IN “READY TO PLAYER ONE”, a science fiction novel set in 2045, people can escape a horrific world of global warming and economic chaos by teleporting to the OASIS, a parallel universe where they can change their identity, stroll and forget the miseries of everyday life. In the book, published in 2011, the OASIS is the brainchild of a gaming mogul who has everyone’s best interests at heart. Innovative Online Industries, an evil internet conglomerate that intends to take it all over and reap the rewards for itself, is lurking in the background.
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There are echoes of that “good v greedy” tale in the way Tim Sweeney, founder of Epic Games, creator of “Fortnite,” an online gaming phenomenon, talks about the metaverse. The idea is buzzing in Silicon Valley and is seen as the next big thing on the internet. No one is quite sure what the term means; at its most futuristic, the OASIS is a pretty good analogy to what tech utopians have in mind. For now, suffice it to say, if you think you’ve spent more than enough time online during the covid-19 pandemic, think again. Using virtual and augmented reality, realistic computer avatars and imagery, the metaverse will further erase the boundaries between people’s online and physical lives. Unsurprisingly, big tech salivates at the prospect of yet more areas of human existence open to data mining.
The same goes for Mr. Sweeney, who creates a mini-metaverse for the 350 million monthly users of “Fortnite”, immersing them not only in fantastic games, but also in virtual pop concerts and the like. However, he is determined to prevent today’s Silicon Valley elite from reaping all the rewards of this visionary future. Its ambition is dynamic competition, fair remuneration for creators and incomparable economic efficiency on the Web today. How realistic or sincere is that?
Epic, a private company partly owned by Tencent, a Chinese tech giant, is already describing the creation of the Metaverse as a competition to kill giants. It is part of the backdrop of his recent legal battles against Apple (a verdict is expected soon) and against Google (a lawsuit has not yet started). Primarily, the antitrust cases involve the iPhone App Store and Google’s Android Play Store, which Epic describes as strongholds of price gouging, particularly by slashing in-app purchases by up to 30% and denying it. to let developers use alternative payment methods. processing platforms. But in court, Mr Sweeney told the judge in the Apple case that the problem was also “existential” for the creation of the Metaverse. Epic’s goal, he said, was to turn “Fortnite” into a platform on which independent developers could distribute their games and other forms of online entertainment and earn more profits themselves. “With Apple taking 30% off the top, they make it difficult, very difficult for Epic and the creators to exist in this future world,” he said.
Apple and Google deny these claims. In court, Apple retorted that its commissions were an industry standard and that it had invested in creating a user-friendly environment. But he is forced to cede ground 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 alternative payment methods. Then, on August 31, South Korea passed a law allowing smartphone users to pay developers directly. Google is calling Epic’s claims baseless. Where does that leave Mr. Sweeney’s vision for the new web? And what is the likelihood of that happening?
The vision certainly looks appealing. No “mega-company” would be dominant. Instead, the Metaverse will be built by millions of creators, programmers, and designers, earning a greater share of the awards than the tech giants currently allow. Instead of today’s siled state of the Internet, there should be a free flow of gaming between gaming networks, such as Microsoft’s Xbox and Sony’s PlayStation. The state-of-the-art “engines” that the gaming industry uses to perform real-world simulations should be based on common standards so that they are also interoperable. Decentralized tools such as blockchain and cryptocurrencies could add to economic efficiency.
Mr. Sweeney does not hesitate to oppose such open competition to the current situation. This will not deter the giants of Silicon Valley from seeking a future big role. Game companies such as Epic, Roblox, and Minecraft are the most advanced in bringing metaverse-like aspects to their platforms; Minecraft has a virtual library of newspaper articles censored to encourage freedom of thought in autocratic regimes. But the tech giants are on their heels. Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg believes his Oculus Quest headsets will be part of a virtual and augmented reality future that could replace the smartphone. In August, Facebook introduced Horizon Workrooms in its headsets, allowing workers to attend virtual meetings as avatars. Satya Nadella, from Microsoft CEO, talks about building a “corporate metaverse”. Without a doubt, they want to make the Metaverse more of a walled garden than Mr. Sweeney does.
Load of old Roblox?
As for Mr. Sweeney’s apparent selflessness, it’s probably wise not to take it at face value. Epic and other game companies could presumably one day continue to dominate a three-dimensional internet similar to high-tech in the two-dimensional. As Daniel Newman of Futurum Research, a consulting firm, puts it, from Microsoft in the 1980s to Apple, Google, Facebook and Amazon in the 2010s, all of the tech giants began to offer unique services that consumers loved. and fought for more open competition against incumbents. Over time, as their leadership positions strengthened, their missionary zeal diminished. It’s hard to imagine a world, however futuristic, in which this pattern does not persist.
Right now, big game companies can’t think of themselves as cartoon villains. And the metaverse may indeed be too large to be dominated by a single company. But whatever parallel universes they construct, the desire to create not only fantastic dystopias but also ditches against competition is the capitalist path par excellence. ■
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This article appeared in the Business section of the print edition under the title “Epic’s battle royale”