Ah, the Metaverse.
Years from now when the earth’s landscape is dead and barren from a combination of nuclear winter and TikTok influencers, what’s left of humanity will gather around barrel fires and pinpoint this as the exact moment things went pear-shaped.
“Dad, what was life like before the metaverse?”
“Oh it was wonderful. We’d sit around a table, play with our phones, and ignore each other in real life. Now hurry up and eat your brother before the Haliburton-Skynet-Zuckerberg drones come round for another strafing run.”
I’m kidding, of course. The metaverse will probably not lead to the downfall of civilisation (TikTok, on the other hand), and the drones are more likely to be manufactured by Tesla.
Still, it triggers an involuntary eye roll every time I receive an announcement about how this or that company is boldly venturing “into the metaverse”, as if they’re a latter-day Magellan.
Case in point: this joint press release from Millennium Hotels and the Singapore Tourism Board that landed in my inbox on Monday. “Merlion’s virtual vacation at M Social Decentraland marks STB’s foray into the metaverse”, the headline screamed.
My finger hovered over the “delete” button.
But perhaps I was being too hasty. I had never visited the metaverse before, after all. Back when Second Life came out in 2003, I dismissed it as a place where people with no life could pretend they had two.
Moreover, there were real-world prizes to be won. Granted, most of them were utterly underwhelming, but a 1-night staycation at M Social Singapore might provide me with the kind of small space I needed to start a family. Even if it wasn’t valid during blackout dates, eve of and public holidays.
Besides, I figured I should visit the metaverse soon, before enterprising individuals found new and exciting ways of using it for porn.
Chasing the hypebeast
Back in April 2022, Millennium Hotels claimed to be the first hospitality group to launch a hotel in the metaverse with the opening of M Social Decentraland (a competing claim is made by rival hotel chain citizenM, although their build is in rival platform The Sandbox- which highlights the point that there’s no one metaverse).
M Social Decentraland occupies a single 16x16m plot, described as “prime real estate one tram stop from Genesis Plaza, the starting point for all visitors”. I can’t be the only one confused by the concept of prime location in a world where instantaneous teleporting is possible.
As far as investments go, this wasn’t ludicrous (it’s not like they bought a stake in a company where expense reports were approved by emoji). The plot was acquired for 7,795 MANA (Decentraland’s in-world currency), worth just over US$11,000 on the day of transaction- small change to a company with revenues of more than US$500 million.
But while arguments can be made for using the metaverse to host corporate training or a rare Pepe gallery, a hotel is a much more confusing use case.
In theory, it could allow guests to explore rooms and conference venues without the need for a physical visit. But many hotels already offer 360º photospheres that capture the venue in more detail than current metaverse renders can handle.
In theory, it could provide a more fun booking experience for customers. But I don’t need “fun” when making a booking. I want a snappy, responsive website that serves me quickly and lets me get on with my day.
In theory, it could allow hotels to create and run “brand activation campaigns” (if you physically recoiled when reading that phrase, that’s your brain’s anti-bullshit mechanism protecting you) featuring games and prizes. But it’s hardly going to replace a phone or gaming console as anyone’s regular gaming haunt, and if visitors only show up when there’s prizes, how does this become a sustainable venture?
So long story short, I’m not sold on why a hotel needs a metaverse presence, other than some easy PR (and I suppose it worked, because I’m writing about it). There are, of course, evangelists who will champion the cause, but with arguments like this you’ll forgive me for being sceptical.
In addition, some hotels will generate more business in the Metaverse than in the physical world. The reason is simple: the number of guests in the Metaverse is unlimited, unlike the capacity of nonvirtual hotels.
Enter The Metaverse
Decentraland, to its credit, has fairly low barriers to entry. A desktop client is available, but you can play it in your web browser if you prefer. No VR headset is required; in fact, a mouse and keyboard is the preferred mode of navigation. Gaming rigs will obviously get the best performance, but it managed to chug along on my dinky laptop and integrated graphics card.
