Meta invited widespread ridicule over an embarrassing Zuckerberg selfie. But the issues with Meta’s metaverse run deeper, especially when compared to Epic’s Fortnite.
Hello, and welcome to Protocol Entertainment, your guide to the business of the gaming and media industries. This Tuesday, we’re looking back at the widespread derision Meta faced last week over Mark Zuckerberg’s VR selfie and how the company’s metaverse ambitions compare to Epic’s Fortnite. Also: a nearly $6 billion — with a “B” — class action lawsuit against Sony.
A metaverse battle royale
Meta learned yet another hard lesson early last week about the uphill battle it faces in building the metaverse. The company launched its social VR platform, Horizon Worlds, in France and Spain, and CEO Mark Zuckerberg celebrated the moment with a selfie featuring his now-familiar cartoonish avatar.
It didn’t go well. Within hours, the image had gone viral, with a tidal wave of criticism over how elementary the scene looked and many wondering how Meta could still be so far behind modern video games in graphical fidelity. The uproar is a telling moment in Meta’s pivot away from standard social networking and especially so when compared to the success of competing platforms like Epic’s Fortnite, which last week enjoyed one of its most celebrated crossover events yet.
Meta is doing itself no favors by focusing so heavily on VR. A central pillar of Zuckerberg’s vision for the metaverse is that it will involve a combination of VR and AR, and a great deal of the company’s immense $10.2 billion expenditure last year has gone toward the development of next-generation devices Meta hopes will give it a competitive advantage in the future.
- Yet the focus on VR is also inhibiting the platforms it runs today, like Horizon. One Twitter user said Zuckerberg’s selfie, which featured a randomly placed Eiffel Tower in front of a Spanish cathedral, was “eye-gougingly ugly.” Another joked that Horizon Worlds had “billions and billions poured into it and this is the result … The Sims but worse, and with nothing below the torso.”
- The Onion chimed in: “Mark Zuckerberg Worried His Metaverse Avatar Doesn’t Fully Capture How Inhuman He Looks.” Many others joined in with plenty of cruelcomments, ranging from “the Metaverse is just Animal Crossing but you’re being hunted by Mark Zuckerberg” to “5000 newspapers died for this.”
- But despite everyone having a collective laugh at one of the most powerful executives on the planet, the criticism speaks to a very real problem Meta faces, one that is both reputational and technical.
- It’s a problem shared by many of the proto-metaverse platforms, like Decentraland and The Sandbox, which alongside Horizon, “still look worse than a 2008 Wii game,” as New York Times columnist Kevin Roose put it.
- “Stylistically, it can help to build simple, cartoon-like characters, rather than trying to make things look realistic,” said Sam Huber, CEO and founder of metaverse development studio LandVault. It’s also “difficult to design complex visuals in VR,” he told me, because “you only have hand controllers, which makes moving around with legs very difficult. That’s why Meta has made the choice for avatars to be from the waist up only.”
- Meta’s headsets are not yet advanced enough to power visuals on par with modern games or filmmaking CGI, and Horizon Worlds in its current form feels like a poor imitation of massive multiplayer gaming platforms, from World of Warcraft to Second Life, that have existed for decades now.
Zuckerberg eventually responded, having felt enough pressure that he posted a second time to his Facebook page, on Friday. In the post, Zuckerberg promised “major updates” to the graphics for Horizon and its avatars, with plans to share more at the company’s Connect conference later this fall.
- “Also, I know the photo I posted earlier this week was pretty basic — it was taken very quickly to celebrate a launch. The graphics in Horizon are capable of much more — even on headsets — and Horizon is improving very quickly,” Zuckerberg wrote.
- In the post, Zuckerberg attached two new renders that showcased what a more ideal version of Horizon and its avatar design might produce, including a more lifelike selfie that aligns more closely to the version he advertised back when his company rebranded as Meta in October of last year.
- Meta is hard at work on new hardware that will likely enable more advanced visuals. And its metaverse expenditures this year are not slowing down, even as Meta cuts costs elsewhere by freezing some hiring and even raising the price of its Quest 2.
- For the past two quarters, Meta has still maintained heavy spending on its Reality Labs division, which posted a near $3 billion loss in Q1 of this year and a $2.8 billion loss in Q2.
- Yet Meta is already planning alternative access points for Horizon, including browser and mobile versions. “Within the next two years when the sale of the VR headsets doesn’t pick up, Meta will release a desktop version of its metaverse,” Huber said. “Of course it’s more fun and immersive on a VR headset. It’s great to be able to experience the metaverse there. But a desktop version would be a lot more accessible.”
But are Meta’s priorities the right ones? It’s an open question whether VR and social platforms like Horizon Worlds are the right roads to building the metaverse. Video game platforms — most prominently Epic’s Fortnite, Microsoft’s Minecraft and Roblox — seem to be doing just fine by focusing on engaging experiences and fun crossovers.
- Fortnite, for instance, last week launched a popular crossover with iconic anime Dragon Ball Z, featuring excellent character skins and in-game items, many of which players can earn for free, which instantly created viral meme fodder.
- In one of the more popular tweets lambasting Zuckerberg’s metaverse, one user commented on Zuckerberg’s VR selfie by writing, “In Fortnite you can be Goku with a shotgun.”
- The Fortnite-DBZ collab has created countless hilarious moments — from Goku hugging Superman to the anime’s central hero doing the Griddy dance after a victory.
- A common consensus I’ve seen is that this is what the metaverse should be: a silly, over-the-top mashup of pop culture in the vein of Ernest Cline’s “Ready Player One” (minus the dystopia), and one that’s underpinned by fun gameplay, competitive multiplayer and meaningful rewards for showing up and putting your time in.
- Horizon Worlds lacks all of that, and there’s no easy path for Meta to clearing those hurdles unless it invests heavily in game development and the kinds of valuable and lucrative partnerships Epic has landed for Fortnite.
- “Firstly, [the metaverse] needs to be engaging — people need a reason to go there,” Huber said. “The reason is exciting in-game mechanics, that’s what gaming has shown us. This is what the likes of Epic are doing well, but Meta is not.”
Of course, there won’t be one metaverse, at least not right away, and that much has become clear in the months since Meta has embarked on its quest to build Zuckerberg’s particular vision of the future. There will likely be many metaverse platforms, all competing with each other, and Meta’s might emerge as successful for reasons we can’t yet conceive of, and it could entirely hinge on the mass adoption of AR and VR many years from now.
But for right now, Meta’s idea of working and socializing in VR is losing to a goofy video game where you can play as Goku, team up with Iron Man and engage in a high-octane gunfight with Ariana Grande. One of those is a metaverse the public clearly wants, and the other is not.