As many of you already know, I responded to last October’s announcement by Meta (then still called Facebook) that owners of Oculus VR hardware would have to set up accounts on the Facebook social network, by personally boycotting all Meta products and services—including the Horizon Venues, Horizon Worlds, and Horizon Workrooms social VR platforms. (Here’s the blogpost where I announced my decision.)
Since that announcement (full text here), I have replaced my trusty Oculus Rift tethered VR headset, which up until that point I had been perfectly happy with, with a Valve Index (which I love to use and I consider an upgrade in every single way from the Rift). I also did a factory reset on my Oculus Quest 1, sending it to my sister-in-law in Alberta, who might use it in her work with developmentally-challenged adults (she has no qualms about having a Facebook account, and it’s going to a good cause). I had already deleted my Facebook account previously, and I followed by deleting my Oculus account as well and removing the Oculus app from my iPhone. Yes, I burned my bridges, and I voted with my feet and my wallet!
I am DONE with Meta, and I refuse to come back unless the company reverses its decision to force its VR headset users to have accounts on the toxic Facebook social network.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that I won’t write about Meta and its social VR strategy; it’s just that I won’t be writing about it from a first-person perspective! (And I have a whole network of metaverse enthusiasts, who are not personally boycotting Meta hardware and software, to keep me reliably informed as to what’s going on in-world.)
From my onlooker, outsider perspective, Meta’s social VR strategy seems to be a bit muddled at the moment, with no less than three different social VR apps as part of their current metaverse offerings. And I’m not the only one who has noticed. Tech pundit Ben Lang tweeted yesterday:
Idea: We’re one of the biggest social network companies in the world, let’s make a social VR platform that everyone can enjoy!
Although all three share a common umbrella name, and even share the same avatars, they’re really entirely different applications. You might be sitting right next to your colleague in Workrooms and invite them to watch a show with you in Venues after the meeting, but there’s no seamless way for both of you to actually go from A to B without quitting your current app, launching a new one, and then eventually find each other on the other side. Not to mention dealing with an entirely different interface and features between the two.
In an interview with Digiday, Meta’s VP of Horizon, Vivek Sharma, hinted that the company hopes to eventually bring these experiences together in a more seamless way.
“Eventually, Sharma plans to stitch [the three Horizon applications] together to create a cohesive virtual world,” writes Alexander Lee. “Though he didn’t offer specifics about the timeline for this union or what the overarching platform would be called.”
“You can imagine us building out an entire ecosystem where creators can earn a living, where communities can form and do interesting stuff together,” Sharma told Digiday. “So it’s not just a place for games; it’s not just a place for people to build creative stuff; it’s all of the above.”
At present, Horizon is scattered in more ways than not being able to navigate seamlessly between apps. Accessibility is also an issue… you’ll need an Oculus Quest 2 headset if you want to be able to access all three. If you have the original Oculus Quest you can only use Worlds and Venues. If you have an Oculus Rift you can only use Worlds. And if you have a non-Oculus headset well, you’re out of luck.
Ben Lang raises an important point: everything that Meta is currently doing is constrained to run on Meta’s VR hardware. In fact, I’m not even sure how Meta plans to make Horizon Venues, Horizon Worlds, and Horizon Workrooms available to headsets like my beloved Valve Index. It will be interesting to see how—or even if—Meta tackles this issue.
If they don’t support other brands of virtual reality headsets, the utility of the Horizon line of social VR platforms is going to be limited, particularly as new competitors enter the market (like Apple, who is widely anticipated to launch a VR/AR headset sometime this year or next year).
This Meta ad ran during tonight’s Notre Dame vs. UVA football game. I’m not even sure Meta knows what “the metaverse” is.
If you happen to have missed this commercial, as I did, and in case you’re curious, here’s the advertisement in full, via the official Meta channel on YouTube:
What is notable about this commercial is that it is not promoting a specific Meta hardware product or platform; it is promoting the idea of the metaverse (and using some surprisingly acid-trip visuals!).
As I predicted, Facebook (sorry, Meta!) is spending a small portion of its billions of dollars in earnings to do a little public relations: to try and implant the idea among the general public that Meta now a metaverse company; and to attempt to distance itself from the now-tarnished Facebook brand.
If you want people to buy headsets, and Facebook definitely does, you do what companies do and you make an ad. That’s exactly what Facebook did, designed to highlight the Oculus Quest 2.