The first step to entering Decentraland is to create an avatar, a virtual representation of your physical body.
I wanted to give my avatar some support, not emotionally but in the form of a sports bra. However, this was rejected on the grounds that the wearable was “not compatible with current body shape”.
Excuse me? I don’t have the body shape for a sports bra? There’s seven subscribers on my OnlyFans who will tell you otherwise. Not only was Decentraland running my laptop so hot I could fry an egg on it, it was also giving me body image issues.
I was then asked to pick a name, and surprisingly, could choose any manner of naughty words. And yet this should probably not come as a shock, since Decentraland does not have what you’d call a robust moderation policy.
Users have minted avatars with slurs in their handles, and at one point the name “Jew” was on sale for $362,000. A motion to ban the name “Hitler” failed for lack of a quorum. A brief search of the Decentraland name registry throws up other gems, most of which cannot be repeated in polite company.
My first instinct was to go with “BigDongWong”, but since that might not be printable in a Millennium Hotels press release, settled on “SteamedBankman”.
After a long loading screen, my consciousness awoke, spawned into a table. This was all going according to plan.
Fortunately, I soon realised that in Decentraland, the laws of physics were more like suggestions. I could walk through solid objects (or not, depending on the mood of the physics engine), run through other avatars, and swan dive off a building with no damage. By smashing the jump button enough times, I eventually got unstuck and proceeded outside to Genesis Plaza, the epicentre of Decentraland.
I mean it would be, if it weren’t totally deserted.
It’s hard to see Decentraland and not immediately think of Dismaland, the pop-up “bemusement park” by Banksy in Weston-super-Mare. The Plaza has all the trappings of a family-friendly theme park: tree-lined boulevards, landscaped gardens, rides, and plenty of “look here!” attractions.
And yet there’s an eerie feel to it, like everybody’s gone to the rapture. “The World is Yours”, said a floating blimp over a fountain. Yes, because there’s no one to share it with.
When night fell, it felt akin to wandering through a post-apocalyptic landscape, like the deserted exchange displaying endless rows of “data not available” error messages. Last one to die, please turn out the lights.
This was disappointing beyond words. I wanted to be absolutely odious and offensive to everyone around me, but there was no one to do it to. No wonder all the trolls are sticking to the YouTube comments section.
But empty metaverses aren’t a new problem. Meta’s flagship product Horizon Worlds lost 100,000 players in eight months. Most users didn’t return after the first month, and fewer than 9% of places have been visited by more than 50 people. It’s gotten to the point where Meta’s managers are forcing employees to use it.
Decentraland hasn’t done much better. It wasn’t so long ago that the platform had to refute claims the entire metaverse had only 38 active users each day. Mind you, their counter figure of 8,000 wasn’t much better for an ecosystem with a value of US$1.2 billion (but hey, maybe Decentraland’s a grower not a shower).
How empty is it? Well, put it this way. At the time of writing, the 5th most populated place in all of Decentraland had 11 active users. If not for the 203 people clustered in one spot playing poker, the 20 most populated places in this 23km2 world would have a total of 181 active users- lower than the population density of Kansas.
And somewhere in the midst of this desolate wasteland is M Social.
M Social Decentraland
I fast-travelled from Genesis Plaza to M Social, an all-glass building with a giant M plastered on each of its four sides. Inside the grass-floored lobby (I guess they ran out of construction budget) was the hotel’s receptionist, known as “The Beast”.
Thus began a very one-sided conversation.
The Merlion was abusing his late check-out privileges, and the hotel was offering a bounty to whoever could find the mythical miscreant. This would require scaling the building from the inside and visiting four different worlds.
To access each world, I had to climb a series of floating platforms. Now, I’m no stranger to platforming games, but this seemed maliciously difficult. Not only did my character have the turning radius of a small van, the controls had hair-trigger sensitivity. It took a good five minutes, and lots of gnashing of teeth, just to hop up three of these. So much for speedrunning.
After much difficulty, I made it to the first portal. Each unlocks with a riddle, and the first seemed straightforward enough.
