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Over the past four years, Matthew Ball, CEO of investment firm Epyllion and the former global head of strategy for Amazon Studios, has been a leading thinker on the metaverse, the universe of virtual worlds that are all interconnected, like in novels such as Snow Crash and Ready Player One. And today, his book debuts: The Metaverse: And How It Will Revolutionize Everything.
As we slouched toward the pandemic, Ball wrote a timely and prophetic piece in early 2019 about Fortnite‘s opportunity to become a metaverse. The idea gathered steam at the beginning of COVID-19, as we were all forced into lockdown and had no way to socialize with each other except through games. Boring Zoom calls made us all long for something better, and that took us back to ideas that sci-fi author Neal Stephenson raised with his original Snow Crash book. And it turns out that Ball and many others believe the metaverse is moving from science fiction to reality as it becomes the next internet.
In June 2021, he tied a lot of that all together in a 30,000-word piece dubbed Metaverse Primer. That only prompted him to get started on a book where he defines the metaverse, describes its significance, and predicts how it will roll out in the future. He also came up with a way to invest in the metaverse through a project he did with others dubbed the Metaverse ETF.
Ball is an optimist about the metaverse, but he constantly brings up complicated arguments about what could slow it down or speed it up. The need for real-time communication and low-latency technology is just one of the challenges we face. His book puts some meat behind the buzzword.
And so his arguments are rooted in reality, and his optimism is tempered with the murkiness of real life. Naturally, in our interview, I peppered Ball with questions about whether gaming would lead the way or not.
I appreciated Ball mentioning that he read much of my work and interviews with Tim Sweeney, CEO of Epic Games, in coming up with his thinking for the book. Please check out GamesBeat’s own thought leadership forum, the Metaverse Forum.
Ball will be a speaker at our GamesBeat Summit Next 2022 event on October 25-26 in San Francisco, and he is likely going to talk as well at our MetaBeat 2022 event on October 3-4 in San Francisco. The book, by the way, is a good read that handles the hard work of describing the technology and defining the metaverse in elegant ways that don’t sacrifice all of the complexity. And so it’s worth your time, particularly if you want to know what the future is going to be about and whether the metaverse will truly generate trillions of dollars in new wealth.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: How long did you work on the book? At what point did you have to basically cut it off and finish it?
Matthew Ball: I began thinking about writing the book in August of 2021. That’s when I started reshaping, mentally, everything in my metaverse file, which was mostly focused on the technological aspects of the metaverse. Not as much on its history or the cultural impact, answering important questions like why gaming seems to be at the forefront of a multi-trillion-dollar successor to the internet.
I really kicked off the writing process at the end of December. I was mostly head down in January. Funny enough, I finished what was supposed to be the first working copy, and that was three days before the Activision Blizzard announcement. I had to desperately ask the publisher if I could open it back up. A few days later Microsoft came out with its open policy commitment for what they hoped the digital market would look like, where they committed to non-privileged access to APIs, a very important promise that would ultimately open up payments in the Xbox ecosystem. That was January and February, where I was doing those edits.
GamesBeat: That seems very fast, but then when you think about how many years you were thinking about the metaverse–I don’t know how long it took to do the Metaverse Primer, but that feels like homework for this book.
Ball: Certainly writing a book in five months, 350 pages, 105,000 words–every word is new. I repurposed none of my prior work. But you’re right. I spent four years preparing for that. What was in my head, what I understood, and what I knew I needed to expand my knowledge about–I had a pretty good working understanding. But certainly in November and December I was probably writing 10 to 15 hours a day.
GamesBeat: I came from the science fiction angle on the metaverse. I feel like when I read Snow Crash in 1992, that’s when I started being interested in the metaverse. But talking to Tim Sweeney and Jensen Huang in recent years, that all rekindled. Did you have something similar, a kindling moment here?
Ball: Totally. The first piece I wrote on the metaverse was at the end of 2018. “Fortnite is the Future, But Not the Future You Think.” The goal of the piece was to talk beyond what was usually discussed around Fortnite, which was just, “This is an incredibly successful game that’s free to play.” Or the idea that the purchases have no gameplay value, but that it was purely cosmetic. Or that it was the first cross-platform game and so forth. I was trying to explain that none of that was novel in and of itself. Free-to-play existed. Cosmetic items existed. Cross-platform games existed. Final Fantasy did that years ago in a multiplayer environment.
