You may not have heard of Elden Ring, but it’s already one of the most popular video games in recent times, and some believe it holds clues to how communication within the metaverse might look.
The game launched late February and has sold more than 12 million copies, making it a massive hit for Japanese developer FromSoftware.
Elden Ring is an open-world game, a genre in which a player can explore a virtual world and reach objectives with significantly more freedom than linear games with a more structured gameplay.
ArtsTechnica reckons it has sold faster than other open-world hits like Grand Theft Auto IV, Skyrim, The Witcher 3, or The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, matching pace with mega-hit Grand Theft Auto V, which sold roughly 29 million copies in six weeks following its 2014 launch. That game went on to sell 160 million copies across multiple hardware generations.
Reviewers seem in awe of the game’s visuals, which TechCrunch’s Taylor Hatmaker describes as “beautiful, expansive and grand,” and The Guardian calls “extraordinarily beautiful,” even while they remain divided about the ease of its gameplay.
The Guardian’s reviewer, Keith Stuart, in particular calls its user interface design “horrible to interact with — it’s just so bad,” and goes on to add, “The thing is, I’ll be moaning about it after 500 hours and 1,000 hours, but I’ll still be playing. Because it is wonderful. What does that tell us about art and rules? Nothing easy, that’s for sure.”
This is important because game design is going to be key to the way many more of us interact with the virtual world of the 3D internet. And when we interact the virtual worlds in the metaverse we’re also going to need to communicate with each other, perhaps even across different virtual worlds.
Mark Zuckerberg’s purchase of Oculus was always intended to hook the social media connections of Facebook with the immersivity of VR. No one, not even Meta, has cracked this yet, but the makers of Elden Ring might have stumbled onto the solution.
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“I’m talking about the low-key genius of From Software developing an asynchronous communications system in its games, which I think could be revolutionary outside of games,” writes Will Greenwald for PC Mag.
Elden Ring doesn’t have simple one-to-one cooperative or competitive modes, nor can you communicate directly with other players, but Greenwald thinks Elden Ring is “absolutely saturated in communication between players, filtered and organized in brilliant ways.”
Even The Guardian, which can’t quite make up its mind if the game is any good or not, says that “the metagame — the stuff that goes on around the actual on-screen action — is as important as the game itself.”
So what do they mean? Well, Elden Ring has three core multiplayer features: called messages, ghosts, and summons. They each work differently and, according to Greenwald, “make the game feel alive and populated, and let people help each other.”
You can, for example, write a message that appears as a glowing sign on the ground, which any other player can read if they’re nearby.
You can’t write just anything to other players, though. You have to choose from a collection of templates and a limited glossary, to leave a message like “Trap ahead!”
“This means messages can’t be personal or directly toxic or threatening; they can only be helpful or playful. You can also pair the message with a ‘ghost’ of your character performing a simple action in front of whoever reads the message,” Greenwald notes.
The third multiplayer feature is summons which enables you to seek help from other players if you’re stuck in part of the game. When you’re summoned by another player, you’re transported to the area they’re in. You can only communicate with that player through gestures, not words, and you share a common goal to work toward. Those limitations, according to Greenwald, keep toxicity and trolling to a minimum and encourage cooperation.
Could these multiplayer features be adopted in the real world using AR on a smartphone or headset?
“Now we have a framework that lets people communicate and assist friends and strangers at their own pace, and doesn’t require everyone to be around and online in the same virtual place at the same time to work.”
Greenwald speculates that the messaging feature could be turned into an app enabling people to leave messages in AR for others to read when they reach that spot. In return, other people’s messages will appear for you when you’re near them, limited to cleverly arranged preset words and phrases, and filtered so you don’t see hundreds of them around an active location. Other people don’t need to be where you are right now, and you don’t need to stick around for your tips to be seen by others.
“Yes, it’s a bit like Yelp mixed with Pokémon Go, but keeping messages simple and focusing on the augmented reality aspect of it ensures that communication is both quick and useful.”
How about “ghosts?” Place motion-captured ghosts of people at important locations, he suggests. Stores could show someone waving customers inside, or a work crew could drop a caution figure pointing at a hard hat.
“Add a sense of livelihood and physical context to whatever a sign is trying to say, conveying not vital information or replacing actual markers, but providing additional information to users who want to use the metaverse and are equipped to do it.”
A phone camera and a good video filter that can edit surroundings out from around a person could let everyday users contribute their ghosts, too. Combine the games’ ghost and message gesture concepts to drop little floating clips of people pointing out something worthwhile.
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As for the idea of “summons.” On the simplest level, people could set “beacons” at locations if they want information directly from another person.
“If other people have set their phone or headset to keep an eye out for those beacons, they can come up and give directions to a train station or suggestions for where to get the best ramen nearby.”
Commercially, “summoned” staffers could also provide guidance. For example, there could be a virtual guide walking with you through a museum (which is what we do now with recorded narration on special phones) while you’re using a phone camera or headset.
“Let people control exactly how much interaction they want with other people, like Elden Ring does,” says Greenwald. “These concepts are already present in some apps and social networks to some extent, but implementing the limited structure and adding the AR aspects of Elden Ring might make those ideas much more engaging while keeping interactions quick, immersive, and only when desired.”
Designing the social networking component of the metaverse in AR would also be less intrusive and frustrating than requiring simultaneous virtual reality headset use to do things that are already easier and more fun to do outside of VR.