It wasn’t until I noticed the rustling of the leaves in the trees towering above me and the wiggling in the wind while I sat by the campfire, that it really hit me: this was unlike anything I’d experienced in VR before.
The embers danced upwards to my right and the breeze caused an ever-so-subtle swaying of the branches above me as birds flew across the sky. Among the chirping I could hear the crackling of the fire and the voice of Carleton Dileo, Co-Founder of HelloVR, talking to me about his team’s grand vision for the future of social VR and MMO environments within virtual reality. “This is exactly what we want MetaWorld to be about,” said Dileo, mid-chuckle from my joke about swearing I could feel the warmth of the fire. “We want people to sit down and feel like they’re part of this world together. It’s about connecting.”
For all intents and purposes as far as I could tell, this was a living, breathing world overflowing with personality. Don’t let the simplistic visuals fool you: this is about as sophisticated of a social VR experience that I’ve seen to date.
The Future is in the Cloud
We were inside MetaWorld, an upcoming social sandbox VR MMO in development by HelloVR, powered by Improbable’s SpatialOS. Since that likely means very little to you, let me explain. HelloVR is a development studio focused on building immersive simulations that allow for collaborative creation. Their grand vision for the future of social VR applications is MetaWorld, a large-scale MMO universe that will eventually span a grand total of 10,000 square miles.
Most remarkable, though, is that these aren’t predetermined or static square miles of space, but are rather entirely dynamic and 100% physics-based areas that can be adapted, altered, and influenced by actual players in real time. The things that you and others do in MetaWorld have a physical impact on the world that doesn’t go away or reset during any sort of down time. Instead, by running off of Improbable’s cloud-based SpatialOS, it’s all real-time and entirely persistent.
Speaking of which, persistence is the real game-changer here. It’s what made classic MMOs like Ultima Online and EverQuest so incredible during their times of fame. Wherever you went and whatever you did, you were part of a living world that functioned and continued to live even after you logged off. Games like Minecraft do a decent job of emulating this sort of atmosphere, but it’s not a real MMO. And while multiplayer experiences like Altspace, VRChat, and Rec Room offer a great sense of presence and a compelling social atmosphere, they’re not on the same persistent scale as something like MetaWorld. That’s what makes this project so exciting.
“We are creating something magical with Improbable,” said Dedric Reid, founder and CEO of HelloVR, in a press release. “Creating a social VR experience poses new challenges like head tracking on a massive scale, and networked physics so people can realistically interact in a persistent shared space. We are happy to reveal how we will be solving all of these challenges and opening up a new category of entertainment – by collaborating with Improbable, and building on SpatialOS.”
MetaWorld plays much like any other VR experience you’ve seen since the advent of consumer-grade VR technology. My demo took place inside of an HTC Vive headset, with roomscale tracking and two motion controllers. I could freely move around the room itself, or I could point at the ground and click to teleport larger distances. Each controller was digitally realized inside of the headset to represent two large cartoon-style hands, which allowed me to pick up and interact with objects in the world.
Everything is happening in real-time among all players, simultaneously, in the massive world itself. It’s an entirely different experience than the slower, turn-based gameplay of most MMO games you’d find traditional PC gamers playing.
During my visit with Dedric to see MetaWorld in action, we reminisced about the days of the original EverQuest. What it was like navigating this new, frightening, but exciting, 3D virtual world full of real-life people behind the faces of digital avatars. Player-created adventures like journeying across the map on foot to discover new lands or embarking on perilous hunts into a dark jungle without the aid of robust internet forums or YouTube tutorials to guide the way. It was an age of wonder and mystery that’s often lost from modern MMO gaming. With MetaWorld, Reid hopes to recapture that spark.
By leveraging the technology behind SpatialOS, HelloVR hopes to take MetaWorld to new heights. Since the game is powered by the cloud, the players actually host a significantly minuscule amount of information on their computer’s locally and instead take advantage of 2016 streaming technology to provide a consistent and reliable experience to everyone. This also helps ensure the world’s persistence is experienced in the same way by everyone. SpatialOS weaves hundreds or even thousands of cloud servers together to make this all possible.
Fostering a Living Community
Creating this massive world of emptiness wouldn’t be worth writing a story about, though. The most exciting part about MetaWorld is what the future holds. This first incarnation of the game will be dubbed MetaWorld Pioneer Edition. True to its namesake, this will serve as the first journey new players make into the unfounded and freshly planted landscapes of MetaWorld.
They’ll spend their time partaking in all manner of activities from playing chess together, going hunting, fishing, picking plants, building shelters, and everything else you’d do if you were an actual pioneer settling down in a new world. While that sounds an awful lot like things you can do in virtually any sandbox survival game on the market today, taking advantage of cutting-edge VR technology is what really sets MetaWorld apart from its peers.
