Metaverse. Web3. NFT. The year 2021 introduced the world to a lot of really complicated new technological ideas.

In February and March 2021, people started talking about NFTs. Then chatter about the “metaverse” started to really take off in October, right around when Facebook changed its name to Meta. A couple of months later in December, searches for “Web3” hit their all-time high.

So what the hell is all this stuff? The wave of the future?

I doubt it. NFTs are goofy. Web3 is empty hype.

But the metaverse? It’s legit. And that’s because it already exists in video games like Minecraft and Fortnite.

Sergey Galyonkin from Raleigh, USA, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

NFTs are goofy, Web3 doesn’t mean much, but the metaverse makes sense

Let’s go ahead and get some technical explanations out of the way. NFTs, Web3, and the metaverse all go together and they’re all complicated. 

NFTs are a type of intangible collectible item that people can trade online, kind of like baseball cards. One common version of this can be seen on Bored Ape Yacht Club where people buy the rights to “own” a picture of a bored ape. It should be noted that others can right-click and save the pictures, but within the NFT community, the person who paid for the NFT is the “true” owner.

Now personally, I think the underlying technology is very cool. I think NFTs could eventually be a great way to support artists too. But in its current iteration, if you think you “own” a digital picture you found on the internet, then I have a bridge in Brooklyn sell you. Just send a couple dozen Bitcoin to my Coinbase account.

Meanwhile, Web3 is an imagined version of the next version of the internet. The original internet from the 1990s was very decentralized and simple. The internet of the 2010s is more or less owned by corporations. Google controls which search results you have. Google and Apple control your browsing experience both mobile and desktop. Facebook (and Instagram) controls your social media experience. Amazon not only controls your shopping experience, but actually owns most of the web servers via AWS.

Web3 is thought of as a way to restore the internet back to its decentralized roots by using blockchain. It is supposed to have security and privacy benefits, but even tech bros think, as I do, that Web3 is just empty hype.

I bring all this up because the metaverse, as it is currently talked about, is supposed to run on Web3 architecture. And it is likely that NFTs will be bought and sold within the metaverse.

But of course, that begs the question…

What is the metaverse anyway?

The term metaverse was ripped from the 1992 novel Snow Crash by acclaimed science fiction author, Neal Stephenson. Before the internet was widespread, Stephenson was already imagining a rich world where people would be connected by cyberspace in a profound way that is incredibly prescient.

The metaverse as we know it today is essentially a synonym for “a 3D virtual world in which people, represented as avatars, could interact with each other and artificially intelligent agents.”

Accordingly, in the above-linked post on The Conversation, metaverses must have five qualities:

  1. The world must be virtual. That is, exploreable only by using a computer, gaming console, or other technological device.
  2. The world must be virtual reality. That means it must be immersive, such as playing a game on the Occulus Rift. I would argue that any video game that captures your attention counts, though.
  3. Lots of people have to be there. There is no such thing as a single-player metaverse. You have to be able to hang out with a lot of people.
  4. The world must be persistent. That is, if you log off, the world must continue without you.
  5. The metaverse must connect back to the real world in some way. That is, you can make purchases in a virtual world with real-life money, or you can manipulate real-world objects through a virtual interface.

Now as futuristic as all this stuff sounds, don’t be fooled. Metaverses have been around for a while. We just haven’t called them that. For example, Second Life has been around since 2003. It’s a massively multiplayer online game where people can hang out and spend real money through its virtual currency, the Linden Dollar.

Second Life is still kicking, don’t get me wrong. But it has fewer than 1 million active users, which doesn’t make it a great modern example of what the metaverse could be. 

Minecraft and Fortnite on the other hand? Totally different story.

Minecraft is the ideal metaverse

From my family Minecraft server: the first of about 25 rail stops spread over 6 different lines.

I’ve talked about Minecraft before. It’s a wonderful game and I’ve played it off and on for years.

If you’re not familiar with it, here’s the basic concept: it’s a sandbox video game where you can do anything you want. There are no set objectives. As I put it in my prior article on Minecraft, “if you want to build a house, you can do that. You can also explore mountains and caves, become a wizard, and fight a dragon. You can become a rail tycoon, sculptor, farmer, mayor, or just about anything else you put your mind to.”

It checks all the metaverse boxes. Minecraft worlds are virtual. The experience is immersive, and you can easily lose hours in. Tons of people play it, often in servers with thousands of people at a time. If you log off, time still passes on the server.

And, yes, Minecraft does link back to the real world. You can spend real world money on virtual Minecraft skins. Some servers even let you buy little bits of a virtual world via NFTs (which are paid with by cryptocurrency, which is ultimately backed up by a fiat currency like US Dollars or British Pounds).

Now I wish I had come up with this realization on my own, but the credit properly goes to Clive Thompson, whose article on Medium. I encourage you to read the whole piece, but I will quote him here because he’s really good at describing why Minecraft is such a good metaverse:

It’s decentralized – nobody owns the Minecraft universe.

Minecraft is incredibly immersive.

Minecraft requires you to be creative.

It’s open and hackable. [He means this in the sense that it’s open-source.]

Minecraft is glitchy [in a way that adds to the charm.]

There’s a reason to be there.

It spawns tons of economic activity.