I was trying to explain the way in which it was manifesting a belief that Kim and others in the industry had had for decades. That was because in 2018, like many people I was playing a lot of Fortnite, and I was spending more time with Roblox. Between the expanded cultural impact of those titles, the way they were uniting and expanding their networks, and then just the way they were truly evolving on a week-to-week basis, that’s where I personally had this discovery, that the metaverse was transitioning from an idea captured in science fiction to something that was becoming a practical opportunity. And in fact we were already part of it.
GamesBeat: I remember that piece. I felt like it was an insight. What most people were looking at as just another game had somehow broken up in a way that it could be considered a metaverse opportunity. I do wonder where that insight came from. I didn’t detect that it came from Tim Sweeney. When he talked about the metaverse before Fortnite came out, it did seem a bit vague. It wasn’t like, “I have something in the works that will be the metaverse.” He was talking about how it should be possible to build this thing and make it in a way that looks realistic and is immersive for people. I couldn’t tell whether he meant VR or something else. But there was no clue he dropped for me that Fortnite was possibly going to be the thing. Do you think he was as surprised by that as everyone else? That insight that something on the level of Fortnite has a chance to become the metaverse.
Ball: It’s a good question. I double back on something John Carmack said, where he talks about how the best way to build the metaverse is not to try and build the metaverse. History continues to reiterate that. We’ve known since the ‘90s that having some kind of common federated identity system for the internet could be extraordinarily applicable. But Microsoft tried twice to build it, including the .NET Framework, and no one wanted it. The killer onboarding experience for a federated identity was Facebook, which originated as a “Hot or Not?” for college dorms. Much like we would say Roblox began as a virtual version of Lego for young children, and Fortnite began as a PvE game that transformed into a battle royale that then transformed into probably the most technically and creatively expressive and expansive metaverse platform.
That element of organic evolution is important. But certainly the philosophical arrangement of Kim and Epic in that was important. The Fortnite platform that started with Save the World was obviously designed to reflect the flexibility of the Unreal Engine. It took Call of Duty and Activision more than two years to launch a battle royale. It took Fortnite only a few months. The pivot to a free-to-play game was all based on their experiences of the limitations of packaged software with Gears of War, which was famously divested to Microsoft. I believe they’ve said that Fortnite launched with fewer than two dozen developers. That also reflected the idea that a really potent toolkit, in this case Unreal, has created a really nimble, social-oriented developer, which is the best opportunity to build anything globally relevant, rather than the head-down, high-budget, packaged release model that they left behind.
GamesBeat: In doing this research, do you think that some of the forks for the metaverse are going to be foundational? Or do you think some of them could be dead ends? For example, gaming as the lead foundation for the metaverse, that’s one idea. Blockchain as a fundamental technology. Some of those things, I do wonder what conclusions you may have come to.
Ball: It’s a good question. I talk a bit in the book about the protocol wars, which we tend to forget about, especially younger generations. There was never a consensus that we would have an internet, a unified networking app. Most people believed that was impossible. How could China Mobile Telecom, British Telecom, AT&T, and Comcast all use the same networking? How could they all render a web page? If you go further back even the Department of Defense, which originated the internet, and the Department of Commerce were backing different standards.
In the end one was paramount, but we learned things from those competing systems. Even though we have a unified stack today, we still have proprietary protocols, proprietary networks. We have paywalls. We have technology extensions you need to download. But there was this core underlying framework. We don’t know some elements of that. I tend to agree with Kim, who describes blockchain as an intractable mix of interacting decentralization technologies and scams. By that I mean that most of the things you’ll find are either scams, misrepresentations, or the disconnect between the value and the utility is so great that you wouldn’t differentiate between the truth and falsehood. But there’s clearly interesting underlying frameworks.
Does that impact capital raising? Does it impact in-game economies as an entitlement management layer? Or are we just going to come up with some technical learnings about distributed computing and philosophical learnings, and then we re-apply those to a different tech stack? That all remains to be seen.
