During its heyday from roughly 2008 to 2011 Second Life was full of major brand storefronts and a thriving in-world economy. However those brands moved out after it became clear that the economy wasn’t driving any traffic to their stores and few were buying real-world goods and services. The focus was on elements of the world itself and the Linden allowed close management by the people who run Second Life.
Second Life is still around but few if any real-world businesses have a strong presence there. After 2011 it began to decline noticeably as not just companies but general users began to lose interest. What gave it such strength initially and what has kept it going has always been its core user base who sink their time and money into the world. The custom building in-world while clunky at times worked remarkably well. The users have always kept innovating new ideas and experiences into the world to provide content and engagement for one another.
This will be the first test of Meta, whether it can or is even willing to give the right tools to the users. If that happens the users will make the world their own and then they will want to stay there and make more stuff for themselves and each other. However, what we have seen of Facebook in the past suggests they will not want to give this level of freedom and control to the user base. If they run it is as a cohesive game experience more like an MMORPG that might work. Certainly, those worlds have large and committed player bases but they don’t support anything like the real world. One won’t find a Nike storefront in World of Warcraft for good reason. Blizzard doesn’t want cross-branding nor do they want that kind of immersion-breaking.
The next test for them will be whether they can avoid interfering too much. Virtual worlds tend to work best with little micromanagement. This actually would seem to suit the hosting companies as it means they have less work to do. Still, some have a tendency to try to handle every element. This removes the freedom and opportunity that makes the metaverse so exciting in the first place.
Future virtual worlds like Metaverse will be making use of new technology that hasn’t been available in the past. This may give them an edge. Virtual headsets and wide consumer availability of more immersive experiences may help to increase the variety. These experiences can be enough in some cases to hold a user base. VRChat is perhaps the most notable example of this. Despite being very feature-poor to the point of not even having a text chat system it maintains a small but regular and dedicated user base that seems to be enough to keep it moving. It will also have access to greater interactivity through camera systems, motion trackers, full in-world persistent presence, and more. Such tools provide the possibility of wholly new levels of engagement for the user and new opportunities for the creators to provide content to their audiences.
Whether Metaverse and other emerging virtual worlds will take advantage of these things will be seen soon enough. To date, no truly open world has been more successful than Second Life and it remains the best starting model for non-game virtual worlds. Yet even its own parent company, Linden Labs, has failed to replicate its success with its second virtual world Sansar. Why this is probably the case is a matter for another article but suffice to say that nothing about this is easy. A company like Meta might have a leg up with its very large influence and reach getting people in the world. Just having a large enough number of users is a core component and so driving hype and enrolling enough users is a powerful start. But if there is nothing there to keep people interested and coming back it won’t last long.