Is the Metaverse Going to Look Like Fortnite? Kent Bye Reports on Tim Sweeney’s SIGGRAPH Talk

Bugha and his trophy at the Fortnite World Cup (image from the Guardian)

My Twitter stream has been throwing up all kinds of blogworthy stories lately! The lastest is a series of tweets from Kent Bye, the host of the long-running Voices of VR podcast, who is attending SIGGRAPH 2019, the big annual computer graphics conference, in Los Angeles.

Kent attended a presentation today by Tim Sweeney, the founder and CEO of Epic Games, the maker of the phenomenally successful battle royale game Fortnite. Launched in 2017, Fortnite now has 250 million registered users worldwide, and made US$2.4 billion dollars in revenue in the last year. (Yes, that’s Billion, with a “B”.)

You may have read in the news that the recently-concluded Fortnite World Cup (the biggest computer game tournament in history) was held in New York City, where the company handed out US$30 million in prize money, including a top prize of US$3 million dollars to 16-year-old Kyle Giersdorf (a.k.a. Bugha). In other words, Fortnite is MASSIVE, a cultural phenomenon.

Picture from Kent Bye’s Twitter Feed

The title of Tim Sweeney’s SIGGRAPH talk was “Foundational Principles and Technologies for the Metaverse”, which is perhaps a surprising presentation topic for a game developer. Kent Bye tweeted his notes on Tim’s talk at length:

The future of [a] shared entertainment medium is to have meaningful experiences that people interact with and become a part of the larger world with open world compatibility and open interfaces. The Marshmello concert in Fortnite is one indicator of where it’s going. The metaverse is going to evolve from individual creators creating experiences that interoperate with other experiences.

Need virtual worlds to scale beyond a 200 players on a shard. Need 1 shared world w EVERYONE. Needs a programming environment to scale to unlimited sized. Not single thread C++. Large-scale concurrency w safe transactions that are consistent, durable, isolated.

A viable Metaverse is going to need a successful economy so that creators can make a living, which is absolutely essential. We need a rich set of different economic models. The app store with microtransactions is merely one model. Ad models are dysfunctional.

Kent concluded his series of tweets by saying:

I’m super impressed with Tim Sweeney’s vision of the open metaverse. It’s a breath of fresh air relative to other major players who are trying to own virtual worlds through walled gardens and app store ecosystems. A viable metaverse needs to be open and interoperable.

Wagner James Au, of the long-running blog New World Notes, is less impressed:

Who really needs this? Who actually wants this? I’ve yet to see a succinct, compelling answer to either question beyond the implicit one: Because it’ll be really cool. I’m certainly in that camp, but then again, I’m a gamer/science fiction fan. So yes, I’ve loved the idea of a unified 3D Internet where gaming is significant and meaningful for decades. But I’ve become convinced that metaverse advocates are mistaking their personal preference for a market need — a desire to institutionalize gaming culture as the fundamental, universal culture of the Internet.

In response to skeptical questioning from Wagner on Twitter, Kent Bye responded:

The metaverse was first conceived in science fiction before the modern explosion of 3D gaming and immersive and interactive environments. It was an active feedback loop between game dev architects, but the metaverse today is going to be more of a blend of Fortnite and the open web.

So, what do I think about all this? I must confess that, like Wagner, I am rather skeptical that Fortnite, as it is right now, would form a useful model for the future metaverse. Games are designed to be focused more on linear play-through and set objectives, while virtual worlds are meant to be more open-ended and less goal-oriented in nature (although you can certainly have games within virtual worlds). As well, you can have thriving social communities in MMOs like World of Warcraft and Lord of the Rings Online, so there is a somewhat fuzzy boundary between games and virtual worlds.

I do agree with Tim Sweeney that open standards are critical to create a functioning metaverse, and I also agree with Kent Bye that walled gardens and app store ecosystems are going to hinder, rather than help, usher in a metaverse for everybody.

Tim Sweeney appears to subscribe to the strict definition of the term metaverse espoused by Will Burns: one huge virtual universe instead of hundreds, thousands, or even millions of separate experiences. I’m not 100% convinced that that’s how it is going to play out, either. I think it’s much more likely that we are going to have portals between numerous virtual worlds.

