The Oasis from Ready Player One will soon be a reality

We live in exciting times. From rockets soon moving us towards Mars, to robots that can perform a backflip, AI getting better at diagnosing than the average doctor, and now with quantum computers, it feels as if many science-fiction fantasies are slowly moving out of fiction, and into the realm of science. Ready Player One hits theaters this week, continuing a long tradition of similar books and movies (Snow Crash, The Matrix, The Thirteenth Floor, Caprica, etc) about another one of these old Sci-Fi dreams: virtual worlds. How far are we to see the creation of such a technology, often called a “metaverse”? What exactly are the technical and design challenges that would stand in the way? How could such a metaverse become beneficial for everyone in all communities around the world? I will argue in the following that virtual worlds will soon join the list of Sci-Fi dreams that will become real, illustrating the point with the recent launch of Dual Universe. Dual Universe is an online “civilization building MMO” that has received $1M support in crowdfunding backing in 2016, and is now getting close to hitting alpha stage with 10,000 supporters logging in to help shape this virtual universe.

The technological challenges

Imagine you want to build a giant virtual reality world for millions of people to share. Apart from the 3D rendering requirement, which is now perfectly mastered by the game industry, what are the technological challenges you face? There are two types of issues here: those relative to the technological environment needed to build your product, and those relative to your product itself.

The technological environment is everything the virtual world will depend on to function: the average computing and 3D rendering capabilities of consumer computers, the Internet and average bandwidth you can expect from customers, and the cloud technologies to deploy your servers. All of these technologies have made tremendous progress in the last decade, streaming huge amounts of data in a scalable way, and rendering stunning 3D environments in real time. It’s a critical question to evaluate, but I think we have now crossed the barrier beyond which it becomes possible, provided that you know how to deliver in principle a rich and engaging experience in a distributed way to millions of people inside a virtual world. I am not talking about a photo-realistic, complete real-time experience, but a flow of information that is sufficient to immerse oneself into a reconstructed virtual reality, with just a few trade-offs.

Now, regarding the technology of the product itself there are three questions to ask: what would be necessary to develop, what kind of algorithm will be used, and what kind of trade-offs should we imagine? We obviously can not aim at a super realistic simulation like “The Matrix”, but then what is essential? What are the key ingredients? I see three core requirements:

Gathering millions of players: the Continuous Single-Shard concept

If you want a virtual world to take off, I believe that you need to ensure the fact that a global culture can develop inside it. This requires that the participants are not isolated into small islands, but instead share a global unified reality. This is called a “continuous single shard” universe, a technology to host potentially millions of people inside the same world at the same time, and possibly gathering into small areas like cities. It’s about reaching a critical mass so that cultural and ecosystemic effects can take place. Companies like Novaquark or, more recently, improbable.io, are developing precisely these kind of technologies.

Fully editable world

If you imagine a giant virtual world, a crucial question quickly arises: How do you populate it with content? Who is going to design it? The traditional approach of the game industry does not work here and paying armies of designers and artists to create static content will only cover a limited experience for the participants. As soon as the content is consumed, there is nothing else to do, and people will quickly start to leave the virtual world (the company might reinvest and build new content, but this cycle cannot last forever, and is at least very costly).

Another approach has been tried recently by a game called “No Man’s Sky”, where everything is generated with procedural algorithms. While appealing in principle, it also quickly shows its limits: a sense of repetition and déjà-vu while roaming lifeless spaces demonstrates that we simply don’t know yet how to create an “artificial artist” that would be creative and non repeating in itself. We might one day be able to solve this, but it’s probably what I like to call “AI-complete”, as we would need some kind of strong AI behind the scenes to build compelling creative experiences.

The third option is to let the participants create their own content and to let them shape the world where they live: buildings, cities, vehicles, etc. This requires a technology enabling users to modify the environment and create objects and mechanisms, which effectively moves the traditional authoring tools inside the experience. The virtual world becomes a platform for user generated content. Voxel-based editing technologies, which allow for modification of the world’s 3D structure based on a grid, are a very good solution for this problem. These solutions have existed for quite some time now, especially a variant called “dual contouring”. Companies like Voxel Farm have pioneered industry-grade solutions to bring them to games. However, you need to push this to the point where every modification is seamlessly broadcasted to every participant, at any scale, and in real-time, all this inside a single-shard universe. To date, Novaquark is the only company developing this kind of large scale server-integrated solution, that is a very important piece of the puzzle.

Boundless playground

Projecting the growth of a virtual universe to millions, and potentially one day billions of participants, you can’t cram everyone into a small area. The playground needs to be huge and boundless to accommodate for new arrivals, but also not too large in order to foster interactions (more about this in the product design challenges below). One option would be to create several versions of the world, with new versions spawned whenever the first one gets filled, but that would break the spatio-temporal continuity that is the essence of the “single-shard” approach. So, you need one single world, but with multiple interconnected playgrounds. In other words: planets and a Sci-Fi background to support the possibility to build a spaceship and move from one world to another.

