Like it or not, metaverse fever is rising. From the flamboyant Travis Scott towering over Fortnite players, to costumed avatars fighting over spreadsheets on Teams, to Facebook swapping his face for Meta, it seems like there’s been an onslaught of new virtual playgrounds taking over. life every day. But for every new virtual world that is born, there is a digital graveyard of realms that are already dead.
Today, “The Metaverse” is actually less definitive than it seems. Science fiction author Neal Stephenson originally coined the term in 1992 in his book Snowfall, which depicts a huge cyberscape of computer-generated, human-controlled, internet-connected splatter characters. In Stephenson’s book, there was one virtual world to rule them all. But our reality is more nebulous. David Bohnett, the creator of GeoCities, an iconic interconnected society of mid-90s websites, told The Daily Beast that the metaverse is “how you define your online presence within a virtual community or ‘a virtual world’.
GeoCities was revolutionary because it allowed users to create digital real estate organized by physical and geographic identity. He practically mapped the internet out of interest. “I might make a webpage in Nashville because I want to talk about country music. Or I could create a page in Area 51 because I want to talk about UFOs,” Bohnett said. “There isn’t just one metaverse, just like there isn’t just one Internet. There is a fractionalization of the internets and there will always be parts stuck, disconnected or surviving in different corners of space. GeoCities is a great example.
As internet speeds increased and users became interested in sculpting their identity online, the story and gameplay began to take hold, which spawned new metaverses. First there were MUDs, or multi-user dungeons. These were text-based online games, like LamdaMOO and CaptionMUD, which invited players to search, fight and share rewards together. Then came games with crudely rendered graphical figures like The Shadow of Yserbius and Nights without winter. In the late 1990s, metaverse designers began experimenting with scalable worlds, monsters, seasonal trappings, and player versus player arenas. But like anything born in cyberspace, what’s online must also be offline.
““There isn’t just one metaverse, just like there isn’t just one Internet. There is a fractionalization of the internets and there will always be parts that will be blocked, that will be disconnected or that will survive in different corners of space.””
— David Bohnett, creator of GeoCities
There are many things that can go wrong in cyberspace and ultimately bring down a metaverse. It mostly has to do with the financial upkeep of adding patches, stories, and new characters, things that make the world feel fully alive. But once the cord is definitively cut, how does this end play out in the theater of the game?
A famous event was detailed by Richard Garriot, president of the Explorers Club and creator of Ultima Online, in his book Explore/Create. In 1997, Ultima Online, a fantasy role-playing world where players could slay monsters or compete against each other, was one of the most successful massively multiplayer games on the market. But as the project transitioned from its beta phase to an open market, Garriot ran into a problem. He would need to reset the server and erase all player data. This meant that everyone in the game would lose their hard-earned homes, weapons, and experience levels. It was the end of the beginning.
To commemorate the death of the old world and the birth of the new, Garriott planned to travel with his immortal avatar, Lord British, from town to town giving speeches, thanking everyone, and saying goodbye. Sometimes players responded in hilarious ways, as Garriott described in Explore/Create“When I arrived in Moon Glow City, I found the players lined up facing us. And then, in unison, all the characters took off their pants and bowed. We were mooning in Moon Glow .
However, his tour was not all lunar parades. When he appeared on the wall overlooking the town square in Trinsic, Lord British was hit by a common fireball sent by a regular player and was killed instantly. The supreme hero of the game, immortal and all-powerful. Dead. This was not how Garriott had planned to end the world. It seems he forgot to code in Lord British’s god mode for the final ceremony and now his hero has been killed in front of all his followers.
“There was really only one thing to do,” Garriott said. “Kill them all.” He and the rest of his team brought down fire and brimstone, summoning demons, devils, and dragons, eventually wiping out the last remaining players with a fervent thunderstorm that set the land ablaze. Shortly after, the server was restarted and everyone started fresh.
Although unplanned, the mass extermination event in Ultima Online set the tone for the next wave of metaverses that would blossom and wither. In 2004, Warner Bros. and Sega have released The Matrix Online, a massively multiplayer experience set in the world of the famous cyberpunk film. The Matrix Online had all the right elements: a huge fanbase, top-tier production studios, and the blessing of the movie directors, the Wachowskis, to continue the story in canon where the movies left off.
