The Path to the Metaverse and Why Horizon is not it
The essential learnings from decades of making virtual worlds that will lead us to the Metaverse
Virtual worlds have been around for decades. Many have recounted their history.As the tech world strives to build the Metaverse, we should look back on what worked and what didn't. I won't go into the history of virtual worlds or what the definition of Metaverse is. I will, however, extract the essential learnings we must keep in mind to get to the Metaverse and how Horizon isn't paying attention.
Second Life was the first to break out into the mainstream with a non-gaming focus. It grew to be a collection of virtual worlds where people could own their own islands to build what they wanted. What many pundits today call a metaverse (as a countable noun with a lowercase "m").
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It felt like you could build anything in Second Life. The possibilities captured people's imaginations. It grew to over a million MAU in 2007 before user activity started going down. Different protagonists from the day mention a few reasons for this decline:
People would join Second Life and have no idea what to do. The onboarding didn't provide a clear path for the user's journey into the platform.
Linden Labs were caught off-guard by the influx of different groups of people with different goals. Their first ToS was: "Be nice." If you've been active on any platform with a large number of users, you can imagine how that went.
Second Life tried to imitate real life. When users started to decline, Linden Labs attempted a pivot to focus on businesses. They wanted company employees to hang out and work inside recreations of office buildings in Second Life. But the power of a virtual world is that it's, well, virtual. You can be anyone and do anything, so why limit it to what's possible in the real world? You can't be better at real than real.
Society wasn't ready for hanging out in a 3D world. Outsiders saw Second Life as something for nerds and eccentrics.
After Second Life, social 3D worlds fizzled out for a few years. It wasn't until recently that everyone started talking about virtual platforms again. Some have garnered a substantial userbase like Roblox, VR Chat, and Rec Room. There are 3 factors for this resurgence:
Covid accelerated the adoption of digital platforms. As it wasn't possible to do certain things like buying, travelling, or hanging out around town, people used the Internet as an alternative. This was helpful for older generations who struggle more to adopt shiny new things. Many of us spent a good chunk of time in Zoom calls with friends, going to virtual events in places like Hubs or Gather Town, or spending time in game worlds. While growth metrics have gone back down to the pre-Covid days (and many companies are doing layoffs), the acceptance of technology as a core part of our lives is here to stay.
Facebook's renaming to Meta was a strong marketing push for the Metaverse. It put 3D worlds on the map. Suddenly, everybody was making "a metaverse". Marketing people and so-called visionaries were selling us stories on how it was going to shape our interactions with others in the digital realm while making a ton of money.
Hanging out in game worlds is the new normal. Games like Minecraft, Fortnite, and Roblox are parks for teens and young adults. Instead of talking on the phone, they meet up in-game. It's not just a few people on the fringe anymore.
Learning to Build Virtual Worlds
There are many attempts to make a successful game world, but only a few have cut through to the mainstream. We can develop an intuition of the path to the Metaverse based on learnings from these platforms.
They started with the most basic thing: making a fun game. You jump into Fortnite or Minecraft and there's a clear repeatable experience to enjoy alone or with friends. The game mechanics are simple enough for people to do them mindlessly while socializing with others. These games also allow you to go deeper by using their basic mechanics in advanced ways.
A unique culture blossoms around the type of gameplay and artistic style of the world. Different people decide to spend time on different games based on their preferences. VR Chat doesn't have a specific gameplay mechanic but it embraces the Internet culture seen on places like Reddit.
Once a game has good foundations based on a fun game loop and culture, it can start expanding with creation tools. As a world grows, we can't expect the developers alone to create a constant stream of new content. A good side step is to offer deep and easy-to-use creation tools around the platform's core game mechanics. We expect a small number of people to use them, but the lower the friction the higher the number. Creation tools should provide basic building blocks that can be combined in many ways leading to emergent behaviours appearing.
Virtual worlds lay on a spectrum from top-down planning to user-created anarchy. Both ends of the spectrum are limited to the few people who align with those views. The sweet spot, as always, is somewhere in the middle. We avoid anarchy by having clear rules around game mechanics, usage, and incentives. We move away from top-down planning with creation tools. They provide users with the agency to express themselves and to be a part of the evolution of the platform and its culture. Creators will find emergent behaviours that the original developers couldn't have imagined. Thus, the virtual world will grow organically to be a far more interesting place.
