Virtual reality has been around since the 1990s – commercially, that is. It moved in and out of the spotlight for ages before finally cementing its place in the mainstream. One of the biggest names behind the technology is Meta, the company formerly known as Facebook, which has taken over Oculus – the brand that made VR cool again – even before the first commercial headset was released. Since then, Meta has directed a lot of money and resources to develop VR hardware, and recently, it has shifted focus toward the development of a new, fully immersive metaverse that will have a pretty uninspired name – Metaverse.
This opens a lot of questions including what will gaming be like in the (virtual) future?
What is a metaverse, anyway?
The definition of “metaverse” is any computer-generated environment where users interact with each other in a way similar to the way they would in real life, through avatars. This is why Fortnite is not a Metaverse and Roblox is.
Fortnite is little more than a competitive online game where groups of up to 100 players can compete in various free-for-all games, usually shooting each other into oblivion. While it does have some other things as well – it has experimented with in-game concerts, for example – it barely goes beyond what it was meant to be: a game. Roblox, in turn, is a complete online gaming platform and a game creation system where players can build their own interactive and multiplayer games. It is a free-to-play product with a well-developed in-universe economy, where members can trade their creations – anything from avatars and profile pictures to in-game tools and items – for the platform’s own digital currency, Robux.
Meta’s proposed Metaverse will be less like Roblox and more like OASIS, the environment depicted in the popular movie “Ready Player One”: a completely immersive virtual world where people could work, shop and play. In the upcoming Metaverse, you’ll be able to sit down “face to face” with your coworkers instead of a Zoom meeting, watch movies with your friends, perhaps even download Betway and place bets on the competitive games happening in a virtual arena near you. Virtually, of course.
The depiction of OASIS in “Ready Player One” is probably a goal toward which proponents of a new virtual world are working. In the novel – and the movie – players used full-body haptic suits and virtual reality headsets to tune into the story’s metaverse that was used for everything from entertainment to business and everything in between. Creators would sell their merch in the metaverse, accept commissions, and players would compete in various disciplines – usually competitive games – to earn in-game currency to spend.
For Meta’s Metaverse, this means that aside from full immersion, it will come with countless entertainment options, from movies to live music events and, why not, gaming.
Video games already attract thousands, sometimes tens of thousands of concurrent players. These players don’t play on the same map or in the same open-world, of course: they play on different servers and different “shards” on these servers. The highest number of players on the same server was achieved by World of Tanks (190,541) but the lag was legendary as well. The maximum number of players that can actually interact with each other in these games is usually limited by the processing power of their servers.
Well, this has to change a lot in the age of the upcoming metaverse – it will be a mainly social construct, meaning that a large number of players (inhabitants?) will want to interact and maybe play inside them at the same time. And we’re talking about truly large numbers: if only 1% of Facebook’s user base transitions to the Metaverse, this can mean close to 30 million people. This means that Meta will have to use some truly massive servers to be able to run a virtual world with such attendance. And this is without even counting the NPCs in games and the other hardware-hungry processes involved.
Raja Koduri, Intel’s senior VP for Accelerated Computing Systems and Graphics, has pointed out in an editorial published in mid-December that the world will need to increase its computing power a thousandfold to accommodate a metaverse like the one envisioned by Meta. Not to mention the increased network and storage infrastructure.
Virtual reality is growing fast – but not as fast as some of us expected it to grow. This year, estimates speak of around 6.1 million VR headsets sold – this takes the VR user base to about 16 million worldwide, expected to more than double in the next couple of years.
When it comes to gaming, though, just selling the headset is not enough: we also need some big names to adopt this fully immersive environment. This means more big franchises expanding into VR – Half-Life Alyx was a great first step but not enough on its own. At one point, people will finally not just buy VR headsets because they are cool but buy them to play specific games as they do with gaming consoles today – this is when we’ll be able to talk about true virtual reality gaming. And only then the development of metaverse games will truly begin.
When will we play in a virtual world with each other?
The best answer to this question is probably “it depends”. It depends on how fast VR becomes a widespread and popular gaming platform, it depends on where the developers will decide to put their money, it depends on how fast the social aspects of a metaverse will attract new users… it depends on a lot of factors. But it will likely be sooner rather than later.