The Ready Player One MMO was Metaplace

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Aug 302013 has an article about a hypothetical Ready Player One MMO.

For those who haven’t read it, Ready Player One is a novel by Ernest Cline that describes a network of virtual spaces running on a common operating system, called OASIS. The story is a fun romp, not too deep, about a kid who is looking for the secret prize hidden in an insane scavenger hunt scenario by the network’s creator.

The book is full of geek references. The skillful playing of Joust is a key point; so is the ability to recite Ferris Bueller’s Day Off from memory. But of course, part of what captivates a gamer is the description of OASIS itself: a giant network of virtual spaces, capable of encompassing pretty much every sort of virtual space you might want.

So the article asks, what about building something like that. Well, we did.

Metaplace predated the novel. But really, the book describes basically what we built, and which is now gone. (The tech survives, within Disney, but isn’t used in this fashion anymore).

I think many MMORPG fans were barely even aware it existed, because really, it got almost no marketing. And while we were around, people were perpetually confused as to what it was. Frankly, I found it too big an idea to wrap up well in a marketing message.

  • a generic server architecture that could handle anything from arcade games to MMOs. Servers ran in the cloud, so it was designed to be really, really scalable. Just keep adding worlds. At the time we closed it, there were tens of thousands of them.
  • the ability for players to own and make their own spaces. You didn’t even need to know how to make stuff in 3d modeling, it imported SketchUp from Google Warehouse even. You didn’t need to host your own art.
  • scriptable to the point where you could make a whole game in it. The scripting used Lua, which was a barrier for people. We had made moves towards letting people snap together behaviors (drag and drop AI onto something in the world, for example) but probably didn’t go far enough.
  • full web connectivity in and out, so that you could have stuff from the real world manifest in the games, or game stuff feed out to the web. Like, an MMO where the mobs are driven by stock quotes was easy to make. Or hooking a Metaplace world up to say Moodle (for education) or having NPCs read their dialogue from external sources. We had one world which performed any Shakespeare play by reading the plays off of a remote server, spawning NPCs for all the parts, and interpreting the stage directions.
  • agnostic as far as client, so you could connect lo-fi or full fancy 3d — in theory. We never got to the 3d, but we had clients running on mobile devices, PCs, and in web browsers. If we were still pursuing it, you can bet we’d be doing an Oculus version right about now. 🙂
  • worlds connected to one another, and you might change from world to world, but you also had a common identity across all the worlds. You could walk from Pac-Man into Azeroth, so to speak.

I think a lot of people were turned off by the 2d graphics, and a lot were turned off by the fact that there wasn’t a full MMO there to just play, and a lot of people found building too hard. A huge part of why we didn’t succeed is that we were too many things to too many different people, and that split our efforts in far too many directions. The result was a tight but small community that never started to really grow.

But if you were ever wondering why something like the Ready Player One/Snow Crash style world hasn’t been made — well, there it was… open from 2007 to 2009. It saddens me to see it forgotten so quickly, though in many ways it really did end up as just a footnote in virtual world history. I get a lot of “the last thing you did was SWG in 2003” from people who clearly didn’t know it existed or weren’t interested because it wasn’t a hack n slash gameworld.

I might spend the time to dig through some screenshot archives and post up some examples of what got made. I miss that community a lot.

  26 Responses to “The Ready Player One MMO was Metaplace”

  1. There are actually a TON of Metaplace videos, probably because it was used by so many educators.

  2. That Shakespeare world was really fun – though it’s one of those things that always feels like you can / should do more with it. Thanks, Raph – wish Metaplace was still around; it was a ton of fun. 🙂

  3. I’m curious how the whole storytelling games/not-games debate would have gone if Metaplace had been used by them to make exactly what’s been made in Twine. Because as I recall, Twine-level interactions were Metaplace’s bread and butter. You never had to script those things.