Things didn’t go as planned. Ben Chamberlain, the last full-time person working on the game, told The Daily Beast: “The game launched with little permanent content, and never really had much more, and the content that found there was different from what people were used to from other massively multiplayer games.
There was also the shocking fact that then-head writer Paul Chadwick decided to kill Morpheus, the show’s all-knowing cyber-prophet, in the game. Morpheus wasn’t in the last Matrix movie, and it’s assumed to be because he died in The Matrix Online.
In 2009, The Matrix Online had fallen to less than 500 subscribers and had to shut down, but not without a crash. Chamberlain recalls that he quit before the servers finally went down and the lightning apocalypse killed the remaining Matrix players. A “meat mush” effect was employed, causing the figures to collapse into small balled objects. With all the characters lifeless, burned, and covered in meat on the ground, the game eventually went dark.
Perhaps the best virtual end of time came to the massively multiplayer Stars Wars Galaxies outfit in 2011. When players logged in 24 hours before the final logout, they were greeted with the exuberant message: “The forces of freedom finally overthrew tyranny. of the Galactic Empire. The good guys had finally won…at least in the game. In the event of closure, the dark side of intellectual property rights resulted in the termination of the game’s license agreement in order to make way for the next iteration of the franchise, The Old Republic.
Declaring a winner allowed players to experience the final minutes of Star Wars Galaxies according to their own narrative of good versus evil. Some flew X-Wings and Tie-Fighters, cinematically drag it on the worlds of Theed and Cornet for control of the Death Star. Others jubilantly launched fireworks on the Millennium Falcon. A few, including a specific player named Ron Burgundy– assaulted NPC Luke Skywalker, ultimately slaying the Jedi Master in a great concert of firepower.
It’s harder to summon the apocalypse when your metaverse is less about cinematic good versus evil and more about socializing through life’s many shades. This was the case with The Sims Online (later named EA Land). There was no fire or brimstone. Instead, players delivered sobbing goodbye before the game starts to de-pixelate – not with a bang, but with a whine. The final days of The Sims Online were chronicled by Henry Lowoodarchival researcher at Stanford and leader of a project called How they got the game, which seeks to salvage what happens inside the Metaverses. “The Sims Online wasn’t a great experience, but the community was,” Dr. Lowood told The Daily Beast. “There was a lot of writing coming out of space, a lot of academics and experimenters. So when the community is removed, it hurts more than if the game itself was gone.
Lowood is part of a growing contingent seeking to save expired digital worlds through digital archaeology. In 2009, when GeoCities finally shut down, every GeoCities web page was archived in a 652 GB torrent file. years, but ultimately survived through open-source modding, which allows for new community-created narrative updates. Along the same lines (although not allowed), a dishonest programmer has gone on its quest to keep The Matrix Online alive, be it in a slightly more raw state with very limited gameplay. And Myst Online, the online co-op branch of the popular puzzle game, has apparently found new life thanks to Machinimaor use video games to create film productions.
Chris Kirsme, co-creator of Meridian 59, has been researching for so long what it takes to keep games like his alive. He thinks one of the most important parts of any metaverse is the economy, “which needs to be kept balanced and fun for players.”
“Most companies hire chief economists to track everything,” Krisme told The Daily Beast. “They report on how many gold coins were created yesterday and spent today. Every persistent world game sees its economy go haywire. And then it’s not fun. People find an achievement and duplicate a rare item and render that item worthless, so you have to constantly fix the economy to keep people playing.
Kirsme also believes that life in the metaverse is getting more and more complicated when it comes to cryptocurrency and web3. In the traditional multiplayer landscape, “if the business is gone, it’s gone,” he said. “While, at least conceptually, if everything is stored publicly on a blockchain, someone else could still use that data to do different things with it.”
But despite the raw data surviving on the blockchain, Kirsme is also a reminder of the fact that you’ll need the social aspect of the game to keep it alive. Meridian 59, in particular, is a heavy game about players versus other players, which means there’s always the looming threat of being jumped by bandits in forests or dungeons. Thus, for safety, players travel in packs and take care of each other. “The people of Meridian unite to get through the tough areas, they also need to unite to avoid them,” Krisme said. “They need each other most of the time just to survive.”
This is the heart of the problem. Whether expired metaverses are archived, reused, or unable to be deleted, in the end it’s really up to the players whether the world stays alive. After all, if there’s no one to participate in the experience, perhaps being forgotten is the closest thing to actually dying.