Supertree, I typed.
Super tree, I tried.
After several attempts, the system suggested that perhaps I might wish to consult with The Beast for another clue, because the answer was so obvious it was starting to suspect I might have lied on the age-verification system.
The hell with that. He was all the way down there, and I certainly wasn’t about to do the platforming section all over again.
Gardens by the bay, I typed, hoping this metaverse wasn’t case sensitive. Indeed, it wasn’t. The portal opened, I stepped inside and was spirited away.
Or at least that was the idea.
Apparently, Millennium Hotels didn’t think anyone would be inane enough to play the game immediately after getting the press release (because journalists usually have important things to do with their time, like steal content from Jade Rasif), so they hadn’t yet bothered to take the assets live.
I ended up getting teleported into an empty parcel, which I explored for a few minutes before Decentraland unceremoniously crashed.
This, incidentally, would end up becoming a recurring theme throughout my time here. I would hop on the wrong platform, click on the wrong item, or somehow do something the developers did not envision me doing. Decentraland would crash, and I’d have to wait another couple of minutes for it to boot up before repeating the cycle again.
If this were the future, human extinction might not be that bad an idea.
World 1: Gardens by the Bay
Luckily, someone eventually decided to bring the rest of the assets online, and I was able to teleport to Gardens by the Bay later that day- or at least what it’d look like if it were designed in MS Paint.
I spotted an adorable otter in the corner and, ignoring NPark’s advice, sauntered up for a chat.
The otter’s family had gone missing, probably engaged in low-key revolutionary work by devouring the koi of the aristocracy. I agreed to help him, and up popped a “spot the objects” puzzle.
I quickly realised that instead of actually scrutinising the picture, it was much faster to click at random. Thanks to the generous hit detection, so long as you clicked in the general vicinity of an object of interest, it registered as spotted. This was very much a Hackerman moment for me.
Reconciled with his family, the otter thanked me profusely for my assistance, then promptly requested my email address.
The second character occupying Gardens by the Bay was a hideously overgrown baby, a nightmarish creature straight out of Pan’s Labyrinth.
This horrible abomination had information pertaining to the Merlion’s whereabouts, but would only divulge it if I played a game with him.
Where have I heard that line before?
I swear, Nightmare Baby just straight up plagiarised the otter’s game. It even had the same background artwork, almost as if someone didn’t want to pay a graphic designer extra (which, as we all know, would be unthinkable given how well-respected and essential this field is). This second puzzle involved spotting different flowers, and again, random clicking was the most expedient solution.
Having defeated the demon spawn, it let out a bloodcurdling shriek and relinquished the key to the next world.
World 2: Maxwell Hawker Centre
The second world was Maxwell Hawker Centre, awash with psychedelic disco tiles.
Good heavens, I thought to myself. This is what KF Seetoh warned about. If we don’t respect and treasure our hawker culture, one day the only trace we’ll find of it is in low-fidelity virtual worlds with numerous glitches and subpar animations. I bet the objective of this level is to search within ourselves and ask why we’re paying $20 for awful Western food when we won’t pay $5 for a plate of chicken rice.
Actually, no. I approached the first character, who wanted my help in plotting an underhanded takedown of his competitor, Aunty. Aunty had a superior laksa recipe, and instead of innovating to come up with an even better one, he wanted to copy her model answer. Our education system was doing its job.
I was half expecting the game to start an Overcooked style showdown, but instead received a spot the difference puzzle. Wouldn’t it just be easier to just pee in her broth, I thought as I spammed the left mouse button.
His geriatric rival conquered, the conniving hawker gave me a cryptic clue.
This was…completely useless. I couldn’t believe I smashed Aunty’s rice (laksa?) bowl and destroyed a decades-old family business just for this. I mean, it was fun, but also seemed somewhat unnecessary.
No closer to the answer, I approached the second character, who was busy taking a selfie, and made the mistake of engaging him in conversation.
