This week in Protocol Gaming, your weekly guide to the business of video games: Meta plants its metaverse flag, Roblox suffers a massive and debilitating outage and Tencent's TiMi announces a bold new direction for its biggest moneymaker.
Meta wants to own the metaverse, but it's still anyone's game
The flag-planting keynote delivered by Meta, née Facebook, last week was a major turning point for the metaverse movement, and one we'll remember for years to come. The social networking giant shed its trappings as a stodgy tech firm and instead embraced a new identity marked by a fusion of next-gen computing, optical hardware, futuristic gaming and all the social and commerce components threaded in between.
It's starting with a rebrand, from Facebook to Meta. But CEO Mark Zuckerberg made clear, underneath the euphemisms, that his ambitions are to own as much as possible of what he sees as the newest frontier poised to replace the smartphone as our primary mode of communication, play, work and online expression.
Meta has a bold vision, but it doesn't exist yet. Many of the biggest advancements in technology have happened by accident, through a confluence of luck, good timing and unforeseen consequences. Meta itself is a benefactor of this historic happenstance, having ridden an early wave as a college dating site. But now the company wants to architect a future where it stays dominant, and in very public fashion, too.
- Much of this vision hinges on Zuckerberg's insistence that this new internet being built will be a better, healthier, more privacy-minded space than the internet now controlled by a small handful of gigantic corporations.
- But Zuckerberg's call for interoperability and improved universal standards feels hollow and impractical, and his answers on the subject haven't inspired confidence that the metaverse of tomorrow will be much different than the internet of today, especially when Meta appears to be betting its entire financial future on reaping profits from it.
- Say whatever you like about Ernest Cline's "Ready Player One," but the novel mapped the contours of the tech history alarmingly well when it forecasted a dystopian metaverse created by a game developer who ultimately wanted nothing to do with it. Whether it's just one, a handful or even many companies that end up owning the future of computing, it seems incredibly unlikely it will be a place marked by corporate harmony and social bliss.
Oculus is evidence that money alone can't usher in new paradigms. The earliest sign that Zuckerberg and his leadership team were plotting for a post-mobile future was the Oculus acquisition in 2014. But in the years since, VR has failed to take off with mainstream consumers, despite Meta's massive financial investments in the space.
- Exec Jason Rubin, a game industry veteran of almost 40 years who now leads Metaverse Content for Meta, wrote in 2018 that "the right way to break through consumer indifference to VR" was to deliver an all-encompassing, "fully baked" metaverse. "The Metaverse is ours to lose," he argued in the memo, obtained by CNBC.
- Many of Meta's efforts to try and build early versions of such an experience have been stymied by its own corporate priorities. Meta time and again alienated its core VR gaming audience in favor of a mainstream one that didn't yet exist, choosing to promote short-lived trends like 360-degree video and now-infamously requiring new headset buyers to have a Facebook account (backlash to which was so severe it reportedly inspired the Meta rebrand).
- The company is now scrapping the entire Oculus brand, opting instead to brand its headsets with the Meta name and announcing plans to create an all-new login system detangled from Facebook. That might not be enough to detoxify the association in the eyes of the public.
Game makers like Epic and Roblox already have the most important metaverse ingredient. Meta is banking on using its resources, technical talent and years of work on augmented and virtual reality to create the fundamental building blocks of the metaverse ahead of the competition. But what Meta lacks is precisely what the metaverse needs and what gaming companies offer in spades: a reason for people to spend their time there.
- Zuckerberg's metaverse pitch imagines people logging in to connect with friends, play games, perform work and, above all else, buy products and view ads. But it's not clear whether a critical mass of people will want that to be their primary computing experience or will feel any incentive to do so just because the tech allows it.
- Meta only survived so long because it ruthlessly bought or copied the competition, and people had few other options for social tools used by a majority of the people they know. Over time, we've begun drifting away, to Twitch and TikTok and back to private chats. Meanwhile, video games are proving more popular than ever before as people decide to spend their free time in less reality-based environments.
- What the metaverse needs is fun, or, in other words, video games. The reason Fortnite and Roblox have become such successful platforms is that they are highly adaptive, transmedia spaces capable of being many things to many people, but all under the guise of play.
- That's not to say Roblox is without its moderation problems — it has plenty — or that Epic Games has a vision substantially bolder or more humane than Meta's. But both are popular because they are platforms people want to spend time on, not because they have to for work or social obligation, but because they are fun. And Meta and its current product family are anything but fun.
