Lately I have been really entertained by the anime of Sword Art Online and the spin off show Gun Gale Online, both available to stream on Netflix (at least in the US). One of the things I like about them is the focus on MMO gaming and gamers. They depict players hanging out in alternate reality style MMOs in the near future. Inside the games are huge cities that have social gathering spaces, shops, and even kiosks where you go to sign up for tournaments. Players spend as much time chilling out in bars and coffee shops as actually doing anything to advance their characters. When they head out into the larger worlds of the games to have adventures, the gameplay depicted seems mostly very unstructured. There are raids and PUBG style battle royal matches, but for the most part players either hunt random mobs or each other.
There certainly don't seem to be many quests or quest hubs where NPCs hand out random tasks. You never see players roll up with ten rat corpses, turn them in to someone and then agonize over whether to get a pair of shoes or a hat as the quest reward. I think it's meant to depict the ultimate incarnation of an "alternate world" style MMO. A parallel reality that you inhabit during your spare time much more than a game per se. It makes for a compelling TV show because it puts the focus on the characters and their motivations, rather than whatever in game story lines they are playing through.* It also tackles some issues I think many MMO fans can relate to at least a little bit about like why we play these games in the first place.
However, I am not sure I would really enjoy the "games" that the characters in the show are playing. The game designs seem far too unfocused, with no narrative at all save what the players bring to them. One of the elements of games that I enjoy is that they can serve as an interesting alternative to books or movies as a way to experience a narrative. As much fun as the shows are, I'm not convinced that what is on display is my idea of the ultimate MMO.
Another fictional game that often gets held up as the ultimate virtual world for developers to attain to is the "multiverse" from Ready Player One. For example the developer EnjinX tried to build hype for their platform by bragging that they had created the "real multiverse from Ready Player One" using blockchain. "Blockchain" and "the multiverse," there's some buzzwords that will make investors drool! But is the multiverse really what we want? Based on my single viewing of the the movie, It's depicted as a bunch of semi-independent games linked by a sort of persistent virtual metropolis. Kind of like Second Life, only with more actual games. Or maybe something like Free Realms, but for adults and with more emphasis on social hubs. While moderately successful, neither one of those games exactly set the world on fire. I can't say I'm convinced that "Free Realms on steroids" is the path all developers should be heading down.
Of course the "multiverse" is older than Ready Player One. It's pretty much the exact same idea as the "metaverse" from Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson. That is also in turn heavily inspired by "cyberspace" from the novels of William Gibson and others. So the multiverse is obviously an idea that many authors and readers find compelling. I have to agree that it's a lot of fun to read about these sorts of virtual spaces. But would we really want to inhabit them? Is there really a huge market for some sort of virtual-experience focused internet that you need to create an avatar to interact with? I'm not really sure that there is.
Almost all of the elements depicted in these works of fiction have already been tried out in one way or another. Gaming spaces connected to persistent social hubs have been around for a long time. The first one I played, unless you want to count Everquest, was Phantasy Star Online back in the 2000 on the Dreamcast. It had virtual lobbies where players would hang out and chat in between going on adventures. They were quite lively at times, but I never felt like they were the future of gaming. Home on the Playstation 3 also was a similar idea in some ways. It was basically a mall that your virtual home connected to, where you would wander around, socialize and interact with whatever games or advertisements various publishers and retailers decided to put up. I thought it was pretty neat, and I'll even contradict my main point by admitting that in some ways I think Home may have been ahead of it's time.
More modern games like Fortnite have taken this model much further, with social spaces outside of the main game areas where things like live concerts or other events sometimes take place. There are also three different game modes associated Fortnite now. If some works of fiction are to be believed, that's a big part of the way towards a multiverse. If you buy the premise of Ready Player One, pretty much all that needs to be done is to connect more game styles (e.g., racing, sports, and RPGs) and some more impressive social spaces to Fortnite and we well on the path to an alternate universe that sets the world on fire. Everyone that could afford to would want to go there. In some ways the inequities and suffering of the real world would be lessened, as we would all have a virtual paradise we could escape to at will.
However, I find myself skeptical that this kind of utopic virtual dawn is really all that simple, or so close. Certainly we could take the Free Realms model, where you create one avatar and then use it to play lots of different styles of game, to the next level. But I personally am not all too sure I want that. I really don't mind making different avatars for different games, nor the process of logging in and out of them. When I am playing one game, I don't need or want to be indirectly connected to any others. For example, when I am running around in DDO I don't often find myself wishing I could take whatever character I am playing there and jump into a racing game or a tennis simulator. Nor do I often wish I could take my character from Shot Online into Everquest. For purely social interactions, my phone (or Zoom for groups) is a heck of a lot easier to use than a virtual meeting space embedded in a game.
Despite this, in the end I also have to admit that no-one has ever really tried very hard to make the multiverse/ metaverse/ cyberspace. The technology to do so will certainly be here soon. It's already possible to create convincing virtual worlds. We've been iterating on them at least since MUDs. I would argue the largest barrier remaining for a "metaverse" that we interact with using a mouse and keyboard is a clear market for one. From there all that's missing is better neural interfaces. Those are a very active area of research that is advancing rapidly. I suspect that this enormous piece of the multiverse puzzle is closer to being created than most of us realize. Yet even with that in place, a future where individual games are a lot more immersive seems far more likely than one where every game under the sun is tied together into some sort of virtual social hub.
In the end I suspect that the barrier that may prove most difficult to overcome is the creation of a publisher neutral VR platform that anyone can plug their product into either for free or close to it. At least in the near term, full VR versions of standalone products like WoW or Everquest seem much more probable to me than the Multiverse.
*Addendum: Right after I wrote this I made it further into the second season of Sword Art Online. The plot of the second half of the second season actually focuses squarely on an in game quest in one of the MMOs the characters play. So maybe I'd like the fictional game of the TV show based on the light novel more than I thought :-)
In addition to Gun Gale Online cartoons, this rambling post was inspired by Tipa's "What makes an MMO an MMO?"