I probably should have known from his unintelligible language and general portliness that he was, in fact, a TikToker, and surmised that I would now need to annihilate him for the sake of all things good and pure.
But instead of loading health bars and putting us both in a fighting stance, the game inexplicably spawned yet another hidden objects puzzle.
Even for a TikToker, this puzzle was all kinds of stupid. There was no penalty for clicking on the wrong object, so all you had to do was click on each stall once and the game would eventually end.
My rapid completion of this task garnered praise (apparently, “ate” is a term Gen Z uses to denote “a good job”. I hate young people). He invited me to pose for a photo, but I declined, not wanting to be associated with someone who does not know where the sun goes at night.
I bade the TikToker farewell, told him to get a real hobby, and teleported to the next location.
World 3: Orchard Road
The third level took place in Orchard Road. Since they hadn’t specified exactly where, I was hoping to spawn inside Orchard Towers. That might have been wishful thinking on my part, although I understand a lot of spawning happens there on a nightly basis.
In one corner was a grumpy-looking ice cream man. I struck up a conversation with him, by this point substituting dialogue options with my own since it made absolutely no difference whatsoever to the outcome.
Uncle’s task was simple. Some hoodlums had hidden his equipment around Orchard Road, and it was up to me to reclaim it (incidentally, some dick had just stolen his wife’s laksa recipe, but he’d deal with that later). This called for…yet another hidden objects puzzle!
Uncle then told me that Merlion was “headed northwest” to “spend some time in the wetlands”. That was either one heck of a euphemism, or perhaps I’d landed in Orchard Towers after all.
But I couldn’t leave the level until I’d spoken to the second character, boxed in by shopping bags in some kind of heavy-handed metaphor for the dangers of consumerism.
He seemed intent on doing his utmost to offend me.
He then demanded I be his personal shopper, finding five items in a store. Fortunately, I’ve always had an eye for fashion (this will be the season for socks and crocs, mark my words), so this didn’t take more than a few seconds.
Completion unlocked another clue, which would bring me to the fourth and final place of this accursed adventure.
World 4: Sungei Buloh
The final world was set in Sungei Buloh. This looked like a great place to appreciate 32-bit nature, as well as dump a body. Decentraland will eventually host organised crime, right?
Lurking in the bushes was a peeping tom with a pair of high-powered binoculars. He seemed startled when I confronted him.
Alas, my warnings of his Sweet Home Alabama future went unheeded. Like Cassandra, I sighed and started the game. All the puzzles in this world were completely broken. They literally showed me where to click on the screen, suggesting some developer forgot to turn off debugging mode, or the game was taking pity on me for the sheer drudgery I’d been subjected to.
At long last, only one final puzzle stood between me and my staycation.
Unfortunately, it was gatekept by the most powerful of all villains: a treehugger.
I valiantly fought off her powers of eco-guilt and sensible recycling, emerging victorious when I snatched up her four amulets and prevented her from summoning Captain Planet. Yes, it helped that they were all marked out on screen already.
Having completed this last puzzle, The Merlion spawned in*. I kept waiting to hear boss music. Here came the inevitable betrayal. Any moment now he was going to transform into MECHA MERLION and lay waste to Decentraland, before realising the developers already did most of the work for him.
*Actually, he didn’t. On numerous playthroughs, completing the final puzzle did not trigger the spawn event, which meant I had to restart the game from scratch. The things I do for journalism.
Luckily, by this time I had maxed out my speech points, and managed to persuade him to surrender without a fight. It had already been a violent day in Decentraland. No further bloodshed was needed.
And so, I teleported back to M Social’s lobby, where…nothing happened. The Merlion was gone.
I returned to Sungei Buloh, completed the two puzzles again, spoke to the Merlion and returned to the lobby, and still nothing. Then Decentraland crashed again.
Perhaps the game was trying to make a deeper philosophical point about life. After all, aren’t we all chasing our own Merlions of wealth, fame and career success? Why should we be surprised when they ultimately leave us empty and dissatisfied, mere ether (no, not the token) slipping through our fingers in a cold, random universe?