In it, two men are playing video games in virtual reality using their Oculus Quest headsets. The two men are apparently neighbors, but have no idea. In fact, they don’t even like each other in real life, demonstrated by the closing scene where they yell at each other for making too much noise through the wall.
In the game, however, they are both teammates and friends. They even complain about their bad neighbors, again not realizing they are referring to each other. The ad is meant to be humorous, of course. It’s not, but that’s not even the biggest problem.
The real problem is that Facebook–which now calls itself Meta but is still the same company, with all the same issues–thinks this is a good representation of why you’d want to put on a VR headset and jump in the metaverse. If that’s the case, it’s a brilliant example of everything wrong with the company.
Jason goes on to write:
…the people who are friends don’t even realize they can’t actually stand in each other in real life. They live next door to each other, never interact in real life other than to ignore each other’s small talk in the elevator, or to yell at each other through the wall.
Except, that’s everything that’s wrong with the way people connect online. And Facebook is largely the reason. Over the last decade, Facebook has worked hard to make us think that scrolling through a feed of images and posts from people we are loosely connected to is a substitute for actually engaging with real people.
Not all connections are equal. Following someone on Twitter, or sending a friend request on Facebook doesn’t mean you have a relationship. It doesn’t even mean you know the person in real life. The problem is that we think that we know people because we scroll through an endless feed of carefully curated photos and moments they share.
Part of the problem of eliminating the friction in making those connections online is that it makes it easier to connect with people you don’t actually know. Real relationships–the kind that add actual value to our lives–require proximity, conversations, and physical interaction.
If the metaverse is going to be an amplified version of the kind of relationships people have been building online for years, I’m not sure we’re better off.
They don’t need the ad to tell anybody anything- everyone is talking about it. The commercial did what it was supposed to do, get people’s attention and put Meta in the public consciousness.
Say the family is gathered together for the game—the less computer savvy family members go “what the heck was that”, then the techies in the family explain it to them, and have the time to get them to understand it better than a 1 minute ad could hope to do. The tactic was to get people to ask the question.
Hmmm, perhaps there is some method to Meta’s madness after all. The commercials are intended to be some sort of a conversation starter. From an experienced metaverse user perspective it’s bonkers, but then, WE(i.e. the hardcore virtual reality and virtual world crowd) are not the target audience here; the broader general public, who knows little to nothing about social VR, virtual worlds, and the metaverse, is the target.
And, again I say something I repeat often on this blog, the adage that “a rising tide lifts all boats”. Meta’s continued pouring of profits into this sort of advertising means that many more new people will be introduced to the concepts of the metaverse. In the long run, this is a good thing for all metaverse world builders and content creators, whether or not they are on board with Horizon Workrooms and Horizon Worlds, or use Meta-branded VR hardware like the Quest 2.
In other words, Meta’s recent promotional push is good for everybody—provided that we (the people and companies who are passionate about social VR and virtual worlds) seize and pursue the opportunities which will arise due to this greater metaverse awareness by the general, non-computer-geek public. Everybody wins.
P.S. I wanted to leave you with something which I found extremely clever and amusing. The government of Iceland has brilliantly parodied Mark Zuckerberg’s recent Connect keynote address in the following funny three-minute video: come to the Icelandverse!
Now THAT is the kind of advertising which Meta should aspire to! 😉
If you really want your platform to become the seed for “The Metaverse”, then you need to give it away.
Lars Doucet is an independent game developer and consultant for various multi-million dollar game projects (through his company, Level Up Labs), as well as a games industry analyst, commentator, and blogger at Fortress of Doors.
On July 1st, 2021, Lars wrote a Fortress of Doors blogpost titled So You Want to Compete with Roblox, which is primarily directed at those companies who desire to become the next billion-dollar-valued metaverse platform (Roblox, as many of you already know, obtained a market valuation of UA$41.9 billion when the company went public this past March). However, much of Lars’ wisdom also applies to any social VR platform or virtual world that wants to break into the big leagues, especially if they are competing against an entrenched front-runner in a particular market segment, so I decided to write up this blogpost as an introduction to Lars’ ideas for my regular readers (if you’re not interested in my thoughts, just click over to read Lars Doucet’s blogpost in full; I have links to other content of his at the tail end of this post).
