No one knows what the metaverse is. The term, which has become one of the most popular fundraising idioms deployed in boardrooms around the world, is notoriously enigmatic. Can the metaverse be defined as a social space where players gather? A multiverse divided into different plots, governed by the implacable laws of capital? Another extension of the questionable NFT tactic? Ask a million game developers and you’ll probably get a million different answers. It could be argued that we have already lived in the metaverse for decades; after all, I spent much of my youth wandering outside the Ironforge auction house in World of Warcraft. One could also argue that the metaverse is a distant dream that can only be realized through nostalgically futuristic technology; all of us transported to a digital utopia using the Star Trek holodeck. Perhaps it’s better, and more honest, to think of the metaverse as something the studios are creating on the fly, rather than a concrete ideal we aspire to. In that sense, Fortnite should be considered the torchbearer of this strange new frontier..
I’m a Fortnite skeptic. When the game’s Battle Royale mode burst onto the scene on September 26, 2017, just two months after the launch of the main Save the World mode, I was happy to dismiss Epic’s latest gamble as a forced and desperate attempt to cash in on the game. PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds boom. Months later, when Fortnite had left all its competitors behind, he still viewed the game as a whimsical, short-lived fad; a flavor of the month, sure to be squashed by the influx of Infinity Ward and Respawn’s world-conquering interpretations of the genre. It did (Warzone and Apex Legends are massive hits) and Epic countered those inroads… by adding a load of inter-fiction skins to their game. Surely that wasn’t going to work. Fortnite was a glorified mod that got lucky; It parachuted in at the height of the battle royale revolution, and the chance to take control of, say, Thanos, surely wouldn’t stop it from plummeting again. When Tim Sweeney started talking about Fortnite as something less than a game and more like a decentralized social experienceI thought Epic had officially lost its way. How is it possible that someone is going to hang out in a video game where the main way you interact with your teammates is through the barrel of a gun?
Fortnite is a game. But please ask that question again in 12 months.
— Tim Sweeney (@TimSweeneyEpic) December 26, 2019
Years later, I’m willing to admit the defeat of my anti-Fortnite prejudices. Epic has doubled and tripled the belief that their product can transcend all established limitations of a video game (crossing into a self-styled metaverse) and I think it’s officially undeniable that they have. Alex Perry over on Mashable has a good rundown of the copious ways Fortnite has hit escape velocity with all your wacky gaming experimentation. A round of battle royale still has winners or losers, yes, but in Fortnite you can also “explore the vast map, and do quests to unlock more silly skins and accessories,” she writes. “You can go ‘fishing’. You can get in a car with a working radio station and just cruise around the landscape, or do the same with a boat on any of the huge lakes on the map.”
All of this, of course, is filtered through a frankly astounding catalog of pop culture tailored suits, which allow a genuine Ready Player One wish fulfillment. Thanos, introduced in 2018, was just the tip of the iceberg. Now anyone in the Fortnite spread can transform into John Cena, Spider-Gwen, or the Demogorgon, to name just a few. The skins that have officially conquered me? The introduction of the Dragon Ball Z characters. I watched Goku launch a Kamehameha across the map (ensuring victory Royale) and realized this was the exact kind of video game fantasy I dreamed of when I was 12 years old. Fortnite keeps getting bigger and weirder, and that’s all I want from whatever the metaverse is.
I can confidently say that the metaverse should be a vector of huge bursts of laughter. It should seem like anything is possible.
Whenever video game studios start talking about the metaverse, there is a general negative aura. We have already witnessed Ubisoft and Square Enix fan revolts when the bosses of these two companies started making proposals about a future of cryptocurrencies and transreality. It’s pretty easy to diagnose where that negativity is coming from; most of the metaverse releases revolve around massive NFT integrations, despite the fact that no one has shown for sure that players are interested in, say, auctioning off a blockchain-encoded weapon skin. Some of the model’s biggest proponents, like Facebook, have proven to be unreliable players in our private and public lives, and now we’re expected to forget their reputations and live in their worlds? Buying and selling digital material under your watchful eye? You’re not wrong for suspecting. I do that too.
“There is a fear that the influence [de las criptomonedas] exhaust good design principles, creating an environment in which video game experiences are increasingly staggered by financial thresholds, creating a negative experience for consumers,” I wrote, in an article on the metaverse earlier this year. “Until now, publishers have not been able to quell that urge.”
I think that’s what makes Fortnite so unusual, and why players seem to be much more optimistic about their metaversal potential. Yes, obviously Epic is a for-profit company, and the skins that are sold in Fortnite come at a price. But those assets aren’t locked into any sinister blockchain membership program, and thus we don’t feel like they’re selling us a bag of goods. You don’t buy the Goku skin because you think it will be a good investment one day when you give it to a potential buyer for a windfall of sweet, sweet Ethereum. No, you buy the Goku skin simply to be Goku. That’s the same priority throughout Fortnite’s nascent metaverse; every decision Epic makes with the game seems to be tied to a loose, vibrant, gamer joy. This is not a metaverse disguised as a Ponzi scheme or a work-for-hire program; you come to Fortnite to have fun, and with the massive ways that Epic continues to expand what’s possible in a multiplayer match (from Ariana Grande’s concerts to the Infinity Gauntlet), suddenly the metaverse seems like something worth watching. sorry to get excited
So do I have a better understanding of what the metaverse is supposed to be now that Fortnite has won me over? No the truth is no. At its core, Fortnite is still a battle royale game, and there are no out-of-the-box mini-games or crossover events that are going to change that any time soon. But perhaps the vagueness can work to Epic’s advantage; maybe it’s the company that sets the expectations that gamers have for any publisher that welcomes gamers into their own metaverses. I cannot judge the finer scientific points of the concept, but I can say with confidence that the metaverse should be a vector of huge bursts of laughter. It should give the feeling that anything is possible. It should allow us to meet our friend dressed as Dr. Strange, while we ourselves are dressed as John Cena. If we all enjoy it so much, maybe Epic is right. One day we will all be immersed in the metaverse, without realizing it.