No one knows what the Metaverse is. The phrase, which has become one of the most popular fundraising lingo rolled out in boardrooms across the country, is notoriously enigmatic. Can the metaverse be defined as a social space where gamers meet? A multiverse divided into separate parcels of land, governed by the ruthless laws of capital? Another extension of the risky NFT gambit? Ask a million game developers and you’ll probably get a million different answers. You could argue that we’ve already been living in the metaverse for decades – after all, I spent much of my youth hanging out outside the Ironforge auction house in World of Warcraft. You could also argue that the metaverse is a distant dream that can only be achieved by nostalgic futuristic technology; we’re all on our way to a digital utopia using Star Trek’s holodeck. Perhaps it’s better and more honest to think of the Metaverse as something studios create on the fly, rather than a concrete ideal we aspire to. In this sense, Fortnite should be seen as the bearer of this strange new frontier.
I’m a Fortnite career skeptic. When the game’s Battle Royale mode burst onto the scene on September 26, 2017, just two months after the launch of the base Save the World mode, I was happy to write off Epic’s latest venture as a strained attempt, desperate to take advantage of PlayerUnknown’s . Battlegrounds. boom. Months later, while Fortnite had certainly left all its competitors in the dust, I still saw the game as a whimsical, fleeting fad; a flavor of the month, surely steamrolled by the influx of world-beating Infinity Ward and Respawn interpretations of the upcoming genre. It happened – Warzone and Apex Legends are both massive hits – and Epic countered those inroads by… adding a payload of cross-fiction skins to their video games. It certainly wouldn’t work. Fortnite was a glorified mod that got lucky; he was parachuted into the absolute climax of Battle Royale’s white-hot revolution, and the ability to take control of, say, Thanos certainly wasn’t going to stop him from falling back into obscurity. When Tim Sweeney started talking about Fortnite as a smaller game and more of a decentralized social experience, I thought Epic had officially lost the plot. how on earth is anyone going hang out in a video game where the main way to interact with other players is through a gun?
Fortnite is a game. But please ask this question again in 12 months.
— Tim Sweeney (@TimSweeneyEpic) 26 December 2019
Years later, I’m ready to admit defeat to my anti-Fortnite prejudices. Epic has doubled down and tripled down on the belief that their product can transcend all the established boundaries of a video game – morphing into a self-proclaimed metaverse – and I think it’s officially undeniable that they’ve nailed it. Alex Perry at Mashable has a good overview of the many ways in which Fortnite has achieved breakout speed with all its whimsical gameplay experiments. A game of Battle Royale always has winners or losers, yes, but in Fortnite you can also “explore the big map and do quests to unlock crazy skins and accessories,” he wrote. “You can go ‘fishing’. You can hop in a car with a working radio and just cruise the countryside, or do the same with a boat in one of the massive lakes on the map.”
– Advertising –
All of this, of course, is filtered through a frankly astonishing catalog of custom pop culture costumes that make real-life Ready Player One wishes come true. Thanos, introduced in 2018, was only the tip of the iceberg. Now, anyone in the Fortnite realm can transform into John Cena, Spider-Gwen, or the Demogorgon, to name a few. The skins that officially won me over? I introduced the cast of Dragon Ball Z. I watched Goku blast a Kamehameha across the map – securing the Victory Royale – and realized that this was exactly the kind of video game fantasy I’d been dreaming of back then. 12 years old. Fortnite keeps getting bigger and weirder, and that’s all I really want from what the metaverse should be.
There is a pervasive negative aura whenever game studios start talking about the Metaverse. We’ve already seen outright outcry from Ubisoft fans and Square Enix fans as the heads of those two companies began making twists and turns for a crypto-heavy trans-reality future. It is quite easy to diagnose where this negativity comes from; The bulk of most metaverse presentations rely on massive NFT integrations – despite the fact that no one has proven for sure that players are interested in, for example, auctioning off a coded weapon skin on the blockchain. Some of the model’s biggest advocates, like Facebook, have proven to be unreliable actors in our private and public lives, and now we’re expected to forget their reputations and go live in their worlds? Buy and sell digital material under their watchful eye? You are not wrong to be suspicious. Me too.
“There is a fear that [crypto] influence will exhaust good design principles, creating an environment where video game experiences are increasingly prioritized by financial thresholds, creating a negative experience for consumers,” I wrote in a metaverse story for Vox earlier this year. “So far, publishers have not been able to allay these concerns.”
I think that’s what makes Fortnite such an outlier, and why players seem so much more optimistic about its metaversal potential. Yes, apparently Epic is a for-profit company and the skins sold on Fortnite all have a price. But these assets aren’t wasted on some nefarious blockchain membership program, and as a result, we don’t feel like we’re being sold a bag of goods. You don’t buy the Goku skin because you think it will be a good investment one day when you return it to a potential buyer for a good trade of sweet, sweet Ethereum. No, you buy the Goku skin for simply to be Goku. It’s the same priority in the nascent Fortnite metaverse; every decision Epic makes with the game seems tied to loose, living joy for players. This is not a metaverse masquerading as a Ponzi scheme or a cash-for-work scheme; you come to Fortnite to have fun, and with the countless ways Epic continues to expand what’s possible in a multiplayer match — from Ariana Grande concerts to the Infinity Gauntlet — the Metaverse suddenly seems like something worthy to get excited.
So do I have a better understanding of what the Metaverse is supposed to be now that Fortnite has won me over? Not really. At its core, Fortnite remains a battle royale game, and no fancy mini-game or crossover event is going to change that anytime soon. But perhaps the obfuscation could work in Epic’s favor; perhaps it will be the company that sets player expectations for any publisher that welcomes players into their own metaverses. I can’t comment on the scientific intricacies of the concept, but I can safely say that the Metaverse should be a source of great laughs. This should give the impression that anything is possible. This should allow us to shoot our friend in the air disguised as Dr. Strange, while we ourselves are disguised as John Cena. If we’re all having this much fun, maybe Epic is right. We will all be entangled in the metaverse one day without ever realizing it.
Luke Winkie is a freelance writer for IGN.