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How gaming created the language of the metaverse

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By Chris Sutcliffe | Senior reporter

January 17, 2022 | 8 min read

The visual language and social rules of metaverse interaction have been defined by gaming. As part of The Drum’s Metaverse Deep Dive, we look at how the lessons learned along the way are informing how marketers will reach consumers.

Oculus Horizon metaverse

The future of the metaverse is defined by its gaming past

The metaverse doesn’t exist (yet). Despite this, 42% of the public think they know what it is – based, in part, on depictions of it in entertainment and gaming.

In its poorly received metaverse presentation, Mark Zuckerberg took pains to pay tribute to video games. By referencing popular VR title such as Beat Saber and Arizona Sunshine, he signaled that his own company’s efforts to create VR spaces in the metaverse would follow many of the rules established by VR gaming.

Those lessons – about how to do hand tracking without messing with proprioception, about head movements that don’t induce nausea and even about moving back and forward without creating a sense of dizziness – were all learned first by game developers. And while there are still issues with how games developers implement them, for the most part gaming in VR is now immersive without many of the early downsides.

Aris Dragonis is a 3D artist and developer of VR game The Shore. He says: “By developing The Shore’s VR version, we realized there were many things that you need to take into account, such as importing different inputs for different headsets and different graphic modes for specific headsets.

”Sometimes when you think you made everything correct, that’s when you come across bugs that you encounter only with specific controllers or headsets.”

Despite those lessons having been implemented in gaming, many of the early forays into VR in the metaverse haven’t followed those rules.

Sam Watts is the immersive partnerships director at Make Real, a VR developer that creates training tools in addition to games. He says: “Games have always pushed the dimensional boundaries of interaction for the mainstream ahead of other mediums, introducing 3D to a 2D userbase, mapping controllers to bridge the gap between 4D movement on a flat surface and providing users with consistent sets of rules to guide them, but also smash apart when new technologies have required so.

“Teaching the abstract motions to users to control cameras or avatars in space has decades of built-up examples that are clear, simple and obvious – when valid UX principles are followed. However, some recent examples of portended plausible metaverse concepts show that there are some agencies or studios that haven’t done their homework, likely through the desire to cash-in on the current buzz and make a quick buck out of unsuspecting clients while there are unclear definitions.”

So, while Meta is pushing its Oculus Quest 2 headset as the gateway to the metaverse, there are practical concerns about how VR will be implemented. Bad decisions or poor execution on the part of brands or marketers will not just lead to a negative individual experience, it will tarnish the VR metaverse as a whole.

Visual language

The big selling point from Meta’s presentation was its move from pure gaming experiences on the Oculus to workspaces. The Facebook Horizon app – a mixed-reality app that allows for people to work collaboratively in VR – was a key selling point for the technology. More importantly, it sought to expand the audience beyond the relatively limited audience for VR gaming to an enterprise and business audience.

Even with a more ‘serious’ focus, though, it retained some of the visual language that it inherited from its gaming forebears. Users are represented within the space by Oculus Avatars, which in practice look the same as Xbox avatars introduced in 2005. Its focus on skeuomorphism and recreation of a realistic office environment also hearkens back to the early multiplayer social spaces like PlayStation Home.

Watts says the push towards more business-oriented use cases of VR in the metaverse is welcome and that it helps to shake the perception that it is purely for gaming audiences.

“One common critique since the consumer launches in 2016 is the over emphasis on gaming for VR when there are so many other use cases possible to enable the technology to appeal to a much wider audience than just early-adopter tech fiends and hardcore gamers. This appears to have been realized with the assistance of the pandemic, as many households are looking for other ways to escape the daily grind or improve the way they work from home, relax or keep fit.

“If you look at the recent release of the HTC Vive Flow headset – a lightweight device aimed specifically at new audience types for VR who perhaps are interested in alternative ways to keep fit, meditate or engage with traditional forms of media such as art and films – it’s refreshing to see companies looking to bring on a new subset of users.”

It is vital, though, that we recognize VR and the metaverse are not interchangeable, even as they become more deeply intertwined. Tom Ffiske is an author at Immersive Wire. He says: “While the spotlight is great, it is a shame that VR and AR are now seen in a different way, because some products can be strong without the association. I do not need a private virtual world to be linked to the metaverse – it can be strong on its own legs. Rec Room is great fun without needing to connect with another, like VRChat or Horizon Worlds.”

Social spaces

The metaverse also has much more in common with gaming communication than with social media – surprising, given Meta’s ownership and integration with Facebook. The social spaces in the metaverse are arranged much like multiplayer lobbies in most cases, or in instanced spaces as in VR Chat. It demonstrates that lessons around building and enabling communities to form have been ported over from gaming platforms like World of Warcraft and the earlier MMORPGs.

Ting Zheng, client strategy lead at PMG, believes that those lessons from gaming will influence the future of the metaverse as significantly as the tech employed to enter it. “You see the Fortnite integrations, you see the Roblox integrations, League of Legends is doing some amazing things with surprising retail brands.

“I’m really excited to see what will continue to evolve in the gaming space and how that will build off of additional social connections. How does the community change?

”We do a lot now through voice chats; Discord came up as a new platform for gaming specifically and it is now being used across other communities from studying to hobbies. And so, I think that there’s going to be a proliferation of new ways of engagement.”

Gaming is set to be a major part of the metaverse; it may even be a gateway to it for younger audiences. But even as older audiences and those who don’t consider themselves to be gamers enter the metaverse in VR, they will be influenced by its gaming antecedents.

For more on the exciting new opportunities for marketers in this rapidly evolving space, check out The Drum’s Metaverse hub.

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