Into The Void: Where Crypto Meets The Metaverse

The Metaverse: a persistent, live digital universe that affords individuals a sense of agency, social presence, and shared spatial awareness, along with the ability to participate in an extensive virtual economy with profound societal impact. 

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This piece aims to set out an overview of why crypto is integral to the emergence of an Open Metaverse. I begin this essay with a brief reflection on where we are on our journey as a digital species, as well as the role the games industry is playing in it. From there, we will touch on the origins of the concept of the Metaverse before exploring its more recent incarnation. Despite aspects of it gradually coming into focus, it remains a nebulous idea. As such, we look at some of the core characteristics that the internet of tomorrow is likely to possess whilst recognizing that the evolution of technologies are usually unpredictable. Having established an idea of where things could go, I will explain why I think the tools afforded by crypto are necessary to get there. We’ll look at some of the driving forces behind our current trajectory, and why crypto technologies may be one of the most imperative yet least recognised components of our evolving digital world. From there we explore areas of application, paths to adoption, new business models being unlocked, and how the investable surface area is expanding. I close out with some key areas of focus for various parties that may be interested in the hope it provides someone with something of use.

  1. Inroduction

  2. Enter The Metaverse

  3. Where Does Crypto Come In?

  4. What Needs To Happen?

  5. A Path To Adoption

  6. New Business Models

  7. Investable Surface Area

  8. Takeaways

  9. Conclusion

TL;DR

  • Crypto is laying the foundations for a self-sovereign financial system, an open creator economy, and a universal digital representation and ownership layer via NFTs (non-fungible tokens).

  • The Metaverse is coming; trends indicate our direction of travel. Our next great milestone as a networked species awaits us: 7B digital souls with the option to exist almost exclusively online and participate in a virtual economy with societal impact.

  • More time spent online will lead to more value created and consumed digitally.

  • In order to maximize willingness of individuals to allocate serious time and capital to virtual environments, establishing trust in their durability as well as economic robustness is paramount. 

  • As education of web 2.0’s shortcomings rises, users will prefer credibly neutral platforms that lack altogether the capacity for arbitrary censorship, undue rent extraction (also in the form of privacy cost), or sudden cessation.

  • All of these threats are only amplified by increasingly immersive, pervasive, and interconnected digital environments.

  • Decentralized networks provide a unique and unmatchable degree of assurance, whilst a universal erosion of trust in institutions is forcing the desire for alternatives.

  • NFTs on top of them enable a standardized universal digital representation and ownership layer for any natively digital “thing” such as game assets, digital art, or domain space.

  • Early breakout successes will drive FOMO as onlookers scramble to understand the new tool sets available. The network effects of these protocols prove difficult to overcome; their open nature compounds  permissionless innovation incredibly quickly as each additional creator builds on the shoulders of all who came before.

  • Owning core pieces of these new worlds brings great financial returns to those who believed; many of whom will be from emerging markets who were quick to move on the opportunities available.

  • Beyond wealth, the initial players are granted additional advantages. As pioneers of a variety of new business models and technologies, their accumulated IP and know-how provide a significant moat.

  • In the same way the rise of mobile forced large buyouts and talent acquisition, so too will the rise of crypto across gaming and the creator economy.

  • In hindsight, it will be obvious that crypto’s role in the Metaverse was the most imperative yet least explored by those speculating on its emergence.

Introduction

It is easy to forget that it has been just 50 years since the ARPANET delivered the first two letters of the word ‘login’ before crashing. The fact that the first message ever to be transmitted over the precursor to the internet was ‘lo’ will always be suspiciously fitting. These events took place on the year of the moon landing, a full 20 years before the emergence of the world wide web. The impact of this technology has turned out to be truly astonishing, yet we are undergoing further acceleration. In just half a century, it has connected 63% of the human race to one another. Right now, digitally transmitted words that represent ideas are forming inside your head that were typed by a completely separate member of your species with whom you have no physical contact. The capacity for complex communication is the primary differentiator between us and other living beings; it is the core foundation of society building organisms. The grand web of information that we have built throughout our brief existence is absolutely fundamental to humanity. Over the years, both the nature of and our relationship to that web of information has evolved dramatically. From the earliest transmissions of knowledge from our ancestors through cave drawings and storytelling, to the emergence of written language eventually leading to the Gutenberg revolution. More recently, photography and telephony unlocked ways to transmit information through time and space that were strange at first. 

