Longevity in the Metaverse: is it possible?
Longevity in the Metaverse? It seems an illusive aspiration. With beloved platforms such as AltspaceVR and Echo making their recent announcements to sunset, it begs the question: is it even possible? This made us think about the open world game Ultima Online, what enchantment from the virtual gods kept the iconic UO virtual kingdom alive to this day? Can we sprinkle some of that magic on our own virtual kingdoms?
Let's unpack these stories and see what we can learn. In this article we will be exploring the concepts we can incorporate to preserve the longevity of a business and community in a still nascent space, and finally, how we can go about protecting IP in the Metaverse.
We seem to have fallen into a form of recency bias when it comes to certain technologies, especially when we talk about the ‘Metaverse’ when describing immersive worlds and experiences: we perceive this collection of experiences as a recent phenomenon. It could be, that because the language we use around it, has been coined so recently, we think the thing itself must also be recent. We seem to have developed a sort of techno-amnesia which blinds us to earlier examples and iterations which could provide valuable insight. It's hard to imagine that immersive, persistent and interactive worlds and experiences have existed for over 25 years!
Ultima Online: The game of life simulated in one of the earliest forms of the Metaverse - an MMORPG!
When UO came online in 1997, it offered unprecedented levels of immersion and interaction with a complex ecosystem, existing perpetually, so players could create and build things they could return to time and again. It was a real world simulation in that there were complex social structures, weather conditions and farming in a thriving ecology. One could interact with the environment like reading the books on shelves, picking fruit or drinking in a local tavern to something more involved such as building a house or planting crops.
There was also an entire society of people playing out various roles, forming their own social structures and hierarchies.
The game experienced disastrously unforeseen problems shortly after launch when players found exploits and workarounds in the game's rules and code, almost shutting down servers and making it all but impossible for other players to play the game. Instead of quitting a game that had become a frustration to the point of being barely playable, players staged an angry in-game protest in Lord British’s (the avatar of Richard Garriot, the founder) castle. In the face of the passion these players displayed, the founders persisted in their attempts to solve the issues and essentially save the world.
They eventually ended up with over 100,000 subscribers. But even a ‘House of Commons’ where people could air, problems still persisted: marauding gangs slaughtered unsuspecting new players and the hyperinflation of in-world gold due to another exploit threatened the game's entire economy.
In a novel move, the decision was made to split the game into two worlds: one where player on player violence was optional and the other with all the previous rules (or lack thereof) intact.
However, the elements really keeping this online worlds alive over the years, was not only the persistence of both the players and the engineers/founders, but the feelings of nostalgia and community it evoked: you could go back to a cottage you built in 98 filled with items you looted from a dragon in 2000 and maybe an apple orchard you planted that same year. As with many immersive world and platform, people made lifelong friends - they still share epic battle stories with their old comrades or have even met their now IRL soulmates. People felt as if they were fighting for something that really belonged to them and that they belonged to.
Then there was AltspaceVR: a multi world VR platform founded in 2013 with a thriving community, daily events and beautifully built virtual worlds with great graphics, fully immersive, VR enabled. So what happened? What causes one platform to close down and the other to persist? Altspace and UO certainly shared the feature of a strong community, the difference is the UO players were all fighting for the same world, so essentially the same cause. Altspace had many. Altspace had many smaller communities all passionate about a particular world or experience and wanted the platform to survive for their little corner of the 'Metaverse'. Ultima was also truly interactive, a real world simulation. But by far the most important factor was the dedication, passion and tenacity of the engineers and founders of UO. In contrast, Altspace was eventually acquired by Microsoft in 2017, becoming just another venture amongst many. Ultimately, Microsoft has shareholders to consider and other ventures it deems more important, putting the platform at the mercy of the pressures that drive big business.
Customizable Altspace avatars
So what can we learn from these two examples? What actionable things can we take away? One is a multiplayer game and Maybe you aren't building and maintaining a platform or creating a game, but many of the same principles apply to any business entering this space.
In this new economy, one needs to approach business from a different angle to ensure longevity: create fans and enthusiasts, rather than consumers and users! Fans will then turn into loyal evangelists. How to do this?
Experience and storytelling is key, here are some actionable concepts to tell great stories and create the memories that lead to thriving communities and ecosystems:
1. Create experiences that are relatable, that allow for connection or: inspire a sense of wonder, an adventure! In short, create memorable experiences!
2. Create meaning and purpose. This is similar to the point above but with a deeper sense of involvement, in that it is not passive, it inspires people to take action. Create a shared mission or a sense of personal achievement.
3. It sounds counter intuitive, but consider pairing IRL events concurrently with their virtual counterparts. More brands should consider leveraging the crossover between digital and in-person experiential events and productions. What came immediately to mind, were some of the fantastic in-person events NFT projects such as Doodles and Goblin Town put on during Miami Basel week. Examples of brands that started out with purely digital products then went on to create live, physical location based experiences, not just as a brilliant marketing strategy, but as a way to create something for their respective communities. Then from physical to digital, there is Big Rock Creative (BRCvr) who took the iconic Burning Man Project online in 2020 for an immersive virtual version of the in- person event, creating an entire online community of virtual burners who
4. Take creative risks! Should brands take more creative risks as far as crafting experiential events and exhibits? Productions that span both virtual and physical spaces solely for the sake of creating something memorable. Creating experiences that leave lasting impressions are the most powerful way to become cultural icons!
5. Listen to your fans and audience: Ultima Online would not have survived had they not listened to the needs of their citizens. Which leads us to the next point:
6. Think of your brand as its own kingdom, it's very own world with its own unique ecosystem in which your fans are the citizens!
7. And remember, that platforms do come and go, technology changes, but community and a shared passion persist!
And finally, what about preserving brand identity and IP in the Metaverse? With the recent court settlement in favor of Birkin against the MetaBirkin NFT collection, it sets a positive precedent for brands and their IP going forward. But these issues will continue to arise, so how best to avoid this scenario? Make your presence known!
These things play out under the cultural radar, it's assumed that if the relevant parties aren't watching, if the brand being imitated seems to inhabit another world, another niche, that the imitation won't be detected.
Become brand known for your strong metaverse presence, own that space! No one would open a brick & mortar store next to Louis Vuitton and sell their knock offs, they'll go to another area, another domain.