In the metaverse, will big games end up becoming big technologies?

JoN “READY PLAYER ONE”, a science fiction novel set in 2045, people can escape a terrible world of global warming and economic chaos by teleporting to the OASIS, a parallel universe where they can change their identity, hang out and forget the miseries of everyday life. In the book, published in 2011, the OASIS it’s the idea of ​​a video game mogul who takes everyone’s best interests into account. However, Innovative Online Industries, a bad Internet conglomerate that intends to take advantage of everything and reap its benefits, is running out in the background.

There are echoes of this “good and greedy” narrative in the way Tim Sweeney, founder of Epic Games, creator of “Fortnite,” an online gaming phenomenon, talks about metaverse. The idea is in vogue in Silicon Valley and is considered the next big thing on the internet. No one knows exactly what the term means; the most futuristic, the OASIS it’s a pretty good analogy for what tech utopians have in mind. For now, suffice it to say that if you think you’ve spent enough time online during the covid-19 pandemic, think again. Using virtual and augmented reality, avatars and realistic computer images, the metaverse will further blur the boundaries between people’s physical and online lives. It is not surprising that great technologies salivate at the possibility that there are even more realms of human existence open to data extraction.

So is Mr. Sweeney, who is creating a mini-metaverse for the 350 million monthly users of “Fortnite”, immersing them not only in fantasy games, but in virtual pop concerts and the like. Still, he is determined to prevent the current Silicon Valley elite from taking away all the rewards of this visionary future. Its ambition is vibrant competition, a fair salary for creators and a different economic efficiency than anything on the web today. How realistic — or sincere — is it?

Epic, a private company partially owned by Tencent, a Chinese technology goliath, already represents the creation of the metavers as a giant assassination contest. He is part of the backdrop of his recent battles in the courtroom against Apple (a verdict is expected soon) and against Google (the trial has not yet begun). Mainly, antitrust cases refer to the iPhone App Store and Google’s Android Play Store, which Epic represents as fiefdoms that reduce prices, in particular by taking a reduction of up to 30% in purchases from of the app and refusing to allow developers to use alternate payments. processing platforms. But in court, Sweeney told the Apple case judge that the issue was also “existential” for the creation of the metaverse. Epic’s goal, he said, was to turn “Fortnite” into a platform where independent developers could distribute their games and other forms of online entertainment and make more profits for themselves. “With Apple taking out a 30% discount, they make it very difficult for Epic and the creators to exist in this future world,” he said.

Both Apple and Google deny the allegations. In court, Apple rejected that its commissions were an industry standard and that it was investing in creating an easy-to-use environment. But he is forced to cede land elsewhere. In a recent partial settlement of a class action lawsuit in America, Apple agreed to make it easier for app developers to contact customers about other payment methods. Then, on August 31, South Korea passed a law that allows smartphone users to pay developers directly. Google calls Epic’s allegations unfounded. Where does this leave Mr. Sweeney’s vision for the new website? And with what probability does it materialize?

The view certainly looks appealing. No “mega corporation” would be dominant. Instead, the metaverse will be built by millions of creators, programmers, and designers, earning a larger share of the rewards than the tech giants currently allow. Instead of the current silent state of the Internet, he says there should be free movement of gaming between gaming networks, such as Microsoft’s Xbox and Sony’s PlayStation. The cutting-edge “engines” used by the gaming industry to make real-world simulations should be based on common standards so that they are also interoperable. To economic efficiency, decentralized tools such as the blockchain and cryptocurrencies could be added.

Sweeney has no importance in contrasting such open competition with the current situation. This will not deter the Silicon Valley giants from looking for a great future role. Video game companies like Epic, Roblox, and Minecraft are more advanced in bringing metaverse-like aspects to their platforms; Minecraft has a virtual library of censored press articles to promote freedom of thought in autocratic regimes. But the tech giants are tough. Mark Zuckerberg, the head of Facebook, believes that his Oculus Quest headphones will be part of a future of virtual and augmented reality that could replace the smartphone. In August, Facebook introduced Horizon Workrooms to its headphones, allowing workers to attend virtual meetings as avatars. Satya Nadella, of Microsoft Chief Executive Officer, talks about building a “business metaverse”. No doubt they want to make the metavers more of a walled garden than what Mr. Sweeney does.

Lots of old Roblox?

As for Mr. Sweeney’s apparent altruism, it is probably advisable not to take it to the fullest. Epic and other gaming companies could plausibly one day achieve mastery of a three-dimensional internet similar to that of great technology in a two-dimensional one. As Daniel Newman of Futurum Research, a consultant, says, from Microsoft in the 1980s to Apple, Google, Facebook and Amazon in the 2010s, all the technology giants have begun to offer unique services that consumers loved and have fought for more open competition against headlines. Over time, as their leadership positions strengthened, their missionary zeal waned. It is difficult to imagine a world, however futuristic, in which this pattern does not persist.

At the moment, large gaming companies cannot be conceived as cartoon villains. And the metavers may be too vast to be dominated by any company. But whatever parallel universes they construct, the desire to create not only fantasy dystopias, but also pitfalls against competition is par excellence the capitalist path.

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This article appeared in the business section of the print edition under the title “Epic’s battle royale”

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