“HelloVR has designed MetaWorld from the ground up to take full advantage of room-scale VR and 360 degree freedom of movement,” said Herman Narula, Founder and CEO, Improbable. “That means that, standing inside this massive VR world and looking out at the horizon, there’s something distinctly otherworldly about knowing that “out there” really does exist. Building on SpatialOS means that there are no loading tricks or fake backdrops: if you can see it, you can travel to it – step by step if you want to.
“And if you make a change to any part of the world, that change persists and can be experienced by everyone else who visits. Your actions have lasting consequences; they matter. That’s a key part of making a virtual world feel real.”
A lot of games have made that claim over the years, but few have really lived up to the “your actions have lasting consequences” promise. Granted, it remains to be seen how things will shake out in MetaWorld as well, but the premise is tantalizing to say the least. Unlike many existing social VR sandboxes that allow you to simply stand, sit, or walk around with other people, only performing a small curated list of activities, MetaWorld is about sharing a universe that you have true control over.
Birds will fly through the air and actually migrate to different regions. The sun will rise and set based on a realistic day/night cycle. You can harvest materials and actually use them to make things. You’ll have to board planes, trains, and automobiles to travel great distances across the world or go hiking up a mountain on an adventure of your own. It’s a world that’s equal parts discovery and innate, human interaction.
One particular example that Dileo and Reid discussed with me is the prospect of a real, dynamic, player-driven economy within the game. They talked about the idea of having players actually own and operate services, such as shuttles and trains, or being able to barter and trade products and supplies within the world. With the Pioneer Edition especially, a focus on building a community and culture will be paramount.
Venturing into the Metaverse
As the name suggests, MetaWorld is heavily inspired by the concept of “The Metaverse.” Neal Stephenson’s 1992 science fiction novel Snow Crash, first coined the term “metaverse” in its depiction of humans interacting with a piece of software in virtual worlds via avatars. In the most basic sense, essentially all MMO games such as EverQuest or World of Warcraft deploy some form of the metaverse in the most theoretical sense of the term, but nothing has come as close as what’s proposed in MetaWorld.
All it takes is a bit of head movement, hand-presence, and position tracking to really take the experience from being “just a game” to feeling like a portal to another universe.
I stood across from Dileo as we played a game of chess and chatted about the difficulties with emulating a world believably. They opted for a cartoon-esque style not only because it lessened the hardware requirements for something on such a large scale, but it helped establish MetaWorld as a unique place in and of itself. Once the game grows in popularity, you’ll be able to quite easily identify MetaWorld on its aesthetic and designs alone, which is important for creating an identity.
Eventually, I scatter all of the pieces of the chess board in frustration for how terrible at the game I am. He assures me that the ability to flip tables is on the feature list for the future.
At the end of my time with MetaWorld, my mind was racing with the possibilities. An experience like this could unshackle the medium from its limited implementations and break new ground into the realm of what’s possible with large-scale social VR MMO experiences. That prospect is extremely exciting, but also extremely terrifying.
One of the most enticing aspects of the experience that I didn’t get to really see in action while demoing the pre-alpha version of the game is the implementation of IBM Watson. Reid explains that the A.I. platform allows for intuitive and dynamic creations within the world as it learns from players over time. IBM Watson is also purportedly powering many of the game’s wildlife and other creatures that will display realistic living habits inside the game world.
Dileo and I joked about a future world in which, instead of gold farmers creating bots to mine for resources and money in games like World of Warcraft, an entire new industry of VR gamers logging into games like MetaWorld would physically play VR games, in roomscale with motion tracking, to mine for items and resources for huge corporations ran by other players. Imagine a rabid community like that of EVE Online supplanted into a VR MMO like MetaWorld. What sort of culture would that create inside the game’s universe? How would people continue to differentiate between the virtual and real world?
I’m not sure what the answers to those questions are yet, but as I reflect on my time with MetaWorld and the time I spent sitting on the carpeted floor of a San Francisco office while my mind thought I was sitting on the grass in a virtual world that doesn’t actually exist, there’s no doubt that we’re on the precipice of enjoying some truly special VR moments once this technology really hits its stride.
MetaWorld is currently in pre-alpha and you can sign up for an account here. The MetaWorld Pioneer Edition will release later this year in Early Access for the HTC Vive, Oculus Rift with Oculus Touch, and PlayStation VR platforms. The developers also state in a press release that, “visitors will also be able to experience the world without a VR headset using standard computers and mobile devices,” and during the account registration process, “Gear VR” is one of the headset options you can select. Interpret that however you like.
Future Editions of MetaWorld will include other focuses and activities, such as sports, that can all be accessed and enjoyed from within the core overworld.