The metaverse isn’t here yet, but its building blocks very much are. Games and gaming communities have been leading the way toward integrated, immersive experiences for decades. So, argues M&C Saatchi London’s Niall Wilson, progress starts with doing what people in the gaming space are already experts in: connecting people.
Spoiler alert: the metaverse doesn’t exist. At least not in the way the web3 prophets would like it to.
There is no single, universal digital world where we have the agency to behave as we wish. No ubiquitous place, platform or technology we can use to interact virtually, entirely free of the algorithms that monetize the social web.
Instead, right now, web3 is a collection of distinct virtual worlds. Many are relatively new, and not terribly well defined in their purpose. Safeguarding issues abound as emerging platforms such as VRChat and Rec Room offer vague technical promises like the ability to ‘party up with friends from all around the world.’
The worlds that do exist
Some virtual worlds are very well established. Mass multiplayer games such as Grand Theft Auto (1997), Call of Duty (2003), Roblox (2006) and Minecraft (2011) all have thriving communities of players, creators and commentators. And there are many more. In the UK, over 900,000 online games are played each year.
3.2 billion people played online games in 2021. With an average age of roughly 35, split almost 50/50 male and female, every type of person can be a ‘gamer.’ Or, even better, there’s a game for every type of person.
Large communities grow around these games incredibly quickly. Among Us is a brilliant example of a breakout game with broad appeal. Launched in 2018, it established a global playing community of over half a billion users in 2020 alone, as well-known Twitch streamers and YouTubers got involved.
New kinds of community
Game-playing communities aren’t drawn from familiar ‘advertising’ demographics. Age, gender, location, ethnicity and affluence aren’t the foundations upon which these communities are built. I’m just as likely to be killed by my daughter in Fortnite as I am to bump into my uncle in Minecraft. I’m pretty sure they’ve met each other in Animal Crossing.
Online games bring together diverse communities that share a passion for very specific experiences. Those who like to be rebellious play Doom. People who like to compete: Fifa. Thrill seekers play The Last of Us; adventurers, World of Warcraft. The people who make mass multiplayer games are better at tapping into human passions and emotions than any other creators on earth. And brands familiar with connecting people and their passions find the world of gaming easier to penetrate.
For me, the early years of passion marketing are the best source of inspiration when thinking about gaming and brands. In 1984, Nike had the foresight to understand that if Michael Jordan had a bigger platform, more people would be passionate about basketball, and ultimately more people would want to buy trainers. In the 80s and 90s, Air Jordan helped NBA viewership grow to levels that haven’t been seen since. Almost 40 years later, Nike is encouraging people to play games such as dodgeball in Roblox – where Nikeland has been visited by more than 7 million people since it launched in November 2021.
But it’s not just sports or gaming-adjacent brands that have license to behave in this way. Indeed, lots of brands we work with in this space, such as O2, McDonald’s, Heineken and Coca-Cola, are making the transition to web3 by continuing to connect communities to their passions, in much the same way that they have done before. Just virtually. Many brands in less-expected categories such as banking, travel, insurance and energy will no doubt mine their rich heritage in sports and entertainment marketing to help them make the transition.
The brands that may struggle, however, are those that have grown quickly through the precision audience targeting of the social web. The first step these brands can take is to find games with playing communities that share their values. Then start helping these communities to grow by enhancing (not interrupting) their gaming experience. Charities such as Calm and The Kiyan Prince Foundation have paved the way, showing us that gaming communities can be much more altruistic than the echo chamber of social media. Any brand unable to clearly articulate its values will fall even further behind than they are now.
For many brands, success in web3 will probably mean playing a much longer game than they are used to. Looking to gaming or the metaverse right now for short-term success, against KPIs such as reach, awareness and attention, may simply not provide the ROI that many marketers crave. However, those willing to invest now will have a better opportunity to build trust and advocacy over a longer period with some of the most passionate, engaged and diverse communities on earth. Who wouldn’t want to do that?