The Metaverse describes the ideal of virtual reality, as it has been conceived of since at least the 1980s in works of fiction like those of William Gibson’s Neuromancer trilogy. It is a catch-all term for the notion of vast, decentralized digital spaces that could be navigated and interacted with through virtual reality headsets and augmented reality overlays. Much of this is still a fanciful pipe dream with today’s technology, but with 3.5 billion people now online and a further billion set to be added to that total in the next ten years, investors are beginning to take emergent virtual worlds seriously. While early examples of a Metaverse, such as Second Life, amounted to little more than a novelty, major organizations are now investing heavily in the future of collective virtual spaces. In fact, last year, Facebook announced its intention to hire 10,000 new members of staff to work on its virtual and augmented reality products and strategy for the coming years.
This progression is also being reflected in the online gaming market, which is valued at $53 billion annually at present and is projected to grow by 11% year-on-year moving towards the end of the decade. Online poker platform PokerStars, an established name in the space, recently launched a fresh campaign to emphasize its view of the collaborative future of gaming online. Speaking of the campaign, built around the slogan “I’M IN”, the organization has said it hopes to bring like-minded people together as part of its vibrant community of players. Also, with the proliferation of Esports streaming services like Twitch, even traditional sports media is catching on to the fact that the future of media on a large scale is going to be collaborative, decentralized and participatory.
In recent weeks much has been made of the fact that Microsoft is tabling a bid for the acquisition of gaming chat and community service Discord for $10 billion. Analysts suggest this acquisition could position Microsoft as a major force in the future of Esports by combining its 90 million Xbox Live players and Discord’s own substantial 45 million users, though Microsoft may be looking further ahead with a view to building out its own Metaverse project. The Redmond-based technology company purchased Swedish developers Mojang Studios – the creators of the sandbox building game Minecraft – in 2014 for $2.5 billion. Originally released in 2009, Minecraft has now sold more than 200 million copies, making it the single best selling game of all time. As Minecraft promotes collaboration and world-building among its 126 million active users, it’s fertile ground from which Microsoft could build out its own virtual world in the coming years.
Roblox is an online gaming and creative platform grounded in similar principles to Minecraft. Developed by the Roblox Corporation, it started life as a humble sandbox-style game. It features a simplified toolkit that empowers its users to program, share and play games collaboratively. It’s not uncommon to find less violent clones of popular titles like Call of Duty in its vast directory of 18 million games, rubbing shoulders with hide-and-seek games, Avengers themed platformers and restaurant simulators. What’s unique about Roblox is the fact that no one game draws its 120 million users to the platform, rather the concept itself of a vast decentralized world that is being built and curated by its users.
The company went public on March 10th, 2021 and ended its first day’s trading at a staggering $38 billion market cap. Analysts may wonder why a corporation that runs in a loss would be valued so highly, but it is precisely due to the fact that Roblox has explicitly stated its ambition behind floating the company and seeking investment is to build out a metaverse from its platform. The organization envisages Roblox becoming a place where people don’t just play, but collaborate, meet and work together in virtual reality, and for it all to be tied to the game’s digital currency, the Robux. In November of 2020 the platform hosted a virtual concert by rapper Lil Nas X that was broadcast within the virtual world exclusively to Roblox users. Similarly, Epic Games hosted a film preview for Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker inside its massively popular battle-royale game Fortnite back in 2019. While some reasonably point to these events as little more than promotional gimmicks, it serves as a proof of concept that there’s a viable and emergent marketplace quietly growing up in these digital communal spaces that investors and organizations would be wise to pay attention to.