PlusHeart Issue #3 - Meta [Game]

"This is the Power of Ideology and Subconscious, which is ABSURDLY powerful."

The word “metaverse” is probably the most-searched term this week, as Facebook’s company name-change to just “Meta” has sparked a lot of discussion. I’m sorry to do this to you, but I’m going to have to do that thing where you look at a hot topic and throw your voice into the cacophony.

I promise it’ll be worth it, though.

As a short version: a "metaverse" is an online, networked environment that can include 3D, virtual worlds. However, a more important factor is that they become how everyone does everything related to their virtual lives.

In Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash (where the term originated), users hooked up with a set of virtual reality goggles, and experienced it in first-person perspective. This was also furthered by the novel Ready Player One, where a similar VR setup was how humankind did anything, and those in poverty escaped their shitty situations by logging into “the Oasis.”

I’m not so interested in the VR tech aspect of things, because we’ve seen dozens of attempts at online virtual worlds, and Facebook’s tech demo is probably going to add one more to the pile. I’m old enough to remember when courses were taught about Second Life, and how brands opening stores in that environment was the next big thing.

What I want to focus on is the centralization effect that a metaverse would have, and how we’re already seeing it across online properties, video games, and brands.

Years ago I tweeted about how Overwatch was an extremely important intellectual property for Activision-Blizzard, because it felt like a very modern aesthetic, and that’s something they sorely needed. It was less about the game and more about developing characters, locations and concepts that they could further use as a base.

Arguably they failed to further capitalize on this, since Overwatch as an IP has been pretty quiet in terms of cultural relevance over the last couple years, and the company as a whole seems like a mess behind the scenes.

Regardless, ActiBlizz was very familiar with leveraging that “things you know” marketing; part of Hearthstone’s original success was that it scratched that nostalgic feeling of Release World of Warcraft (which eventually built into WoW Classic) and using Heroes of the Storm as a way to celebrate Blizzard characters. I personally don’t think that Blizzard characters have the degree of love to warrant their own game, but to each their own.

Riot did the same thing with their releases of Teamfight Tactics and Legends of Runeterra, which took the auto-battler and card game genre — pioneered in Dota 2’s custom games and by Hearthstone, respectively — and used League of Legends characters, settings and concepts to furnish them.

To many companies, their current goals involve creating ecosystems and keeping their consumers in them at all costs. The bigger collective franchises of Disney, Star Wars, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the DC superhero films and Harry Potter feel oppressive and all-encompassing because they do not want you to leave. They need to have something that appeals to demographics, while also accounting for them aging out.

The way the fandom metagame has progressed, the attachment to these characters and settings is intense, and with Riot Games’ Runeterra setting, it is engineered that way on purpose.

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When new League characters come out, I mostly notice how easy they are to cosplay (humanoid designs, anime-inspired hair or looks, non-crazy armor), and how friendly they are to “shipping” (romantic coupling) — this availability leverages creators (who skew female) who then do free advertising for the games in the form of fanworks.

If enough people are passionate about a property, they bring in their friends through a network effect; you don’t want to be the only person playing Dota 2 if all your other friends are playing League of Legends. You might be left out, and you might miss out on valuable bonding. So you find something that interests you, and that one hero’s lore, or the way a hero plays, might be enough to hook you.

This system has some pros and cons.

The more invested an audience is in a specific franchise, the easier it is to convince them to try new things, and spend money on things they’re already attached to. If I like a character in League and play them every time I go into a match, I’ll buy their skin. If I see that character is available in another title, I’ll potentially both try a new game I wouldn’t otherwise, and spend money there, too.

This leads to a diverse amount of experiences to keep burnout at bay while keeping people inside your ecosystem. If you were a LoL gamer in high school but lose the time to binge because of college or work, Riot have slower offerings that can be played more casually.

But if Riot does its job too well, it ends up with an entitled audience who has their own beliefs over how the property should be developed, and this can get in the way of their creative freedom. A fan revolt over how a character is treated (or god help you, who they decide to fuck) is something that can get out of control quickly, and you don’t want to burn the goodwill.

If everything comes together (like it is for Riot), you have not only a series of games for people to spend money on, but a cultural context that allows people to connect over shared experiences. This is where things get into metaverse territory, because the more properties that people have to touch on, the more common it’s going to be that people intersect.

Another future Riot title is their Project L, which is a fighting game. Fighting games are notoriously difficult for casuals to get into due to their one-on-one nature and their focus on personal improvement: you will lose because you deserve to, and you’re going to have to put in work to get better.

If Riot’s branding is strong enough, the fact that Project L is part of the Runeterra universe — with characters fans know — might be enough to get people to give it a try. Because Riot’s absurd marketing budget and potential for esports prizing that dwarfs current fighting games, pro players in that scene will also hop ship in search of stability. This lends it credibility in the eyes of the casual-to-enthusiast market, since fighting games tend to do better when there’s high population, and people to play against.

By virtue of “just being that thing everyone knows”, Riot will add another corner to their web of successful games. People who pick up Project L might have incentives to try out other titles, and vice versa.

Suddenly, a lifelong Street Fighter player will have this new and shiny thing to talk about that’s mainstream, recognized in other gaming circles, and shares enough lore that they can find other people to connect with. They check out the Netflix series, Arcane, because their “main” is a character there. They think “hmm, maybe I’m going to buy convention tickets to RiotX.”

