronstein said can be pretty much anything — from concerts and fashion exhibitions, to classrooms, cultural immersions and workspaces — is another important strategy to appeal to a broader demographic.
The Metaverse may still be in its infancy, but Roblox is all-in on the concept and determined to make it a reality.
A Brazilian “metaverse” game expands to the global masses: Afterverse
During a “Connected Economy” interview last month with PYMNTS’ editor-in-chief/CEO Karen Webster, Movile CEO Patrick Hruby – a former Facebook executive, joked that Movile was already establishing a presence in the Metaverse before his previous boss Mark Zuckerberg launched a frenzy of interest in the topic with the recent rebrand to Meta.
Hruby noted that an Afterverse game called PK XD has “really hit a nerve in the metaverse space” and described it as an “an open-world social game in which users can create avatars, build virtual houses and visit virtual attractions.” Early last year, Afterverse was spun off into its own “freestanding metaverse company” after first splitting off from PlayKids, another Movile company focused on younger children, into its own division in December 2020 “to make social games for all ages,” according to reporting from Dean Takahashi, GamersBeat lead writer at VentureBeat based in Silicon Valley.
In that story, Takahashi wrote that PK XD was the leading example of Afterverse’s mission of focusing on growing a diverse audience of gamers around the globe, in large part through 150 content creators in various regions “who regularly produce videos in a variety of languages based on new things in the game. They’re part of a core of community members who have helped reach global audiences.”
It is a strategy that seems to be working as PK XD, a sandbox game for preteen kids, doubled its active users from 25 million at the end of 2020 to more than 55 million active users globally last month, per fresh reporting from Takahashi. His most recent article focuses on Afterverse’s rollout of “live operations updates,” a common practice by global gaming leaders, that make new features, mini-games and temporary metaverse makeovers available for a limited time to attract more users and keep existing ones engaged and coming back.
To learn more about Afterverse and how one of its senior executives views the coming of the Metaverse and other gaming trends for 2022 from a Brazilian point of view, LABS recently sat down to speak with Charles Barros, CTO and founder at Afterverse.
According to Barros, hyper-casual, battle royale and multiplayer online battle arenas (MOBAs) “are still a thing and will continue to grow in the following years.” He believes that social roleplay games will be the ones that take advantage of and become the early leaders in the budding Metaverse in the next few years. “This genre was a big success in the past two years and was heavily boosted during the COVID-19 pandemic due to social distancing – and today, we’re seeing even games like Fortnite adding elements of metaverses into their franchises,” said Barros.
Barros cautions the gaming industry not to only look to AR and VR technologies in the near-term, but to focus more on creating a good mobile experience to help achieve a bigger mass-market presence more quickly. That “good mobile experience” includes optimizing games to run really fast and not drain the cell phones and mobile devices of users – and to have games work on both low-end and high-end systems.
“Right now, people can’t interact much with each other – so they are now talking and interacting with people they already know, or meeting new people, and they’re looking to games to do that,” said Barros.
While the Metaverse of the future continues to emerge, Barros and his team at Afterverse have focused on adding new features, updates and mini games into the mix to “change the experience over time and keep PK XD and other games always on trend.” For example, Barros described a special in-game event last Halloween which included a “whole world change” to the color purple and the introduction of potions that players could drink to change their size in PK XD’s metaverse, allow them to transform into different animals, or fly through the sky on witches’ brooms.
This type of revolving intrigue every several months gives Afterverse’s growing network of 300+ global creators plenty of content to promote, and in turn, Afterverse provides them in-game promotion “airtime,” in addition to giving them advice on how to develop their channels, create content that better engages their audiences, and how to improve their videos, audio and narratives.
As for what gamers might expect from Afterverse in 2022 tied to the metaverse trend, Barros noted that there will be more avatar customization, self-expression, social interaction and lifelike experiences within digital environments. He also discussed how Afterverse, and other gaming studios can protect players of avatar-based social games, especially those who are minors, from bad adult behaviors and ill-intent.
