Can a 30-year old book tell us anything about the shape of the metaverse, and digital entertainment more broadly, in 2023? After all, a great deal has happened in the intervening years since the release of Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, in which the word “metaverse” was coined.
For a start, metaverses now exist, albeit in rudimentary forms such as multiplayer social spaces like Fornite and Minecraft. But, as in the 1990s, much of today’s metaverse is speculation.
At Augmented World Expo (AWE) last week. Stephenson spoke about the current state of the metaverse, and about his own commercial and creative endeavors in this space.
Stephenson’s open metaverse blockchain company, Lamina1, announced a partnership with Web3 game publisher Interverse, which is creating an NFT cartoon shooting game called Degen Royale. It’s the 14th partnership for Lamina1, which was founded last year.
The deal was announced as part of a raft of agreements, including one with Mira, which makes 3D worlds where “metaverse citizens can explore ultra-realistic, reconstructed locations in major cities such as New York and Paris,” according to the company.
In an on-stage interview with AWE founder Ori Inbar, Stephenson talked about his vision for Lamina1. “If we’re going to have a metaverse that’s being used all the time by millions or billions of people, then there have to be experiences that are worth having,” he said. “That seems like an obvious statement, but for me there’s a glaring and frustrating lack of support for the people who make those experiences.”
He explained that many of the people who will be key to building entertainment value in the metaverse are game industry professionals, which is a notoriously competitive field. Getting paid for metaverse work is much less simple than taking a solid salary at a top games company.
“We need to create the economic basis for them to actually get rewarded, if they succeed in creating metaverse experiences that lots of people are enjoying. We’re an open metaverse company and we believe that there’s a big overlap between the capabilities of blockchain and the requirements needed to provide those economic rails for content creators to to actually get paid for what they do.”
Stephenson has written many best-selling novels, often set, at least partly, in virtual, digital worlds. He’s also been active in cutting-edge technology entrepreneurship, working with the likes of Blue Origin, Intellectual Ventures, and AR company Magic Leap, where he served as chief futurist for six years, up to 2020.
Snow Crash, published in 1992, was his third and breakthrough novel. It’s set in a future post-government United States, where corporations control territory and society. Digital hackers and low-level criminals use a post-internet 3D world, called the metaverse, to conduct their schemes. Snow Crash’s metaverse was not the first such fictional environment, but as well as inventing the word, it also predicted phenomena such as the popularity and value of hot avatars.
At AWE, he said that he’d been inspired by the drastic advances in computer graphics that occurred, beginning in the mid-1980s. “But it was incredibly expensive and hard to do anything with it. And so I thought, ‘what would it take to make this into a mass medium that is used every day by billions of people?’ The answer was mass adoption. That’s what drives prices down. That’s what makes hardware cheap. That’s what brings content makers to the table. And so the metaverse as described in Snow Crash was my best kind of guess as to what a mass medium based on 3D computer graphics might look like.”
Fast forward to 2023, and the metaverse is still a work in progress. “I think it’s a little early,” he said, when asked for his view on the current state of 3D virtual and social world. “Not to say that a lot hasn’t been done. But just in the last few years it feels like a bunch of things have snapped into place that are all prerequisites that we need to have on hand in order to really start building a metaverse.”
Cheap, sophisticated, and easy-to-use game engines are one of those prerequisites, he said. “Even just a few years ago, you’d be looking at dropping thousands of dollars on licenses for software packages, which you can pick up and learn to use for free.” Computer advances, and a culture of familiarity in 3D virtual spaces are also contributing to rapid advances.
Although games like Fortnite, Minecraft and Roblox are demonstrable success cases, there is still a gap between the ambitions of metaverse companies, and widespread consumer acceptance.
“There have been efforts in the past to make games based on blockchain and NFTs,” he said. “But I guess the simplest way to put it is they just haven’t been fun or appealing to a big audience outside of the blockchain community.”
In a way, Snow Crash predicted another phenomena of the metaverse, in which it develops from unpromising beginnings to something altogether more satisfying. “In the book [the metaverse] is neither dystopian or utopian, or at least that’s how I meant to portray it. A lot of what we see in the opening pages of the book is a very mass market, lowest common denominator crudeness, like the worst of television. But later on, as we get further into the book, we see that people have used it to make beautiful works of art.”
Inbar asked Stephenson whether he believed the “Web3 camp, which is all about centralization and ownership” would come to dominate the emerging metaverse, or whether the more creative camp would win out.
“Well, we have to have both,” Stephenson replied. “The metaverse is a three dimensional virtual shared environment so we can’t not have that [creative] part of it. The Web3 part of the question has to do with how it’s all going to be organized. Whether it will be a more centralized or more decentralized model.
“I’m coming down pretty clearly on the decentralized side of that, and if I’m right, then we don’t need to speak of one side or another dominating, but so we need to have both.”
You can watch the full conversation here.