Metaverse, let's stop calling it that

Metaverse, let's stop calling it that


Let's start with the bad news: the virtual and immersive environments that, taking advantage of the metaverse label, have occupied the greatest media space are proving to be a big disappointment. Decentraland, the blockchain-based platform that has received so much attention to host an official fashion week, currently has fewer than 60,000 unique monthly users (microscopic numbers and down drastically compared to, however few, 300,000 a year ago). br>
Things are slightly better for Decentraland's main competitor, The Sandbox, which has around 200,000 monthly users. Also in this case, to give an order of magnitude, just think that these are numbers lower than those of Second Life, the great ancestor of everything that today falls within the great whole of the metaverse and that, although no one talks about it, can still count. on about 500 thousand monthly users.

The same goes for the company that more than any other has focused on the metaverse, to the point of changing its name to Meta. If Decentraland and The Sandbox, however, focus on blockchain, cryptocurrencies and nft, Meta's "metaverse" platform - namely Horizon Worlds - focuses on virtual reality and the possibility of socializing by going to the various environments of Horizon Worlds that reproduce everyday life ( in the best known of all, Soapstone Comedy Club, it becomes stand-up comedy).

And how things are going in this environment, on which Mark Zuckerberg is literally betting the future of the giant he is driving ? Not great. Although Meta's goal was to have 500,000 monthly users by the end of the year, at the moment it is no more than 200,000. Worse still, despite the enormous and ongoing media attention, users are down by an abundant 50% compared to last spring.

How is it possible? To get some answers, perhaps we should ask the Meta employees themselves, who - as reported by a New York Times investigation - are not at all convinced of their boss's double strategy, based on sociality (Horizon Worlds) and work (Horizon Workrooms) and which seems to overshadow a crucial aspect such as that of gaming.

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The role of video games

And this is an element of fundamental importance, because the only platforms that - forcing a little, as we will see later - they re-enter the world of the metaverse and can boast a real success among users, they have video games at their center. This is the case, for example, of Fornite and Roblox. "Time spent playing video games increased by 50% between 2019 and 2020 - Joel Hazan, managing director of the Boston Consulting Group and expert in everything that revolves around the metaverse, tells Sure, you could just think of them as video games, but the truth is that more and more people are going to Fortnite and Roblox to meet friends and for other social purposes. More text messages are exchanged on Roblox every day than on Instagram and Messenger combined. Obviously, the attention paid to these platforms is taken away from traditional social networks. "

Are we sure, however, that it is correct to speak of metaverse, in the case of Fortnite and Roblox? Not only because the predominant element is gaming in any case, but also because there is no trace in them - unlike, for example, Decentraland and The Sandbox - of that interoperability that should be a constitutive feature of the metaverse, which would allow us to move from one platform to another while preserving our identity and our digital assets. Fortnite and Roblox are instead more similar to traditional "walled gardens", which lock their users - and the goods they own - in a limited space trying to hold their attention as much as possible (the same strategy pursued by traditional social networks). On the other hand, why should companies want to share their digital environments?

"Interoperability is integrated in the platforms that use the blockchain - continues Hazan -. There are other platforms that instead have the possibility of exploiting walled gardens to preserve within them the value produced by users, and also because in this way it is easier to create qualitatively successful environments. We are probably faced with two scenarios: some will focus on interoperability, which is preferable by both users and brands; others will instead focus on walled gardens, offering an optimal experience in exchange, as happened for example in the case of iOS. However, to be successful, the impact on the user must be of a similar level to that produced, precisely, by the first iPhone. Personally, I don't think that a walled garden like Horizon Worlds has already reached such a level. "

The" metaverses "we are facing therefore have different characteristics: some are based on blockchain - and therefore fall within also in the whole web3 - others on the traditional web; some are usable by computers and smartphones and others focus on virtual reality. Virtual reality itself (also for how the metaverse has always been imagined at a narrative level) initially seemed to be an essential element. And instead? “I don't think virtual reality will be a successful element of the metaverse. The only reason we are talking about it at the mainstream level is because of Meta's push ”, Hazan continues.

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Meta's breathlessness

So why does Mark Zuckerberg keep insisting on these aspects? “They need to sell Quest headsets - explains Hazan -. For them it is a fundamental element of survival. We all consider Meta to be a very powerful company, yet it lost 20% of its market value overnight when Apple changed its privacy settings. Trying to convince us to spend a lot of time wearing his Quests means trying to become those who hold the hardware within which social interactions take place, and thus be able to dictate the rules of the game. Will it work? I'm not sure ".

And instead, how do you explain Meta's attention to work-related virtual reality applications, which - again as the NYT said - not even its employees want to use? “My opinion is that Meta believes that headsets will spread more easily if companies buy them,” continues Hazan. "The hypothesis, for example, is that programmers could gain 10% in productivity by working in VR. If the company believes in this hypothesis, then it could purchase the viewers for its employees, who will then take them home and use them on a personal level. It's just my opinion, but I think it would be a good strategy. ”

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A new name

So: virtual reality risks not working, interoperability is preferable but not essential and gaming is the real thing pillar to focus on. All of this brings us back to Roblox and Fornite, but is it really correct to define these systems as a metaverse? "As I see it, a metaverse is an immersive, interactive and persistent platform, which means that it continues to function even if I am not present".

It is undeniable that the road to success - as the multiplayer online games also demonstrate - follows this trajectory, to which is added the increasingly important element of sociability. The metaverse as it has always been told to us is, however, a completely different thing: a unique, interoperable environment, often in virtual reality, where we do not just play but within which we transfer a growing part of our daily life (including the work and traditional entertainment).

In addition, if the “metaverse” platforms are various and different from each other, we should, if anything, speak of metaverses, in the plural. But does such a thing make sense? As the term itself indicates, the metaverse is either one, or it is not. The plural is a contradiction in terms. If the metaverse is not unique, connected and interoperable, then we are simply faced with many very different platforms: some in web3, others in virtual reality; some dedicated to gaming, others to work; some based on cryptocurrencies and some not.

Perhaps, at least speaking of Roblox, Fortnite and the other platforms that clearly show what direction our interest, our interactions and our expenses are going (and where therefore there are the greatest opportunities for companies), it would be appropriate to stop using a vague and confusing term such as "metaverse" and use a more clear, direct and precise one. Perhaps, it would make sense to abandon the term that has been on everyone's lips for a year - but which refers to something that does not exist for the moment - and adopt a much simpler one: social gaming.

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