In his ongoing blog series on the metaverse, MMO developer Raph Koster has been digging through the technical challenges of how to build it (and he is very much building one that will underpin Playable Worlds’ upcoming sandbox MMO). This week’s entry on the topic points out that what folks think they want from a metaverse is not only impractical but undesirable – including shifting between wildly different settings like a hapless companion in Doctor Who.
“Do you really want to move your avatar between a fantasy world and a gritty noir world set in the Prohibition era?” he asks. Do you want “Fairyland butting up against World War II”? “Aesthetics isn’t the main reason this is bad,” he argues. “The real issue is that players won’t be happy if they were expecting a nice peaceful tea party with talking flowers, but they took one step too far, and were run over by a Sherman tank.”
Naturally, this question leads into a discussion of the technical foundations of maps from MUDs to MMOs through the years, and the fact that there are few technical standards for them, oh yeah, and the fact that they are constantly changing, in games and in the real world, but game and app developers still treat them as static rather than dynamic.
“Virtual world maps today mostly work like the art I talked about last time: they are baked into a static form, and then pre-installed on your hard drive with the client. This makes changing them hard, which is exactly backwards for the single commonest use humanity has always had for any place: to build on it. It’s actually worse than you think: common practice is to ship the map as art. It is literally a sculpture carefully made by an artist. It isn’t even ‘map data.’ It’s a picture of map data, a sculpture of map data. There is some sort of fallacious assumption many developers have about virtual worlds, where they seem to think the stuff on the client matters. But it doesn’t. I call it “the goggles fallacy.” We get really caught up in the rendering of it all, the way it looks. This is why maps get shipped as art these days even though we have the cloud. Look: My car is old enough that it has a built-in navigation system with a DVD of maps. It’s hilariously obsolete! Why do we think it’s OK for our metaverse future to work this way?”
Ultimately, he argues, the metaverse needs to abandon the idea of maps as art because they’re not art – they’re data. “They need to be able to change,” he says. “To evolve.”