A screenshot of the Horizon Worlds game Arena Crash.
Screenshot: Protocol

Confessions of a metaverse unicorn

Protocol Entertainment

Hello, and welcome to Protocol Entertainment, your guide to the business of the gaming and media industries. This Friday, we tell you what it’s like to be a regular user of Meta’s Horizon Worlds platform.

Despite all the bugs, Horizon can be fun

Hardly anyone is using Horizon Worlds, Meta’s big bet on the metaverse. The social VR platform is attracting just 200,000 monthly active users, according to The Wall Street Journal. That’s severely missing the mark for a company that’s operating multiple services with billions of users, as my colleague Nick Statt pointed out earlier this week.

And this is where I have to make a confession: I am one of those 200,000.

I started exploring Horizon Worlds earlier this year, and after a few false starts, I found Arena Clash, a Horizon Worlds launch title that the company describes as “a team-based laser tag game.” Arena Clash lets you compete in two teams of up to three players, and each game takes just five minutes. Perfect for a quick distraction during your lunch break, or a way to wind down at night without having to commit to hours-long gameplay.

I should mention that I am one of those people who likes to tell others that “I’m not a gamer.” Nonetheless I fell in love with Arena Clash, to the point where I have now played a couple hundred games and fired more than 100,000 shots, if the in-game stats are to be believed. And while there are players who are far more skilled, I somehow managed to become fairly decent at it.

In fact, I currently rank among the game’s top 500 players.

Whether that’s an achievement or not is very much up to debate, which tells you as much about the state of Horizon Worlds as my VR gaming skills. The platform had 300,000 monthly active users at the beginning of this year, and Arena Clash’s in-game scoreboard suggests it has attracted around 285,000 players to date.

However, many of those players may have just joined once, only to never return. It’s also common practice among players to have alt accounts, with some suggesting that starting over with a new account is the only way to avoid some of the game’s glitches.

And there are many, many glitches, as anyone who has played more than a handful of matches can tell you.

  • Arena Clash is supposed to give every player a basic handgun to start, with more powerful weapons scattered across the game map itself. For a long time, people would frequently appear in the game without a gun, unable to defend themselves.
  • More recently, players have occasionally been able to keep shooting others even after they have been knocked out.
  • Sometimes, players don’t die at all.
  • Sometimes, players whose headset has run out of battery remain stuck in the game.
  • There are days when the game doesn’t work at all, or when it appears to severely lag for every player.
  • Sometimes, the Horizon Worlds app crashes completely.
  • At other times, the 360-degree view of the world around you is replaced with a black tunnel, with a slice of the Arena Clash world in front of you, and an upside-down version of it mirrored behind you — a pretty jarring, stomach-churning experience.

There are also some moderation challenges. Overall, Arena Clash players are a good-natured bunch, with the occasional playful trash-talking. Still, people are people, and some people aren’t much fun to be around.

  • One time, I overheard someone threatening to find out another player’s real-life address to “f--- them up.” By the time I was able to pull up the menu to start a poll to ban the player, the next game had already started, and I couldn’t figure out who the culprit was.
  • One time, a player somehow managed to load a pornographic image onto their Horizon Worlds selfie camera and showed it to unsuspecting bystanders.
  • Horizon Worlds is supposed to be 18 and over, but there are frequently players who sound much younger. Many of them fit right in, but some are prone to homophobic slurs.

And yet, despite all of this, I keep returning to the game, together with a bunch of other diehards and a small but steady flow of casual players.

  • Part of the attraction is that Arena Clash is a form of low-effort social fun. You get to have these short-burst intense adventures with other people, and you can always take off your headset when you’ve had enough.
  • Even so, there are some real moments of joy beyond the gameplay. At times, people share sweet stories about their jobs, pets, or loved ones between games. One time, someone even started an impromptu rap session.
  • Players far better than me have been organizing regular tournaments.
  • A few people have taken the Arena Clash map and created their own variations, which can be fun to explore.
  • The not-quite-ready-for-primetime nature of Horizon Worlds has also contributed to an atmosphere of camaraderie, with more-experienced players regularly helping newcomers get the hang of things.

Arena Clash is proof that Horizon Worlds can be fun, despite some of its technical shortcomings. Sure, it would be great if there were a lot more players, and squashing some of those bugs may be a good first step to make Horizon more popular. But my ongoing fascination with Arena Clash has also taught me that it’s more important to give people something engaging to do together than obsess over building the perfect platform.

If I was in charge of Horizon Worlds, I would spend less time worrying about creating perfect-looking avatars, borderline-creepy living rooms, monetization tools that won’t make anyone any money without an audience to sell to, or half-baked replacements for real-life interactions. Heck, I don’t even care about legs! Instead, I’d love to see more first-party games in the same vein as Arena Clash that can draw a crowd.

Because ultimately, without new users, Horizon will remain a barren playground for metaverse unicorns like me.


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