In many ways, the Meta name change was a savvy optics play at a moment of intense regulatory and public scrutiny. But we should, and have to, take Zuckerberg seriously when he says the company will invest billions of dollars to steer his corporate ship toward this new future. His keynote address was awash in utopian ideals, but many of the underlying motives are designed to enrich the company regardless of whether we come remotely close to the world Zuckerberg illustrated.
Ultimately it is up to us to decide whether to accept or reject his proposal, or simply pick another game to play. After last Thursday, it's all but certain there will be many metaverses to choose from long before any one platform wins out.
A MESSAGE FROM QUALCOMM
Think about the massive amounts of data going through all of our smart devices today. And not just between the devices but also up to the cloud and across the networks — all that bandwidth is increasingly brought to us through 5G. This powerful combination of new capability and speed leads to massive innovation.
- "[Blockchain] will imply more play-to-earn that will enable more players to actually earn content, own content, and we think it's going to grow the industry quite a lot. We've been working with lots of small companies going on blockchain and we're starting to have a good know-how on how it can impact the industry, and we want to be one of the key players here." ―Ubisoft Chief Financial Officer Frédérick Duguet spoke about the play-to-earn trend picking up steam in the game industry on the company's earnings call last week.
- "We will publish a post-mortem with more details once we've completed our analysis, along with the actions we'll be taking to avoid such issues in the future. In addition, we will implement a policy to make our creator community economically whole as a result of this outage." ―Roblox CEO David Baszucki penned a blog post after the company's worst ever outage this past weekend, saying Roblox intends to compensate creators after the game's more than 40 million players were unable to log in.
- Epic poaches a Facebook exec for the metaverse. The Fortnite creator has hired Matthew Henick, a former Facebook vice president of content strategy, to work on its metaverse team, according to a report last week from The Information.
- Microsoft's Xbox financials highlight software struggles. Microsoft released its Q1 financial results last week, showing a strong surge in Xbox hardware revenue compared with last year. But the growth of Xbox Game Pass, which has been slower than anticipated, couldn't offset only modest gains in third-party game sales.
- Nintendo says goodbye to its California office. Nintendo has decided to close long-running offices in both Redwood City and Toronto, Kotaku reported last week. The company is now consolidating its North American personnel into its other offices in Redmond and Vancouver.
- 343 Industries sets a sunset date for Halo 3. With Halo Infinite releasing in December and the Master Chief Collection supporting the legacy catalog, 343 Industries is shutting down the online multiplayer servers for Halo 3, Halo Reach and Halo 4, among other older titles in the series, marking a definitive end to the franchise's Xbox 360 era.
- Amy Hennig is making a Marvel game. The former Naughty Dog writer, who worked as creative director on the Uncharted series, is leading an all-new Marvel game as part of her role at Skydance New Media, the interactive entertainment division of the Hollywood production company Hennig co-founded with EA's Julian Beak.
- Fortnite is shutting down in China. Epic's three-year experiment in bringing its battle royale hit to the Chinese market is coming to a close, Kotaku reported on Monday. Epic made adjustments to Fortnite to make the game more palatable to the country's government, but concerns over Beijing's gaming crackdown may have played a role here.
- Sega taps Azure for next-gen development. The Japanese gaming giant has entered into a "strategic alliance" with Microsoft to use the company's cloud platform for "large-scale, global games in a next-generation development environment." That's a lot of buzzwords, but it's clear Sega is trying to chart a path forward, and it thinks Microsoft's tech will help it do that.
- Grand Theft Auto in virtual reality. As part of Facebook's Connect presentation and big rebranding, the company dropped a surprise VR gaming announcement: a port of the 2004 classic Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas coming to Oculus (soon to be Meta) headsets. Get ready to ride off Mount Chiliad on a BMX bike, but this time with more potential nausea.
TiMi starts branching out
TiMi has started making a name for itself. The company, a subsidiary of Tencent known best for developing mobile hits for both the Chinese and Western markets, announced this week it's expanding its trademark property Honor of Kings into a multi-platform, open-world action RPG. The game, one of the most lucrative on the planet with more than 100 million players and $10 billion in lifetime revenue, could soon find all-new audiences outside the mobile-centric Asia market.
It's part of a broader effort from TiMi, which now has a heavy studio presence in the U.S., to break out of the mobile industry and expand aggressively into the console and PC markets. Given Tencent's track record so far and the success of TiMi's Pokémon Unite, which is both a console and mobile hit, the reimagined Honor of Kings won't be the last big-budget game announcement from the studio.
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