  4. I was at the GDC presentation where you announced Metaplace, and I watched with great interest as it began haltingly and then sort of faded. (I was more excited by the technology than in the product itself, I confess.) Maybe it was a failure of marketing, but I think the lesson to take away is that the appeal of a virtual world is what’s already present there, not just what could be there. That includes both users and content.

  5. Mark, I think that is a good way to put it. We were constantly torn between wanting to cater to developers, and to end users with little technical savvy. Catering to the latter bought us audience, but didn’t buy us content. Catering to developers closed out the broader audience, and (unfortunately, and not for lack of trying) none of the developers were able to make content that was broadly appealing. Not only a a chicken-and-egg problem, but a focus problem.

    There were really substantial culture clashes within the company over it. Some were adamantly against us making any sort of game content in-house. We passed up more than one multi-million dollar deal to make white label virtual worlds for other people. When users didn’t succeed at making content that was a draw, there was a period where some argued strongly for going even more casual — make Metaplace into more of a “sticker book” app, in order to go even broader.

    I didn’t resolve this strongly one way or the other, which was a failure of mine as company leader. I suspect that if we had started with just making one cool MMO in it, perhaps one where users could add to the edges of the world, and then expanded from there, things might have gone very differently.

    Getting married to Flash was also a challenge. There were excellent reasons to do it — it is what the default tech was, at the time, for deploying web content like that, and if we didn’t take advantage of Flash-specific things, we were missing out. At the same time, it hurt the larger promise of platform agnostic a lot, and as a result we weren’t mobile, we didn’t have 3d, and so on.

  6. Perhaps it’s for the best, though. Modern technology suitable for that vision is much more mature than it was five years ago, and now you have a better idea of what not to do. Maybe one question Metaplace didn’t have a good answer for is “Who is this for?” The big success stories in user-populated virtual words lately have been Minecraft, which is unabashedly for end-users, and Miguel Cepero’s “Voxel Farm” which has attracted attention for Everquest Next by being middleware for developers.

    If the idea is to be everything, to include the common features that define all virtual worlds, then I think the best audience to pursue would be closer to developers than to end users. So rather than being a single product, it would be something like a federated standard of interoperability between individually-branded virtual worlds derived from Metaplace technology.

  7. I was one of the developers that tried and failed to create appealing content. Metaplace *is* a great idea still and I miss it. But I do remember banging my head against the wall over and over trying to troubleshoot scripting bugs and server performance issues. I also felt the tools given to developers were never really fleshed out the way we hoped. Coding UI without a WYSIWYG style tool was oppressively tedious. Debugging tools were pretty weak. And importing/exporting code for backups and such was kind of a pain.

    Having said that. I’d be back at it in a heartbeat if you announced it was coming back.

  8. The last thing I did on Ahazi was….

    As a gamer I remember hearing the name ‘metaplace’ but I figured it was just another gaming enthusiast/software seller of free casual indie games or something, and never looked into it.

  9. There are a lot of ideas that could be revived today. I remember the live concerts, the fun beta tests of multiplayer space shooters , and the chance encounters with other players , like encountering other players in “journey ” only they could offer you tips in how to teleport or invite you to their own world. There was something sublime and primordial about it. It never got the chance it deserved. With WebGL, nodejs, and other web tech I bet one could go pretty far toward a new metaplace. It’s just like how game neverending never got a chance. There needs to be something like a free open source client and server set up that any one person or group doesn’t control. Like a mmo layer on top of the web. Now with things like toontown closing, there needs to be a way to have worlds without a central hub that can fail and leave members feeling abandoned .

  10. I keep wondering if something like that could be made Open Source style, or maybe something like the World Wide Web. Even when you were doing Metaplace, or with the other big VR, Second Life, it’s all closed off. Can you imagine if anyone was free to host a VR on their home box like they do a website? Or purchase blocks of server space like people do for FPS servers? I appreciate what you tried, but I think that for the VR revolution it has to be Open Source.