Lars starts off by dashing any dreams of would-be Roblox competitors, saying that they are too late to try and overtake something which has been building for years:
I used to get so many pitches from startups eager to knock PC gaming powerhouse Steam off its block, that in 2018 I wrote one big standard response called So You Want to Compete with Steam, with a follow-up a year later. The dust has now settled and the result is clear: all of the new contenders failed but Epic, and even they have a long upward climb ahead of them.
Flash forward to today, and my inbox is stuffed with pitches from start-ups wanting to compete with Roblox, that plucky Lego-ish multiplayer game-creation platform currently valued at 41 billion dollars.
So I guess we’re gonna do this again. Here’s how you can build a successful business that competes directly with Roblox: DON’T.
I say this out of love: the vast majority of you are going to fail. I admire you and your hard work and dedication; I’m pessimistic simply because your task is incredibly hard.
First of all, you are late to this party. Roblox first launched in 2006, a full fifteen years ago – that’s five years before Minecraft, if you can believe it. They have a massive head start and are playing by an entirely different set of rules. Your only chance is to flip the entire problem on its head.
Lars outlines three components which absolutely must be in any product that tries to make a dent in the ever-evolving metaverse, they are:
High quality multiplayer support for user creations out of the box
High performance servers with excellent reliability
Powerful, user friendly, and joyful creation tools
Note a couple of the words he uses very carefully. “Multiplayer” support for user creations out of the box means the ability to support collaborative creation of user content (an example of this are the user creation toolset in NeosVR, although I would argue that they are not particularly “user friendly”, as they are powerful, but also have a rather steep learning curve). Many social VR platforms still lack collaborative building tools, or any sort of in-world building tools, forcing content creators and world builders to use external tools like Blender and then import 3D models.
Note also Lars’ reference to “joyful” creation tools—in other words, make it FUN to create something. From what I understand, one of Horizon Worlds’ strengths is its content creation tools, which are apparently easy and fun to use. Do this part especially well, and you will empower your userbase to create wonderful worlds, which attracts new users, who then also become content creators—it becomes a virtuous circle.
He then talks about how Roblox spends a lot of money on hosting and network infrastructure, and how cloud provider costs (e.g. AWS) can eat up a significant chunk of cash as your platform grows. He then discusses what he sees as the three big problems you’ll face as a metaverse platform creator:
• You need players • Players won’t show up without content, so you need creators • Creators won’t show up until you have players
Joel points out that you can’t expect this deadlock to solve itself – instead you need to just go out there and deliver a truckload of chickens or a truckload of eggs. Typically this means spending a lot of money. Anyone able to rely on organic growth alone started ages ago and that door is now closed to you.
Note particularly that last sentence, which I am going to repeat in bold for those of you who still don’t get it: ANYBODY ABLE TO RELY ON ORGANIC GROWTH ALONE STARTED AGES AGO AND THAT DOOR IS NOW CLOSED TO YOU. I have repeated versions of this statement on my blog until I was blue in the face, and few of the newer social VR platforms have been paying any attention.
Linden Lab’s fatal mistake with Sansar (one of many) is that they 100% expected that they would be able to build a high-end social VR platform with a in-world currency and an integrated marketplace for user-generated content, just put it out there, and expect it to sell itself! What worked for Second Life in 2003 most assuredly did NOT work for Sansar in 2017. A last-minute, hail-Mary pass. pivoting from social VR to a live events platform, essentially failed, and Linden Lab landed up selling Sansar to Wookey. At present, Wookey has suspended all development and furloughed all its staff. Millions and millions of dollars† were sunk into a platform which is currently on life-support, hanging on by a thread, and could be unplugged at any moment. Say a prayer for Sansar; it could use one.
Lars Doucet advises:
Seed your platform with awesome material by paying your own employees to build beautiful creations. Hire contractors and independent content creators and then pay your staff to train them in your tools. Pay these people to make tutorials and guides and videos and post them all over the internet and don’t stop. Set up an affiliate system with creator and influencer rewards. And that’s just the obvious stuff – you need to be thinking about new and innovative solutions to this problem 24/7. Pay any and every price to get high quality content onto your platform.
Second Problem: Platform Dynamics
Here Lars differentiates between different kinds of platforms, from open to closed:
On one end you have open platforms like the World Wide Web where each of the five aspects is owned by no one but the commons.
