I find myself in a brand new city, vast and almost deserted. In one direction is a medieval castle. In the other, a pixelated pig stands on several floors. As I run towards him, a giant statue of Bart Simpson materializes out of nowhere.
Welcome to the metaverse, or at least a version of it. Decentralized is a two-year-old virtual world that uses blockchain technology to sell “land,” on which owners can build anything. The result is an urban planner’s worst nightmare, a hodgepodge of sci-fi structures and facsimiles of real buildings, including Selfridges department store in Birmingham.
Last month, a huge floating bottle of Estée Lauder makeup signaled the arrival of major brands at Decentraland. During the recent Metaverse Fashion Week, labels such as Dolce & Gabbana and Tommy Hilfiger were selling digital apparel as non-fungible tokens (NFTs). I wonder how many fashion executives visited Decentraland before jumping on the Metaverse bandwagon. My own experience there, as with other crypto-centric virtual worlds such as The sandbox and NFT Worldswas disappointing.
Think Metaverse and you might imagine what visual effects artists created for Steven Spielberg Loan player one: a realistic and immersive world. But today’s reality is more like Minecraft Where Roblox, heavy on pixels and Lego-like digital blocks. This is doubly true for blockchain-based metaverse games. In the case of NFT Worlds, where plots of land currently sell for the equivalent of tens of thousands of dollarsit’s literally Minecraft. The developers have integrated NFTs into the game’s open source toolkit.
Decentraland’s graphics look like something out of a late 1990s Nintendo or PlayStation game. Even so, my early 2020s Mac struggled to render them smoothly. A few minutes after jumping into the metaverse, my character’s run slowed down. Structures like Giant Bart arose because the density of virtual buildings meant that only a few could be loaded at a time.
It doesn’t take long to realize that the vast metaverse envisioned by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is far ahead of current hardware capabilities. Some of the slowdown and rendering issues I encountered in Decentraland can be avoided by keeping the graphics simple. The Sandbox, another pixelated NFT-powered metaverse, worked smoother when I tried it at home.
Basic graphics and familiar environments such as Minecraft can make it easier for players to customize their worlds, says Marc Whitten, a games industry executive now at developer tools maker Unity. There simply aren’t enough people with professional experience building games to design the Metaverse, he says, which makes user-generated content vital for these platforms to thrive.
Even Yat Siu, chairman of Animoca Brands, the group that owns Sandbox, admits that the crypto-metaverse still has a long way to go. “People look at blockchain and say, ‘it’s just a database, it’s not very efficient,’ and it’s true,” he tells me. But the same once applied to the Internet, he adds.
Shortly after entering Decentraland, I fall through a fountain and land in a bar, where an octopus is serving drinks. In the corner, two bots are having a scripted conversation about why NFTs displayed in the metaverse are superior to physical artwork. (That’s because they aren’t hidden away in some collector’s archive.) At least at the Tate, my ability to see art isn’t limited by my computer’s processing power, I think. , as I try – unsuccessfully – to order a virtual pint of the octopus.
Tim Bradshaw is the FT’s Global Technology Correspondent