Having read the book years ago and being enthralled by the captivating virtual world Earnest Cline created, I initially did not expect any movie to live up to my own imagination. After recently watching the Stephen Spielberg film adaptation of Ready Player One (RPO), I was blown away by the gorgeous and vivid detail the CG artists were able to create. It far surpassed any of my wildest imaginations and brought to life the virtual reality world of the Oasis. In the Oasis, people are able to escape from their dystopian real-life into a beautiful virtual world that unlocks limitless opportunities and the ability to become whomever they want. This world is further characterized by a vibrant virtual currency that holds more economic value than any real world currency. Sound familiar crypto-enthusiasts?
The truly meta aspect about this movie is that it comes at a unique point in time where our own world and emerging technologies are not terribly far from the world described in RPO. While many have recently written about how advancements in virtual reality and blockchain technologies can create this virtual “Heaven”, I argue that these technologies are only half of the equation. Over the past decades there have been countless online games and social-media apps that are essential social experiments we can glean useful human-centered design insights from. To dive into this design thought experiment to determine what it would actually take to create the Oasis, let’s first assume the following:
In the Oasis, players are able to earn digital currency and transact with it inside the virtual world as well as in the real-world. Similar to the definition of fiat currency today, digital currency within the virtual world has value because a tipping point quorum of supply and demand has occurred. The economic landscape of the Oasis is further shaped by the opposing philosophies of the creator — James Halliday and the profit driven IOI corporation. In many respects, these opposing forces of creating quality content vs the need to monetize are ever-present today in online games as many companies have mulled over whether to be a “free” game that makes money from in-game microtransactions, or a fixed subscription.
Traditional games have taken the approach of creating all of their content and capturing that value through a one time payment for the game (remember all those N64 cartridges) or a monthly subscription payment like World of Warcraft. These games generally target hard-core gamers who have a certain appreciation for the quality of the content. On the other side of the spectrum, corporations such as Zynga have tapped into black-hat gamification techniques (essentially gambling motivations). If you’ve ever played FarmVille or Zynga Poker you may have experienced how this game is able to pull in casual crowds and use a data-driven approach to inject you with just the right amount of dopamine. One specific example is in how they’ve figured out the exact timing on poker decisions. On every hand you have something like five seconds to make a decision which generally means that the majority of players are going to make lots of mistakes; thus resulting in them losing their fake chips and wanting to buy back in via their credit card.
Similar to Zynga, Activision Blizzard has also had a greater focus on monetization in the past decade. While they have implemented many monetization options (lockboxes, in game skins, dungeon keys, boosters, content unlocks, etc.), they are known for some legendary games that are the culmination of some of the best writers, artists, and developers in the world. As a result, they have also dealt with the same economic decisions of whether to capitalize on micro-transactions. At one point, Blizzard experimented with allowing items in Diablo III’s auction house to be traded for real-world-cash. Because Diablo III isn’t focused on end-game content but rather more focused on getting better loot by grinding the same game content on harder difficulty levels, the introduction of this sort of auction house fundamentally changed the primary motivations of the game. All of a sudden players could figure out how to buy better gear on the auction house which resulted in players not actually playing the intended game (killing monsters for loot). This resulted in decreased enjoyment of the gameplay and was a key lesson which led to Blizzard ultimately shutting down this experiment all together.
These lessons tie into the world of the Oasis as James Halliday’s primary motivation was to create an engaging world with a first set of games that appealed to intrinsic motivations of meaning, accomplishment, exploration, and empowerment. While some form of crypto tokens could mirror the currency that exists in the Oasis, it’s important to note that the initial game design would require a careful balance between monetization and quality content so as to not destroy the elements that make such a world engaging in the first place. This is a key lesson as this next wave of gaming companies such as Cryptons and Chimaera attempt to build games and platforms that take advantage of the decentralized nature of blockchain and crypto tokens. While it’s fun to imagine the combination of VR, blockchain, and crypto tokens being the answer to how such a world could be created, I argue that the advancement of these technologies is only part of the equation.
The other part of the equation involves all of the little design decisions that go into a great user experience. To paraphrase my UCLA screenwriting professor, Richard Walter, he would express to us how his biggest pet peeve was whenever some average Joe would pitch to him their amazing movie idea. While a one liner movie idea may seem ingenious, the reality is that the elements of a great screenplay are not that one idea, but rather the implementation of that vision via sight and sound. Similar to a great movie, an engaging virtual world like the Oasis would require a certain level of quality content initially to establish a steady user-base.
Arguably, Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games (MMORPG’s) are the closest thing to a world like the Oasis in our current day. To make a great game, designers have to account for how to engage users at various stages in the game’s life cycle. Earlier on in the onboarding phase, players need to feel empowered by being able to level up quickly as well as feel immersed in an epic world that is tackling issues larger than themselves. Towards the middle of the game, players have mastered the basic skills and now look to continue to level-up, obtain new items, experiment with talent trees, and explore new worlds. Finally in the end-game, players have probably experienced most of the story — Player vs Environment (PvE) — content and now will be more focused on completing accomplishments and obtaining the rarest end-game items to bolster their character. Depending on the game, the design may be more focused on skill (Player vs Player games like Starcraft, DOTA, First Person Shooters, etc.) or more focused on leveling and obtaining items.