From a technology standpoint, this is a major requirement, because you need to address a playground of a size comparable to the size of a real multi-planetary universe. Most of today’s gaming technologies assume comparatively smaller areas, and use that fact to simplify/accelerate calculations. This is known as the “64bits” problem, as you need to address coordinates with a very large precision, and also be able to relocate your world representations in local coordinates for better accuracy. Some game engines have started to support this feature, but in 2018 it remains quite novel and a considerable challenge to overcome.

The product design challenges

Suppose you have solved all the above problems. You have now a fully continuous single-shard universe, where millions of participants can connect simultaneously and freely edit the world, create cities, space ships, and even script them. This is just the beginning, because more challenges await. Product design challenges.

Besides making the user experience fluid and intuitive, working on immersion features such as appealing character customization and social emotes, which are all fairly standard issues in the gaming industry, the new technologies described above come with three new fundamental problems that need addressing in the product design:

Player “attractors”

A vast open world with total freedom of movement means you could very quickly end up with hundreds or thousands of isolated communities, limiting the exchanges and ecosystemic effects that are necessary to accelerate the cultural development of this virtual universe. This is very similar to the challenge of isolationism that threatens the real world at the moment, and which has always resulted in limited economical growth and social progress in the past.

What is needed is some game mechanics that will reward the concentration of players within cities or large orbital stations. One such mechanism comes from the in-game economy, and is the notion of player-driven and player-created markets, based on a given in-game currency. Markets are hubs where various interests can meet and exchange via trading: “I know how to build ships but I don’t want to mine for raw materials” meets “I like to explore and mine resources, but I need a ship to move around”. In the footprints of Adam Smith, this is all about player specialization and division of “labor”. The design of the game mechanics should be so that no single individual is capable of covering all aspects by him or her self (or at the price of considerable efforts and time). You need markets to fill in the gaps, and markets will create gathering points if there is no teleportation of objects: when you buy something on market X, you need to travel to X to get it (or pay someone to do this for you).

This is of course not the only mechanism we can think of to encourage player gathering. The physically limited location of rare resources will also trigger natural concentration points, as industrial units needed to process the mineral and then produce end-products will most likely be gathered around for logistical reasons. The fact that certain locations will become more important than others (for geopolitical or economical reasons) will most likely trigger conflicts, which is good in terms of dramaturgy, and will also obviously create player gatherings. These conflictual and resource-limiting aspects are missing in attempts like Second Life, for example, and are crucial to maintain a constant level of activity.

This might sound a bit cynical as we are basically invoking greed-driven market forces and wars as important mechanism in a virtual world, but simply wishing for people to get together and interact is not enough. You need to give them a reason and make it challenging (which in turn makes it rewarding). Most games are competitive, and this is what makes them interesting.

Finally, another aspect that must be taken into account is to provide a reasonable spatio-temporal continuity. The universe might be very large, and this can be exciting for explorers, but getting to those remote systems should take time. You can then control the spread of your population, and make it so that the density is kept in check. What should be banned are things like instant-teleportation, as this effectively collapses your universe into a village, with the effect of spreading the density all over the place.

Keeping people busy

In most games, with the notable exception of games like Minecraft and most other sandboxes, people are given explicit or semi-explicit goals as they step in. This of course requires that the company building the experience will design and test these goals where we will then face the same content creation problem. Here again, the right approach would be to design an emergent mechanism that would produce these goals (or “quests”) from within the virtual world itself.

There is a fraction of the participants, let’s call them the “entrepreneurs”, who will actively set goals for themselves if the environment of the virtual world is inviting enough and they have the feeling that they can have an impact. The challenge is to give them tools so that they can rally other players to their own goals. Imagine a group of very enthusiastic players deciding to build a “death star” in the virtual world. They would need people to help them gather the resources, secure the building site, negotiate agreements, design the mechanisms, etc. All of these can be turned into “quests” on something like a job market, that will allow them to advertise what they need, and what they will offer in exchange. These quests are genuine, they come from real participants with real projects, and anyone is free to choose to join them or not. All that needs to be done is to provide the tools for advertising them within the virtual world, and allow for feedback to be expressed, so that the best offers could stand out.

Soon enough, large gatherings of players will form, based on technical or political challenges that will come from within. For example, you can already see impressive social structures emerging on the community website of Dual Universe, where some players have created organizations (similar to guilds in other MMOs) with goals to create nations, industrial empires or just bands of pirates. Again, it’s all about critical mass, and this indirectly depends on the single-shard aspect of the technology.

