What makes a virtual world more than a game?
A look back at virtual worlds, where Decentraland fits in, and how it breaks the mold
Here at Decentraland, we talk a lot about virtual worlds and building virtual spaces. We care deeply about helping you build and share virtual experiences - all on a public platform.
But what makes a virtual world, a real world? How are virtual world’s different from games? Today, let’s take a look at the origins of virtual worlds, how they’ve evolved, and where they’re leading us.
A quick history of immersive media: how did we get started?
Humans are naturally storytellers. For as long as we’ve been communicating, we’ve been telling stories to record our history, educate our children, and entertain ourselves. The ability to imagine events happening in a separate place, and a separate time, is widely thought to be unique to humans.
It makes sense that as we became better storytellers through painting, music, theater, and literature, we began to place greater emphasis on realism. We wanted to make the experience as immersive, engaging, and memorable as we could.
This is something the ancient Greeks took great pride in. They were some of the first to begin experimenting with the use of 3D perspective in their visual art. The Roman naturalist, Pliny the Elder, wrote at great length about how visual illusions can trick the mind - pulling us into the world of a painting - way back in the first century.
Literature, visual art, theater, and film are nothing if not attempts at re-creating snippets of reality. However, while they might be immersive, they’re not (usually) interactive.
When did we start adding user interaction to the mix?
Things didn’t really take off until 1962, when Morton Heilig designed his Sensorama, which is arguably the first “virtual reality” machine. Heilig built a seat, screen, and controls to simulate a motorcycle ride through New York City, complete with a fan to simulate the wind blowing in the user’s face, and chemicals to reproduce the smells of a city (pleasant, or otherwise).
A few years later, in 1968, Ivan Sutherland helped to build “The Sword of Damocles”. Sutherland is often referred to as the father of computer graphics, and it’s easy to see why. He and his team were the first people to begin experimenting with head mounted displays - not unlike your Oculus or Vive headset, albeit much heavier.
While Heilig and Sutherland can be credited with laying the foundation of modern VR, they were way ahead of their time. Their ambitions seemed to outstretch the abilities of their computer hardware.
The quest for realism
Hardware performance limitations might have slowed early efforts at building virtual worlds, but they didn’t (and still haven’t) deterred anyone from the quest.
Since the onset of the idea, humans have been fascinated with virtual reality, but most of these early explorations into VR relied on super cumbersome hardware that was less than enjoyable to use.
In spite of hardware constraints, our fascination with recreating “real life” in a virtual world has persisted, but early developers realized that there’s more to realism than just immersive graphics. A true virtual world is more than just an illusion of a physical place. There have to be things and - more importantly - people, that fill that place.
Virtual worlds and communities
Most of the virtual worlds that we think of today came into existence through the constantly evolving video game industry, not academic experiments.
Rather than focus on providing physically immersive experiences to players, game designers turned their attention to the content and experiences contained within their virtual worlds. Graphics and art have always been a critical component to immersive games, but this focus on content, experiences, and communities led to rich and densely populated worlds popping up left and right, free from the restrictions of slowly advancing hardware.
As early as 1973, people were working to support multiple players in games. “Maze War” was the first 3D, first person shooter supporting multiple users via the ARPANET (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network) — basically a US Department of Defense funded early version of today’s internet. This social aspect was a critical stepping stone to modern virtual worlds.
In 1985, we saw the first home simulator with “Little Computer People”, from Activision. This was an early predecessor to The Sims.
In 1986, “Habitat”, the first graphical MUD, and the forerunner to modern massively multiplayer online games (MMOs) was released. Habitat was one of the first games to combine a role playing element with a large scale online community.
1992 was the year Neal Stephenson published his book, Snow Crash, introducing the contemporary concept of a metaverse, exploring the impact it could have on society, and intensifying our obsession with virtual worlds.
By the late 1990s, two very interesting graphical games emerged and shaped the form of MMORPGs to come. In 1997 Ultima Online came out and got hundreds of thousands of subscribers, a great deal when dial-up was still the most popular gateway to access the internet. And by 1999, Sony Online Entertainment released “Everquest”, an early three dimensional massively multiplayer online role playing game (MMORPG) that was the first to reach millions of users.
