For Castronova, the techno-utopian excitement of metaverse acolytes belies the central question – Is the content good enough to compete with distractions such as Netflix, YouTube, TikTok and other games, and to encourage gamers to return in ever-increasing numbers?
Those who have made money from virtual earth have been beneficiaries of hype cycles, he says, not investors in products that offer solid value in the attention economy.
Dominant market leaders have yet to emerge. Virtual events can attract viewers for one-off occasions, but they don’t offer a barrier against new entrants.
“There’s nothing stopping anyone else from building this,” says angel investor Paul Griffiths, who compares owning metaverse lands to “star registries,” the unofficial naming rights lists for stellar bodies with no real provenance.
“It’s kind of the same problem you see with NFTs,” says software developer and crypto-skeptic Stephen Diehl. “Who’s to say what the ‘real market’ is when there are 40 different channels and 30 different markets, and each claims to be the source of the truth?”
Diehl also criticizes the artificial scarcity of metaverse projects.
Griffiths says the main utility is to create virtual mock-ups of real buildings, which provides bragging rights. “Sell something that is a big physical asset 3D [like a virtual version of a physical house] That’s where I see virtual transactions come in handy,” he says. “I don’t think people will go into a virtual world to order food.”
Gaynor acknowledges that the next generation of Metaverse will have a “second engine advantage” and will likely move away from the generalist approach taken by current competitors.
With a few exceptions, such as the blockchain game Axie Infinity – which allows players to earn cryptocurrencies that they can cash out in the physical economy – there are no “killer apps”.
There are also questions about what happens to the long-term future of metaverse purchases. Game servers were shut down after companies deemed the cost of running them too high – The Matrix Online, based on the film franchise, has been shut down following a particularly gruesome body horror sequence.
“Let’s imagine you’re playing a blockchain game, and you have a 62-house NFT, and the game disconnects – it is true that you own the NFT, but it has no value,” says Castronova. “No court has established the obligation for a company to continue to supply electricity to servers so that you can access them.”