The Metaverse. How will it change the practice of game design?

Image Ready Player One, Warner Bros.

Game design has come on in leaps and bounds over the last decade, normally in reaction to developments in technology.

The market for mobile games is now worth more than the console and PC game market combined and Virtual Reality (VR) games have gone from being a sideshow novelty to a mainstream product with a range of well-supported peripherals.

Strides forward in the design and development of the systems and devices we use to interact with the worlds created in games result in huge shifts in the practice of game design. It wasn’t that long ago that the idea of an online multiplayer game was novel. Now we have a whole range of hugely popular games that are designed solely to be played online and a game without some kind of multiplayer aspect is unusual.

While games reliant on the connectivity of the internet have advanced, the medium they use to connect players, the internet itself, is set to be the stage for the next leap forward.

The next advancement that games designers will have to adapt to is the creation of the metaverse.

What is the metaverse?

Our conception of the metaverse is normally based on media. Films like The Matrix and Tron, games like Netrunner, and books like Ready Player One or the sci-fi classic Snow Crash have all attempted to capture the idea. These early depictions in media, films, and books contain parts of what could be considered the metaverse. However, as with anything that has yet to be invented, it’s hard to conceptualize it accurately.

One persistent definition of the metaverse is “a future iteration of the internet, made up of persistent, shared, 3D virtual spaces linked into a perceived virtual universe.” If this seems like a rather vague description, it’s because it is.

Since the metaverse is still very much conceptual, it’s almost impossible to provide a concrete definition of it. What we can do, however, is provide the theoretical pillars that will provide its underpinnings.

The seven pillars of the metaverse

  1. Persistence – One of the primary defining characteristics of the metaverse is that it is fully persistent. It doesn’t stop when you log off, it can’t be paused, it runs indefinitely.
  2. Live and fully synchronous – Instead of preplanned instances, the metaverse will allow people to experience a living environment that exists in real-time and for everyone.
  3. No user cap – Because it represents all digital spaces linked into one larger universe, the metaverse will not have a player cap while still providing individual users with complete personal agency.
  4. Have a functioning economy – Just as in the real world, the metaverse will have a fully functioning economy. Individuals will be able to do work that produces goods and services of tangible value.
  5. Be omnipresent  –  The metaverse will span the digital and physical worlds and all the spaces connected to both.
  6. Be completely interoperable – The current internet is divided into discrete sections like if every store in the mall you’re visiting required a distinct access code and had different rules of how, what, and when you could buy and where you could use your purchase. The metaverse will be more like an infinitely sized Walmart, with everything under one roof.
  7. Be community content driven – The scale and interoperability of the metaverse means it will allow a huge range of diverse creators from different backgrounds the opportunity to create or curate content and experiences for other people.

What the metaverse isn’t

When it comes to defining something that is still theoretical, it can sometimes be more useful to define what it isn’t. Various types of media have tried to define the concept of a metaverse, mostly using technology that already exists.

So here are a few things that the metaverse isn’t:

  1. A virtual world/space/reality – The metaverse is the next step in terms of digital and physical interaction. Virtual reality might be part of it, but it’s’ not integral to its creation. Similarly, nearly all games create virtual worlds, and virtual spaces like Second Life have been around since 2003. All of these function as aspects of the metaverse, but don’t define it as they lack the all-encompassing interoperability that is core to its creation.
  2. A virtual economy – Virtual economies already exist in games like World of Warcraft and Eve. Additionally, the rise of cryptocurrencies has led economies based around items of purely digital value, traded digitally. While an economy that is able to transition the digital/physical line is a foundational part of the metaverse, it does not cover the full scope of it.
  3. A game – Games will certainly be a part of the metaverse and there may be gamelike features in it. However, games often have an objective or endpoint and the metaverse will not. That being said, as we’ll discuss later, games companies are among the front runners when it comes to designing content that takes advantage of the kind of interoperability offered by the metaverse.
  4. A theme park – The metaverse would only be like Disneyland if all the rides were essentially infinite, people were always building new rides, the park was controlled by everyone, and there was room for the entire population.
  5. App-based – One of the central tenants of the metaverse is that it will supersede the internet as we know it. Trying to define it with current technology, such as apps, isn’t a helpful approach.

Essentially, all of the above are common ways in which the media tries to emulate the metaverse. However, because films and books have a narrative they need to serve in a short time frame, they need to base their interpretations of the metaverse on things the audience already understands. In many ways, common misconceptions about the metaverse arise from the fact that people tend to only approach one aspect of it, which can be misleading. It’s the digital future version of the parable of the six blind men and the elephant.

How will it change the practice of game design?

Every significant leap forward in technology, from the ability to have 3D games to the addition of virtual reality, has required a paradigm shift in how designers approach games design.

However, when it comes to designing games for a theoretical metaverse, that paradigm shift will need to conform to the central pillars that the metaverse would be based around, including:

Persistent game worlds

Since the metaverse will be persistent and theoretically accessible by anyone, the game available in the metaverse will also need to be permanently persistent. This is less of a problem for game designers than it is for creators in other media, as many companies are already running live games that are effectively persistent.

A living experience

Since the metaverse will exist consistently in real-time for every user, the games based on it will need to do so as well. However, this does not mean that specific self-contained instances can’t exist, like concerts in the real world.