GamesBeat: One interesting practical observation about who’s going to build the metaverse was from Jason Rubin. He was saying, “I have to believe the metaverse will be built with a game engine, and the people who know how to use game engines are game developers, therefore game developers will build the metaverse and gaming will lead the way.” Does that make sense? If you look at revenues on smartphones, for the longest time gaming made up way more than half of that pie, even though gaming in some ways is such a subset of all the possible things that could be on smartphones. How much of a lead horse is it?
Ball: It’s a fascinating observation, and it’s also one of the key areas of pushback. When you describe the metaverse as a successor to today’s internet, a multi-trillion-dollar opportunity, that claim almost seems in tension with the argument that the pioneers are a relatively small subset of the consumer leisure industry. Typically consumer leisure is last to adopt a new computing or networking paradigm.
I think there are three reasons why. First and foremost, we’re talking about a persistent network of interconnected realtime simulations. The best, most powerful, most scaled, endpoint-agnostic stacks to do that come from games. They’ve been practiced and developed for decades now. The second thing is, throughout my book I describe the number of technical impediments we have. The state of global broadband. The original construction of the internet, which was not designed for realtime synchronous experiences, but to share bad copies of files between two servers. And yet gaming companies also have decades of fighting against those limitations in a way that no other companies have. What Netflix pulls off remains the envy, technically, of the rest of the streaming industry, but even they have it really easy compared to multiplayer game services. So the first advantage is just where the simulation tools come from, and the second is the experience of building around the limitations of the internet.
But the third is that we’re building a parallel plane of existence. It has to be a place we want to go, full of things we want to do. It has to feel good. One of the fundamental challenges we find with the social era is that many of us find that we don’t feel good when we interact with it. It’s trained around objectives that don’t really regard our happiness. The game industry is brilliant at building virtual worlds and filling them with things that are enjoyable and fun. All of their staff have decades of training around player happiness.
My favorite example is to compare bannable offenses on a social platform with bannable offenses in a game. On the former, it’s a very literal question of hate speech and abuse. Gaming companies, of course, ask whether or not you’re deliberately frustrating someone else. Griefing is acceptable to most social media services. Griefing is a bannable offense in a game. That’s not to say that as platforms become more socially important, as they become involved in public speech–most gaming platforms don’t have to contend with things like ISIS-like radicalization. But their cultural standards, what developers have been trained to do, the feedback loops through which they measure success, that creates a different culture. I find that inspiring when it comes to the changing of the guard.
GamesBeat: I find some interesting practical thoughts as well. I interviewed a Roblox developer who said that every time brands come to him and ask him to build something, inevitably their vision is, “We want you to build a town square where people gather and our brand will be all over the place.” Then the developer says, “No, you can’t do that. This is Roblox. You have to build a game.” It’s interesting that people have this misconception about what people want to do in the metaverse. Just building a town square may not work. If you’re going to spend 12 hours a day in the metaverse, how much of that will be gaming and how much might be other stuff?
Ball: There’s so much to unpack there. If you were to ask, “What is a town square,” the answer might be the Fortnite lobby, or the creative mode select. A place where you are with your friends and you might be involved in some kind of activity, but it doesn’t have a simulator, simulacrum town square per se.
The nature of most tech is that we start with simulations. In the early iPhone the notepad app was yellow with red lines. The calendar had digits like a physical diary. The game center was a blackjack table with green felt. We start by applying the concepts that we know. I don’t think a literal town square has much utility, much like lots of these virtual real estate platforms. But a social place for congregation does make sense. This is where we might see the fundamental difference between the last 15 years of product design and the next 15 years.
Traditional social services in common platforms tell you that your primary motive should be minimizing clicks to purchase or clicks to action. The idea that you would create a lobby in something like Fortnite where you actually don’t play, but you’re not exactly stuck not playing–you’re trying on outfits. You’re talking with one another. You’re waiting for them to ready up. It’s counter to traditional UX, where you would say, “Let’s get them into a match as soon as possible.” It’s also that experience that works to tell you how different social gaming is from just Candy Crush, the traditional experience where the menu is just a necessary evil to get you to the gameplay. It’s half the point when you play Fortnite.
