In the earliest days of PC and video gaming, all you needed to change the world was a good idea, some friends, and a shoestring budget. Doom—a title that helped popularize the first-person shooter genre—is a great example of this. With a five-person team, a small workspace next to a dentist’s office, and a budget of $500,000, ID Software created a highly influential masterpiece that remains a fan favorite to this day.
The idea that you could make a major title on such a shoestring budget is laughable. Today’s video games cost as much as Hollywood blockbusters to produce. EA’s Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 reportedly had a budget of $250 to $300 million, with over 3,000 people involved in its creation.
This cost inflation is an inevitable consequence of people’s growing demands for realism, immersion, and a cinematic multiplayer experience. Creating these vivid worlds takes time, which isn’t cheap. Whereas Doom took 13 months to build, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 was under development for almost five years. Realistic, engrossing and exciting digital experiences are expensive, time-consuming, and require a focused development team.
While metaverse experiences aren’t necessarily games (nor are they meant to be), for developers and organizations looking to create their first metaverse experience, these figures demand your attention.
Why? Because, albeit tangentially, you’re in the same business as EA and every other game developer out there. You’re creating an immersive, 3D, virtual world. And that takes time and money. Your success depends on your ability to establish realistic timelines and budgets, and to understand the limits of what’s possible with the resources available.
Why You Should Treat The Metaverse Like A Game
While some might treat games as something trivial, they’re deeply complicated and expensive products to build. Building something that meets the expectations of players—a fickle and highly discerning audience—takes time, effort, planning, and resources. And these players carry their expectations into the metaverse.
While you could build a viable proof-of-concept for $500,000, and even ship it into production, the reality is that you’ll need several times that figure in order to build something that truly resonates with the intended audience. Businesses that will thrive in this space identify it as a strategic element of their channel marketing or business operations and commit the right resources in response.
Right now, the biggest metaverse users are those in Gen Z (people born between 1997 and 2012) and other adjacent generational cohorts, most notably the up-and-coming Generation Alpha (those born in the early 2010s). This audience grew up playing games that delivered large doses of dopamine with visual realism, and they’re unwilling to compromise.
Aesthetics are a significant part of the puzzle, but there are others. Again, think about the type of mechanics used in the past decade’s worth of flagship games. For studios, a game isn’t a one-time event where it’s released and immediately forgotten about as they move onto the next project.
Rather, it has a rich narrative and lifecycle where it’s constantly refreshed, expanded, and improved upon. Think about “Season Passes,” DLC (downloadable content), microtransactions and skins, and events. These are the value-adding elements that lend to the inherent “stickiness” of certain games, particularly in the months and years following their original release.
More than merely conducting in-game transactions, game loops, incentives, programmatic content and events, and channel management are essential to drive traffic and build community within immersive environments. Not to mention the staff to manage and execute this.
And that, ultimately, takes time and money. Most of all, it takes commitment.
Thinking About Lifecycles And Mechanics
This isn’t to dissuade people from embracing the metaverse as a tool for engagement, branding, or marketing. While the space is undeniably young, the earliest experiments have produced unfathomable results for brands, particularly when we look at memorability and engagement.
Rather, it’s to serve as a word of caution: Brands that jump into the metaverse without a carefully considered plan are doomed to failure. Those dismal prospects are shared by those organizations that think about their metaverse experiences in the short term, encompassing the development process and perhaps the following few months.
The question shouldn’t be: What will get audiences to visit these immersive worlds? The real question is: What will keep them coming back? It all starts with a plan.
So, what should a plan look like? Well, let’s start at the beginning. Brands need a purpose. And no, “net new revenue” doesn’t cut it, because if you’re simply looking at the metaverse as a tool for marketing or a place to sell more things, you’re leaving money on the table. This, ultimately, comes back to the fundamental definition of the metaverse.
When we talk about metaverses, we’re describing immersive virtual worlds where—with a sprinkle of ingenuity and software craftsmanship—people can do things that would otherwise be impossible in normal life. These range from the seemingly trivial (like visiting a car dealership for a brand that’s yet to establish a large retail presence) to the spectacular (i.e. Fortnite).
That purpose—or, better yet, ambition—will cascade down into the experience you build and will be a factor that attracts visitors and customers.
But you want to keep people around, so you need a plan for long-term success and audience retention. It’s therefore a good idea to define what success looks like, with well-defined targets and KPIs. It’s not enough to think purely of the initial development roadmap, or the loud marketing splash that announces your arrival into this brave new (virtual) world. You need to think about ways to create customer lifetime value that keep users returning for more. But more than that, you need to create a real community.
Here, your strategy will include two parts. The first will center on content and community management. You’ll want someone—or perhaps even a dedicated team—to run and plan events, listen to visitor feedback, and help plan future content releases.
It’s hard to overstate the importance of content. If you leave your metaverse product to languish untouched, people will quickly lose interest. You need to give your audience a real and tangible incentive to return—like events, promotions, or updates.
The second component in your strategy should be a healthy adaptation of conventional game mechanics. As the saying goes: “Talent borrows, genius steals.” Allowing for exploration, including gamified elements like NPCs and Easter eggs, is perhaps the smartest way to make your metaverse project feel not simply vibrant, but complete.
Time Is Money
What I just described—the game mechanics, the community management, and the long-term content strategy—costs money. Any metaverse project should carefully consider these requirements, and budget accordingly.
You don’t need $250 million to build an amazing metaverse experience. But you do need to accept that metaverse experiences are among the most complex and demanding software products to build, and have a lifecycle that stretches (or, at the very least, should) beyond the initial release period. Brands and organizations that fail to acknowledge the complexity of the metaverse are unlikely to enjoy any real long-term success.
Admittedly, the relative “newness” of the metaverse means there isn’t yet a tried-and-tested rulebook that brands can look to. But they can turn to the next best thing: the games industry, which regularly builds multiplayer immersive experiences with a deliberately long lifecycle. Games studios have figured out the recipe for products that retain their impact and relevance for years at a time, and many of their lessons can apply to metaverse developers too.
As Albert Einstein once said, “Life is just like a game; first you have to learn the rules of the game, and then play it better than anyone else.”
Josh Rush is the CEO of Surreal Events, a virtual events and metaverse development platform.