Science & Technology

Matthew Ball and A16z’s James Gwertzman discuss how to unlock the metaverse

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There is a lot of breathless speculation about how transformative the metaverse might be. This morning we heard from two leaders who are good about explaining what it means and how disruptive it could be: Matthew Ball, CEO of Epyllion and author of The Metaverse; and James Gwertzman, partner at A16z.

They talked about what technologies are needed to unlock the potential of the metaverse, which many describe as the next version of the internet.

As part of our GamesBeat Summit Next 2022 online preview, Gwertzman said he got interested in games more than 20 years ago because of how he saw it driving innovation at the intersection of art and technology. He made games for years and eventually started Playfab, to make backend infrastructure services for games as they became multiplayer services. He learned the ins and outs of servers and live experiences needed to make those games successful. Microsoft acquired the company in 2018, and Gwertzman got insight into how games worked. He recently moved into investing and joined Andreessen Horowitz, which has raised $4.5 billion for its game fund.

“This whole thing has given me an interesting bird’s eye view of what we’re starting to call the metaverse,” he said. “If the metaverse is really a place where thousands or potentially millions of people can come together, it’s not at all unlike a multiplayer game. And in fact, I happen to believe that it’s going to be game developers and game creators building the metaverse because we’re the ones who actually have the knowledge, the experience of what it takes to bring all those players into a virtual 3D environment with safety and (anti-trolling) to make sure that everyone has a good time.”

Microsoft offers PlayFab and Azure to game companies using the cloud.
Microsoft offers PlayFab and Azure to game companies using the cloud.

Ball asked how we can move from today’s multiplayer games to having networks that scale much higher into having hundreds or thousands of players in the same space at once, even as tech like broadband, computing power and hard drive space progress at a linear pace.

Gwertzman agreed that one of the biggest boundaries around multiplayer games today is how many players can be together in a single environment. With Fortnite, that number is 100. So when Epic Games hosted the Travis Scott concert, which drew tens of millions, the concert was divided into groups of 100 people, all connected with each other on one server, with hundreds of thousand of servers to accommodate all the people, Ball said. How do you get real scale?

“That’s where you start to get into really gnarly scaling problems,” Gwertzman said. “It’s not a linear growth in traffic. It’s actually an exponential growth because every new player you add has to have that many more sets of messages being passed back and forth to keep everyone up to date.”

One of the starting points is to go with simpler games at first, Gwertzman said.

Matthew Ball explains the significance of the metaverse.
Matthew Ball explains the significance of the metaverse.

“One of the big architectural changes that we’re looking at is how much of that logic we move off of your local machine, and entirely onto the cloud, where you can keep it all in a single server or in a cluster of servers,” Gwertzman said. “You don’t have to keep updating as much with messages back and forth. That’s one trick. Another trick is to design your experience. You just don’t have that many players in the same physical space at one time.”

He noted that Hadean recently raised $30 million to build metaverse infrastructure from Epic Games and others, and Hadean is trying to solve this problem. Improbable is another trying an approach where they spatially break up the world so that there aren’t as many players in one spot. (Leaders from both companies are also speaking at GamesBeat Summit Next).

“I think one of the interesting innovations that we’re gonna need to really create this metaverse is to think about new ways to divide up the traffic passing around and to create that sense of real space,” Gwertzman said.

Ball said that battle royale designs reduce the problem of networking by shrinking a play space and eliminating players as that happens. By the time it becomes a small circle, perhaps five players might be left and the networking load is smaller.

Gwertzman said he was reminded of a quote from John Lasseter, formerly of Pixar, where he said art challenges technology and technology inspires art.

“You’ve got to start coming up with hacks and tricks and workarounds to try to create the experience,” Gwertzman said. “Or you go back to your technologists and say I really want to do this thing, and the current tech doesn’t support it. Let’s be innovative.”

He added, “I think there are going to be some really neat things we can do with the metaverse that are going to be really inspiring. And it will force us to confront some of these really interesting technology problems.”

Fortnite features a new Ferrari car.
Fortnite features a new Ferrari car.