I’m going to make a bold prediction and say that’s where it’s all going: the crystallization of Runeterra as a foundation towards becoming a “Riot fan.” Maybe that’s not bold, considering how Disney have made their parks-and-convention experience into something grown adults cry over.

The main exception to the rule is VALORANT, which curiously doesn’t fall into the Runeterra universe. I could see there being some kind of crossover that laces the two franchises together, but it’s likely that Riot didn’t want to put all their eggs in one basket, weren’t confident in VALORANT’s lasting appeal, or just wanted to experiment.

When you look at VALORANT characters, you see the same format, though: make them easy to cosplay, make them identifiable with relationships, and have enough representation across a hypothetical player base that an audience member thinks “Hey, that’s me in that character.” Attachment made. Relationship started.

I come back to the metaverse subject because I’m not trying to say that Riot is suddenly going to start a bank inside their Riot client. Obviously there are limits to what risk they’re going to want to take on, but there’s nothing stopping them from partnering with Mastercard (who sponsors their esports) for a LoL-themed credit card.

Oh wait. They’re planning that already.

Because of Riot’s reach, the credit card provider gets new customers, and Riot’s ecosystem expands, just that little bit more. If an “official VR application for the worldwide metaverse” does get announced, you can bet that Riot will have skins for it.

Live in your favorite character’s clothes. Have a way to connect with other fans doing the game. Never turn it off. Never unplug. If you think about moving on, the sunk cost fallacy of how much you’ve spent on skins, and how deep your friends are will be powerful factors keeping you there.

This extends to esports, as well; the nature of teams means they have an interest in cultivating multiple rosters to serve multiple niches. They want to take the unifying theme (being their overall brand messaging) and use it as glue to attach people to them long-term.

The more cumulative support they can glue to their brands, the more powerful bargaining power they have in terms of generating profit, securing sponsors, and forming their own ideology (see below).

I’m not about to go on a rant about how this is all incredibly evil and manipulative, because this kind of thing isn’t new. It’s just when technology becomes ubiquitous and necessary for involvement in everyday life, the costs to someone not taking part become greater and greater. Mastercard already has a large pressure on newer, smaller services, because your company is basically dead in the water without a payment processor.

I just worry about centralization and this cross-pollination because at some point, especially with something as all-encompassing as a metaverse, the whole "vote with your wallet" thing becomes less valid of an alternative. The threat of people leaving gets answered with “Psh, where are you going to go?”

Mandalore Gaming has a great video reviewing a CRPG, Tyranny, on his channel where he goes into some basic political science theory though the context of Tunon, an authority figure in the world, and how he might interact with villagers to get what he wants.

The villagers are working. Tunon comes along and says "Hey, don't grow carrots! If you do, you'll be in legal trouble, or be hurt or killed." This is the Power of the Outcome. "Do this, or else" is blatantly flexing. Everyone knows what's happening, so let's be more subtle.

Villagers are working again. Along comes Tunon. This time, he says "You can grow melons, or potatoes." They now have a choice presented they can decide on. Some villagers might really hate melons, so they go all in on potatoes. This is the Power of Agenda. Tunon isn't going to even mention carrots and instead give people two options. Anyone who wants carrots is now a fringe weirdo. Most people are thinking about the choices presented.

Let's move on to the third face of power. Tunon has influence over media and public education. He won't bother going to the farm. Villagers learn a lot about other crops from their media. Tunon might even slip some disinformation about carrots in there. Without direct intervention, no one is growing carrots. This is the Power of Ideology and Subconscious, which is ABSURDLY powerful. Your very inner desires are manipulated.

Those are the big accepted three, but there is some debate on the fourth one. It's almost too big to tackle.

Tunon and the villagers both agree carrots is a vegetable. You can buy carrots in markets, and you can eat them. This is the Power of Paradigm. Neither of them can directly control this - it controls them. It's a basic idea that everyone agrees with, and has no real need to challenge, because it's just how it is.

(Emphasis by Matt in bold)

Again, not trying to go "Riot are huge and evil", but all brands have an interest in creating their own agenda, and ideology. Creating choices within their framework (melons or potatoes, League of Legends or Legends of Runeterra) removes the option of leaving it. And if there's cross-pollination and benefit to staying within the system in ANY capacity, Riot wins.

If Riot, Disney, or Facebook creates an ideology (like a practical, online environment) where their products are the only game in town, and they are controlling the very way people are interfacing with a vital part of their lives, that whole "without direct intervention, no one is growing carrots" seems a bit more pertinent.

The idealized version of a metaverse falls more into that "Power of Paradigm" situation, where everyone plays by the same rules, and it's a basic idea that everyone agrees with, and has no real need to challenge.

I guess that's the reason why the Snow Crash metaverse is a dystopia, and the Ready Player One metaverse is conveniently set up by a benevolent (yet naïve) set of ideals.

The conflict in Ready Player One comes from corporate entities looking for more control of an idealized, free environment; I don't know if we're going to have the same benefit of opposition when we're forced to make the same choice.


Thanks for your time this week. I am in the job hunt at the moment, and this was a nice break from some interview prep. I've been streaming every Saturday at 3PM EST, so give me a follow if you'd like to ask me questions, or talk about games.

My Discord server also is a good place to get push notifications about new work that I'm doing, or when streams go live.

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