Despite artificial intelligence buzz overshadowing the now-faded metaverse hype, Web3 developers continue to create virtual worlds, hoping to bring an experience like the "Oasis" from Ernest Cline’s influential “Ready Player One” to life.
But some Web3 game creators may have tried to run before they could walk, making big promises around an NFT drop or token instead of developing a compelling game concept first. Game development can be arduous and difficult, which some builders quickly found out.
However, the evolving Web3 space and its decentralized ethos may still impact the broader video game industry, especially if user-generated content continues to be seen as more and more a core part of many game experiences.
Avalon Chief Product Officer Jeffrey Butler believes that the era of developing isolated projects is over. In his view, the future of the metaverse is open and connected, with developers and communities coming together to build better gaming experiences in tandem.
"I don't believe it's possible for any [single] company out there right now to create the volume of content that players insist on being able to consume," Butler told Decrypt at this week’s GamesBeat Summit 2023 in Los Angeles.
Butler experienced this firsthand across more than 20 years in game development—including stints as a producer of Sony’s influential massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG), EverQuest, and Creative Director on the canceled EverQuest Next. He knows well the stress that game developers, designers, testers, and players feel with the launch of a new online game.
"Let's be honest—making a massively multiplayer game is an incredibly onerous undertaking," Butler said, pointing to the enormous amount of time, effort, and resources necessary to create a successful MMO game. "People have burned out in the industry… it's been too much for some people, too stressful, too high-pressure."
Butler said he saw the potential to create broader, interconnected virtual worlds even as early as the original EverQuest in 1999. He started as an ardent player of the classic online game and then joined the studio, quickly moving up the ranks. Butler told Decrypt that even that early glimpse of online gaming was like looking into a crystal ball for the metaverse.
“The thing that mattered for me, working on EverQuest, was that I could kind of squint and see in the great distance—over the horizon—something like the Oasis in ‘Ready Player One.’”
Coined by author Neal Stephenson in the iconic cyberpunk novel “Snow Crash,” “metaverse” became a popular buzzword in Web3 to describe virtual worlds that could range from games to workplaces. However, detractors have called the metaverse a cash grab to snare venture capital money, and the initial buzz crashed and burned.
Butler said he does not like using the term "metaverse" to describe Avalon due to the negative connotation, preferring instead to simply call the upcoming digital universe a game. Avalon is the titular first game from Avalon Corp, and the Unreal Engine 5-powered game will reportedly include a mix of MMO and metaverse elements.
In February, Avalon Corp—which boasts gaming veterans from Sony, Electronic Arts, Microsoft, and Blizzard—announced the raise of $13 million to build out its online universe, with backers like Hashed and Coinbase Ventures in the mix.
Instead of cramming a game on top of blockchain technology and embracing crypto’s existing financialized focus, Butler says his ambition is to take the technology the gaming industry already uses and give it a Web3 focus. As such, he envisions ways to motivate players and communities to contribute game content and derive value as a result.
"My goal is to take all of the functionality that exists in Unreal Editor and gamify it," he said, "as if we were creating a super powerful version of LEGOs—where [developers] can author content in a game, largely in any style we choose."
Butler pointed to the online modding community as an example of groups coming together to build on and improve the games they love. We’ve seen game mods turn into their own popular standalone games, including Counter-Strike and Dota 2, and that fan-driven ethos continues today with some of the industry’s biggest games.
"They're not merely sustaining these games," Butler said of modders. "They're increasing the number of people that play the game."
He suggested that the resurgence in popularity of CD Projekt Red's Cyberpunk 2077—which had a disastrous launch due to abundant technical flaws—was thanks in part to the modding community. Meanwhile, today’s hottest games like Roblox and Fortnite thrive in large part due to user-created games, levels, and content.
Embracing interoperability and letting the community co-create alongside the core team are larger shifts that Butler sees shaking up the video game world—while also gradually pushing the concept of the “metaverse” closer to the grand visions depicted in other media.
"It's not just that we saw it in Ready Player One," Butler said. "It's part of building value."