Does the Metaverse need to be on a blockchain?

Blockchain-based solutions have seen financial, legal, gaming and social applications, albeit at a relatively small scale over the last few years. However, whether the blockchain infrastructure layer will be a must-have for the growth of the Metaverse narrative remains unanswered.

The answer to that question depends on how we define the Metaverse. Some definitions of the Metaverse focus only on its experiential elements. The word Metaverse often makes us imagine wearing a virtual reality (VR) headset and going through an immersive experience in a virtual world.

This is not all wrong, but it is an incomplete definition of a Metaverse. The Metaverse is expected to be a futuristic version of the internet. That is a great vision, but why do we need a new internet? The answer to that lies in the answer to another question — do we need blockchain for the Metaverse?

Why do we need a new internet?

Our current internet is inadequate. Incentives are skewed toward a limited set of stakeholders, creators get exploited and users have very little control over their data. Can the new version of the internet change that?

The internet has been built and evangelized through applications like Google, Meta (previously Facebook), Instagram and Amazon. These applications deploy several techniques to grab users’ attention, and monetize that when they have it. Despite creating monetizable value through these apps, users get a very tiny slice of the value accruing to them.

Even when users who have created value receive very little money, the applications that grabbed the users’ attention have generated wealth for themselves and their shareholders — several trillion dollars. The internet must be more inclusive for this to change.

This is not because of the applications, themselves, but because they were bred in a capitalist ecosystem. Here, the winners take all the value and the wealth. It is okay for this to happen with the new internet, as long as “winners” has a more inclusive definition.

The other key challenge with the current internet is the exploitation of content creators. The internet has left us overfed with content. Yet even high-quality content creators seldom get paid their due. The platforms and intermediaries that offer web-shelf space to these content creators make most of the money. This needs to change; the internet must be more creator-friendly.

Apart from skewed incentive mechanisms, the current internet also takes user data for granted. Internet users have very little control over their data and their network. Why would a user need to start from scratch to build their network when they move from Facebook to Twitter? This needs to change and the Metaverse is the change.

Why would blockchain fix the internet?

The internet handles several million data transactions per second. The blockchain infrastructure is in its technological infancy compared to the current iteration of the internet. Yet, blockchain is not just an infrastructure layer; it is an economic layer too. These economic features of the blockchain can potentially address the challenges of the internet.

In a blockchain-based world, the tokenomics of a metaverse (the new internet) platform allows more inclusive incentives. These metaverse applications can be inclusive from a shareholding (governance token) and user incentivization (utility token) perspective.

Active participants in the metaverse ecosystems often hold utility tokens. For instance, participants in a gaming metaverse earn their utility tokens by playing and creating games. Participants in an art metaverse earn tokens by creating art and being ambassadors of art by writing useful reviews.

The Metaverse allows participants to earn as users and creators of the platforms. As long as participants in these ecosystems keep creating value, they are incentivized. As these participants generate more value in an ecosystem, they accrue credentials and become influencers.

Yet, if an influencer in one Web3 metaverse wants to create a profile on another ecosystem, they should be able to carry their friends and network along with them. Ecosystem credentials such as “XP” (experience points) in a gaming platform should not get carried along as they are ecosystem specific.

The fundamental ethos is that users own their credibility and network, not the platforms.

The other fundamental design construct of the Metaverse is nonfungible tokens (NFTs). NFTs offer value permanence. When a gamer buys an in-game asset in a Web2 game, they offer a revenue opportunity to the game studio. They don’t own the asset. That changes in the blockchain world.

NFTs not only offer users the ability to create, buy and sell Metaverse assets but also allows them to accumulate ecosystem credentials in the form of “soul-bound tokens.” Soul-bound tokens behave like credit scores in financial services and as Metaverse users accumulate more, they tend to accrue more value faster.

Blockchain challenges in delivering the Metaverse

The Metaverse of the future sounds great, but is it all just hype? Serious technological, experiential and economic model headwinds need to be addressed for the Metaverse narrative to come true.

Blockchain suffers from scalability, interoperability and security challenges. Even the best chains with meaningful user bases can handle only about 50,000 transactions per second. The internet has millions of data interactions per second in emails, tweets, posts, Google searches, messages and more.

This comparison assumes that data interactions in a metaverse must be on-chain. As cryptographic techniques (like zero-knowledge Rollups) get better at addressing scalability challenges, the economic features will rightly take the limelight to create new Metaverse-based models for the future.

Apart from the scalability challenges, there are major interoperability issues across blockchains. This is particularly related to bridges used to transfer value from one blockchain to another.

Many cyber attacks on Web3 platforms have occurred through these bridges. The Ronin bridge attack and Solana wormhole bridge attack are examples. Interoperability is an ample opportunity within Web3 but it is equally a vulnerability that needs to be addressed.

These blockchain infrastructure layer challenges keep returning to haunt the ecosystem. One of the more recent issues is creating a sustainable economic model of the Metaverse. While GameFi has been leveraged as a growth hack to attract users, a scalable token model is yet to be identified.

To date, there have been many failed economic models that have informed and inspired new models and economic approaches. Yet, innovators in this space are at least a cycle away from identifying a sustainable model.

The last headwind is that of user experience. VR hardware and the Web3 onboarding user experience need to be more seamless to attract hardcore gamers, creators and users into the Metaverse.

So, is blockchain ready to take on the Metaverse journey?

In essence, the ideal metaverse must be on blockchain rails, which mandates inclusive incentives centered around creators and users while still offering immersive and seamless virtual experiences.

The Metaverse is not just about the experiential elements; it is also about the economic aspects. The financial incentives must be centered around the real value creators. Those who create content, and regularly interact and transact on the platform are the ones who are creating value.

While the economic model possibilities are exciting, and several hopeful glimpses of these possibilities have emerged, there are significant technical challenges to overcome. The deficiencies in user experiences need to be addressed too.

In the short term, a few scalable Web2 versions of the Metaverse would embrace the Web2 ethos of incentivizing participants. As blockchain matures, more hybrid models would emerge, where Web2 elements bring scalability and user experience, and blockchain takes care of incentivization. A fully scalable on-chain Metaverse may seem utopian now, but it would be the ideal way to build the future internet.

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