The metaverse is a marvelous thing. But it’s not something which just appeared overnight — it’s something which has evolved and changed over time in response to evolving technology and the way people interact with games.

It’s an evolution we’ve been part of for well over a decade. We started off working on the much-missed Playstation Home, before creating Avakin Life — a game which today boasts over 200 million downloads.

While we’ve previously written about this evolution more generally, today we’re looking more specifically at how the social side of gaming has evolved throughout the 21st century.

Turn the clocks back

While the ambition of today’s metaverses might seem alien to a gamer in the early 00s, the idea of socialising in a game wouldn’t seem all that weird. Early MMO pioneer Ultima Online allowed players to shape the world around them by taking on any of a number of jobs — they could choose to be almost anything — a baker selling delicious cakes, a knight fighting demons or a wandering bard seeking to entertain their fellow players. The game created the opportunity for players to interact — but it was up to them to make this happen.

Other MMOs of the period focused less on activities and more on allowing players to form guilds and clans to complement their gaming activities. Here the social aspects were designed to complement the core gameplay — letting you find buddies to tackle the quests and enemies who were too hard or time-consuming to tackle alone. Humans being humans, we quickly used these social features to make friends — chatting about our days as we waited to raid or being a sounding board for a fellow quester who had a rough day.

While these experiences were a brilliant way to socialise, you couldn’t call them a metaverse. They were bolted on to the game and lived in service to it — if you weren’t playing then there wasn’t all that much to do beyond a bit of text or voice chat.

Gaming’s first metaverse?

While these experiences weren’t true representations of the metaverse, one game from 2003 has a much better claim to be the first example of the metaverse. We’re talking of course about Second Life — a revolutionary for-its-time game which allowed players to live, socialise and play within an entirely virtual world.

Coming hot on the heels of The Sims it was a brilliant experiment — a chance for players to live out a digital life in whatever form it took. Curiously, the developers behind Second Life shied away from describing it as a game — noting the lack of clear objectives or ways to win. Instead they talked about Second Life as a platform — a place for players to explore and create. It’s a distinction which feels unnecessary today — social games have become a core part of our industry’s fabric. But it’s a useful reminder of just how far we’ve come.

Gaming on the move

The next big evolution in gaming’s social fabric came with the rise of the smartphone.

Games like Farmville, Clash of clans and XYZ all offered ‘social’ experiences — encouraging players to come together in teams to realise common goals. And because your phone went everywhere with you, it meant in theory you could enjoy a spot of virtual socialising wherever you went. But in reality these features felt exploitative and cheap. If you didn’t have friends who enjoyed the game your progress was artificially slowed and gated — creating a real sense of haves and have nots. The social features were there to serve the game — not to create a truly communal experience.

We knew something different was needed — an environment where collaboration is at the heart of the game, rather than something to enable progress elsewhere. It’s this ethos which permeates through everything we do with Avakin Life. We let players come together to create and share moments — whether that’s a cool new item of clothing, your very first digital home or even something much bigger — like a virtual concert.

It’s this focus on collaboration which sets us apart from other metaverses. Games like Fortnite are amazing fun — and the events they put on are stunning. But the two aspects still feel like they exist independently — if you’re not a fan of shooting games, you’re always going to have a cap on just how much you can enjoy Fortnite’s overall experience.

In Avakin Life that’s not a problem — there’s so much to do and see that you never feel like you’re missing out. You may attend a concert one night, then spend the next day just hanging out with friends, before spending a weekend coming up with the next hot T-shirt design. Someone else may spend the whole time exploring our world — neither of these is wrong, in fact, they’re both brilliant ways to enjoy our shared world.

What’s next?

Ask a gamer from the early 00s what the metaverse is and they’d probably offer up a confused shrug. But we’re not so sure the future of the metaverse will feel quite so alien to anyone who enjoys Avakin Life today. While VR is continually hyped as the natural home of the metaverse, the reality is that there won’t ever be one ‘right’ way to engage with it. Some people may always want the comfort and ease of accessing the metaverse from their smartphone and that’s completely ok.

Instead we see the evolution of the metaverse to be focused on a topic which is incredibly close to our hearts — collaboration. While other businesses are focused on defining how the metaverse should work, we believe its true feature is one which is built from the bottom up by the community. Only by allowing the community to help define how the metaverse evolves can developers truly realise its promise. It’s a hugely exciting concept and one we’re determined to deliver to the very best of ability.

Where do you see the metaverse going next? Let us know via Twitter or Facebook or drop us a message on Instagram!

We’re Lockwood Publishing, leading independent developers and creators of Avakin Life.