Matthew Ball’s The Metaverse: And How it Will Revolutionize Everything is now available in bookshelves and online. (Get it on Amazon here, on Apple Books here, or on Bookshop.org here, which contributes a cut to indy bookstores.)
I’ve been avidly reading my review copy of The Metaverse over the last couple weeks, and while I feel way too biased to write a full review, seeing as I’m now writing my own book on the topic, I will say this: It’s an essential and indispensable resource to understanding the concept, and the key business, technology, and policy facets we need to comprehend now, to create a Metaverse that’s truly worthy of the name.
I spoke with Matt earlier this week, delving into many topics from the book, beginning with what’s been expanded on from his online Metaverse Primer (which I wrote about here last year):
“The first and last thirds of the book are entirely new,” he tells me. “The first third gets into the history of the Metaverse in science fiction and in virtual game worlds and platforms, why gaming seems to be at the forefront of this next generation of the Internet, defining the Metaverse as I see it, and why it is a successor of state to the Internet rather than just application for experiences on it…
“There are a few sections that are dramatically different; the hardware section in the Primer is about 600 words; in the book it’s 12,000 or 13,000. It’s fundamentally deeper and richer, part of which is to explain why the future we hope for VR and AR remains far outside of our grasp, while also looking at the other input devices that we might use, such as holography. The section on payments was dramatically changed to talk about the importance of regulation in the space.”
Speaking which, Matt also wrote an entirely new section about how much — or how little — blockchain relates to the Metaverse.
“I don’t believe that the blockchain is the Metaverse,” he puts it to me bluntly, “I don’t believe that it’s a technical requirement. I think there are some interesting potential applications, but it is so relevant to the discourse that I wrote a chapter trying to explain why people think that, what the various perspectives are, and what may or may not need to change for those perspectives to clarify.”
Part 1 of our conversation below, including some of my reader questions about NFTs and negative effects of the Metaverse, and an intriguing new way of thinking about interoperability.
Wagner James Au: As you know, developers have been working on creating a Metaverse for about 25 years. So why do you think your Primer and this book have suddenly gained so much mainstream interest?
Matthew Ball: I’ve known about the Metaverse, played around in virtual worlds from World of Warcraft, Age of Empires, Starcraft, Second Life, and so on for decades. My focus on the metaverse began really in 2018 when I was spending a tremendous amount in Fortnite and on Roblox, and it was there that I started to get the sense that this long-considered fantastical opportunity was becoming a practical business opportunity…
That coincides with three or four years later; that formalizes with more companies are going after this opportunity, the pandemic fundamentally changes our perspective on virtual existence, and the technologies [which undergird it]. So I think the simple answer is a sense that it was time for this idea to go mainstream. And I think time has suggested that was right, and there weren’t many voices talking about it; it kind of connects with why I’m so excited about the future. I’m really excited for more and in particular more diverse voices to join a discourse that relatively few people have had a large share of historically.
WJA: Getting back to interoperability. I was really interested in this part: You mentioned how the broadly shared desire to tap down on abusive racist trolling and such might encourage different metaverse platforms to interoperate.
MB. We talk about inter operation usually with the idea of, “I’m a giant banana in Fortnite, I want to use that skin in Call of Duty… It’s not clear how valuable [that] is. And devs constantly say, to the extent it has value, we’re skeptical that it’s worth the investment.
So what you’re talking about is inter-operation of data and identity. This is much easier technically. And I think it’s a lot more powerful.
The classic example is credit score systems. Banks used to believe that their credit information on customers was the single most important thing that they had. Because it allowed them to make the best judgments on who to lend to. The problem is no one benefits from default. And so there were customers who would have poor credit with Bank A and go to Bank B to get a loan. So they opened up their credit systems to the benefit of all.
We are seeing with Epic, with Microsoft, with Sony, and myriad different startups, an effort to say, Let’s interoperate not just our communication suites, but to cross-reference, corroborate, and integrate our player information. So that someone who behaves poorly on Game A or platform A, can’t just shift to game B or platform B. Because no one, not players, not publishers, not platforms, benefit from toxic behavior. Airbnb and VRBO are doing the same thing, because bad hosts and bad renters hurt everyone, including the commissions that need to be paid by good users.
So that’s a great way to think about inter-operation — not of 3D objects, but of identity and systems in the growing virtual world.
WJA (asking a question from reader Iggy O): Smartphones lead to distracted driving, dumbing down of content, and other unpredictable effects. What do you think the negative effects of the Metaverse might be?
MB: If the Metaverse means a growing share of our existence goes online, than almost all societal problems online exacerbate: inequality of access and opportunity, income, data rights and privacy at large; toxicity, abuse and harassment, election engineering and radicalization, all of these things will get harder and worse.
I’m hopeful that what the Metaverse does provide is not an obvious answer to that, but an opportunity for us to learn from the past 15 years and also to change who leads. I really like that the philosophy of game developers and social world platforms are different. I think [game devs are] more happiness and player-centric, versus algorithmic, like today’s social networks. And so I’m hopeful that that disposition, the cultural training, the objectives, positions us better in the future to address old problems or to change them…
[At] the end of the day, the biggest challenge is the real threats tend to be the hardest to predict. We thought a lot about misinformation and disinformation in the early Internet and in the late 2000s, but the ways in which it would be weaponized for election interference was certainly not something that we’ve probably predicted. We’re still struggling to figure it out.
WJA (asking a question from reader Adeon Writer): Why do CEO’s trying to push NFT/Crypto as part of the Metaverse, even though there is so much resistance to it from the people who actually actively use VR / virtual worlds?
MB: I don’t have a good answer. One hypothesis could be that as everyone is rushing to the Metaverse in a talking track, that is one thing that you can actually deploy plausibly to earn some revenue quickly. So if you don’t have a metaverse strategy, you don’t have a virtual strategy, you can say, “Metaverse, web3, maybe they’re the same?” They’re not, but they might think that. Or at least they’re proximate enough that we can just ship it — “That’s good. We rally, we learn, we tell something to investors.” That’s a hypothesis.
I think the bigger problem is: Are NFTs, are crypto, are blockchain an important part of gaming for the future or the Metaverse? I don’t know, I don’t think we can know. That’s not to say that I think it will or I think that would be good.
What I do know is that the statements from various unspecified publishers that lead with economic opportunity or the supposed logic, and don’t at all explain why players would want it, is kind of crazy to me.
And more importantly, there’s no reason to say anything at all. Even if you had a good argument that you did articulate to players as to why you’re deploying this technology. just deploy it. Prove that it’s fun, prove that people like it. No game has ever thrived because the logline of the mechanic was compelling. That boggles my mind.