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Fortnite, not Silicon Valley, leads race to build next gen web

The Metaverse reality is still years, possibly decades, away. But Sweeney has been publicly pushing for its creation, and he isn’t alone in his desire to push for the Metaverse, where the online world echoes and fulfills real-world needs and activities. Constructing the virtual internet space is Silicon Valley’s macro goal, many of whom are obsessed with Neal Stephenson’s 1992 book, Snow Crash, which defined the term.

In recent years, Facebook, Google and Samsung have all made heavy investments in cloud computing and virtual reality companies in anticipation of a Metaverse. Facebook Horizon, launched in 2019, is a virtual reality social space intended to serve as a Metaverse. Google’s shared workspace tools, powered by its cloud computing investments over the years, were all small but significant steps to institutionalize work culture online.

But it’s Fortnite that has the most viable path forward in terms of creating the Metaverse, according to an essay by venture capitalist and former Amazon executive Matthew Ball. And if today’s internet dystopia scares you, the Metaverse will only make things more complicated. Although Fortnite‘s entry into the Metaverse race was all by accident, the gaming industry has been tackling the possibility of creating it for years.

“We’re seeing this advancement of technology and internet interaction and the Metaverse coming from gaming because it tends to be at the forefront of something designed for many, and who have the highest [technological] needs,” Ball said in an interview.

The most widely agreed core attributes of a Metaverse include always being live and persistent — with both planned and spontaneous events always occurring — while at the same time providing an experience that spans and operates across platforms and the real world. A Metaverse must also have no real cap on audience, and have its own fully functioning economy.

In 2017, Fortnite was created to be a four-player cooperative game about defending a base; a classic popular game type. The Battle Royale mode, which brought the game global success, was grafted on later, after the genre gained ground in the PC market. Through 2018, Fortnite developed a reputation as less of a video game, and more as Gen Z’s preferred social platform.

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It has featured live events that have sparked intrigue both in-game (as when cataclysmic events altered the game’s map) and in the real world (when the game made headlines by disappearing into a black hole for two days in October to reset its servers for its second chapter). And all of those elements have prompted players to drop hundreds of millions on V-Bucks, Fortnite‘s in-game currency, which in turn brought Epic hundreds of millions in real-world revenue.

Epic Games never planned for Fortnite to become such a cultural touchstone, not to the point that it inspired everything from World Cup celebrations to Netflix considering the game, not rival streaming platforms, its biggest competitor.

Fortnite hasn’t reached Metaverse status yet. But Fortnite as a social network and impossible-to-ignore cultural phenomenon, Ball says, provides Epic Games a key advantage for leading in the Metaverse race. Fortnite draws a massive, willing and excited audience online to engage with chaotically clashing intellectual properties. For now, it’s the only legal place on the internet where a Netflix-approved avatar of Hopper from Stranger Things can twerk on a Disney-approved avatar of Rey Skywalker from Star Wars.

“This organic evolution can’t be overemphasized,” Ball writes in his essay. “If you ‘declared’ your intent to start a Metaverse, these parties would never embrace interoperability or entrust their IP. But Fortnite has become so popular and so unique that most counterparties have no choice but to participate. . . . Fortnite is too valuable a platform.”

The current pandemic may inspire more ideas contributing to the Metaverse, Ball said. Already, the crisis has drawn attention to gated off attempts to create smaller, focused Metaverse communities. A virtual reality church driven by a megachurch pastor in Pennysylvania has been in service for some years now, but has recently gained media attention due to the coronavirus crisis.

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“This, whether in direct articulation or not, will drive a lot more funding [for the Metaverse], and thinking most of all,” Ball said.

The current swarm to an online-only social and capitalist economy has only highlighted the current internet’s failings, and what the Metaverse needs to do, Ball said. Big sites like Facebook, Google and Amazon continue to dominate online activity, as do larger streaming services like YouTube and Netflix. But each location requires its own membership and has separate ecosystems.

“Right now, the digital world basically operates as though every restaurant and bar you go to requires a different ID card, has a different currency, requires their own dress codes and has their own units [of service and measurement],” Ball said. “It is clear that this really advantages the biggest services. People are just sticking to the big games, really. However there’s a clear argument that reducing network lock-in can really raise all boats here.”

Sweeney said as much in his DICE Summit keynote speech in February. If the game industry wants to reshape the internet and move away from Silicon Valley’s walled gardens, Sweeney stressed that publishers need to rethink economies in the same way email was standardized. In email’s early days, different companies would have proprietary messaging systems that only worked for internal communication.

“Somebody introduced the @ sign in email addresses, so now I can be Tim@Epic and I could talk to Tim@Microsoft or Tim@Sony,” Sweeney said. “That involved everybody with their own proprietary systems agreeing to connect to everybody else’s systems. This critically needs to happen in gaming. We need to give up our attempts to each create our own private walled gardens and private monopoly and agree to work together and recognize we’re all far better off if we connect our systems and grow our social graphs together.”

The Metaverse may be decades away from being built. But as the world waits at home, quietly but slowly realizing the potential of a more robust, engaging online experience, Fortnite continues to lay the foundations of one, slowly but surely.

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In the midst of the pandemic, April saw the launch of a new streaming service, Quibi, backed by investments from Disney, NBCUniversal and ViacomCBS. The company’s marketing strategy included streaming its reboot of Punk’d starring Chance the Rapper to Fortnite players at the Risky Reels venue.

As players logged on to watch the show inside the game, other players started to build their forts to block the screen. Any openings left were pelted by tomatoes. It was a stark reminder that even though the Metaverse may evolve the internet, the way we behave on it may not be so easily changed.

The Washington Post

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