Regardless of whether a game is focused on PvE, PvP, or a blend of both, there are so many psychological design details. For example, did you find it a bit extreme that if a player dies in the Oasis they lose ALL of the gear and resources they have on them? For those of us that played classic games like Battletoads or Donkey Kong, we remember vividly how frustrating it can be to lose all your progress on a given level if you die. There’s a reason that most modern games have dialed the exact amount of punishment for when you die to make dying something we want to avoid but at the same time not so extreme that we lose all our progress. On the other hand, the ability for a player to store all of their most prized possessions in a bank like an asteroid, and only carry with them what they need could potentially work. For more on this one topic check out this article.
While I’m only scratching the surface of the plethora of design details, you can see with this one example that there is an incredible amount of research and thought put into a simple game mechanism we take for granted. When you design a game and continually layer on new stories and features similar to what the Oasis evolved into, the combination and complexity of these design details increase exponentially. Similar to a well-designed city that is able to scale and stand the test of time, well thought out online games that can continue to evolve while maintaining its core tenets are few and far between.
To stand the test of time, providing the right tools for players to create their own user-generated content and events is perhaps the most important element of the Oasis’ metaverse. In the book, players are able to meet their friends in user-generated virtual spaces. The most memorable example of this shown in the movie being the gorgeous disco club where the two main characters go on their first date. While many modern MMORPG’s need to have engaging PvE dungeons and world events to keep players engaged, the social design elements allow players to go beyond the bounds of the original game and connect at a deeper level with other players. Once upon a time in my own formative teenage years, I experienced this first hand in hanging out at the gates of Ironforge within the World of Warcraft where many of my friends would just hang out, chat about random things, duel each other, and inspect each other’s gear.
Although many MMORPG’s no doubt have a vibrant social element to the game, the virtual experiences that most mirror the vision of the Oasis can be seen in the recent rise of VRChat and the decentralized virtual spaces created by High Fidelity. VRChat takes a lot of the best features of Second Life and provides a much more immersive experience as players are able to fully customize their own avatars as well as create their own worlds. With the rise of popular youtubers and twitch streamers, VRChat has experienced a critical mass of players that have given rise to many random social experiences. For example, one group of players decided to all create pikachu avatars and play a game where they could dance in a club and randomly shock each other. While this seems so random, there is a certain appealing element to being able to express your identity however you want and experience a sort of cathartic release of expression.
Similar to VRChat, High Fidelity has a similar vision in creating user-generated virtual spaces in which the creators of these virtual spaces could throw their own events such as concerts. Whereas VRChat has focused on a centralized solution that pushes the boundary of what’s possible in a social VR experience, High Fidelity has taken a longer approach to set-up the technical foundations for vast decentralized user-generated worlds that can be monetized by the creator. This is very much similar to the decentralized nature of the Oasis as it allows for businesses to create their own content with the Oasis technology.
While this idea seems like science-fiction when you watch the movie, there is actual precedent for virtual real-estate in a game called Entropia. The most extreme example happened when Jon Jacobs made history by selling virtual property for a reported total of $635,000. Ultimately these examples show that there is a real appetite for virtual social experiences where people can express themselves and feel part of a community. What’s ironic is that even though we live in a “connected” world via social-media tools, there’s an argument that we live in a time where people feel more isolated as many of the joys of randomly hanging out have been substituted with a highlight feed of your life. The easy answer could be how about we just hang out in person more, but if you’re separated by a continent, then hanging out in a VR experience that better serves people’s need to connect is a future vision I can buy into.
If we play this thought experiment where we assume all of the necessary technology is in place to create the Oasis metaverse, it becomes apparent that the combination of underlying technology represents only half of the picture. The other half we take for granted is that there are a multitude of product design decisions that have to be balanced as we think through monetization, content, and social interaction. It’s not enough to conclude that if you build a decentralized world computer combined with a crypto token that the vision of the Oasis will come to fruition.
My own theory is that the vastness and ubiquity of the Oasis will stay in science-fiction; however, if there is a VR experience that comes close, it will start small with some great initial content and slowly build momentum. After reaching a critical mass, this world could begin to become more decentralized and allow for more creative user-generated content. We have to remember that a unified user-experience (essentially one portal) is key to creating a balanced world. It’s the same reason why we mainly use Google as a starting point to surf the web or why Facebook destroyed MySpace. Ultimately the chaos of a decentralized world needs to be balanced with a consistent user experience of a well oiled organization like Google, Facebook, and Blizzard. Without this consistent UX central hub to explore decentralized worlds, the reality is that we’ll have a bunch of decentralized platforms with very little people in them.