We often use the term “Metaverse” (singulare) as if it refers to a single entity. In reality, there is no such thing, at least not yet. Whether or not we can ever accurately say there is a single metaverse is the difference between an open metaverse and a closed one.
Author Neal Stephenson coined the term “metaverse” in his 1992 novel “Snow Crash.” In his sci-fi tome, he described an entirely virtual world that functioned as a parallel society. Since its inception, a wide range of groups including technologists, Mark Zuckerberg, the crypto community, game developers, and many more have adopted the term “metaverse.”
Earlier this month, Tim Sweeney, CEO of Epic Games, the creators of Fortnite and Unreal Engine, laid out his grand vision during the company’s “Year In Review 2022” livestream. He told viewers that the gaming giant planned to pull together its various strands, including game development and its film and TV work with Unreal Engine, “into something that comes closer and closer to the metaverse from science fiction.”
“Not the dystopian version… but the really positive versions where you and your friends get together into a real-time 3D social experience and can explore the whole world.”
There is still no exact definition of what a metaverse even is, but it has developed and narrowed over time. Most users of the word accept that it will be some form of a virtual world – or worlds. In the Web3 community, many believe it will involve digital assets like NFTs and cryptocurrencies, and will employ smart contracts to create a trustless, decentralized online space not controlled by any one company. However, not everyone is on the same page.
Closed vs. Open Metaverses
Zuckerberg’s Meta and Horizon Worlds and Epic Game’s Fortnite are two examples of “metaverses” that fundamentally limit the use of digital assets to within their own ecosystems. These “metaverses” function as virtual silos, controlled by a single organization and prevent the use of digital assets outside of their boundaries.
On the other hand, an “open metaverse” would be interconnected and interoperable. Much like how multiple websites and services can exist independently on an interconnected web. If the options are between open and closed, then the choice is obvious, says Lucaz Leem, CEO and founder of Affyn. “Closed ecosystems are the constructs of Web2, and we aren’t trying to replicate the tech monopolies that dominate today’s experience. Instead, our approach needs to revolve around interoperability and openness, granting the ultimate ease of movement through the Metaverse.”
If a so-called metaverse is closed and proprietor-run, what makes them different from the multiplayer online worlds that came before them? Habbo Hotel – a digital version of Hilbert’s paradox of the Grand Hotel come to life – launched its beta version in January 2001. Runescape, the fantasy MMORPG that dominated the mid-Noughties, launched that same month. Mazewar, a crude forerunner to today’s games, was around as early as 1974 on ARPANET, a precursor to today’s internet.
Any metaverse that fails to add to that decades-old model is simply using marketing language to appear cutting-edge. Aside from decentralization, a key part of any future metaverse will be user-generated content. Not unlike today’s internet. “Players in most existing MMORPGs don’t directly interact with developers or creators,” continues Leem. “These barriers disappear with open metaverses, where everyone can be simultaneously a user, creator, and developer. Effectively, an open metaverse encourages every participant to become a stakeholder. Not just a user that consumes without receiving rewards and benefits in return.”
The Cross-Chain Future Of The Virtual World
However, those chasing the dream of a closed metaverse aren’t always bad actors. According to some, the fact that closed metaverses are currently the norm is simply the result of our technological limitations. “I believe the larger Web3 community is working towards an open metaverse as this idea truly reflects what Web3 ethos is all about: being permissionless, trustless, and open to all,” says Dr Sangmin Seo, Representative Director at Klaytn Foundation.
To achieve this vision, there are multiple fixes that can allow a blockchain-based virtual world to interact with other platforms. The recently developed solutions that enable blockchains to talk to each other can be used to make a larger, more interconnected online world. Fixes like “bridges, oracles, and solutions that enable cross-chain applications [can] bring us one step closer” to that vision, says Dr Seo.
Also, just because a virtual world is “closed” it does not mean it is not a metaverse. Projects like Overeality, which implements infrastructures for Web3 interoperability, prefer to think of them as a different conception of the same thing. “The metaverse should be another dimension of the world,” says its CMO and co-founder, Shukyee Ma. “The Metaverse should be a collection of all the sub-metaverses where each sub-metaverse is just like a city or a country in the real world. All the sub-metaverses, together with full interoperability between each other, are considered the ultimate form of Metaverse by our definition.”
The Open Metaverse Is On Its Way
One organization that is trying to pave the way is The Metaverse Standards Forum. Its goal is to create a common interoperability standard by bringing together as many stakeholders as possible. Founded in June 2022, the group already includes Google, Huawei, Adobe, Intel, Verizon, and accounting giant PwC. Even closed Metaverse pioneers Meta are taking part.
The group will focus on a number of areas, including developing consistent terminology and guidelines across the tech sector. In time, the forum hopes to provide hackathons, prototyping, plugfests, and open-source tooling. Its foundation alone is a heartening sign. There is hope that any future metaverse will be as open as the internet that preceded it. Fingers crossed, the end result will be one unified Metaverse (singular, not plural).