Every great inventor owes a debt of gratitude to those responsible for the devices and discoveries of the previous generation. To the immortalized brainiacs who defied conventional wisdom and expanded the general sense of what was possible.
Where the metaverse is concerned, there is a long line of people and projects deserving of credit, from the Wachowskis (directors of The Matrix) to Will Wright (game designer of The Sims).
A few short years ago, an immersive virtual world felt like a fantastical concept that wouldn’t gain traction for a decade or more. Perhaps the onset of a pandemic – and with it an accelerated move towards hybrid working – catalyzed that transformation. Today the industry is at the center of 9-figure funding raises, with the market expected to be worth $800 billion by 2024.
The early 2000s was boom time for technological innovations: this was when camera phones, Bluetooth, USB flash drives and the iPod first saw the light of the day. In the gaming market, there were two projects that undoubtedly paved the way for metaverse advancements two decades later: The Sims (2000) and Second Life (2003).
These open-ended life simulation video games represented virtual hangouts, where players could control digital avatars in a world that resembled our own. Popularising features such as skins, user-generated content and environment customization, the games set the scene for the growth of the massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs) that defined the industry in the 2000s.
Both The Sims and Second Life proved that there was a widespread appetite for a user-created, community-driven gaming experience at odds with the objective-led template of old. The blockchain-based metaverse projects that followed have taken that knowledge and ran with it, integrating peer-to-peer (P2P) dynamics along the way that enable players to earn, lend, borrow, and trade.
While The Sims granted the possibility of controlling a successful avatar, modern metaverses open up the possibility of leading a successful (parallel) life. Metaverse ‘residents’ can invest in virtual land, create profitable businesses, host special events, rent out NFT skins and weapons, and otherwise participate in a fully functioning economy. These features are possible due to the architecture of the blockchain, and in particular the use of smart contracts to automate trustless transactions.
If The Sims and Second Life are the OG proto-metaverse games, which native blockchain projects will come to be considered the standouts from the first Web3 wave?
The first mover on a global scale was probably the Pokémon-inspired Axie Infinity, which debuted in March 2018 but had its breakout year in 2021. Built on Ethereum, Axie Infinity was one of the first projects to gamify token staking and embed play-to-earn (P2E) concepts within a metaverse environment, rewarding skilled players for participating in its ecosystem.
In Axie, gamers can ‘breed’ special NFT creatures and create a land-based kingdom, while battling with other players and staking to earn yield. In 2021, Axie went from having less than 100,000 daily active users to over 2 million. Earlier this year, sales of NFTs from the game surpassed $4 billion.
Axie may have had the first mover advantage but Decentraland more closely resembles the immersive metaverses that we are likely to see over the coming decade. Unlike Axie’s cartoonish realm, Decentraland, which launched in February 2020, features humanoid characters in an Earth-like environment populated by apartment blocks, galleries, cinemas, playgrounds and parks. Like Axie, Decentraland has multiple tokens, with LAND used to track the ownership of virtual 16m x 16m land parcels on the Ethereum blockchain. MANA, for its part, is the second biggest metaverse token by market cap ($2.2 trillion).
Decentraland’s virtual turf has become a hot commodity, with major brands such as Adidas, Samsung, Miller Lite and PricewaterhouseCoopers buying up land NFTs in recent years. Fashion houses Dolce & Gabbana and Tommy Hilfiger also participated in the game’s Metaverse Fashion Week in 2022 – a possible sign of things to come in terms of virtual events.
Any discussion of peer-to-peer metaverses would have to include Alien Worlds, a multi-chain game spread across six unique planets: Veles, Naron, Kavian, Eyeke, Magor and Neri. Launched in December 2020, Alien Worlds was the first-ever decentralized application to onboard 100k – then 500k, 1m and 2m – users (according to DappRadar), even before Axie and Uniswap. Players in Alien Worlds use NFTs to mine the universe’s native Trilium (TLM) token, with each planet governed by a decentralized autonomous organization (DAO). Although Trilium has real-world monetary value, its true utility in the game relates to the DAOs – since TLM tokens are required to control the various competing player councils.
Featuring advanced gameplay elements, multiple mining/staking options, exploratory missions, land sales and more, Alien Worlds is one of the most comprehensive metaverses to appear so far. And a large part of the credit should go to the thriving community that has rallied around it – a community that now boasts over 7 million members.
Not content with onboarding crypto and gamefi natives, the developers of Alien Worlds recently built a bridge between its virtual galaxy and Minecraft, a hugely successful Web2 sandbox video game with over 170 million players worldwide. In essence, this will allow Minecraft gamers to earn Trilium for completing quests, and stake their assets in one of Alien Worlds’ six DAOs. One suspects it won’t be the last bridge we see that connect modern metaverses to the legacy gaming world.
Could users interacting with The Sims in 2000 have predicted a project like Axie Infinity or Alien Worlds? And by the same token, can we really know what metaverses will look like in twenty years’ time? Clearly, wearable VR technology, and especially headsets, will have a part to play. Just one in four teens own VR headsets at present, with only 5% saying they use the tech on a regular basis. As the VR-enabled metaverse grows, those numbers will surely grow. Especially if Apple follows Facebook into the metaverse by releasing its first piece of VR hardware.
Instead of looking to the future, perhaps we should live in the moment and pay homage to the trailblazers that have helped amp up interest in blockchain gaming in the first place. One day, they might be held in the same pop-cultural esteem as The Sims.