Monday, January 10, 2022
Calling MMORPGs "metaverse" doesn't make them work any better
Once upon a time, around the end of the previous millenium, I and a lot of other people were extremely hopeful about the future of virtual worlds. They seemed to have unlimited potential, being far more than just games, but actual places where we could live better, virtual lives. The hope, the hype, and the attention grew over the years, with big successes like World of Warcraft. For me the peak of all that was about the day before Warhammer Online released. WAR not only was a lot less successful than the hype would have suggested, it also taught us that a lot of the things we had hoped would be possible in fact weren't. After this, MMORPGs seemed to become more and more reduced in scope to some sort of "WoW clones". Player numbers declined, interest waned, and at some point I had to remove "MMORPG" from the name of my blog, because it simply didn't interest anybody anymore.
Fast forward to 2022, and a lot of people around either are too young to remember 2008, or hadn't been all that involved in MMORPGs at the time. And suddenly we get Mark Zuckerberg changing the name of his company from Facebook to Meta, and investment funds spending millions of dollars on virtual real estate. The combination of virtual worlds with blockchain and crypto currency technologies is the new promised land, and social media are full of people who believe that we will live better, virtual lives in the metaverse.
Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. For anybody like me who was there when the MMORPG bubble grew and then burst, the metaverse bubble growing looks remarkably familiar. And so do the arguments used to convince people that this is the next big thing. The fallacy is also the same: It turns out that people are not actually living in virtual worlds, they only visit them from time to time. In the real world, real estate has value, because people are forced to live somewhere, and space is limited. In virtual worlds space is unlimited, and people don't actually need any space on a permanent basis, because they can simply log out of the world. That is why virtual worlds always look deserted, because the number of concurrent users is necessarily much smaller than the number of total users. (Except on launch day, but then the servers are down anyway.)
Virtual shopping malls are inherently inferior to real shopping malls. You might be able to "try on" virtual clothes on your avatar, but just because those clothes look great on your avatar doesn't mean they'll actually fit you if you then order the real version sent to your house. While shopping virtually, you can't hop over to the food court when you become a bit hungry. And it is hard to meet friends there and hang out when they might be in a different metaverse, or simply not logged on.
Like everything else related to crypto currency, this is part of the "bigger fool" theory of investment: It doesn't matter whether something you invest in has any actual value, as long as you are able to find a bigger fool to sell the dream to at an even higher price. That works reasonably well in a world of low inflation and surplus money. But there are strong indicators that the era of low inflation is over. Inflation and higher interest rates force people to reconsider where the actual value is, and that tends to end badly for speculative investments in pipe dreams. A metaverse designed by Mark Zuckerberg will end up being a prettier form of Facebook, and not a better, virtual world we all live in.