Now we, especially my generation (‘99 baby), take all of that for granted. Covid-19, of course, served as a useful reminder to many of our sheer dependence on it. Yet still, there is little pause for reflection on the remarkable digital tapestry of modern life woven by the hands of almost 5 billion people. We regularly record and transmit information to one another all around the globe without an inkling of where the recipients might be, oftentimes who they might be, and even when they might exist. The degree to which information is both preserved and accessible is simply unprecedented. Connecting with ideas and others is becoming increasingly easy as well as vivid. Historically, a letter may have been your best bet. As communication technologies have evolved, perhaps a phone call with a loved one brings you closer together due to the higher empathetic bandwidth of voice. Better still, we can now video conference and see those with whom we are speaking. Peeking behind the curtain of virtual reality, we are now beginning to see the ability to share social presence and spatial awareness with other people by “physically” sharing the same environment. If that evolves to become a dominant communication technology, what else has to change with it? What might come next?

One of the applications of the internet that appears to have resonated the most with us as a species is the ability to play with one another at scale. Its wide appeal has been a primary driver in the evolution of networking and graphics technologies. There are presently over 2.7 billion video game players globally, that’s 1 in 3 people. Every day, the veins of the web pulse with information as ever-improving experiences absorb attention and capture an increasing portion of the global mindshare. Throughout the history of gaming, despite the ebbs and flows of trends both ephemeral and sticky, the concept of video games and virtual environments has reached an unimaginable audience. We have observed radical changes ricochet throughout the industry as new business models have demanded the delivery of entirely new infrastructure sets. Perhaps most potently, the increased feasibility of digital distribution paired with the advent of mobile in the late noughties drove drastic advancements in what it meant to be a developer. Suddenly the arsenal of a large game publisher grew to include: data science tools, massively scalable synchronous web services, widely accessible low latency databases, live operations including customer support, content management and live-service updates, and high-impact marketing campaigns as increased optionality began to reveal the fickle nature of gamers. The underlying business model shift that drove this activity was a gravitation towards free-to-play (F2P) subsidised by micro-transactions, which now accounts for 78% of digital game revenue (2020). 

Over the course of its 10+ year history in the West, and 15+ year history worldwide, free-to-play game economies and their operations have become increasingly sophisticated and a daunting effort for even the best-resourced projects in the industry. This dramatic increase in sophistication and complexity has led to something of an efficiency plateau, where design has grown stagnant, growth has started to slow, and the industry overall has needed to consolidate. Free-to-play games have come a long way, but incremental improvements to design and economic models are yielding diminishing returns for developers. At the same time, players feel an increasing dissonance with their real world intuitions about transacting for value in these games, and directing their own effort and choices in game economies.” — Brett Seyler, ex-Unity, Founder at Forte Labs

Once more, currents are stirring in the deep. As these “tried and tested” business models become more and more entrenched, innovation has begun to dwindle. Major titles feed us the same reskinned formula year after year. Out on the fringes, new crypto technologies are emerging that afford us tools that can be applied to this industry in interesting ways. I’m confident that decentralized networks and the novel cryptoeconomic systems they can facilitate are going to have a large impact on video games, and in doing so change mainstream perceptions of virtual goods. The new design space can enable both the standardization and true ownership of in-game assets, new monetization mechanisms, new customer acquisition tools, cross-game economies, multi-directional value flows (publisher to player), universal identity layers, and more. Last year, $174.9 billion  was spent on video games, having grown +19.6% year-on-year. For context, that is 2x the revenue of film and music combined. The opportunity is there. With the ever-improving user experience of virtual reality, rapidly growing eSports viewership, and the next generation of consoles being deployed, it is highly unlikely that the formidable trend the industry has set will cool any time soon. It is still early in the transition, but the stats reflect the direction of travel: people will spend an increasing amount of time in these virtual worlds. To continue to perceive this industry as just “video games'' would be myopic at best.  

Enter the Metaverse / Visions of the Future

Whilst the exact adoption dynamics with which certain technologies, or combinations of technologies, evolve are often very difficult to predict, the broader trajectory can often be foreseen years in advance. For example, Marshall McLuhan provided rich commentary on the evolution of our communication mediums right at the dawn of the Information Age, long before the invention of the World Wide Web. As a philosopher and professor of media theory, he viewed human history through the lens of four distinct eras: the acoustic age (spoken word), the literary age (written word), the print age (post-Gutenberg), and the electronic age (which we have barely scratched the surface of). His first major book, The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962), popularized the term “global village” — the idea that technology brings people together and allows everyone the same access to information:

"The next medium, whatever it is – it may be the extension of consciousness – will include television as its content, not as its environment," he wrote in 1962. "A computer as a research and communication instrument could enhance retrieval, obsolesce mass library organisation, retrieve the individual's encyclopedic function and flip it into a private line to speedily tailored data of a saleable kind."

