I try to avoid it as much as possible, the metaverse has been on my mind a lot lately. While it’s little more than a vague hodgepodge of already mainstream online concepts theoretically unified by virtual and augmented reality in some way, it’s a tough sell from marketers, public relations representatives and technicians.
It’s also part of Facebook’s cynical rebranding, but I’ve focused more on the non-meta parts of the metaverse, especially since I’ve been playing Elden Ring.
With Elden Ring and Dark Souls, From Software may have unwittingly crafted the ideal AR implementation of the Metaverse. I’m not trolling or making an ironic joke about the difficulty and violence of the games. I’m talking about the quiet genius of From Software developing an asynchronous communication system in its games, which I think could be revolutionary outside of games.
A useful message in Elden Ring.
Multiplayer mainstays of the software
Elden Ring doesn’t have simple co-op or head-to-head competitive modes. You can jump into other players’ games and they can jump into yours to fight or help with bosses, but only under very specific conditions. You also cannot speak directly to other players at any time. Despite these limitations, Elden Ring is absolutely saturated in communication between players, filtered and brilliantly organized.
Elden Ring has three main multiplayer features: Messages, Ghosts, and Summons. They each work differently and neither has a significant effect on your gameplay, but together they make the game lively and populated, and people help each other.
Messages are written using Tarnished’s Shrunken Finger, an item you get early in the game (and need to assign to a quick pocket slot so you can use it easily). When you do, you can write a message that appears as a glowing sign on the ground, which any player can read if they’re nearby.
However, you cannot write anything to other players. You have to choose from a collection of templates and a limited glossary, combining something like “**** in front!” with “Trap” to leave the message “Trap ahead!” This means that messages cannot be personal or directly toxic or threatening; they can only be useful or playful. You can also associate the message with a gesture, which causes a ghost of your character to perform a simple action in front of whoever is reading the message.
This guy gets killed hard by the troll that appears right in front of me.
The second multiplayer feature is ghosts. As you play, you will sometimes see white ghosts of other players who are also currently playing the game. The actions of these ghosts will be visible, but no context for those actions will be given; you won’t be able to see the enemy a player is fighting, only that they are fighting something. These ghosts appear randomly, but you can also trigger another much more useful type of ghost. Bloodstains will appear on the ground where players died, and you can interact with them to spawn a ghost showing that player’s final moments. Enemies still won’t be visible, but you’ll be able to identify where an ambush might be coming from, where a trap might be, or just if a drop is too high by looking at this ghost.
The third multiplayer feature is summoning. Effigies are placed around the game to indicate where you can help other players or ask them for help. The Small Golden Effigy item allows you to place a golden summoning sign on the ground in that location, while the Furlcalling Finger Remedy lets you summon other players through their summoning signs. When you are summoned by another player, you are transported to the area they are in in order to help them beat the nearby boss. You can only communicate with this player through gestures, not words, and you share a common goal to achieve. These limitations keep toxicity and trolling to a minimum and encourage cooperation.
(There are also competitive invasions where you can be transported to another player’s world as “Bloody Finger” with a mission to kill them, but these invasions only occur if you have already summoned another player to help you, unless you use a specific item to let other players freely invade you. This means you won’t be caught off guard by griefers when venturing alone, a problem Dark Souls games had in the past.)
A golden summon sign, allowing me to invite another player to help me deal with a boss.
All of these features are sorted and filtered to some degree. The more popular messages will tend to appear to more people, and the number of bloodstains that will appear in any given location will be limited so that each boss arena doesn’t feel like a Super Meat Boy level. And, of course, you can directly interact with other players through as many or as few summons as you want.
The metaverse is still an amorphous concept, and it seems to freeze around a bunch of simultaneous, individual VR experiences that people can share together, like a group of people attending a virtual concert. It’s a nice idea, and fun outside of VR (I regularly watch Mystery Science Theater 3000 with my friends using manual syncing of online videos), but it’s also clunky and overwhelming to implement, forcing everyone to be on the same page at the same time. It’s also an idea we’ve seen, in and out of VR, for years. You can already watch things with friends, and you don’t need the metaverse to do that.
The metaverse shouldn’t look like this.
But what if we took the asynchronous multiplayer capabilities of Elden Ring and brought it to the real world using augmented reality on your phone (or someday a cheap and ridiculous headset)? Now we have a framework that allows people to communicate and help friends and strangers at their own pace, and doesn’t require everyone to be around and online in the same virtual location at the same time to work .
Turn shriveled finger from tarnish into application. When you find something interesting and want other people to know about it, tap and drop a message. Arrange a few keywords and maybe show a virtual gesture, and your post will appear as a glowing sign on the floor for other people. These don’t have to be full restaurant reviews or anything; maybe quick phrases like “Cool store here!” pointing to a small store you might miss, or “Look up!” under interesting architecture or an art installation. In return, other people’s messages will appear for you when you’re near them, limited to smartly arranged predefined words and phrases, and filtered so you don’t see hundreds of them around an active location. Others don’t need to be where you are right now, and you don’t need to stick around for your advice to be seen by others.
Yes, it’s a bit like Yelp mixed with Pokémon Go, but keeping the messages simple and focusing on the augmented reality aspect ensures communication is both quick and helpful.
And the ghosts? Well hopefully there aren’t enough random deaths in any given location to make augmented reality recreations useful, and people in the same place at the same time don’t need holograms to be visible to each other. There are still ways to make the idea useful in the real world.
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Place ghosts of people captured in motion at important locations. Stores could show someone waving to customers inside, or a work crew could drop a warning figure pointing to a helmet (in either case, the signs still need to be physically there, of course) . Add a sense of livelihood and physical context to everything a sign tries to say, not conveying vital information or replacing actual markers, but providing additional information for users who want to use the metaverse and are equipped to do so.
Remember PlayStation Home? Sony tried to make its own metaverse for the PlayStation 3 back in 2008, and it looked better than Facebook’s image of the metaverse now. (Screenshot: IGN)
A phone camera and a good video filter capable of changing the environment around a person could also allow everyday users to bring their ghosts. Combine the games ghost and message gesture concepts to drop small floating clips of people pointing out something worthwhile.
There are also two ways summoning could be useful in the metaverse. At the simplest level, let people set tags in places if they want information directly from another person. If other people have set their phones or headphones to keep tabs on these beacons, they can come along and give directions to a station or suggestions for where to find the best ramen nearby.
Commercially, “summoned” staff members could provide advice in multiple locations at once, virtually or physically. An off-site docent might guide a small group through a museum using someone’s camera or headset, explaining the exhibits without needing to be there. Or a shopper can directly report to a store employee where they are to find a specific product, even if the staff cannot be found.
Let people control exactly how much interaction they want with other people, like Elden Ring does.
Look for a better multiverse
These concepts are already present in some applications and social networks to some extent, but implementing the limited structure and adding the augmented reality aspects of Elden Ring would make these ideas much more appealing while keeping interactions fast. , immersive and only when you want.
Yes, a lot of these working ideas involve augmented reality becoming much more advanced and affordable, allowing people to easily see “holograms” around them, or relegating everything to smartphones. But you know what? It’s still less intrusive and frustrating than requiring simultaneous use of a VR headset to do things that are already easier and more fun to do outside of VR, and that seems like a great part of what the metaverse is trying to be.
Forget about virtual event spaces and meetings, and especially forget about NFTs. The metaverse should be a world of glowing messages, virtual ghosts, and intelligently curated interactions. From Software is about something that Facebook is not.
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