Points 1-6 are why point 7 stands. It’s because Minecraft is such a creative, immerse, quirky game, people look forward to playing it. A player will never run out of things to do in Minecraft, giving them a perpetual supply of new reasons to keep playing.

That’s why players don’t mind spending $5 or $10 on a Minecraft skin or supporting a server they love by buying an NFT. Minecraft is a great fit for its audience, and the money follows that.

Fortnite is a fun metaverse, albeit an aggressively monetized one

To expect companies to create a metaverse as utopian as Minecraft isn’t fair, and I’ll be the first to admit it. After all, Minecraft was more or less made by accident by a programmer with a day job. Much of what made it enjoyable was a happy accident.

So let’s look at Fortnite instead. To give you a brief overview, it’s a mega-popular video game that’s free to download online. While there are multiple modes to play, it’s best known for its battle royale mode in which players go head to head with up to 100 people in a giant arena that’s constantly being whittled down in size due to an encroaching storm. 

In each battle royale, players dive in from the sky, pick up guns and other goodies lying around. They can also break down everything from buildings to trees for raw materials so they can make buildings on the fly. The game mechanics are really cool, which is much of why Fortnite is so successful.

And yet Fortnite is hated, often vehemently by gamers.

Some of this is because it’s popular, and people like to hate popular things. It’s also now, in 2022, a few years behind the trend, which certainly doesn’t help. It’s not the first battle royale game, although it’s often treated like it is. Plus, it’s home to a lot of really obnoxious child players. (And this really is quite bad – I refuse to play with strangers for this reason. I just cannot hit that mute button fast enough.)

But the other reason it’s hated? Well, it’s one of the same reasons it’s loved. Fortnite is a straight-up sellout game.

People dress up as Spiderman or Rick Sanchez. They can buy dances to popular songs, such as Say So by Doja Cat. When I last logged on, you could dress up as Anderson .Paak.

The current Fortnite splash screen prominently shows off your friendly neighborhood Spiderman.

The fact that you can indulge in your favorite fandoms in Fortnite is part of what makes it immersive and social. That’s a large part of why it functions as a metaverse.

Fortnite passes all the metaverse criteria: it’s virtual, immersive, filled with people, and – since you play the same gigantic map every time – persistent. But the last criteria that makes a virtual world qualify as a metaverse is the most interesting here: connection to the real world.

Fortnite uses a currency called V-Bucks. The primary way to get V-Bucks is to buy them outright, although you can earn them incredibly slowly by playing a ton. So not only does Fortnite tie into the outside world by referencing its culture, but it also does so why charging to players reference it.

Players use V-Bucks to buy skins, dances, and other colorful doodads to express themselves to others around you. They don’t need any of this to play. But there is a persistent stigma against people who use the default skin or do the default dance.

And to me, this is why Fortnite is a more realistic case for a metaverse. Sure, it’s fun and it’s a real money-maker for the folks involved. But it’s also home to weird status signaling rituals and an enormous amount of advertisements. (Hello, late capitalism.)

Still, Fortnite is making a lot more money than Minecraft right now, which makes it arguably the more successful metaverse of the two.

Why is Facebook Meta pushing the metaverse so hard?

Given that metaverses have been around for almost 20 years, you might wonder why the an innovative tech company like Facebook Meta feel the need to not only revive and rebrand an existing concept, but to spend a ton of money pivoting its business strategy. Some are content to call it a strategic misstep, but I don’t think that’s quite right.

To be sure, I don’t think Meta’s metaverse looks very fun. But let’s be real – it’s not necessarily meant to be fun. It’s meant to make the company money. And there’s a hell of a lot of money to be made in the metaverse.

Minecraft generated $415 million in revenue for Microsoft in 2020, and that game came out all the way back in 2009. Fortnite brought in a whopping $1.8 billion in revenue in the year 2019 from its 250 million players. This is even more impressive when you realize that Fortnite is actually free to play.

The company formerly known as Facebook has been fighting off scandals for nearly its entire existence. The company has proven durable and incredibly profitable, but it is besieged by difficult problems. There’s talk of the government intervening. Their main website’s audience keeps aging and young folks just aren’t interested. Privacy protecting measures from companies as big as Apple are starting to hurt ad performance, which is their main source of revenue.

With no changes, Facebook would have been fine in 2022. And 2023. And 2024. But eventually, it would go on the same trajectory as Yahoo or MySpace if nothing changed. Hence the recent Hail Mary pass into the lucrative and relatively nascent market of metaverses.

Vitally, I believe this profit motive is why corporate metaverses are so often mentioned in the same breath as NFTs and Web3. Roughly $24.9 billion in NFTs were sold in the year 2021. It makes sense to marry NFTs and metaverses if both have such great profit potential. And Web3? Well, just bringing that term up is a viable way to bring in the venture capital cash.

Final Thoughts

Minecraft is a fun metaverse to inhabit because it puts its community first. Fortnite is good for a laugh or two because despite its strong sales pitches, the game still comes first.

The corporate metaverses being pitched right now? They look and sound like cash grabs, and people instinctively want to get away from that.

If Meta and other companies like it pay attention to what makes current metaverses tick, they may well create lovely communities to inhabit. They certainly have the technical prowess to pull it off.

Let’s hope they have the wisdom to observe what already works as they design the metaverse of tomorrow.