More likely, however, the game was just broken beyond belief. When I returned a few hours later, a small pop-up message congratulated me for finding the Merlion, even though he was nowhere in sight.
It was only the following day that they patched the bug, which restored the Merlion to the lobby after completing the game. He was having a rather Karen-y fit at the hapless front desk associate, probably about his late check-out charges. The optics were not good.
Thus ended the adventures of SteamedBankman in Decentraland. The times of the eight mini-games would be added up, and the staycation grand prize would go to whoever wrote the best script to solve them.
But the game wasn’t done with me yet.
Remember how that otter asked me for my email address? The vouchers took a few days to be sent, but eventually showed up in my inbox. The prize for my five hours in the metaverse: 10% off at Beast & Butterflies, with a minimum spend of S$150. You know, the same discount that any SAFRA member can get with no minimum spend. Or less than the 20% discount you’d get buying vouchers off Klook.
Maybe the real treasure was the poorly-rendered friends we made along the way.
A broken pencil
In February 2022, Samsung had a grand idea.
In addition to a live unveiling of its latest Galaxy S22 phone, it would run a concurrent event at Samsung 837X, a branded space inside Decentraland. This would allow journalists who couldn’t be there in person to enjoy an immersive experience, while collecting NFT badges and limited wearables.
CNBC immediately noticed a large line of people at the main entrance to the 837X building. People were struggling to get in. Some users were getting their avatars to jump on other people’s heads as they clambered to the front of the queue but it didn’t help. The doors wouldn’t open and the chatbox was again full of pleas for help.
After around 30 minutes of trying to access Samsung’s building in the metaverse, CNBC gave up and went back to the real world.
Here’s the kicker: those who did manage to get into 837X were ushered into a virtual auditorium, where they watched the same livestream they could have watched via regular web browser. Let that sink in.
And yet, this kind of forced interactivity is all over Decentraland. You can visit a Vodafone store where the sum total of the experience is a few ads and a QR code you can scan to…visit the Vodafone website.
You can visit Sotheby’s to browse NFTs, but once you try to learn more about an item or make a bid, you’ll be prompted to open your web browser.
All this ruins any illusion of immersion, and makes you wonder what’s the purpose of imposing an additional layer in the first place. Do I need to visit a virtual Starbucks just so I can order coffee for delivery in the real world?
In any case, these venues are absolute ghost towns now, and Decentraland could very well become the GeoCities of the metaverse, littered with abandoned projects and corporate detritus like the EY Talent Tree (just imagine the reminders in the quarterly newsletter- come on guys, visit the #EYTalentTree, it’s your space in the metaverse!).
Time and again, these metaverse exploits come off as nothing more than vanity projects, the pet project of an executive who read a one-page trend piece in Harvard Business Review and decided they better hop on the bandwagon before someone else beat them to the punch.
Millennium Hotels seems to have fallen into the same trap, because there’s absolutely nothing here that necessitates doing it in Decentraland. The fact that these games would have been laughably boring if not for the fact they were in the metaverse suggests that the medium is more important than the message. You come away thinking, wait, wasn’t I just playing a series of low-tech spot-the-difference puzzles? Yes, but you were doing it — dramatic pause — in the metaverse.
But it’s not like many people are playing anyway. I monitored the M Social location over a few days and never saw more than a couple of avatars visiting at any time. Mostly it was just me, myself and The Beast.
That, and the fact that Millennium Hotels has seen fit to change the location’s name from “MSocial Portals” to the spammy-sounding “win real vacation” suggests that the response might not have been as robust as they were hoping for. SteamedBankman might actually have a shot at winning the grand prize.
Are there legitimate use cases for opening a hotel in the metaverse? Maybe, but this isn’t one of them. So long as where you’re doing something matters more than what you’re doing, it’s always going to come off as gimmicky, a cheap publicity stunt without any real substance. And with the way things are set up now, the whole thing kind of feels like a broken pencil.