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Zuckerberg’s Meta promises a ‘future’ these video games delivered years ago

(Washington Post illustration)
7 min

In addition to announcing Facebook’s rebranding to Meta on Thursday, Mark Zuckerberg delivered a number of lofty promises about the metaverse and its features. It was billed as the company’s vision for the “future.” But much of what Zuckerberg promised about the metaverse exists today in video games.

While the metaverse isn’t here and doesn’t offer the interoperability Zuckerberg and many other gaming and tech CEOs aspire to realize in designing the next evolution of the Internet, building blocks and runways had been established years before Zuckerberg publicly announced his intent to turn Facebook into a “metaverse company” only a few months ago.

“I am dedicating our energy to this more than any other company in the world,” Zuckerberg declared at the end of his presentation Thursday. That may be true moving forward, but Chinese conglomerate Tencent has been pouring billions into investments into the metaverse for some time now. In this regard, Facebook/Meta is playing catch up.

A number of Zuckerberg’s promised future experiences can already be found in games, albeit separately. The metaverse vision is to unite them in ways that would make navigating everything as seamless as clicking a link on today’s Internet. That will be the challenge for game-making companies like Roblox and Epic Games. But as far as the experiences Zuckerberg aims to create, they’ve already accomplished that feat.

Zuckerberg: “Importantly, you should be able to bring your avatar and digital items across different apps and experiences in the metaverse.”

If you have children, you may have heard of “Roblox,” but “Roblox” is not just a kids game. It is an already robust internal metaverse-like platform where moving avatars and items across apps is already possible. Your “Roblox” avatar and belongings (bought by the game’s in-game currency, Robux) persist and stay with you no matter which game experiences you choose to enter while using “Roblox.”

That has been the huge appeal of “Roblox” for almost a decade. You do not enter other player’s worlds as famous game characters like “Halo’s” Master Chief or “Tomb Raider’s” Lara Croft or use any of a number of predetermined avatars like “Fortnite.” While crude, your “Roblox” avatar is a unique expression of yourself built from the game’s offerings. And you use that avatar to play anything from hide-and-seek to an adaptation of “Squid Game” while using “Roblox.”

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What makes “Roblox” metaverse-like and not the metaverse is explained by what Zuckerberg said next: “You want to know that when you buy something or create something, that your items will be useful in a lot of contexts and you’re not going to be locked into one world or platform.”

Your avatar and items in “Roblox” are only useful in “Roblox.” A true metaverse means taking your “Roblox” personalized avatar and bringing it into Facebook … excuse me, Meta’s Horizon VR platform, or “Minecraft,” or “Fortnite,” or into a hypothetical Netflix virtual theater event online. No company or CEO can make this happen by themselves. This would require unprecedented coordination among many of the world’s tech companies for standardization. The key takeaway there? In order for Zuckerberg to deliver the metaverse, he’ll need other companies to work with him.

Zuckerberg: “Soon we’re going to be introducing a social version of [Horizon] Home, where you can invite your friends to join you as avatars. You’ll be able to hang out, watch videos together and jump into apps together.”

In 2017, Steam’s VR platform already had a “home” type experience that expanded into social features, including inviting your friends over. Much of these environments already look like the lush, billionaire-style, sunlit homes among mountain cliffs that Zuckerberg featured in his presentation.

To be clear, Steam has not made many updates to this, and other VR programs like “VRChat” have already far exceeded what SteamVR offers (and what Zuckerberg promises). In “VRChat,” creators have been able to build their own hangout homes and invite everyone and their wacky VR avatars in to hang out and play games, talk and see each other’s expressions and movements in real time.

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Marne Levine (Meta chief business officer): “In the metaverse, you’ll be able to teleport not just to any place, but to any time as well. Ancient Rome. Imagine standing on the streets, hearing the sounds, visiting the markets, to get a sense of the rhythm of life over 2,000 years ago.”

Ubisoft’s “Assassin’s Creed Origins” and “Assassin’s Creed Odyssey” already both offer convincing, well-researched facsimiles of life over 2,000 years ago in their historical tour features. Both games allow players to freely roam through meticulously designed representations of ancient Egypt and Greece, including standing in marketplaces, watching iconic monuments being built and even learning factual information about them. The historical environments are so detailed, in fact, that Ubisoft’s recreation of Notre Dame was offered up to help with restoration efforts after the famed cathedral caught fire.

Vishal Shah (Meta vice president of metaverse): “Businesses will be creators too, building out digital spaces or even digital worlds. They’ll sell both physical and digital goods as well as experiences and services.”

“Fortnite” is probably the most mainstream, business-adjacent, metaverse-like platform that exists today, as businesses have already partnered with Epic Games in creating assets within the game using the company’s Unreal Engine system. Companies from Disney, the NFL, the NBA, Netflix and Ferrari already offer digital goods, many of them player avatars, to be used persistently across the game’s developer- and creator-led worlds.

It was this relationship that caused tech investor and former Amazon exec Matthew Ball to posit that Epic Games may have been further along in the path toward building the metaverse than any other company, along with significant investment from Chinese conglomerate Tencent, which has had metaverse aspirations for years.

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In fairness to Zuckerberg and Meta, there was much discussed in Thursday’s presentation that has not yet been built. Andrew “Boz” Bosworth, vice president of VR and AR at Meta, talked about its Presence Platform, which would power experiences mixing reality and virtual by understanding real environments as humans do: through detailed hand, eye and spatial voice and audio interactions.

Thursday’s presentation was likely many people’s first extended exposure to the metaverse concept, and so Zuckerberg spent much of it defining what it is, and he did it well. But throughout it, he also wove in what was essentially a video news release about a number of Meta/Facebook products, many of which might not necessarily constitute the metaverse.

Zuckerberg’s announcement of “Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas” in VR might have confused people. It was just a game announcement, not part of the metaverse. Zuckerberg is also aggressively pushing his vision of the metaverse as driven by virtual reality, a technology that has failed to gain mainstream appeal for decades.

To his credit, Zuckerberg did say that the metaverse would include experiences on computer and smartphone screens. He mentioned this in passing, but it’s important to note that Zuckerberg is not creating the metaverse, as much as the company’s name change and fancy, computer-generated trailers may have led audiences to believe.

In reality, this was a news release about a company rebrand to spin the fact that Zuckerberg and Co. are catching up to the concept of the metaverse. They just happen to be a little late in hopping on board. Video game companies have already been hard at work building it for years.