GamesBeat: It’s interesting how gaming is sometimes more like the excuse to join something. When I played a lot of Warzone during the pandemic, I realized that what I was enjoying was just chatting with my friends while we played. We couldn’t do that in real life at the time, so that was more interesting. The game was the excuse to do that.
Ball: There’s an example that Tim Sweeney used at SIGGRAPH in 2018 or 2019. He talked about how men in particular, because of societal norms, really need a permission structure to hang out together. There’s something perceived to be weird about me just saying, “Hey, Dean, you want to come over at 11 on Sunday?” You’d say, “Why? To do what?” if I just said, “Come over.” We all struggle with that, but men in particular, and that’s why you get the idea of, “Come over and watch the football game.” Now the idea that Dean will come over at 11 in the morning and stay until 5 in the afternoon while we sit with each other, that makes sense.
What we’re seeing in some regard is that games are the context for social connection. The neat thing about that is it’s not limited by physical ability, geographic proximity, time zones in many instances, or sometimes even hardware, which is the great thing about cross-platform gaming.
GamesBeat: I liked how you classified some of the competitors coming into this space as their own galaxies. Roblox has its own galaxy of games and metaverse-like activities. Then who shows up with a knife to a gunfight? If you have one game and Roblox has a galaxy, they’ve beaten you.
Ball: There was this term that a large game publisher used with me. They said they were thinking about how to come up with their black hole game, or a black hole platform. That sounds pejorative and you can interpret it as such. But his point was that Roblox and Fortnite are so expansive that they’re malleable for you, your friends, what the community has created, what you hope to achieve. They are themselves the collection of millions of different worlds, but more importantly, they’re so compelling that it’s difficult to pull someone out of their gravity.
This is a bit like Metcalfe’s Law. Metcalfe’s Law says that the value of a network rises disproportionately, according to the square of the number of users. But another way to put that is that your game can be better, by whatever standard you mean, than Popular Game B, but because Popular Game B is so populated, it’s much better to the player because their friends are there. His point was that you need to produce not just a great game, but a black hole game. Something that can pull people out of the event horizon. We’re not looking for iterative mechanics. We’re not looking for a better version of our popular title. We need to look at the hardest objective in the world, which is to say, “We have the best competitor that the industry has ever seen.” To your point, we need an entirely different sort of experience in order to compete for time.
GamesBeat: What are you hopeful about? When it comes to standards for the metaverse and the possibility of an actual open metaverse, are there things that lead you to believe what we have now will evolve into an open metaverse, with standards in place by the time we need them?
Ball: The last part is obviously the hardest part: “By the time we need them.” Which standards emerge when and why, from whom, and with which sorts of tradeoffs? Which is endemic to all standards. All those questions matter. I am hopeful. There are a number of different examples. I talked about the protocol wars. We saw uniform standards emerge because it was best for everyone. The single un-owned ICANN service, that didn’t preclude anyone from generating profit. It made it so that more people could generate even greater profit.
We also see a lot of stated openness. Roblox is talking a lot about how they can interoperate. They’re open-sourcing some of their scripting languages. Last week we saw the establishment of the Metaverse Standards Forum, with more than 30 giants all committing to the establishment of standards. We saw two of the five GAFAM companies, Meta and Microsoft, alongside Nvidia, Unity, and Epic, three of the most important names when it comes to building the metaverse. I’m hopeful that users want it. It’s best for society. Our experience in the world economy and the internet at large suggests that it’s the arc of most if not all technologies. And we’re seeing clear efforts to build it.
Is it hard? Yes. Is it going to be messy? For sure. Are we going to be disappointed by elements of it? Of course. Will it ever be perfect? No. But I am hopeful.
GamesBeat: What do you think about the opportunity for blockchain to be part of it? Does it run the risk of being bypassed because of what we’ve mentioned before, all the scams and such?
Ball: Most gold rushes are filled with scams and malcontents. The Klondike rush was quite real. That doesn’t mean you wouldn’t encounter faulty shovels that would be sold to you in your rush to start digging. When I was using the internet in the early ‘90s, it was impossible to convince my parents to use their credit card there. Not because they were unfamiliar with it, but because it did abound with scams. You didn’t have established providers like Paypal or Square or Stripe like we do now.
