Meta wants to make real life free

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How much would you pay for decorations for a non-existent living room? What about a suit you’ll never put on? If these questions sound silly, it’s because they are — and yet some of us will face them soon enough, according to Andrew Bosworth, Meta’s CTO.

In his interview for BBC Click, Bosworth enthusiastically informed the hosts that for him the most exciting part of Meta’s metaverse is the ‘economy’. The virtual space will give rise to services such as virtual interior design or avatar styling, he shared. For those of us who don’t mind playing video games every now and then, this might have struck a chord. For those who don’t: welcome to existence, free-to-play edition, proudly brought to you by Meta.

You probably won’t like it here. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

In the nonspace of the mind

The metaverse, as we are told, is a shared virtual experience where regular internet users can explore both the real and virtual worlds as their avatars or digital representations. This should ring a familiar bell with every gamer, because that’s exactly what every MMO is about. You create your elven warrior, superhero or Jedi knight and dive into a virtual world built for your entertainment. Good enough.

So far, so good.

Now, from a business standpoint, the game industry increasingly relies on you paying not for the game itself, but for how much you can style Jedi on the enemies as they cut left and right. Rather than sell (or along with) the game, companies sell in-game cosmetics that change the way characters, weapons, and everything else look without making any functional changes to the gameplay. Fortnite, which relies on cosmetics sales as its main source of income, raised $9 billion in its first two years. League of Legends, another major free-to-play title, has consistently grossed its publisher nearly $2 billion a year between 2015 and 2020, peaking at $2.1 billion in 2017.

Note that for each of these games, the respective player base counts in millions. Facebook, for its part, had just under 3 billion users in 2021. If the company got them into that sweet digital cosmetics market, it would bring in revenue, either through direct sales or a discount on what third-party designers and modders are offered.

For now, billions of logins in Meta’s metaverse look even less real than the metaverse itself, because that’s still something we have yet to see and experience. And yet we’ve seen all the oh-so-exciting metaverse office gatherings, we’ve heard of Meta looking to bring religious worship to its platform, and we’ll see it or its rivals reach out to more aspects of our lives soon enough. It’s not just all the juicy data they can take, even if that’s a very legitimate concern voiced by a plethora of critics. Just think how many opportunities to show off your bling can go online — and someone has to deliver that bling, right?

Would it dethrone ads as the main driver of Meta’s business? Not in the next decade. But assuming that the company succeeds in getting more companies and users on board with the idea of ​​a 3D internet, these cosmetics are sure to find their buyers. This has some interesting – and possibly grim – implications, especially when you consider how Meta’s ads make such perfect use of behavioral data.

A vicious circle

Companies that adopt the free-to-play monetization techniques in their titles naturally have an incentive to maximize the users’ shopping pleasure. To this end, they can implement a whole range of design decisions, from annoying popups with links to in-game stores to more advanced tools. The latter use behavioral data and psychological tricks to induce the users to spend more.

Some of the latest patents from leading industry names, such as Activision, put machine learning at the service of business results. Adjusting the matchmaking system to encourage new players to spend more? To check. Cluster players into groups to target them with tailored messages, offers and prizes? To check. These and other techniques live and breathe behavioral data. As such, they raise red flags in terms of data exploitation, especially when you consider who tends to fall for them the hardest.

Free-to-play games derive a significant portion of their revenue from a very small subset of their player base, the so-called “whales”, as high-paying players in the industry are known. It can be debatable how crucial high payers are to any given free-to-play title in today’s market, and their share is extremely small. Their scarcity, however, could only demonstrate the problem, as free tricks work best on the most vulnerable targets, from compulsive lenders to children. These are the mechanisms behind the stories of kids spending thousands on in-game purchases.

The underhanded monetization tricks in gaming have sparked a lot of controversy. Gamers are well aware that they are encroaching on their hobby and are no strangers to inviting the industry, be it loot boxes or other nasty money-grabbing attempts. You would think that such awareness and protest could act as a built-in immune system for users and help the industry develop a range of healthier practices.

Meta, for its part, raised dozens of red flags with her own data practices. But like a giant it’s become, it goes on even when users and money bleed. His own proficiency with behavioral data is also known. So why leave such a useful tool alone when it’s bringing the digital cosmetics economy into the areas of our lives that have been offline until now? That would be a shame. After all, life is the greatest free-to-play there is, and it would be a shame to miss out on such a massive player base.

Meta’s metaverse is hypothetically off limits to children, and yet they are already exploring the digital frontiers. Thousands of unsuspecting norms, thankfully oblivious to the sophisticated whaling woven into the fabric of the new reality, may soon join in, should Meta’s power play begin to pay off. Would this exodus to a tenuous economy be as dystopian as some of the other ways the metaverse can turn into a digital hellscape? Probably not. But it’s just a little something to look out for the next time you shop for a nice cozy sofa for a living room that isn’t really there.

Denis Khoronenko is the content editor at ReBlonde.

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