What's wrong with Horizon?
Horizon needs to focus on a fun game loop or clear use case. It's the basic learning from decades of virtual world development; it's the starting point that leads to culture, creation tools, and organic growth. Meta built Horizon in the wrong order. First, you nail your use case with a style that matches your intended audience, then you add creation tools around it. Otherwise, people enter Horizon and have no clue what to do like in Second Life.
What is going on with Worlds, Workrooms, Venues, and Home? It seems like even people at Meta don't know what Horizon is. I get a similar vibe from the OS and the Quest Pro. It feels like a bunch of prototypes patched together with no backbone to make sense of it.
The other mistake Meta repeated from Second Life is the attempt to imitate real life. This time around, with an unappealing cartoon style. It's a bland world with no personality. Entering Horizon is like entering a children's Hospital ward — it's colourful but far from homey.
We need to get back to basics. Meta wants to be a hardware manufacturer and make the OS? Then nail that first. The main goal of the hardware should be to get the user into a fun experience as fast as possible. What Ben Lang from RoadToVR calls time-to-fun.
A Solution for Meta
You can't expect to build the Metaverse if the onboarding to your headset is plagued with friction. If Meta's focus should be the OS, so should Horizon's. With this perspective, Horizon becomes the OS. It's a 2-for-1: Fix up the OS while giving Horizon a use case.
Horizon Homeshould be at the centre. A user puts on a Quest and is transported to their custom Home environment. They can then run off to any other experience; other apps and games are virtual worlds accessible from Home. Horizon becomes a galaxy where each world is people's Home or a game.
The second priority is to bring friends into our Home. While this is supported already, there's even more friction than opening a game. Focusing on the social interactions that occur in people's Home world means fostering close-knit relationships. Being in a headset is a personal experience which is why personal relationships should be the focus.
Meta can still be ambitious and add many features to this Home-centric platform. Workrooms shouldn't be a separate app; remote desktop sharing should be in Home. One can hang out with colleagues in an office and that office is the company's Home. These offices don't need to imitate real ones, that would be boring. Each company could make their own in a style that suits its culture.
They should keep pushing Web (and WebXR) support for Horizon, so they can be accessed from any device. Or they extend the platform so developers can make small widgets that can be used from Home.
Meta should take a couple of notes from Apple's playbook on integrating hardware and software. This is no easy task — making things simpler for the user puts the burden on the developers. The reward at the end, though, is a platform with less friction for people to enjoy VR. Once the foundations are set, Meta can move to competing on content.
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The Path to the Metaverse
Meta can't expect to build the whole Metaverse themselves. No single virtual world will be able to dominate the whole digital realm. Instead, each should focus on a single use case (a problem they are solving, or a game). In Meta's case, it should be the OS and its integration with their hardware.
We are still a few years away from the Metaverse. Reaching the point where virtual words and applications are interconnected and interoperable will take a lot of coordination. While it's important to pursue this goal in parallel, each organization should build fun and useful platforms in the meantime. The Metaverse will comprise many succinct virtual worlds and even galaxies of worlds. These galaxies are what many misname as a metaverse. There will be big winners. Some galaxies may be huge and popular, just like Facebook or Google are today. But they will never be the Metaverse, just as Google and Facebook aren't the Web.
The protocols we use for interoperability need to be open and decentralized. I don't see an organization accepting somebody else's closed protocol to connect their two platforms. Now is the time to experiment with different ideas. There's no way to know which attempt will garner enough network effects to become the standard.
Will Meta be an important player? I don't know. Pouring billions is not enough. If they find their focus and play nicely with other developers, they could find their place. As things stand, I don’t think Meta’s leadership has the right mindset to see it through.
I wrote about the definition of the Metaverse in the past. Also, check out Tony Parisi's post or read Mathew Ball's book.
I'm using Horizon as an example as it's the one with the biggest investment by far.
A recent podcast series by the Wall Street Journal goes into this story.
With so much puff, it's hard to believe there might be anything to it. But I wouldn't be writing this if I didn't think so.
The Quest Home is currently called Horizon Home but it's still the old Home but with basic and hard-to-use multiuser features. They do plan on bringing the Horizon creation tools to Home. This should be the core functionality for Horizon.