When it comes to blockchain technology, it’s always interesting to read how gamers feel about it, or rather game developers. They acutely understand what it does and does not provide. The technology they need is permissionless and “interoperable,” but that doesn’t get you anywhere near interoperable assets. That requires code and code frameworks, none of which is encapsulated in a JPG, whether it’s stored in IPFS or not.
Where I get excited about blockchain is the deep decentralized services you can provide. Is it a potential solution to peer to peer multiplayer services? Not right now, and maybe not ever, but we all agree that solving for that is going to be key to scaling the metaverse. Can it be a potential solution into decentralized provision of spare computing resources? The idea that an xCloud data center is 500 miles from me, but there’s an Xbox Series X upstairs that I don’t have access to, and it could potentially facilitate that connection. That’s interesting too.
If we’re talking about the metaverse as a multi-trillion-dollar part of the economy–Jensen Huang talked about half of the world’s GDP eventually being in the metaverse. Can blockchain and smart contracts play an important role in modernizing capital formation, for a system that today is very discriminatory, that has security flaws, that is awkward and hard to enforce? I’m hopeful there. But time will tell. And those things are a lot more interesting to me than cryptocurrency and token speculation for NFTs.
GamesBeat: What seems to fall into the realm of things that should be doable, versus technologies that should be very difficult to come up with? When we talk about the realtime internet, the realtime part might be a long way away, for example.
Ball: The realtime internet part is really difficult, and you can think about it in three different ways. Number one, we have hundreds of billions of dollars in infrastructure that has already been invested. It is very costly, and often geographically and sometimes politically impractical to overhaul that. Second, the internet protocol suite itself was not designed for realtime synchronous connectivity. We can supplement TCP/IP, it also requires pretty widespread adoption by various carriers, modems, routers, network node operators. Having that happen comprehensively is difficult. The third is the business case for this is very diffuse. Partly because social products thrive on ubiquity. Therefore, just having 10 percent of national networks improved for realtime–Epic or Riot, they’re probably not going to build to optimize for that. It’s more important to have an acceptable product with more users. That’s really hard.
The XR devices, to me, are fascinating. We know that Meta has kicked out its first consumer AR glasses three times this decade. In 2015 Mark said that by the end of the decade we would replace smartphones with wearables. We’re seeing that this is a really tough problem. I find that gamers have the best appreciation for this. We all understand the constraints around a console. Can you mass produce it? Can the cost be roughly $500? Can we convince people to buy it? And then what do we not really need to worry about? We don’t need to worry about battery life because it’s always connected. Size only has to be small enough to fit under a credenza. The PlayStation 5 is four times larger than the first PlayStation and no one minds. We don’t need to manage for heat, either. We cram enormous fans in them and we sit several feet away.
When you’re talking about XR devices, you’re not just talking about the miniaturization of everything. We’re also talking about new sensors, which is something a console has never had. You need to take the battery with you. You need the weight to not break your neck. You need it to not melt your face, and you can’t put a fan in it. We’re finding that these problems are extraordinary. I know a large number of people who believe that the timeline for these devices is more than 15 years. It depends on either scalable solutions in quantum computing or such extraordinary advances in battery life that we should stop paying attention to the headlines until we hear someone has figured it out.
GamesBeat: When it comes to understanding and confusion around the metaverse, what do you think about that? You went to a lot of trouble talking about definitions of the metaverse and what parts of it are necessary, like 3D and so forth. But I do hear a lot of people saying that the metaverse will fail because they get sick when they put on a VR headset. There’s that basic assumption about what it is.
Ball: One of the interesting things at this point in time is we’re all so much more knowledgeable about platform shifts. 20 years ago no one talked about disruption. Least of all Time magazine, or the front page of the New York Times. Now it’s a consumer-friendly term. We lived through Yahoo, MySpace, Blockbuster. We know what happened to Facebook through the acquisition of Instagram. We’re seeing a very public rush to the next computing platform, but I don’t think it’s here yet. The metaverse is still going to unfold over the coming decade. That naturally leads to whipsawing. What’s the role of blockchain? The role of VR hardware is also debatable.