No user cap

Currently, MMO games are able to support huge amounts of players. However, in order to deal with the vast amounts of data, they are often split across different servers, each containing only a fraction of the player base. Even then, when large numbers of players attempt to participate in a single event, like a large multi-fleet battle in Eve Online, for instance, the game tends to slow to a crawl. Dealing with this as a game designer is difficult, as it would require contingent steps forward in the technology used to store and transmit remote data.

New economic standards

Since the economy of the metaverse is fully interconnected, game economy design becomes far more difficult. We’re not saying people are going to get paid in weapon skins. However, any resource or object of perceived value generated anywhere in the metaverse could be traded for anything else at any point. For instance, you might spend time mining for ISK in Eve, only trade it for weapon skins in COD, then into Bells, and then pay for a New Tesla in the real world in Bells. Game economy design would then need to take into account the value of items in other games and how those interactions could impact game balance.

Exist in the physical and digital worlds

There has already been a slew of games that have started to combine the physical and digital worlds through augmented reality, with Pokemon Go being one of the more popular examples. Since the metaverse will cover both the physical and digital worlds, games designers will need to offer experiences that exist in both.

Be entirely interoperable

Currently, games design and creation is hugely segmented. Games are defined entirely by what platform they are being made for and very few are able to move between platforms. At the same time, each platform has a large number of tentpole gaming franchises. This is more prevalent in consoles, where the games market is defined by the releases of games like COD, Battlefield, FIFA, and Final Fantasy, to name just a few. Even within a certain platform, such as console or mobile device, there are still subdivisions. Certain games are marketed as console or operating system exclusives to help with the marketing of both the game and the device. Because of the basic nature of the metaverse, all games will need to be entirely interoperable. Items, characters, or even set pieces from one game will need to smoothly mesh with another. To go back to the example of weapon skins, a skin you buy in one game might be usable on all weapons in any first-person shooter, as a cloak pattern in an RPG, or a paint job in a racing sim.

Be community editable

We’ve already seen the beginnings of this in games like Little Big Planet and Mario Maker, but the ability for the community to design and implement experiences for other community members will be a key part of what makes games designed specifically for the metaverse different from those we create today.

While we’ve already pointed out that focussing on one facet of the metaverse is a bad idea, when it comes to games design for the metaverse, one of the primary challenges that will need to be overcome is the need for almost total interoperability.

Current video games, because of the technology they are built on, need to act as self-contained chunks of interactive media. As stated above, even the most multiplayer focussed game is limited by the performance of its platform and the number of players it can host at any given time.

How games are already transitioning towards the metaverse

While the metaverse is a long way from becoming a reality and designing games for it, as with other platforms, will largely be guided by the technology used to create it, there are already some signs of games adopting some of its pillars.

Roblox helping to create community content in an interoperable universe

Roblox has received a significant boost in popularity during the pandemic.

The online platform and game creation engine allows players to use a single avatar to play multiple community-created games on one interlinked platform. Around 20-million games per year are created through Roblox.

Additionally, Roblox is available on PC, Xbox One, Oculus Rift, Android, and IOS.

Eve Online crossing over between digital and physical economies

The game EVE Online uses a premium currency called PLEX which can be bought with both real-world currency and the in-game currency ISK. Players can also trade PLEX with each other and buy it from each other with ISK.

This in-game economic system connects both the digital and physical world by allowing players to trade in a real-world currency, a purely digital currency, and one which straddles the line between the two currencies.

Fortnite becoming a hub for IPs other than its own

Fortnite is an excellent example of a game moving towards the principles of the metaverse. While it might have started out as a hybrid tower-defense shooter survival game, it has now become a social hub. Players don’t just log on to Fortnite to play the game, they log on to Fortnite to spend time with their friends and to enjoy the actions of other brands and IPs outside of Fortnite and Epic Games.

A lot of attention was paid to Marshmello’s first live Fortnite concert because of its groundbreaking nature. Since then, Epic has constructed Party Island, a violence-free space that has seen artists such as Diplo, Deadmau5, Travis Scott, and Weezer play virtual concerts. This has been such a success that Epic launched a concert series and hopes to become a “concert stop” on a level with Madison Square Gardens.

Music isn’t the only thing that Fortnite shares with its players. Party Island has seen early screenings of the Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker trailer coupled with a live interview with director J.J. Abrams. Other trailers, such as the one for Tenet have been shown on Party Island. Also, a series of limited-time events have featured different IPs, from John Wick to Nike and the NFL.

While sponsored events in video games aren’t exactly uncommon, Fortnite is one of the few places where you can dress as a marvel character, shooting other players in Gotham City who are dressed in official NFL branded uniforms.

Epic CEO Tim Sweeny has openly expressed his plans for a persistent Fortnite metaverse that will include other socially focussed games such as Rocket League and Fall Guys.

Importantly, the Unreal Engine is also part of the planned Epic Games metaverse and has already been used in major filmmaking projects such as The Mandalorian and Westworld.

Games development in a new world

While the construction of the full metaverse is clearly a way off yet and dependent on technologies that are still under development or just unavailable, games companies are clearly already taking significant steps towards developing games for it.

In particular, Fortnite’s transition into a social hub that allows players to experience multiple forms of media from multiple IPs across a range of platforms accords with some of the main theoretical pillars of the proposed metaverse.

If the Epic metaverse is successful, games design might become a key facet in driving the idea of a fully interconnected metaverse forward.