“Keeping our players safe is PK XD’s number-one priority,” said Barros. “Given our previous experience with developing products for kids (via PlayKids), we have worked hard to deliver something that’s entertaining, capable of promoting social connections, but still safe for kids of all ages.”
One of the many features in PK XD that is designed to protect players is the chat box, which is key to interactions in the game. The game offers a huge variety of preset sentences in different languages so that players can communicate with each other and express themselves, but without the risk of being exposed to customized text that users with ill-intent could try to abuse fellow players. This functionality enables PX XD players to have a broader social experience with people from all ages and across the world since there are no barriers such as language.
The rise of a new “E-sports Generation” during the 2020s
For both online and offline esports and sponsored tournaments, Go Gaming’s Carlos Silva sees this trend only becoming more popular in 2022 and beyond. “Last year, we saw a big movement from different sectors (e.g., sports brands, media, gaming companies) investing in teams, campaigns and tournaments,” said Silva, who sees the emerging esports sector gaining more revenue and becoming a more consequential gateway for brands and organizations to reach new audiences.
Many other experts agree with Silva’s opinion on the esports’ sectors promising future, including Joe Drape, a book author, screenwriter and longtime writer for The New York Times about the intersection of sports, culture and money since he joined the newspaper in 1998:
In a feature story published last month – titled “Step Aside, LeBron and Dak, and Make Room for Banjo and Kazooie” – Drape reports on the emergence of a new “E-sports Generation” led by kids who were “already drifting away from traditional sports before the pandemic, (that has) ramifications for the entire sports industry.” In the piece, Drape notes a decline in children aged 6 to 12 who are no longer interested in playing team sports on a regular basis compared to other research that shows there are currently more than 2.4 billion gamers (about one-third of the world’s population, per Statistica) and already many competitions, tournaments and leagues that account for more than $1 billion in global esports revenues.
A prime example of the rise of esports’ popularity, is the Free Fire World Series 2022 taking place on Sentosa, an island off the coast of Singapore, in May. Garena – the Singaporean online gaming company that owns Free Fire and is a leading advocate and organizer of esports events in greater Southeast Asia – declined to be interviewed for this story, but confirmed that its flagship Free Fire World Series set its own world record last year. The esports’ tournament was watched by 5.4 million concurrent viewers at its peak, the highest of any esports’ match in history, per Esports Charts (excluding views from all Chinese steaming and video platforms). Free Fire was the most downloaded mobile game globally in 2021.
Another interesting development the industry has followed is the growth of female gamers playing esports games and other gaming content on PCs and mobile devices. For example, according to recent data from ONE Esports, Southeast Asia’s largest esports media company, female gaming fans now “occupy half of the gaming and esports space” of Sea Limited’s lucrative gaming business subsidiary Garena, and “87 percent of (those) female fans prefer mobile games.” Female gamers have been on the rise for some time now, and make up more than 40% of all gamers in both Asia and the U.S., according to one 2020 study.
The latest on the future Metaverse from Meta
In the meantime, in the midst of all this Metaverse hubbub that began last October via Facebook’s rebrand to Meta, what is Zuckerberg and team saying about it lately? “Zuck” is saying that this new Metaverse in planning “will require enormous computing power” to blend reality with digital experiences, according to fresh reporting from The Guardian and others this week.
In a Meta AI blog post this week, a new AI supercomputer (dubbed AI Research SuperCluster or RSC by Meta), described as the world’s fifth fastest today, is now on track to “become the fastest computer of its kind when it is completed this summer.”
Meta intends to use RSC “to build entirely new AI systems that can, for example, power real-time voice translations to large groups of people, each speaking a different language, so they can seamlessly collaborate on a research project or play an AR game together.”
Now that is a future worth watching, and it seems like the whole world will be doing so for years to come.