Imagine a persistent virtual world — one where you design and personalize your digital avatar, buy and sell digital items in a digital marketplace and interact with the digital avatars of other people around the world. Sounds like a vision of the future, right?
Not quite. Because all of these things have been in existence for more than 30 years.
This is the contradiction at the heart of the push for the metaverse that has taken hold in tech circles in the last year. Companies like Meta, formerly Facebook, along with legions of crypto speculators have championed the metaverse as a concept that will unlock vast new potential for brands. The fashion industry has gone all-in on this vision, enticed by the new opportunities presented.
But the core concepts of the metaverse are not new. Video games have figured out practically all of the main ideas years ago. World of Warcraft was letting players explore a persistent world with their customizable avatars since 2004. EVE Online has had a fully functioning, player-driven virtual economy and Second Life has let people attend virtual concerts, as well as buy and sell plots of virtual land, since 2003.
“It’s an interesting wrinkle because Second Life was exactly what the new ‘metaverses’ are,” said Kirk Hamilton, a former games journalist and current host of the video game podcast “Triple Click.”
A player-driven economy of virtual goods flourished on Second Life in its heyday in the late 2000s. Users could buy and sell plots of virtual land, develop that land however they wanted, create virtual goods and sell them to other users, explore social spaces and meet new people.
“Second Life proved forever ago this model can work,” Hamilton said. “Where I run into skepticism is why you need blockchain for something that’s been doable for decades.”
And frequently, the blockchain-based version of ideas pulled from gaming are far behind games in their execution.
After attending Metaverse Fashion Week on the metaverse platform Decentraland from March 24-March 28, Anne-Christine Polet, head of digital fashion startups Hatch and Stitch, wrote on LinkedIn about her disappointment with the user experience of Decentraland.
“Now I’m very aware it’s still very early,” Polet wrote. “But navigating the digital world was HARD! How do I get up those darn steps and swirling paths? I swear my avatar literally refuses to scale any form of elevated pathways.”
Commenters noted the visuals looked like something from the ’90s, and not in a flattering way.
Charlie Nyara, a 3D apparel design manager at Nike, agreed with the sentiment. “I thought I was alone in wondering why the ‘future’ looked and felt like the past,” he said.
Decentraland and other modern, blockchain-based metaverses have been widely-criticized for low-quality visuals, poor navigation and choppy frame rates. In games, on the other hand, these exact elements have been table stakes for years.
Fortnite, for example, is a traditional video game first but one that slowly adopted more “metaverse”-like qualities over the years. Those have included hosting virtual concerts and branded events with the likes of Balenciaga, Moncler and 1017 Alyx 9SM. Its visuals far outclass many blockchain-based metaverses. And the quality of the experience is, mostly, free of the bugs, glitches and outdated visuals many other metaverses are plagued with.
While the blockchain technology of metaverses like Decentraland is appealing to investors and crypto speculators, they’re far less appealing to the average user than games. Games like Fortnite have a concrete value for customers — the fun of playing the game — with branding and commerce opportunities sprinkled on top. Meanwhile, blockchain metaverses seem to exist primarily to sell NFTs, according to Hamilton.
“In NFTs, it seems like the art isn’t the point,” Hamilton said. “The point is just to sell something. The whole apparatus feels designed solely as a speculative market. Maybe that gets grafted onto a functional game someday, but right now, a lot of these virtual worlds feel like they’re just a space to keep the NFT grind going.”
Decentraland, for the record, is aware of the criticisms. Speaking to Glossy’s Zofia Zwieglinska, Decentraland’s metaverse supervisor Giovanna Casimiro acknowledged the need for more gamification, better customization and a smoother experience in order to bring in more users.
The numbers back up the idea that games that are games first, with opportunities for brand partnerships and commerce, are a lot more popular than social spaces designed primarily for NFTs. While the biggest metaverses, like Decentraland and Meta’s Horizons Worlds, have 800,000 and 300,000 active users respectively, games like Fortnite and Roblox have tens of millions of users each, according to publicly available data from the creators of each platform.
While blockchain-based metaverses are a newer concept than video games, Fortnite and Decentraland were both launched in 2017. But Fortnite attracted millions of users and offers lucrative brand collaboration opportunities, without any need for blockchain or cryptocurrency.
“Blockchain is a technology in search of a use case and a lot of people stand to gain from pushing it as the next big thing,” said Merritt K, an editor at the games and culture site Fanbyte.
Metaverse proponents say blockchain technology like NFTs will revolutionize games and metaverses because it will allow people to transfer elements like outfits for their character between different platforms. But in reality, that would be a difficult prospect.
When you buy a piece of virtual clothing, which is essentially just a 3D model, as an NFT, it’s easy to think of the two as the same. But the NFT you buy is just the intangible right to claim ownership of that 3D model, not the model itself. If you wanted to bring that piece of clothing to another platform or metaverse, that platform would need to have the model in its code somewhere, in order to call it up and display it. Just having the right of ownership doesn’t mean the actual model exists everywhere and in every program you’d want to use it in.
“There’s definitely room and precedent for fashion collabs in games like Fortnite, though there isn’t a compelling case for these kinds of items to be NFTs,” K said. “The problem with taking some digital Jordans from Fortnite to [the popular multiplayer game] Destiny 2 isn’t with determining ownership, it’s with coding in those assets. The dream of a seamless virtual world where players can own and transfer items between games is appealing to some people, but to me, it’s deeply depressing if it’s ever indeed possible.”
The disparity between investors’ feelings on blockchain technology and that of the average consumer is stark, both in fashion and in games. Game companies like GSC Game World and fashion brands like MeUndies have canceled NFT plans after massive pushback from their customers. The worst reaction fashion brands partnering with games like Roblox or League of Legends have received is ambivalence, with none of the harsh criticism that comes from getting into the crypto space.
Instead, brands genuinely interested in exploring the virtual world would probably be better served avoiding the negative connotations consumers have for NFTs and crypto, and instead just working with established non-blockchain-based games.
“Games like Overwatch or League of Legends — where you have these wonderful player models and you have huge audiences [7 million and 100 million in monthly active users, respectively] — seem like much better ways to get your clothes in front of people if you’re a designer,” Hamilton said. “That’s especially if you care about what your designs look like. It would actually look good, compared to janky metaverse stuff.”