Ball said he loved that tech leaders like Epic Games CEO Tim Sweeney have been talking about solving these problems for decades. So he asked why are so many veterans talking about the metaverse now?

“When you start to see this cultural pivot, where you’re suddenly realizing that the notion of being in a game space is no longer just games anymore, and that these technologies are being used for so much more,” Gwertzman said. “We’re also just becoming more comfortable now with what the space. I’ts not that the technology suddenly crossed some threshold and now we can do things we couldn’t before. I think it’s as much that we are now becoming comfortable with these spaces. And I also think that it sounds really interesting new it, I think we are, we’re starting to realize some of the limitations of some of the online platforms we have — Facebook is famously criticized for the way it picks and chooses which messages to show you criticism or polarization and we don’t get the full bandwidth interacting online.”

“One of the benefits of moving to a more 3D environment is you actually have more of a sense of presence. And I don’t mean yet to wear VR glasses and go for the most immersive virtual reality. Just the idea that you’re really in a place with other people. And they’re not just anonymous voices. They’re not just these text threads. These are like people.”

He said virtual spaces like World of Warcraft have the power to create lasting bonds among players and that makes them comfortable with engaging in online economies.

Ball hopes that the transition to the metaverse might alleviate some of the problems we have today. But the question is how to solve it. Twitter recently changed its policy for what it considers to be adversarial behavior. While not specifically toxic, people can be subjected to harassment through what gamers have known for a long time as “griefing.” This raises an ethical obligation for the creators of these worlds to manage such behavior, Ball said.

Modders create cool things in Overwolf's community.
Modders create cool things in Overwolf’s community.

“Whenever you bring humans together, you start to encounter these exact issues,” Gwertzman said.

He said he is optimistic because game designers have learned over time to nudge and reward certain behaviors over others.

“A number of these massively multiplayer worlds are actually pretty friendly places that don’t really suffer from the kind of griefing and trolling in other environments,” Gwertzman said. “A lot of it has to do with more of the social norms that have grown up around these particular games. It can be as simple as a game designer influencing or rewarding players early on for helping other players out when a player joins.”

Some of these tools will be automated to look for negative behaviors, and others will be designed to reward people for good behavior. That’s important as online behavior — as we saw with COVID — can lead to a loss of empathy and people can develop harder edges. That doesn’t work in the real world.

“How do we actually encourage players or users to learn to be more healthy to each other?” Gwertzman said. “There is a lot of research into so-called third spaces, pubs or hair salons, that are neither work nor home. You get this mixing pot of people with very different opinions and social status.”

What you don’t want is for people to divide into their own echo chambers, he said. Ball believes that all these forces — technical capability, socializing, cultural impact, investment and economic effects — mean that we’ll going to have something develop akin to the metaverse, whether it’s in five to 15 years.

Asked what he thinks will unfold, Gwertzman said the blockchain has gotten off to a difficult start with speculative behavior and crazy hype. But he is bullish on it for the long term innovation in the space as decentralization will be important as we strive to own our own identities online and control our data.

“If you look at games, every game is essentially a complete, separate, isolated, walled garden,” he said. “Who I am in Fortnite is a completely different person than who I am in Red Dead Redemption. It’s because these games are isolated from each other. And one of the things that I’m excited about is (how) we will be able to give our users more control over their own identities.”

Streaming games like Google
The world of Red Dead Redemption 2.

Your reputation can travel with you from place to place, as will your friends list. Games will start to overlap with each other more. And a world built for one game might get reused in other games. Those who are into user-generated content and modding could reuse those places for new experiences. The creator economy will come into games themselves.

“That’s going to really be a huge driver of the metaverse and everyone will be expected to create and contribute, not just be a passive observer,” Gwertzman said.

Gwertzman noted that we have years of learning built up fro communities such as Roblox or battle royale games, and those who grew up learning those things will have their own take on how to build on those foundations that are more fun or more social.

“Children who have these experiences are going to end up innovating and creating,” he said. “They want authenticity, they don’t want to curate it perfectly coiffed Instagram experience. They want me to be real, who I really am. And make the kind of space that we are actually willing to want to spend time in.”

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