Towards the middle you have different kinds of closed platforms like Windows and Steam where certain components of the stack are proprietary, but others are unowned; the owner either refrains from (or is simply unable) to capture most of the value that creators produce on the platform.
On the far end are digital company towns, proprietary platform stacks privately owned from top to bottom. In the physical world company towns are communities where a single corporation is not only the sole or principal employer, but also owns all the housing and stores – the company is your boss, your landlord, and even your grocer. Total ownership grants the company power over not only every aspect of their workers’ lives, but also their families and the entire local economy. Digital company towns likewise squeeze as much value out of creators as possible.
And he makes the point that Roblox is a company town, controlling the creation tools (Roblox Studio), the playback engine (the Roblox app), the discovery methods (the Roblox discovery portal), and the marketplace (items can only be bought and sold using Robux through the Roblox Marketplace, with all financial information managed by Roblox). While it might look tempting to set up wannabe Roblox competitors using the same model, Lars makes it very clear in his article that this is a tactical error:
Look, I know some of you as customers actually like company towns from giant companies like Apple precisely because they’re locked down and you trust the platform holder. Good for you, sincerely! You are more than welcome to continue liking them as a customer. But this article isn’t addressed to you; it’s addressed to startups who think they can deploy this kind of vertically integrated stack without already starting from a position of strength.
Simply put, if you’re trying to build a Roblox competitor in 2021 under the company town model, you’re delusional. You should not build a company town for two very good reasons:
1. Company towns are bad, and you shouldn’t do bad things* 2. It’s way, way, way too late to succeed with this strategy
So, if you can’t rigidly control everything in order to compete against the entrenched front-runner(s), what can you do? Lars suggests giving something away:
Give people a reason to build on your platform. Make them owners, not tenants.
What should you give away? Well, that depends on your specific situation, but I recommend “as much as you possibly can.” Recall the five components of a platform:
• Creation tools • Playback engine • Discovery methods • Marketplace / transaction engine • Relationship with the customer
Platforms tend to follow a certain kind of life cycle, and there’s no better primer than Dan Cook’s Game of Platform Power. In it he outlines how platforms transition through “Growth” and “Engage” phases where they are friendly and generous to the creators who produce value on their ecosystems, before maturing into the “Extract” phase where they leverage their size and power to lock-in users and capture as much creator-produced value for themselves as possible.
A classic example of this is Second Life, which is now merrily coasting along, collecting fees for the sale of in-world land and currency, still going strong at the ripe old age of 18 with a locked-in, relatively small but highly passionate userbase who resist leaving their friends and communities behind to join other virtual worlds. For example, it’s hardly a surprise that Linden Lab, now owned by the deep-pocketed Waterfield Network investment group, has recently raised its fees for buying Linden dollars. Second Life is a cash cow, and they are rightfully milking it!
And Lars makes what I think is a somewhat counterintuitive, very nervy, and potentially game-changing suggestion on how to build that trust with content creators: make it easy for them to pack up and leave!
No matter how generous your platform is today, content creators aren’t dumb, they know how this works, and they’re being exploited right now by company towns like Roblox. Words are cheap. What they want is assurance. Trustless assurance. And no, I’m not talking about blockchain.
You really want to shake things up? Give content creators a loaded gun pointed at your platform’s head.
Another word for this is “exit rights.” If you want creators to come over in the first place, give them the power to leave anytime they want.
Mind. BLOWN. I can see how Lars Doucet is a highly-paid and in-demand consultant, just for these few paragraphs of advice alone! However, I would also add that we need to see some metaverse interoperability and standards before we can really put this into action. However, Lars makes a rather compelling case for doing at first what sounds like corporate suicide, using companies such as Substack as an example of how and why such an approach works.
Lars wraps up by dispelling some common myths about what is the “metaverse” (for example, that the metaverse cannot and should not be owned by any one person or company). And he wraps up by saying that anybody who wants to become the next Roblox is embarking on a wild, crazy, risky venture—but that “simply the riskiest thing to do is to play it safe.”
As I said in my blogpost title, this is some harsh advice that many commercial social VR platforms probably don’t want to hear, but should definitely read through at least once.
*As an aside, Lars wraps up his Fortress of Doors blogpost with the following highly-accurate-but-snarky observation:
That’s not to say someone fundamentally can’t craft a “Dark Metaverse” under the company town model. It’s just that their name is Facebook, it will be a dystopian hellhole, and you don’t have a chance of competing on those terms.