Marshall McLuhan’s core thesis, which was encapsulated in the famous phrase “the medium is the message,” was that the technologies through which we absorb information (broadly defined as the media) become “extensions” of our bodies, exerting a profound influence over how we think and act. When an important new medium arrives, it can reshape who we are as both individuals and as a society. Some of his further thoughts would turn out to be eerily prophetic.

“Once we have surrendered our senses and nervous systems to the private manipulation of those who would try to benefit from taking a lease on our eyes and ears and nerves, we don't really have any rights left. Leasing our eyes and ears and nerves to commercial interests is like handing over the common speech to a private corporation, or like giving the earth's atmosphere to a company as a monopoly.”

Those words were written 20 years before the first personal computers came to fruition, almost 30 years before the invention of the web, and 40 years before Facebook came online. Whilst he could not have envisaged the convoluted competitive dynamics of the rise of social networks, nor the world’s submission to the exploitative ad-driven business models of the web giants, he very clearly understood the ingredients. His writing now seems a prescient warning of the raw power of information technology being harnessed by private companies, who in turn could exert great influence over society.

Since around the early 1980s, many technologists have speculated on the emergence of a “successor” to the internet. The concept wore other masks for a period of time, with William Gibson first referencing it in Burning Chrome (1982) as cyberspace—a mass consensual hallucination in computer networks. It would go on to be a core theme in his famous book Neuromancer (1984). Cyberspace has since evolved through common use to simply mean the internet. However, the term in its original context gave way to the word “Metaverse” (a portmanteau of meta; Greek for “beyond”, and “universe”) when it was coined in Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash (1992). Whilst the true extent and form of the Metaverse are both elusive, increasingly rich ideas are beginning to coincide with increasingly powerful technologies that will likely deliver something monumental in the coming decades. Mainstream awareness of the idea is also growing, with Spielberg’s 2018 adaptation of Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One (2011) playing a major role. Beyond mere speculation, there begins to be experiences that push the boundaries of what we thought possible and force those curious to look further down the road. A potent recent example was Fortnite’s Travis Scott concert in which 12.3M players gathered in real time to witness the release of his new song. The event was a thrilling fusion of popular culture, video games with deep social elements, and cutting-edge concurrency infrastructure. It has become a game that turns players into celebrities and celebrities into players.

The varied allusions of recent decades seem to be coalescing around accepted definitions. For the sake of clarity, let’s define the Metaverse as:

That last part is borrowed from Tim Sweeney, the Founder and CEO of Epic Games (Fortnite/Unreal). He points out that for this thing to fulfill its potential, it needs to take off on an unprecedented scale and deliver a next-generation successor to a lot of communication media that came before it. This is not an incremental improvement to our existing digital experience. The Metaverse represents our next great milestone as a networked species.

“Humans are the networked species” — Naval

To some extent the Metaverse can’t really be knowable today, despite us understanding some of the core properties it is likely to possess. Matthew Ball, an excellent author and source of great inspiration for me, has likely done more than most to crystalize thought around this strange, nebulous idea.  Broadly speaking, we expect the Metaverse to be:

Beyond these anticipated characteristics, there remains some debate about the exact manner in which the Metaverse will emerge. If Facebook were to build it as a closed platform, would it count? If not, how decentralized must it be? Who “operates” it? Could it perhaps be governed and operated by its inhabitants on a global scale?  Is there a standard universal identity layer, or do different ecosystems have different logins? Can it exist on top of current internet architecture, or must we develop a more native support of many-to-many connections? Could the actual compute itself happen on decentralized networks over the long term? How do modern organizational structures translate into it, if at all? What degree of anonymity is permissible and for which functions? Who decides?

The last question is one of particular importance. Decisions were made at the advent of the internet about critical things such as security, privacy, user sovereignty et cetera without any form of democracy. As we now know, many of these choices had profound, often irrevocable, consequences that will reverberate throughout the digital world for decades to come. In the same way, we are on the brink of augmenting our environment at an unprecedented scale as we project ourselves deeper into the digital realm. Crypto presents potential solutions as we shall explore, but it only goes so far. Decentralized technologies certainly can limit the potential for foul play whilst providing incentive structures to coordinate desirable behaviour at massive scale, but design decisions will still have to be made about where and to what extent they are implemented. As a species we stand before a critical crossroad that necessitates the fusion of ancient wisdom built over thousands of years of enquiry into human existence with modern, recent learnings. In doing so, we should attempt to glean a clear understanding of what values and teachings we must code into tomorrow so that only the best of our traits endure in our increasingly digital future. It is imperative that we treat these choices with the care and respect they deserve, or we once again risk letting McLuhan’s ultimate fears come true! 

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Unfortunately Substack doesn’t allow long posts, so this is continued on my public Notion here.

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