Matthew Ball Full Interview

Matthew Ball Interview: The Metaverse Author on Mainstream Awareness, Negative Implications, NFTs & Blockchain — and an Exciting New Vision for Interoperability (Part 1 of 2)

Matthew Ball metaverse interview Wagner James Au

Matthew Ball’s The Metaverse: And How it Will Revolutionize Everything is now available in bookshelves and online. (Get it on Amazon hereon Apple Books here, or on 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.

Matthew Ball metaverse book
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.

The Metaverse Author On Government Regulation, Advice for Beginners Getting Started & Second Life’s Importance to Its Future (Part 2 Of 2)

Matthew Ball metaverse book

Update, July 22: Bumped up for weekend reading/conversation!

Read Part 1 of our Q&A here

In his book The Metaverse, Matthew Ball touches on Second Life and even speaks with the late, beloved CEO Ebbe Altberg about the dangers of breaking user-generated content through platform updates.

During our Q&A this week we had a chance to chat about what Second Life can teach new metaverse platforms.

“We’re discovering so many things about virtual societies and communities, there’s so many emergent behaviors, and many of them have been discovered or surfaced before,” Matt tells me. “Second Life is such a great example. I was telling you the other day when I was asked that question, Is Second Life over or underrated?

“I think it’s underrated, because we and I for a long time underappreciated how many behaviors evolved that actually can’t really happen elsewhere that teach us a lot about what to build, what not to do, and how to speak to users upon which you rely on for an economy and user-generated content. Learning that history is important.”

As to the future, much more of our conversation below: Advice for getting started in metaverse development, the important metaverse news announcements that have come out since his book was published — and what he’d say about government regulation of the Metaverse, if someone like Senator Elizabeth Warren asked:

Wagner James Au (asking for reader Zack Day): As someone just getting into software development, I am curious to know what kind of skills a person should develop if they wanted to make things or test ideas in the metaverse?  

Matthew Ball: Unity has several-fold the number of developers [than Unreal]. It’s easier, lighter, faster to build on, and deploys to more devices. It’s easier to hire other people and find people that you can work with, and that’s a compelling proposition. 

I’m really excited about Unreal, but I’m mostly excited about what Tim Sweeney has teased, which is Unreal Editor editing in Fortnite Creative. So you have that no code platform, but then you’ll have the ability to supplement it with code injections and customization’s. Just like when you go to WordPress, you can drag and drop, or in Square-space you can use a template, but if you want to do light customization’s that doesn’t require extraordinary sophistication and learning, you can. 

And that’s gonna mean that for someone trying to learn first, you’re accessing a major platform, you’re using one of the most powerful customization tool kits in the world, and you can onboard or learn in stages. 

Matthew Ball in Breakroom metaverse platform

Matthew Ball speaking in the metaverse platform Breakroom in 2021

WJA: What have been the biggest Metaverse news announcements since you submitted your book that fits your thesis or challenges it most?

MB: I don’t believe that the crypto crash proves or disproves the relevance of blockchain as yet. But I do think that it shows how far and impractical and unscalable applications, the narrative and market value have become.

I mentioned earlier that it was about promise and hype, not proven experiences. And so having that context rather than speculating about it — I write in the book about how wide that difference is and that a crash is likely — that context helps to color what was speculative with practiced reality.

I talked about in the book how hard the XR hardware problem is, and we’ve seen further evidence of Microsoft’s struggles to get HoloLens into shippable, even enterprise devices. And Mark Zuckerberg said in 2015 that mixed reality headsets would replace the smartphone by the end of that decade, that time has come and gone. And we’ve seen that Facebook has pushed out the first consumer release of their AR devices until the back half of this decade. So that helps to provide more context as to the timeline. 

Beyond that, my goal was not to really encapsulate a specific time or moment or dependency, but how I thought the Metaverse would unfold in the coming years and technologies upon which it relied, and the theses around that. And so I think it holds up as a result. 

The only other thing that I would mention is Unity and Roblox have seen precipitous drops in their stock prices, not yet any [loss of users]. And so that provides additional context, at least to who is likely to be pioneers in the future and where the profits are.

For example, the sell-off in Unity and the acquisition of Iron Source seems based on the fear that the game engine itself is not a lucrative part of the value chain. And that’s not altogether dissimilar from Epic; Unreal’s not a profitable business, it’s not particularly large; almost all of their revenue and profits comes from content and distribution. And so I do think that taking a look at the last six months starts to provides more context.

WJA: You touched on government regulation in the book, I would love to get down to specifics — for example, what if Elizabeth Warren or another tech savvy politician asked you for some policy recommendations to implement as soon as possible. What would you suggest?

MB: If you look at what exists today, that’s the easiest starting point. The EU is obviously focusing a lot on the unbundling of hardware operating systems and payments and software distribution. That’s the Epic versus Apple lawsuit. I’m a firm believer that we need to unbundle app distribution from payments and both from an operating system. 

We’re seeing that Elizabeth Warren is, again like the EU, focused on port standardization to USB-C — let’s go to a common standard, not a proprietary one. 

If that’s important, then the portability of core user data, your social graph is even more important; your search history. The feedback loops to a digital ecosystem as more people join and more usage is accrued are only going to grow. And so I think that’s key. 

And the other one to take a look at is where we want to define rights to virtual investments or property in the quote unquote Metaverse, and I don’t mean crypto assets. What I mean is when a developer licenses Unreal or Unity, when they invest tens of millions of dollars in a system built on those engines, what rights do they have versus the tech vendor?

I write in the book about how Tim Sweeney has changed the Unreal Engine licensing agreements in two ways: Number one is they can never retroactively change the licensing terms for a build. They of course can come out with Unreal Editor 6 and it can be different from 5.2, but they can’t change 5.2. 

He’s also said that if they ever have a dispute with a license — [Third party UE developers] haven’t paid, or perhaps they’re arguing that the technology is being used out of Terms of Service — they need to go to the court and get an injunction to shut them down. And that’s a reflection of, you’re asking people to invest their livelihood, millions potentially and years, building in virtual space. Not online asking a [real life] tenant to move into a rental space to build a storefront; landlords don’t have the right to just lock you out, to take your things, to delete your stuff. 

And so I think it’s important for governments to take a look at and say what is to the right of the platform versus what is actually just a virtual version of a real world problem that we’ve already adjudicated. And so I admire Tim for voluntarily giving up rights that everyone thinks should be kept forever.

And in a sense saying, the best form of decentralization is democracy.

Matthew Ball’s The Metaverse: And How it Will Revolutionize Everything is now available in bookshelves and online. (Get it on Amazon hereon Apple Books here, or on here, which contributes a cut to indy bookstores.)

Have a great week from all of us at Zoha Islands/Fruit Islands