The Future is Virtual Worlds

Seemingly lost in a creative slump for over a decade, the virtual world is poised for a massive comeback

In 2017, the historian and author Yuval Noah Harari (Sapiens, Homo Deus) joined Sam Harris on his podcast to discuss, as one does, the future of humanity. Topics ranged from AI, automation, and globalism, as these are major forces that Harari believes will deeply affect people’s lives in the future. There is a belief that humans will continually be replaced by AI and automation to an unprecedented degree, causing countless jobs to be lost and that those affected would be forced to find a new career or face either underemployment or indefinite unemployment. This possibility has caused many to believe that the only solution might be a type of increased social security called “Universal Basic Income” or UBI. One of the biggest proponents for UBI is the politician Andrew Yang who proposed a “Freedom Dividend” in his 2020 Presidential campaign, where every American would earn $1,000 a month to help supplement the economic shock. One could imagine UBI evolving to supplement everyone’s basic cost of living, freeing them from the necessity of a job to pursue other interests while the robots run everything.

Though we aren’t there yet, Harris posed the question to Harari: what would humans even do in a “post-work” world?

Sam Harris: In the most utopian case, if we develop the perfect labor saving technology and cancel any need for human drudgery going forward, and then we develop the ethical and political and economic wherewithal to share the wealth to the perfect degree […] and then people are free to live as creatively and beautifully and organize themselves in any way that they want, you are then left with the problem of what does the average Homo Sapien mind do with so much leisure and how do you find meaning in that context?

Yuval Noah Harari: I imagine its going to be a very difficult problem and a very interesting problem. I don’t think it’s impossible to solve, but it is a very serious challenge. Everything we’ve seen so far in history indicates that most people will not know what to do with this kind of leisure time. One option that some experts point to is that people will just spend more and more time in virtual reality games, three-dimensional virtual worlds which will provide them with far more excitement and meaning than anything in the real world.

Fast forward three-years to the present day, and in a way we’ve seen Harari’s hypothesis play out to some degree. The world is in lockdown in response to COVID-19, and the states of some countries have been supplementing their citizens’ needs through stimulus payments. And in this environment, people have chosen games to be their leisure activity of choice causing the games industry to grow 20% in 2020 alone, now bigger than the sports and movie industry combined. And the best-selling game became the unexpected: Animal Crossing, a game where you’re placed in a virtual world with others doing activities like curating relationships with NPCs, tending a garden, fishing, and catching bugs.

The idea that virtual worlds will become a much more ubiquitous part of people’s lives is now an idea shared among not just futurists and best-selling authors, but also by venture capitalists like Andreessen Horowtiz, Galaxy Interactive, BITKRAFT ventures, and others. But the future outlook for virtual worlds doesn’t just end at more Animal Crossing games, but maybe in an idea many are calling the “metaverse.” The idea is that the physical and “virtual” worlds will converge, springboarded by technologies such as AR/VR and the blockchain. Facebook, Google, and Samsung have all made heavy investments in cloud computing and virtual companies in anticipation of the inevitable metaverse takeover.

Further, the way in which games will be created may change drastically in the future where less work is done handmade by studios but instead created by the players (or “users”). As Jonathan Lai of a16z writes:

New social modalities will emerge in the Metaverse. Advances in cloud streaming and AI will enable new forms of engagement with friends—for example, the ability to pop into a persistent virtual world and discover new people and experiences together, entirely unplanned. This represents a subtle but important shift in how we socialize and play: from purposeful interactions centered around activities, to spontaneous interactions focused on people. 

We’ve seen glimmers of these spontaneous interactions already in open-world, sandbox video games like Grand Theft Auto, yet these experiences have been limited by a finite supply of professionally created content. Fully emergent social experiences that model the serendipity of the real world will become the norm through two key trends: the proliferation of user-generated content (UGC) and the evolution of AI into both creator tool and companion. As we adopt new ways of creating content, we will also unlock new types of social experiences.

Experts cite the hit-game Fortnite as a shining example of what games that embrace the metaverse may look like. Fornite today isn’t just a battle-royale game, but also hosts live concerts such as the one featuring Travis Scott which pulled in an audience of over 45 million.

But like other buzzworthy trends in gaming such as 3D, VR, AR, e-sports - we may be getting a little too ahead of ourselves.

While the metaverse likely won’t be fully realized for some time, what’s clear is that virtual world video games have been the main medium and will continue to be the main medium in which the metaverse might be born. But virtual worlds (or MMOs) have been in a slump of late. In a recent video, the YouTuber TheLazyPeon lamented about the current state of the genre, and that not much has really changed in the last decade. But why? And what could the future of the MMO genre look like?

The MMO Slump

The MMORPG as defined by Wikipedia is a virtual world usually with a fantasy setting, distinguished by having far more players in a space than a single-player or small multi-player game. The player experience is based upon the RPG genre, which came from experiences like Ultima Online, which came from MUDs, which came from tabletop RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons, which came from stories by Tolkein and Arthurian legend.