This is the first time I have shared this figure on my blog. Mark and his V.P. are currently the only two Wookey employees left on the payroll; as I have said above, all the rest of the Wookey staff have been furloughed.
Meta offers some pretty amazing concepts such as Avatar creation, shared virtual spaces, immersive environments and user generated content that will take users far beyond the third person experience of simple status box. Facebook Meta will feature teleportation to other users rooms and customized experiences. From inside, you’re no longer an idle profile picture, but a 3-D representative of yourself. Within this world exists a new social media platform called “Horizon.” It promises detailed and expansive worlds with infinite possibilities and will essentially redefine the way we communicate, collaborate and educate.
Within the Virtual world, you can attend concerts or watch a movie with friends. You will be able to go to parties with thousands of other people around the world or watch a sporting event from the front row, listen to talk shows with your favorite celebrities or buy, sell and trade virtual digital goods. Work from your office 3000 miles away or walk with dinosaurs from 40 million years ago in real time without ever leaving your home.
If this sounds familiar, maybe it’s because you’re a fan or Ready Player One or read Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson. Or maybe… just maybe, you did this all before, if you’ve ever logged into Second Life.
Phalyen also interviews former Linden Lab CEO Rob Humble, and quotes a tweet by Robin Harper, a former Senior Vice President of Marketing and Business Development at Linden Lab, to get their perspectives on what’s happening now with Meta.
Facebook’s transitional to Meta appears to expect that, beyond pitching itself in a well-produced video, it can forgo traditional marketing necessities by leveraging an already embedded userbase of nearly 3 billion people. As a cultural staple, literally the most formidable technological asset in the world, it hopes to parlay its simple web-based presence in our daily lives into a 3-D, immersive world, where from inside, you work, socialize, entertain and share your presence beyond a status update. But already, Meta is falling victim to the same issues suffered by those that came before and ultimately failed.
Cartoon-like avatars instead of Second Life’s extraordinary, photo realistic avatars was partly why users of Google Lively disassociated from their in-world activities. They felt like they were playing a character instead of using it as a representative of themselves. Limited content creation and a lack of open world made it feel boxed in- you were literally in a box, and the interface was unintuitive and disruptive to the user instead of fluid. Second Life boasts everything from sprawling landscapes of golden wheat fields and sparkling oceans on which to take a cruise of race sailboats, to massive cityscapes bursting with activities- even traffic. That developers at Lively thought they could follow that by isolating users to a room in outer space was an unfortunate, tone-deaf introduction as a Second Life alternative.
In her conclusion, Phaylen explains some important differences between what Meta wants to do and what Second Life has already done, and she emphasizes something which I say often on this blog: that SL is the perfect, mature, fully-evolved model of the metaverse which newer platforms would be wise to study, learn from and emulate.
Zuckerberg and the developers of Meta, which claims it is “A long way out,” could use Second Life as a proof of concept, leveraging the best parts of it, researching the mistakes made, and using those established building blocks to bring it into the 2020’s. But everything in the video published around the web by Facebook that revealed Meta already exists- and in many cases, in a better, more satisfactory framework than they propose. In Meta, you’re not building your world, you’re essentially putting your calling card on things that already exist- such as a logo on a wall or a sign. Second Life proved that user content and world-building are key- we’re putting our signature on our space, not just in a space. There was an intimacy, a personality with what we brought in and used to build up that reflected our identity. The day Second Life launched, it was a massive empty space just waiting for Residents to build and create limited only by the boundaries of their imagination- and it was that canvas that led them to push those boundaries, and by virtue of that, inspire others. What it wasn’t was a catalog of pre-made content, copy and paste code or simply a transfer of well known video games into the virtual realm. Most of what Facebook advertised in its reveal for Meta was pre-existing games made compatible with VR headsets such as the Oculus which will be compatible with Meta- but Meta isn’t necessary to play these games in Virtual Realty or 3-D, most have already been ported to a platform where that is possible, such as Playstation of X-Box. Collaborative meetings already exist as well, with Zoom and Webex leading the charge, which begs the question, how does Meta intend to improve upon these applications rather than simply integrate them?
For old Second Life residents, the announcement of Meta wasn’t all that innovative or awe-inducing.