Neon Buddha by Miksim Loginov, 2nd Prize Winner of "Render The Metaverse" competition
When you think about the concept of a Metaverse, what comes to mind? Perhaps something like Ready Player One, where we project our likeness into a persistent virtual world. A world that's a seamless combination of the other slices of life we exist in separately -- our favorite MMO, Facebook, your Discord channels or a virtual reality hangout.
A true metaverse would merge these worlds into a sort of shared pseudo-physical space, where they exist together seamlessly. No logins, no new character creators, no tedious navigation, no relearning skills and reacquiring your favorite skins and weapons. No starting from scratch. You'd project a unique, privacy-protected avatar and haul around the same useful objects as you hop between different virtual but connected environments, with those objects having utility in each one.
It's an incredibly ambitious concept that's difficult to wrap our heads around, but game companies like 8 Circuit Studios -- comprised of industry veterans with a century of combined experience from Nintendo, Microsoft and Electronic Arts -- realize that a relatively new technology makes this possible: blockchain.
On the surface, yes, this is a story that involves blockchain technology, but don't run away yet. I'll do my best not to make your eyes glaze over from boredom! In fact, having to waste multiple paragraphs explaining this technology is one of the things preventing it from mass adoption.
For visions like the ones 8 Circuit Studios wants to create in tandem with other developers, it's crucial that blockchain stays in the background. For it to simply be the engine that runs the machine, rather than the selling point or what attracts people to the game or product.
Put another way, I don't believe anything built on blockchain can find mainstream adoption until the fact that blockchain is powering it ceases to matter. You may appreciate that a game is built on Unreal Engine 4, but you're not going to buy it exclusively for that reason. What matters, of course, is the experience.
James Mayo worked at Microsoft and Nintendo. Now he and his team of industry veterans are helping build the Metaverse. No pressure.
8 Circuit Studios "Navigator" and President James Mayo is leading a team of game industry veterans on an incredibly ambitious mission: they don't want to merely change the rules of the gaming ecosystem, they want to write entirely new rules.
The team is essentially building a platform using the Ethereum blockchain that could eliminate the barriers between game worlds. Players would own their own "Smart Game Objects" and transport them between games. Simultaneously, they're designing solutions that would allow game publishers and developers to explore new revenue streams that take this fundamental shift into account.
I recently spoke with Mayo at length about the team's plans, the Metaverse concept and the future of gaming in general.
To illustrate why something like the Metaverse is needed, Mayo paints a picture that tens of millions of gamers will identify with.
Your Characters Aren't Yours At All
"You're playing World of Warcraft," Mayo begins. "You create a character, and you've spent 100 hours developing that character. You think it's yours. But it's not, it's Blizzard's. That is the central authority that controls your character."
It can be jarring to realize that after spending 100s of hours with your character, it's not your character at all
As Mayo rightly points out, there are benefits to having Blizzard own that character, right? "You get Blizzard's philosophy on game design, you get the rich world that they create because they employ artists, you get a confidence in the fairness of gameplay," he says.
But you don't get to own that character you've bonded with. If Blizzard pulls the plug on WoW tomorrow, it's nothing but a digital memory.
What if you could break that model? What would that look like for both gamers and developers? Imagine bringing your WoW character into a different game world, inheriting your learned skills, or at the very least your favorite mounts, your favorite accessories, and having those carry some meaning in every game world you enter.
I wanted to hear Mayo's vision of that future. Because it sounds daunting.
8 Circuit Studios represents more than 100 years of experience from Microsoft, Nintendo, EA veterans and others
"It's going to require a fundamental change with developers and publishers in how they see games," Mayo says. "But gamers are going to instantly understand the value. Instead of the gamer going from game to game, they've got a character and the game is wrapped around their character. And that concept is not really being explored, and it's one of the areas we're super excited to get to."
This is especially interesting to me knowing that Microsoft is using machine learning and dynamic neural networks to pursue a similar goal: allow games to learn us, instead of us learning games. If you're interested in what you're reading right now, jump over and read that too. It's fascinating stuff and I wouldn't be at all surprised to see 8 Circuit Studios' and Microsoft's paths converging down the road.
"We're not under any delusions that we can create this by ourselves, nor do we want to," Mayo tells me. "We're doing what we can do to put our little brick in the foundation."
His point is people across the entire landscape -- artificial intelligence designers, VR and AR developers, blockchain coders, virtual economy builders, are all crafting little pieces of the foundation that could eventually result in the Metaverse becoming reality.
But it's early days and 8 Circuit Studios is playing the long game. However, as Mayo puts it, "the soil is fertile."
4 Steps To Achieving The Metaverse
Mayo outlined a 4-step plan to achieving a true Metaverse. What's exciting is that the seeds are already planted, but it will take unification and cooperation between developers and many years of hard work.