It sounds like it was a very interesting presentation, and I thank Kent Bye for reporting on it!

Advertisements

Was Marshmello’s Fortnite Concert Really History Making? Yes and No.

You probably heard about DJ Marshmello‘s ten-minute concert held in the massively popular game Fortnite on Feb. 2nd. (I’ve never heard of Marshmello before this, but then again, he’s probably never heard of me either, so we’re even.)

The official YouTube video of the concert has racked up almost 20 million views as of this evening:

Here’s another YouTube video posted by a Fortnite user, which gives a somewhat different view of the proceedings, and which is probably a lot closer to what Fortnite players actually experienced in-game:

Now, there are a lot of media outlets calling this “history making“, with estimates of a total audience of over 10 million people watching. And no doubt, for the many (mostly younger) people for whom this was their first virtual concert experience, it may have seemed ground-breaking.

But as you can see from the videos I posted above, that audience of 10 million people was split up into innumerable separate instances across which the concert was broadcast simultaneously. This is hardly ground-breaking technology, and it can be said that doing this in a game world (which is heavily constrained in many ways compared to a true, open-ended virtual world like Second Life) is not really that innovative. Although I’m pretty certain that the staff maintaining the Fortnite servers was kept pretty busy!

The SingularityHub website reported:

Depending how you define it, one might argue this concert claimed a spot in the top 20 largest human gatherings ever. I wouldn’t go that far yet. But it does hint at how immersive digital gatherings might rival and surpass in-person gatherings in the future. Such digital events might regularly reach into the millions and still provide that special, real-world sense of “I was there.”

To be clear, Fortnite isn’t technically an online virtual world in the same vein as something like Second Life or High Fidelity. Fortnite is still, on the surface, a game. But several people have pointed out that it’s starting to serve the same kind of social purpose that hangout spaces like friends’ basements, skateparks, and arcades once provided teens and young adults.

WIRED, which called the concert “the future of the metaverse”, said:

People have gathered in virtual worlds for decades. People have attended virtual concerts for years. Yet the Fortnite event represented something different by many orders of magnitude. By one (unsubstantiated) estimate, 10 million concurrent users attended the show in the game’s “Showtime” mode. In other words, this was something much more than a concert. It was a peek, albeit a short one, at what an AR- and VR-suffused future looks like: connected congregations of embodied avatars, in mass-scale events that still manage to feel personal.

Social VR application Altspace has been holding live events in virtual reality since 2015; by now, the Microsoft-owned platform regularly hosts improv shows, podcast tapings, dance parties, and performances from the likes of Reggie Watts. But when its employees heard about the Fortnite concert, they saw it as a mass-scale validation. “I said, ‘This is it,'” says Katie Kelly, program owner at AltspaceVR. “It”s the biggest version of what we’ve been trying to do—in this game, with millions of people.

And the BBC weighed in with an instructive history lesson:

Plenty applauded what they called the “first-ever live performance in a video game”, but this claim has since been disproved on social media.

Minecraft hosted Coalchella festival in 2018 – a pun on real-life festival Coachella – though this came five years after EDM label Monstercat hosted a live charity festival in the block-building game.

Meanwhile, virtual gigs became almost synonymous with simulation game Second Life in the 00s.

U2 gave a live performance in 2008, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra was broadcast live in 2007, and BBC Radio 1 simulcast its One Big Weekend event on a virtual stage in 2006.

And that’s not even mentioning the mash-up with Duran Duran, which saw the new wave act perform live gigs in the in-game Duran Duran Universe.

So, in sheer scale, yes, the Marshmello concert was epic (pun intended; Epic Games is the maker of Fortnite). And it points the way for similar massively-attended events in future (I’m quite sure some concert promoters are already having discussions with game developers).

But it’s not something new. As the BBC points out, virtual worlds such as Second Life have been home to live performances for well over a decade now. And High Fidelity has been regularly setting records for how many avatars it can pack into a single domain, which is actually much more technically impressive than splitting up a larger crowd into multiple instances. While at BINGO EXTREMO this evening, I noticed how I really felt as if I were part of a large crowd, with over 150 avatars gathered around the stage.

So we do need to keep all this in perspective. Impressive? Yes. History making? No.

Image taken from the BBC article about the concert