The Children’s Media Foundation (CMF)

Building the Metaverse Via Metaphor

In the fervour to imagine immersive worlds where we can be and do anything, David Kleeman (Senior Vice President of Global Trends for strategy/research consultancy and digital studio, Dubit) asks if the big tech companies have focused too much on the future and not enough on the 'now'.


In recent weeks, a number of big tech and entertainment companies – Disney, Apple, Microsoft – have shut down teams tasked with metaverse development. Even Meta – Facebook's parent company's new name to reflect its belief in the virtual future – targeted recent layoffs on its metaverse-focused Reality Labs, responsible for AR, VR and emerging platforms.

Headlines in response delivered an obituary for the metaverse:  Mark Zuckerberg Quietly Buries the Metaverse; Metaverse is Now a ‘Deserted Fantasyland’; Meta, Microsoft and Disney Are Reversing Bets on the Metaverse.

To be sure, there are many challenges before we get to a true “metaverse.” Current-day technology and bandwidth is inadequate for massive and real-time engagement. IP and brand owners aren’t fully on-board for interconnected worlds. Worldwide, regulators are eyeing emerging platforms (especially for young people) with great scepticism.

Perhaps, though, we simply need to substitute “metaphor” for “metaverse.” In the fervour to imagine immersive worlds where we could – in effect – do anything and be anything, we may have been too focused on the full-grown forest of the future, while ignoring the very healthy green shoots of its component trees.

In a recent interview, Epic Games executive Saxs Persson said: If there’s a better term than ‘metaverse,’ sure, we should use it. But there just isn’t. It ends up describing the effect that we think is very beneficial. It’s the multiplayer aspect, the meaningful social play, the meaningful choices and meaningful participation.

 

Three particular elements illustrate how current growth areas are forging the tentpoles of a future metaverse:

  1. Throughout the digital world, there's an obsession with providing scale. If we’re not yet ready to connect all worlds, at least we can accommodate greater numbers of users in each. Roblox had 58.8 million Daily Active Users in Q4 2022, well more than double the last quarter pre-pandemic (2020 Q1: 23.6 million). Fortnite’s release of Unreal Editor for Fortnite (UEFN) has massive potential to expand the range of creators, whose new experiences will grow player-counts and spending, driving the flywheel that brings more creators.
  2. Players are flocking to three-dimensional, explorable, playable worlds. The New York Times and The Verge each published articles in April saying that social media is dying. Their arguments differed some, but beneath the surface each blamed the economic imperatives that drive prominence for sponsored content, diluting personally-connected engagement. This may in part explain the growing popularity of social gaming spaces. Yes, Roblox, Fortnite and others have substantial branded content, but any commercial messaging needs to integrate organically into the experience. Players are highly attuned to inauthentic or pushy marketing. Moreover, gaming is synchronous, whereas traditional social platforms (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) are mostly asynchronous. When we seek to connect with friends, we want a shared experience with give and take, more than to read or watch what’s happened in the past. If there’s fatigue around the metaverse, it appears to be with speculative and somewhat intangible aspects like non fungible tokens (NFTs) and virtual real estate. Metaverse Fashion Week in Decentraland drew only a third as many attendees in 2023 as the year before, and NFT trading of fashion collections was down 88% from Q1 '22 to Q1 '23. At the same time, fashion events on Roblox are doing very well. H&M Loooptopia has hit 6 million visits, energised by a spring collection designed by Dutch 3D designer Eva Cremers. One take-away is that it’s difficult to migrate players from a familiar, user-friendly, popular platform to a new and less comprehensible one.
  3. Social games platforms are deepening anytime engagement, and persistence and continuity of data. A hallmark of most metaverse definitions is that immersion and activities are perpetual, ongoing, interconnected and in real time. That’s a large order for bandwidth, not to mention oversight and moderation. The biggest challenge, though, may be that connecting the metaverse will require brand and IP owners to understand the potential synergies of collaboration. We’ve just seen a major acknowledgement of this in the physical world with the co-branding agreement between Hasbro and Mattel. Discoverability will be critical to any emerging metaverse. There will be great power invested in the “mapmakers” who determine what content is surfaced and linked (similar to a TV electronic programme guide). In social gaming, innovations to drive discovery on a single platform will yield insights for doing the same across worlds. Dubit's network of Roblox games can use data about patterns of play to connect games with similar profiles via “portals” that teleport willing players to a new experience. The larger the network, the greater the volume of information and deeper the insight into how people will navigate a more expansive metaverse.

The old joke asks “how do you eat an elephant,” with the answer “one bite at a time.” One reason that the term “metaverse” has faded a bit is because it suggests a hard-to-digest elephantine smorgasbord. By breaking the metaverse into its metaphorical chunks, we have time to test and iterate solutions, to see how people want to engage, and to grow wisely.

Industry Research

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