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The Evolution of the Metaverse

The ‘metaverse,’ a term coined by Neal Stephenson in his 1992 novel ‘Snow Crash,’ has garnered considerable attention lately, with brands like Nike, Disney, and Microsoft beginning to invest in earnest.

After Zuckerberg rebranded Facebook Inc. as Meta, Horizon Worlds, Meta’s mixed reality experience, launched in the UK. Now Nike has acquired RTFKT to produce digital clothing for use in virtual environments.

Arguably, the Metaverse is where the real, social, and virtual worlds come together as one. There’s just one problem. It doesn’t exist yet.

Matthew Ball, the authority on Metaverse development, describes it as a single, global-scale ‘interoperable network,’ accommodating unlimited numbers of users. But, according to Ball, it’s at least a decade away. We just don’t yet have the computational power and latency required to maintain a persistent 3D world that millions of players can play simultaneously in real time.

As James Whatley of gaming agency Diva points out, the Metaverse and its inhabitants are all hypothetical. But gamers, players, and their $200 billion industry are real - and they’re already here.

Roblox, Fortnite and Minecraft represent stepping-stones in the right direction, commanding vast numbers of players with gaming available across devices.

They also represent a profound generational behaviour shift. For Gen A (those born after 2010) these games are their go-to preferred form of entertainment, ahead of both social media and video.

2010 was the year the iPad was launched. Roblox launched in 2006 and saw hardly any players for its first decade. Then it began to grow.

With 5 million monthly players in 2014, Roblox became the market leader in 2020. One of their most popular games, Adopt Me, was visited 30 billion times, more than 15 times the global tourist visits in 2019. They hit 59.9 million Daily Active Users in August 2022 with 4.7 billion hours of on-platform engagement, their content ranking 4th on Youtube. Over half of UK kids between 9-12 play.

It’s no coincidence that Roblox’s core users are the iPad native generation.

Games such as Roblox are shifting away from achievements into social-based activities; hangouts, concerts, and adopting pets. Identity and individual expression are wrapped around the user’s avatar. Of course, avatars need things to make them look cool, so virtual fashion is booming on the platform, with Gucci, Nike, Balenciaga, and more rushing to kit out the avatars.

Some futurists believe that ‘Flippening’ (when virtual items overtake physical in terms of value) is within sight. Recently a Gucci handbag sold on Roblox for more than the real thing.

Brands are experimenting. For every notable success (Nikeland), there are several more disasters (Walmart) with few initial users and even fewer returning to the experience. As ever, it’s about knowing how to add value to the audience.

To experiment in proto-metaversal platforms, the first place to consider is probably within the walled gardens of Roblox and Fortnite, where there are actual users and easy-to-activate billboard ad packages. But also consider the wider world of gaming.

If you would like to investigate further, with some examples of brands getting it right (and a few wrong) we have a deep dive ‘Exploring the Metaverse’ session currently running for clients. Ask your account team and we’ll be glad to show you more.