  11. Yeah, but the challenge is the cost. It was millions of dollars to build what we did. That is a big hurdle for open source. Makes it a VERY large project.

  12. I can see it now. Some day in the distant future, Captain Ralph T. Coster of Starfleet will be mistaken for “the creator”.
    Let us hope he can outwit Raph’s creation.

  13. Since reading the book a few months ago I’ve thought about how the Oasis could be real… And I think the approach that would need to be taken has not been discussed.

    Wouldn’t a simplified, more apt comparison of the ideal be: An actual celestial representation of an ‘app store’. Some hybridization of Steam / iTunes / name one… Games that exist in worlds (like an MMO) would be a literal planet. Games that were more of arcade style would be on an Arcade-like world.

    So then you already have all the content you could ever want! The tech required at this point would then be some protocols for hooking game X up to its assigned ‘planet’ and an API / framework / platform for interacting with game systems like a physics engine, ai, or economy.

    A Gaming Consortium would be responsible for the standards of this technology, and its evolution. Maybe something akin to the W3C. The starting point would naturally need to be some popular physics engine, but it would all evolve over time until there were standards for the economy, and travel between worlds, and on and on.

    I’m not suggesting this work would be trivial, but I think this approach brings a simplicity to the starting point for something that could one day be the Oasis.

  14. Oh, I definitely think Metaplace was on the right track. It needed a longer incubation period, and it definitely should have had 3D capability out of the box, but I don’t see it as a failure. It’s an important piece of the puzzle.

    Second Life is another piece. For all its numerous failings, it’s still one seed for the metaverse. I think it’s being held back by technical limitations and price point, and the former is being addressed (too slowly for my taste, but that’s always the case).

    We have setbacks, but we are advancing. The pieces fall into place haphazardly, but they do come together. Our wizards get dispirited, but they are still wizards. We will have our metaverse, and it will be glorious. Just get it together before I’m pushing up daisies!

  15. I enjoyed playing with Metaplace, but it was too complex for the casual user who had never made games before. Ironically, I think games like Farmville present a good starting point for something like Metaplace for casual users. Even things like Minecraft are too abstract and ugly for really casual users to start using. The Farmville clone that I helped to make over three years ago still has users today and the players still make beautiful maps and although it isn’t my cup of tea, I am proud of helping to make something that lets other people express themselves and create beautiful things.

    I don’t know what the answer is to make something like this work, but I imagine it would be a very simple outer crust like Farmville and then some way to gently introduce people to scripting and creating art and such through a series of tutorials presented as quests.

    I can imagine an introductory quest where players first enable the advaneced editor, then go buy a cow in the advanced content store, and then finally go buy a “walk” script for the cow that they download and attach to it before they ever get into seeing the code. Subsequent steps could have the players save the cow+script as some object and then allow them to place copies of this object on their map by going to a special list of their own items. But, I think this functionality has to be hidden from the player until they’ve either played for a long time or they go hunting for the advanced features.

    It might be good for players to visit other players’ maps, or have them to visit some central map at some level and then see a cow walking around where they were never able to see a cow walking around before on their map. this could be the start of the quest to get a walking cow for their map.

    Making this introduction would be incredibly time-intensive and would have to burn through thousands of fresh casual players to get to the point that the tutorials/quests are simple enough that the vast majority of casual users can figure it out when presented with it.

  16. I loved Metaplace, or at least, what you were trying. I did feel that by not focusing on the developers primarily, you weren’t going to last, though, since that was the intended income source. Like some of the others have said, it was frustrating that even a simple thing like a side-scrolling platformer was impossible due to physics engine bugs. Making something I’d feel comfortable charging for wasn’t going to happen for a while.

    But yes, I’d be back instantly if it restarted. The concept was brilliant, the fundamentals were there, and it’s the sort of thing quite frankly that the internet was invented for.

  17. Something like this does exist, yeah?

  18. “It saddens me to see it forgotten so quickly”— its not forgotten by me. and i am the center of the universe

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