How to deal with non cooperative players

More than with any other game, a virtual world of the magnitude expressed here will attract all sorts of participants, including the more chaotic ones. While this is already a major challenge to deal with in all online games, a persistent full scale virtual reality brings it to another level. In such a world, any damage done is permanent, and if the toxic/legit participant ratio goes beyond a certain threshold, there is phase transition that can occur and permanently compromise the dynamics. You need to control the noise level so that auto-correcting mechanisms have a chance to “clean” the offensive content.

There is no magic recipe to solve this, entire conferences are dedicated to the subject, but here are examples of some actions that can be taken to help mitigate the problem:

  • Creating safe zones inside the world that will be formally protected against attacks and abuses is necessary, so that players have safe havens to retreat into. In particular, the start zone must be a safe zone to protect beginners from “player vs player” activities.
  • You can introduce a bounty system and make it part of the game to hunt for griefers (players with a highly aggressive behavior toward other players, just for the sake of harassing them).
  • Attack should be well balanced against defense. Things like protection bubbles and shields should be difficult to break, and should come with things like 24-hour invulnerability buffers.
  • Ownership and right management must be fairly advanced features, to allow for sophisticated access control, including on territorial areas (to decide who has the right to build there, or to mine the underground resources).
  • There could be a minimal barrier to entry into the game, such as a small subscription price per month.
  • Reporting of abuses and law breaking activities should be possible inside the game, with a dedicated moderation service operating to act upon them (banning, deleting law-breaking content, etc).
  • AI-based pattern detection algorithms running on some behavioral metrics could help automatically complement reporting.
  • Ultimately, you might even go as far as introducing KYC (Know Your Customer) policies, to explicitly remove anonymity and help trace abuses (this might also be necessary for all sorts of other legal reasons, especially if money is involved).

How to make virtual reality positive and meaningful

I sometimes say that “fun is the future of work”. By this I mean that the share of entertainment in our daily life is meant to grow, as time spent working recedes together with progress in AI and automation. This is probably not so simple, and would be a good topic to elaborate on in another article, but for now, let’s just start from there: non-work activities will increase in the future, and where and how you spend this free time will matter.

One of the important dimensions of this “fun time” will revolve around meaning. I think an important question for people will not only be to find meaning in their lives, but also to find meaning in their fun. What you do in a virtual world should have meaning, which translates into the fact that what you do should have consequences, and it should in principle be able to affect other people inside the virtual world. This is typically what you get with a persistent, globally shared and evolving universe: discovering a new land opens opportunities for all, winning a battle can tilt the balance of power, building a new creative design can impact thousands of in-game customers, becoming “rich” in-game gives strategic power, etc.

Another important aspect of meaning is about learning: is the experience you have in the virtual world rich enough to teach you things? Things like realistic physics simulation, code programming, advanced social structures that require management, realistic economy simulation, and architectural planning when building large structures, are all opportunities to learn and practice useful concepts or skills inside a virtual world. Would that translate into real skills? Could you even have schools inside the game, like in Ready Player One? I think so. I’ve learned myself a great deal about how real-life markets actually work by playing Eve Online and participating in its complex economy. I have no doubt that kids learning to code via a game and programming their spaceship or drone to do their bidding, would make tremendous progress. I’m not an expert in education theory, but I know that having fun while you practice is a great way to boost learning. A good example is also Minecraft, which is used a lot in education to introduce kids to simple concepts. I think we could push this one step further on a more realistic physical/social/economical simulation level.

Finally, another meaningful level could be reached if we could in some way reward content creators within the virtual world to gain financial or social benefits from being a contributor. The assessment of your contribution must be organic, and should come from the participants themselves, which is still an open question on how to do this properly. Because rewards will be valuable, some people will try to hack the attribution mechanism. In a way, this is the same kind of problem that the blockchain is solving today: having a decentralized voting system that cannot be manipulated (unless you own an unreasonable share of the voting rights, which is impossible for all practical purposes). I expect some really new and interesting things to come out of this in the next decade, and it will play a very important part in creating meaningful experiences for participants in virtual worlds.

When is the Oasis coming?

Building something like the Oasis would involve solving all of the challenges described above, and probably more. Novaquark, the startup I created in 2014, is busy developing Dual Universe, a first attempt in this direction. Starting as a PC-based MMO game implementing the technologies described above, the idea is to work on gradually improving the mechanisms and technologies to scale to a very large virtual universe that would be sustainable. While the game can be completed in a reasonable time frame, the full scale vision I described above might take as much as a decade to take shape. Together with the help of an already very active community, we will iterate on the best recipes for gameplay and technological trade offs to be able to shape a scalable, meaningful and playful environment for millions of people to share. A virtual world worth building, that will bring meaningful experience to millions of people who could invent their personal and collective stories. Whether we succeed or somebody else does it before or after us, I am convinced that the time has come for such a large scale project to take shape. We live in exciting times!

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