MUDs to Metaverse: The Unreal Estate Deal | 2308

Costly virtual land in the metaverse today is a result of memory constraints on mainframes. A solution to a problem that no longer exists.

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MUDs to Metaverse: The Unreal Estate Deal

There was an article in the The New York Time this week called The Next Hot Housing Market Is Out of This World. It’s in the Metaverse.

Subtitled: β€œDespite the implosion of FTX and projections of a cryptocurrency winter, the metaverse real estate market is expected to grow by $5.37 billion by 2026.”

Mr. Sierra, an avid gamer who uses a purple gorilla as one of his own avatars, paid $10,000 for a digital parcel in an online world called the Sandbox, and then partnered with Voxel Architects, an architecture firm specializing in virtual 3-D properties, to build the digital home to pair with the real thing. It all hits the auction block in March, and he’s hoping for a sale price of around $10 million.


Metaverse real estate is stupid. Today let’s talk about why it even exists at all. 

In 2021 I spent a lot of time in the world’s first graphical 3D virtual world – Active Worlds. I wrote about my experience in the book Lost Zone. Hiking the Dawn of Metaverse. I was deeply critical of how β€˜The Metaverse’ replicates the worst of American manifest destiny and colonial expansion. Virtual worlds selling NFT real estate today also echo the idea of an empty techno-pastoral frontier to buy and win. At the same time, I was researching under NDA the history of virtual goods. That NDA is now up, so let’s talk about the links between these two topics.

From the very beginning virtual land has been for sale in graphical virtual worlds. But why, we should ask, was virtual real estate for sale in 1995 in the first place? Is it that the western idea of property rights is so powerful that it cannot but manifest in the virtual? Or are we in this situation for some other reason?

To answer the question we must go back 15 years before the web was even invented to MUDs. Being text based, they are the most pure of virtual worlds and were sites of rapid and wild experimentation.

MUDs ran on mainframes. Computing environments where memory and resources are shared by all programs running on the machine. Bartle and Trubshaw’s MUD1 software was written in 1978 for the University of Essex’s DEC PDP-10. A mainframe which shipped from the manufacturer with 1.1 Megabytes of memory.

During the 80’s these machines were connected to the early internet one by one. Very soon after, sysadmins were panicking about 100’s of people connecting to the virtual world hosted on their mainframe. Every time a MUD got popular, limits on the total memory and resources allocated to it were imposed.

Not so much the GPU render gap of today, but a memory gap.

One of the core features of a text based virtual world is that users can create anything their imagination can conceive. If you can describe it in text, it can exist in the world.

From the command line, or parser a user can abracadabra new things into existence. The same interface allows a user to not only explore a world, but create it. Very much like the AI interfaces of today.

A note on the digital physics of text based worlds.

Every single thing inside the world is an object – Even the player.

All objects have 3 types of information associated with them

Properties: like name, owner, creator, location etc.
Attributes: Is this object a player or not? Does this object have a parent or any children object?
Verbs: which allow objects to be programmed For example: put object inside another object. Put and inside being verbs

So what does all this have to do with virtual real estate?

Well every object in the world takes up hard drive space. There was only so many bytes of hard-drive space to go around. And since it was the 80’s, players kept creating 99 red balloons. 

Different worlds had different strategies for dealing with this problem. But the main one was Quotas. LambdaMOO hosted by Xerox in the early 90s gave all users 50-kilobytes. If you wanted more memory you would need to petition an allocation committee. If denied, you were stuck deleting old stuff to make room for new stuff. Simple as that. 

As more and more people got online in the late 80s and early 90’s, virtual worlds became big business. Phone companies bought out MUD developers. Dial-up paid by the minute meant a lot of money was being made. It is ironically, the conditions that drove the expansion of the web – local ISP’s and free local calls – that created virtual real estate. The shift to freel local calls meant MUD operators needed to seek new sources of revenue. And landed on two options: All you can eat monthly subscriptions, or pay for more memory.

Many of the MMO designers in the 90’s had cut their teeth in MUDS. So these options were part of their toolkit.

Unlike MUDs however, graphical worlds have more technical constraints on where and what users can create. Build privileges needed to be confined to a designated section of the world for each user. So this is what was being purchased in 95, designated memory address space on the server.

This is where the metaphorical slip occurs: buying virtual memory becomes buying virtual land.

And thus the first unreal estate boom began. By 2002, Everquest had 430,000-players and over $5 million dollars of volume in its auctions market. With a gross virtual product of about $135 million dollars. Alongside Ultima and the other online worlds, they generated about $300 million in combined real wealth in 2001. Anyone who is still saying crypto isn’t worth anything because it virtual in 2023 is an idiot. 

So the sale of virtual land today is a result of memory constraints on mainframes. A solution to a problem that no longer exists. A design pattern that has accidentally become entrenched  in virtual world design. And designers don’t even realise it.

It’s 2023 we need to move beyond it.


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