We’re having this very public debate as to what exactly is and is not the metaverse. What’s going to be required? What isn’t? Should we evaluate success based on Meta, on Oculus, on NFTs and so forth? That’s unique. We didn’t do this in earlier days. In the end it’s going to come down to products that are built over decades. It’s no mistake that the two forerunners in the space, Nvidia and Epic, have been focused since the early ‘90s, even if they were unknown to most.
One of the most interesting things about VR is that from my perspective, it’s not a requirement for the metaverse. We should think of it instead as an access point or a device category, which may become the best or preferred or most popular access to the metaverse. But it’s not a requirement. We saw an interesting thread from Neal Stephenson the other day where he pointed out that yes, his version of the metaverse was VR- and AR-centric, and that was a reasonable hypothesis at the time. Not many people were online, no more than 15 million in the United States. The idea that billions of people would immerse themselves in a simulated environment with WASD or tapping a primitive touch screen – this is when the Newton was in development – was impossible.
In 2022 we know that hundreds of millions of people do that daily. Billions of people do that on a quarterly basis. Virtual reality is an opportunity for debate, not a strict requirement for the metaverse to emerge.
GamesBeat: As you did the research here, did you find particular individuals who were interesting on this subject across the decades?
Ball: It’s funny you bring this up, because the top citation I have in my book is Tim Sweeney’s Twitter. And then the second is you. That’s because you both have been talking about this longer than anyone else I know as a specific theme. Of course there are those like Wagner James Au, who’s been talking about Second Life and virtual communities for decades. Phil Rosedale has been as well. But the metaverse as a specific opportunity, you two have been talking about it since 2014 or 2015. That’s interesting as a specific lens into non-buzzword contemplation, but also a very clear history of evolving thinking.
For example, I would surmise that Tim, like many others, was more imminent than it turned out to be a few years ago. You can also see that perspectives on what the hard technology problems are have changed over the years. He’s become increasingly skeptical of blockchain technology, partly because it has shifted from engineering, development, and projects into financial speculation. Certainly that perspective, as well as Jensen’s–he has been very valuable talking about the advent of graphics-based computing, what is possible, what will be possible soon, and what that means. Those have been the most illuminating resources, far more important than any talking points used today.
GamesBeat: What do you think of some of these estimates that folks have come up with? You did the metaverse ETF. But it must be interesting to see estimates from the likes of McKinsey and Citi and others, all talking about trillions of dollars now.
Ball: It’s an interesting question. Tim Sweeney and Mark Zuckerberg have been quoted saying they believe this is a multi-trillion-dollar opportunity. That means at minimum it’s probably 3-5 percent of the world’s GDP. Jensen talks about it being half the world’s GDP at some unspecified time. But if we say that’s 2040, that means the economy of the metaverse would be in excess of $70 trillion. McKinsey says $5 trillion. PWC, KPMG, Citibank, Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, they’ve all placed estimates between $8 trillion and $13 trillion by 2030 or 2032, by the end of this decade or the decade henceforth.
Ultimately the answer is unknowable. We won’t even know in 2030. There are only the loosest definitions of the digital economy today, because it’s a nested question. When you buy a book on Amazon, is that digital revenue? If so, what percentage is allocated to the digital store? It’s still manufactured physically. You still read it physically. It’s still shipped to you physically. We can come up with estimates for that, but then you have to come up with estimates for what that means for an ebook. What if you learned about it by way of a social media platform? The UN estimates that nearly 20 percent of world GDP is digital, but of course we know that nearly all of the remaining 80 percent is either digitally powered or digitally provided.
That’s where we get to the core point, which is that if the metaverse is the next frontier for computing and networking, we expect that the companies who lead it will have disproportionate influence over the global economy. If the metaverse is even $2 trillion by 2027 or 2030, it will be tens of percentage points of growth in the global economy. That means that those companies will be the most highly rewarded by shareholders, gaining the largest multiples. They’ll attract much of the best talent. Their business models will start to reshape the world at large. In particular, if you back out GDP growth that comes from staple goods, such as refrigerators, cars, food, energy, which are extraordinarily large but drop off every year, we see an even greater share of global growth in the economy.