It took exactly 25 years for the RPG to go from the tabletop in Dungeons & Dragons to the computer in the form of the MMORPG EverQuest. And in just 5 years after that to the massive hit MMORPG World of Warcraft. WoW took the half-a-million at peak subscriber base of EverQuest into the 12-million at peak subscriber base in WoW, and both games are still profitable and running today.

But after 17 years many MMORPGs have come and gone and still the successor of WoW has still not yet surfaced. Why?

In 2014, Ultima Online designer and Star Wars Galaxies creative director Raph Koster looked back at 10 years of WoW in his blog and deemed WoW the “apotheosis” of the modern MMO genre, and that it “likely will never be toppled by a game like it.” Koster, in my view, correctly accesses WoW as being in the sweet spot between the virtual world (or simulation) and game. Whereas EQ, Ultima and Galaxies shined more on the simulation side with housing, city politics and rich crafting, WoW shined with its accessibility, combat system, controls and the inviting vibrance of its world design.

But as an ex-World of Warcraft designer of 13-years who recently left Blizzard, I will tell you that WoW has shifted even further from its sweet spot between virtual world and game, veering off more to of just a game. Designer written narrative dominates the player stories and although Koster laments at the “dense, packed together” world of 2004 WoW, the modern game is dense and packed even moreso.

As I touched on in my previous piece on the popularity of Valheim, we’ve increasingly seen so little risk and innovation out of the AAA studios, which at least up-till-now, have been the only entity able to deliver on the massive budget that MMO games command. The typical AAA MMO can easily balloon to hundreds of millions of dollars, and that’s just for the base game - running the game as a live service and maintaining the content pipeline is a whole other expensive challenge.

The Future of Virtual Worlds

Despite the slump, we’re witnessing today a beginning of a convergence of many different emerging technologies and creative elements that together begin to paint a picture of what the next evolution of the virtual world could look like.

Consider the following:

  • While MMOs have struggled to make crafting feel meaningful, an entire genre has exploded through survival crafting, showing crafting can have massive depth and rich gameplay.

  • Though some MMOs like FFXIV have delivered on compelling housing gameplay, it can still be seen as a far cry from the freedom and flexibility of building systems in Minecraft or other MMO-adjacent experiences like Conan Exiles or Valheim

  • The worldbuilding in MMOs recently has become somewhat an afterthought, where the world just feels like a pretty backdrop for the player as they move from one quest to quest. But games like Breath of the Wild show through its simplicity and abundance of negative space how to create an immersive world, and through its chemistry and physics systems how the world can serve as a sort of extension of the player and combat system.

  • Battle Royles have added a fun and engaging game mode, but they’ve also demonstrated the impact of player stories wherein each match players are free to have the agency to create their own experience. Player stories are the cornerstone of MMOs, but a disturbing trend in MMOs is a focus on linear, grand narratives and directed scripted gameplay.

  • When you look at all MMOs today, most still sport a simple stick camera, an action bar filled with abilities that have cooldowns and resource costs, a global cooldown, and frenetic gameplay. How can this combat system be improved? Well… I don’t want to give out all of my ideas y’know.

  • Traditionally developers have to build out their own engines to support a big game like an MMO, but more and more developers are choosing to use existing engines like Unreal or Unity, reducing the massive ramp-up time and cost that building out a custom engine commands.

  • Environment art like trees or foliage can be expensive to create, but solutions like Megascans (now free if using Unreal) and Speedtree are lowering the costs dramatically. Even big-budget AAA studios are taking advantage of these solutions, like Capcom’s Monster Hunter which pulls in 20-30% of its assets from Megascans.

  • One of the biggest engineering feats for an MMO project is asset streaming and client-server multiplayer networking, especially if you want to have many different “actors” (players/creatures) on screen at once. But some 3rd party solutions are popping up like SpacialOS and others.

  • Multiplayer services, LiveOps and analytics traditionally are built internally through teams, but now are becoming increasingly commoditized through solutions like Microsoft’s Playfab, Gamelift and others.

And I’m just scratching the surface.

Recently, Riot Games has announced the beginning of a new project set to create the next great MMO. Out of all the studios out there, Riot is probably most poised to the challenge with its designer-driven culture, rich in-house talent, massive global headcount of multiple satellite studios, and its resources through its parent company Tencent. Not to mention it’s headed by my friend and ex-lead Greg “Ghostcrawler” Street!

But for the next great MMO to take a leap similar to the one WoW took from EQ, we will need to go back to first-principle thinking of what makes a great virtual world, and think about what we’ve learned as developers in the last couple of decades in terms of worldbuiding, system design, and social communities. Enough WoW clones.

The stagnation driven by AAA studios and the realities of the gamedev buisness may drone on, but there is still hope within indies as the cost to create a MMO-like experience gets cheaper and more accessible. Because similar to the underlining principle of the metaverse, the future is in not simply games and content created by professional studios - but from the users, the players themselves. And as we’re finding out time and time again, it’s the players who still know what can be lost so often in the bigger studios. That it’s really about a great player experience.