Ten years ago, few of us had heard about virtual reality (VR), let alone seen it demonstrated in any appreciable way. But there was an inkling that gaming environments were about to crack that fourth wall and enter into an age where gameplay would be immersive.
Today, we’re still expanding into those virtual worlds. But you can see them in practice — as with Link in "The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild" navigating a three-dimensional space in free play, in NFT marketplaces attached to gaming platforms where people can buy and sell digital real estate, or in Lord British advising the Avatar to move through environments that are still being built in “Shroud of the Avatar.”
So what's the future of VR gaming?
A History of Virtual Reality Gaming
First, let's just take a moment to acknowledge how gaming changed since the 1980s.
One of the best examples is "Ultima," a series played on computers and consoles, where worlds were detailed and expansive, but still two-dimensional. You had cut-away fight scenes where players and monsters battle in finite 2D space, and then you had world maps that were also two-dimensional.
Since then, we've come into that new age of virtual gaming, where players are increasingly encumbered with a headset and gloves — where we really have rendered immersive virtual environments. Part of that was driven by big data, by Moore’s law and the ability to put massive amounts of data onto smaller devices. Some of it had to do with the evolution of CGI graphics. In any case, gaming became profoundly virtual.
That brings us to the one word we must say when talking about virtual gaming and what it's poised to do in the next few years:
Gaming In the Metaverse
Yes, that's right, the word is “metaverse.” (Also read: Gaming, Fashion, Music: The Metaverse Across Industries.)
Again, a decade ago, hardly anyone had heard of the metaverse at all, and people didn't really have an idea of what was supposed to represent. Today we do have a lot of these ideas, but we still haven't seen the metaverse operational in popular culture. Part of that has to do with the slowness of people's natural aversion to accepting new technologies. Another aspect of it has to do with use cases. When Facebook, now Meta, finally does unveil a social media platform in the metaverse, that might change, but that promised evolution hasn’t yet happened.
Here's the main point: Most experts would agree virtual gaming is indeed one of the prime use cases for the metaverse right now — alongside digital business, e-commerce and entertainment. We have not seen major healthcare networks take up the metaverse as a telemedicine model. We have not yet seen companies try to entice customers into virtual worlds where they can buy and sell physical goods and services.
However, we have seen the gaming world become instances of a metaverse — where players wear immersive equipment, chat with each other online and explore the particular worlds metaverse platforms consist of. Players are represented by visual avatars in the same way they will be in future metaverse worlds that might be commercial, healthcare-related or in other words not relevant to gaming. (Also read: The Metaverse: Possibilities and Perils.)
“To help you get a sense of how vague and complex a term ‘the metaverse’ can be,” writes Eric Ravenscroft at WIRED, “here's an exercise: Mentally replace the phrase ‘the metaverse’ in a sentence with ‘cyberspace.’ Ninety percent of the time, the meaning won't substantially change. That's because the term doesn't really refer to any one specific type of technology, but rather a broad (and often speculative) shift in how we interact with technology. And it's entirely possible that the term itself will eventually become just as antiquated, even as the specific technology it once described becomes commonplace.”
So you can think about it that way, or you can sign onto Roblox or Fortnite and experience these environments in real time.
The reason gaming is the metaverse is simple: It's the place where there is the most demand for this type of technology. In medicine, in business and elsewhere, people seem to feel teleconferencing is good enough — that having a two-dimensional visual and audio chat space accomplishes what we want out of technology. In gaming, though, players clamored for more immersive virtual experiences, and that's exactly what they got.
The Future: Virtual Mercantilism?
Yes, some of those peering into the crystal ball believe in-platform transactions will be part of the meat of future metaverse activities.
“The virtual environment also creates a new economic layer, where gamers can trade items and stream content,” writes Jay Speakman at Blockzeit. “Unlike the real world, virtual worlds allow players to make money without actually selling them.”
Speakman refers to a “gold rush” analogy that may apply to future gaming and metaverse worlds.
“When gold was discovered in California in 1849, thousands came west to seek their fortunes,” he writes. “Only a few miners got rich. Most of the money made during the gold rush was from the sale of shovels, lumber, food, whiskey and other supplies. This analogy is being replicated in the world of metaverse gaming. Sure, you could get rich playing metaverse games but it’s more likely you could make a good living selling swords and shields or other in-game items in P2E games.”
Gaming has become increasingly virtual — the two-dimensional worlds of yore have been by and large replaced by increasingly immersive environments. That trend is poised to continue, only now it's headed into the metaverse.
Gaming in the metaverse opens players up to new possibilities, like three-dimensional visual and audio chat spaces to ways of making real money in virtual worlds.
Will people start participating more in the new era of VR gaming? Keep an eye on whether the powers that be are able to convince ordinary people to venture in. (Also read: Who Owns The Metaverse? No One – Yet.)