In 2000, Maxis developed “The Sims”. This is an age-old, and still loved, series (the latest Sims 4: Strangerville was released just last month). The Sims took a step back from online, social games and placed more emphasis on the possibility of simulating the events of real life (however mundane), virtually. The Sims is still the most successful virtual “doll housing” game.
In 2003, Second Life was born, due to the hard work at Linden Labs. Like The Sims, Second Life didn’t present a dramatic, story driven conflict for players to navigate or overcome. There’s no objective forced on players. Instead, people are free to create their own virtual avatar through which to interact with a huge online community.
“Eve Online” also came out in 2003. Expansive in scope and mechanics, Eve Online enabled some of the first economy-driven gameplay, with its own virtual society growing up around it as a result.
Then, in 2004 we saw the release of “World of Warcraft” which is arguably one of the most popular MMORPGs to date, with over one hundred million accounts by 2014. World of Warcraft combined almost all of the key attributes we associate with modern virtual worlds: immersive 3D environments, a dynamic economy, and a huge society made up of multiple, discrete communities.
So, what makes a virtual world more than a game?
All of the games we’ve looked at include some combination of similar characteristics: immersive environments, role playing, economics, social interaction, etc.
But what exactly is it that makes a virtual world, a world? There have been plenty of definitions thrown around - too many to list - but they almost all state that some (if not all) of these conditions be met:
- The world must mimic, recreate, or be based on certain elements of reality. Even futuristic and fantastical worlds are in some way based on our own reality to make them more believable.
- It must allow individuals to enter the world, and represent themselves within it, via an avatar - their virtual self. You have to have some way of representing personal identity.
- These avatars have to be able to interact and communicate with one another, enabling the growth of societies and communities within the world.
- These communities need to be able to conduct transactions through some form of economy.
- There needs to be a geography for people to explore and inhabit.
- Finally, and most importantly, all of these attributes need to be persistent. Events and changes in the world need to have a lasting effect - when you log out for the night, your avatar should still exist with all of its belongings when you come back the next day.
How does Decentraland fit in, and how does it stand out?
Decentraland is committed to helping provide rich and immersive 3D experiences. This has been one of the guiding principles when creating the SDK and Builder. Even though computer hardware remains a hurdle to building hyper-realistic 3D worlds at scale that can simultaneously support entire communities of users at a time - we can still create a strong sense of space through the use of style and aesthetics. The return of low-poly art is a wonderful example at how we can create memorable and immersive spaces even with hardware limitations.
Decentraland is most definitely a social space. Since Decentraland is a public platform, we all have a stake in how Decentraland looks and feels.
This is where Decentraland departs from many of the games and virtual worlds we’ve looked at today. We all have the freedom, tools, and incentive to build our own little parcel (or parcels) of Decentraland, collectively shaping Decentraland’s LANDscape. The 3D content of Decentraland is not designed by a single company.
This places Decentraland somewhere between a protocol (or platform) and a game. Protocols are interesting because of what people build on them, whereas games are interesting because of the experience they provide.
Decentraland does both!
The Builder (our drag-and-drop scene editor) connects these two experiences by making a game out of building scenes on the platform. Yet, the scenes that you build and share contribute to the greater experience others have when visiting the virtual world and walking around your parcels.
Decentraland has an economy. Decentraland leverages blockchain technology in some pretty interesting ways. LAND, the parcels of virtual space we build on and inhabit, are all represented by tokens that are tracked on the Ethereum blockchain. This is where our true ownership of LAND is rooted. Beyond that, Decentraland’s cryptocurrency, MANA, enables the existence (and growth) of a very real economy. You can trade your MANA for money, unlike the gold, diamonds, and loot we grew up with in the games of our childhoods.
Our Product lead, Tony Sheng, summarized the impact of Decentraland’s true public ownership on the podcast Decentralize This Ep 20:
“Our thesis is that by giving people more ownership over the place it will have more lasting value incentivize people to contribute more to that World. The sum of the contribution of all the people that own the World will dwarf any contributions a single company could make to the World.”
The Builder is about to be released. You can read all about it here on our blog, and put it into action through the upcoming Creator Contest. We’re rewarding anyone who wants to create fun, engaging, and memorable 3D scenes with the Builder. Build scenes, win MANA, and help buidl the next virtual world!