1) Accessibility. Blockchain is promising but cumbersome. To achieve mass adoption, it has to be easy to use. It has to disappear into the background. 8 Circuit Studios' first two games may or may not end up being blockbusters, but they aim to achieve this and light the way for others.
2) Games. Gamers have years of experience with in-game economies and understand technically complex systems, while developers are always expending their arsenal of tools and technologies. Mayo believes games are the perfect gateway to blockchain adoption.
3) Avatars. This is another area gamers are well-versed in. We've had years of experience with Xbox Avatars and Nintendo's Mii characters. The next phase is to own our avatars and their possessions, and see them evolve and move between worlds. The company's 2nd game takes a step toward that goal.
4) Immersive environments. Because the Metaverse can't be all about games, we need virtual and augmented reality developers to create spaces we can fully inhabit outside of our game worlds.
Solving The Accessibility Problem With Their Own Games
Alien Arsenal is the studio's first game, and it's coming to iOS and Android shortly. Alien Arsenal is a cooperative boss-battling game that also lets you collect and evolve cute alien creatures and trade, sell or gift them using the blockchain. I haven't played it yet, but what's important is why they're creating it.
Alien Arsenal is a cute, cooperative boss battling game, but it's also meant to be a guiding light for blockchain game development.
Games already exist using cryptocurrency and blockchain of course, but most are an exercise in tedium for the average user. Let's face it, using cryptocurrency at all can be a major pain. Download a wallet or choose from multiple versions of that wallet, sync years worth of transactions, create an exchange account and verify your bank account so that you can buy Bitcoin or Ethereum, send that currency to your wallet. Exchange it for the in-game tokens maybe. All before you even start the game.
What Alien Arsenal intends to do is demonstrate how a blockchain-powered game can be fun and user friendly without hassling with wallets, plug-ins or any number of other frustrations. Beyond that, players will own "Smart Game Objects" (the aliens that you raise, most likely, and other in-game items) that can be transported and adapted into future games -- not just games created by 8 Circuit.
A work-in-progress screenshot from Alien Arsenal
Right now they're focusing on testing game mechanics and usability in private beta, and the very last stage will be monetization (the company is currently self-funded). The success of and lessons learned from this game will be crucial in showing the world that games like this can be built without layers of complexity that could deter literally millions of gamers.
But what comes after Alien Arsenal will be the true proving grounds for what 8 Circuit Studios wants to build. The studio's 2019 release for PC and console will be D-PARC, a space survival simulation where players inhabit the mind of a ship's AI (cleverly named the n-Satoshi for the crypto geeks out there). It will mix elements of first-person shooters and space combat, and allow a player's character to exist permanently on the blockchain.
A screenshot from D-PARC, a deep space survival game for PC and Consoles that utilizes blockchain technology
Despite being entirely different genres on different platforms, both D-PARC and Alien Arsenalwill allow for the transfer of characters and object between both games. Mayo isn't ready to divulge how this will play out, but the feature alone is worth keeping an eye on.
The ball then falls into the court of other publishers and developers to let these characters be imported into their games. To allow them to continuously evolve. As I said, it's going to be a long and rocky road as this concept is even more in its infancy than blockchain itself.
The Big Barrier: Will Publishers Play Along?
Mayo points out that EverdreamSoft, the team behind Spells of Genesis, is one of the early adopters of blockchain-based gaming. With their digital TCG (Trading Card Game), players can collect certain unique spell cards and truly own them, trading them or selling them outside of the game, and the developers grant them the right to bring them into other games.
Because of that pioneering spirit, 8 Circuit Studios is talking to EverdreamSoft about sharing their in-game currencies between worlds. But they're brainstorming something else that's really cool.
Imagine the aliens you collect in Alien Arsenal being represented as unique spell cards in Spells of Genesis, incorporating their skills or abilities from the former. That's one minor example, but this could be extrapolated into some thrilling crossover potential in larger games.
The billion dollar question, of course, is whether or not enough developers are willing to jump enthusiastically onto this train. You can imagine game creators wanting to retain their artistic vision, their original fingerprint that identifies a game world as theirs and theirs alone. But as Mayo mentioned with the Alien Arsenal example, exercising some creativity in how these objects and characters traverse worlds could solve that problem.
Before I close this off, I want to say that my conversation with James Mayo was truly memorable, and it's impossible to include all the talking points here. He has a conservative, longterm roadmap for contributing his little slice of work to the concept of a Metaverse. I may release the entire interview as a podcast, or follow up on a more granular level later this week. But I do believe he and his team are onto something special.
Make no mistake, 8 Circuit Studios has a gargantuan task in front of them. They're virtually unknown. They're self-funded and driven more by passion and their shared vision of the future than by income. They will need the cooperation -- or at least recognition -- of a massive and fragmented industry.
Sometimes, though, the first small steps end up having the loudest echoes down the road.