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Comedians Are Trying to Make the Metaverse Cool, But It Won't Let Them

Comedians Are Trying to Make the Metaverse Cool, But It Won't Let Them

Rodney Ramsey usually wears a VR headset to tell jokes, but one day in January, he was on stage in a virtual world called Protestland, a rally to stop Meta from burying his stand-up comedy show. was leading

Protestland is a small world in Meta's Metaverse playscape, Horizon Worlds. (Rumsey and his partner-in-comedy, Simon Josh Abramovich, hired a producer to help build it.) A monolithic, Barad-dur-esque tower represents Meta, like Sauron. The logo comes with a giant eye. Above. Legless Horizon avatars shuffle around a stage, bearing the abstract signs you'd find at a real-life rally. "Is this the meta version or the meta worst?" One reads.

Ramsey himself kicks things off with the mantra: "Change our events, stat, or we go VRChat!"

"The reason people keep coming back to this metaverse is because the stuff the creators are making isn't stuff," says Ramsay, wielding a virtual megaphone. "Even though their stuff is cool, and we love that they created the Metaverse, the Metaverse is about us."

"We want to see the real show! In VR!" Abramovich shouts. "Entertaining you with the avatar. We just want a chance to appear.

Ramsey and Abramovich operate the Unknown Theater, a small, experimental venue inside the virtual world of Horizon. But their complaint is familiar to countless creators on the Internet: They feel that the massive platform they rely on is silently undermining them, making their work harder to find. Horizon is central to Meta's futuristic ambitions, but for Ramsey, Abramovich and others, it seems the tech giant is ignoring their needs to promote their big-name stars.

Horizon is Meta's attempt to bring about the "metaverse", a vague term that usually refers to 3D game-like places where people do business or social calls. So far, it's not going particularly well.

The platform has been struggling to attract and retain users. It's glitchy, and its graphics look primitive. It's competing with services that already have passionate user bases, notably Roblox, VRChat and Fortnite. And perhaps above all, it just comes off as uncool, especially after CEO Mark Zuckerberg took a really bad selfie.

Despite this, Horizon has attracted a small community of developers who have set up shop in their virtual world, including Ramsey.

Ramsey is a longtime VR enthusiast with a 20-year career in comedy. Inside VR, he has done stand-up shows on a few different platforms including VRChat, which is famous for letting people take on avatars of popular characters from video games and entertainment. "But I'm like, 'You know what, man? I don't want to do stand-up for Pooh Bear and Knuckles,'" he says. "I want a rule-based universe with other people."

Ramsey saw potential with Horizon Worlds. "Everyone I met was an adult," he says. "They were good. And there's a lot of comedy activity. They started producing shows for Simon Says Laughs, a Horizon Worlds venue, with Abramovich becoming their sound man for those shows. They decided to build their own venue – which he described as "an incredibly tight, intimate, small-scale comedy club version of the Muppets Theatre".

Unknown Theater sounds like a Horizon success story. The venue hosts regular Thursday comedy shows for a devoted community of fans, and usually between 40 and 50 shows, Ramsey tells me. Fans also roam the unknown cheaters Discord channel. But Ramsey says he's had trouble finding an audience through Meta's own tools.

When users first open Horizon Worlds, the meta provides a grid of featured places to consider checking out, like its own "arcade" hub with links to other games and the top 20 experiences of the day. Is. There are portals. The platform separates "Worlds" from "Events," and you're going to be able to find shows from unknown theaters under Can't Miss Events with some scrolling. "Like the sixth row," complains Ramsey.

But once you get to that tab, the prime spots are usually occupied by some high-profile events, with names like J Balvin and Carrie Underwood essentially watching videos on a giant screen. There are venues for this that don't even need to be live - they're often just video playing on loop. To find smaller scale events, you'll need to click on the little "View All" text on the side and scroll down through the available options.

This is a change from several months ago, when you could see upcoming events in a top-level tab in Horizon's "Worlds" menu, with lines separating meta events from creator-created ones. (You can see an older draft at 0:22 in this video.) Browse the Horizon World Maker Discord, and you'll find complaints about the new presentation.

It is not uncommon for big-name artists to have billing at smaller events. But these large events also happen to be meta-supported collaborations. While they're designed to attract people to VR, they've left Ramsey and other protest participants feeling like they're being elbowed by the same platform they've adopted.

"It's very depressing and depressing, the way I would put it as a host," Richard Slixton, a stand-up comedian who hosts Open Mic, a weekly comedy at Horizon, said in an interview. "You go through all this effort to build the world. It takes hours and hours, and you have to learn new skills. Then, you go through the effort to put the event together. Most producers, they put the event together. Keep it. They're not going to reach anybody out there because there's no way to get any attention."

Making money is already hard on the horizon for creators. While Meta does have a partner program, Meta takes a bigger cut of the creator's income, the program is currently only available in the US, and you have to be invited by the company to be a part of it. In an internal presentation in February, Metaverse's VP of Meta Vishal Shah told employees that the company wanted to bring Meta to a place where it was easier for creators to build from their ideas and do so. But right now it doesn't seem possible for small creators.

Meta and many other metaverse companies have poured resources into high-profile experiences. (Epic Games is famous for spectacular events like Fortnite's 2021 Ariana Grande concert.) The companies have also created their own (largely lackluster) experiences, like Walmart's Roblox world or the NFL's Fortnite world. But creations like Unknown Theater often offer a more unique and intimate virtual world, and they may be the things that really encourage people to wander around in the metaverse.

One night in February, I went to Unknown Theater to see a show for myself. The theater looks like something you'd see in real life, with deep red walls and giant posters advertising shows, but all constructed with crude, blocky graphics for an advanced PS1 game. A microphone sat on a stand next to a stool on the stage, while a large sign surrounded by giant red curtains advertised "Comedy Night in the Metaverse". I RSVP'd through the deep digs highlighted by Ramsey, and I was soon ushered through the theater to a portal that would transport me to the event for a total of 60 seconds, per Meta's design. open.

I had a close call. A line kept blinking on my virtual hand, giving me only seconds to actually click the "travel" button. But I made it into a stand-up venue: a pretty similar example of Theater of the Unknown, which basically lets people chat and mingle.

a white horse fell in the mud

Confusion and crappy graphics aside, the experience actually had the vibe of a real club. As I settled into a booth, attendees chatted among themselves as they found seats. One asked someone how was the recent date. Technically no one was seated because Horizon World's avatars don't have legs yet. But the theater felt like a living place, down to one of those natural collective lapses in conversation that someone called a "dirty joke." (Punchline: A white horse fell in the mud.)

Ramsey floated onto the stage a few minutes later under his Horizon username, voodoo_vinnie. People in the crowd cheered and threw virtual confetti, but I never quite figured out how to do that myself, which made me feel like I was being extremely rude. I guess I'm somewhat tech-literate, and if I couldn't figure out the confetti-tossing, I imagine some other first-time users might be having the same problem.

Was being reminded again and again that the event was not happening in the real world. The comics were simple digital avatars whose mouths didn't exactly match what they were saying, and the fidelity of the avatars was sometimes downgraded to better reflect the world. (Ramsay told attendees not to worry if their hands "start turning into crabs.")

Sometimes everything froze and people's voices stopped for a while. The last comic's final joke ended when they disconnected and disappeared from the stage. The guests' hands and arms dangled awkwardly in the air, probably because the real people behind the avatars were holding their controllers in their laps.

VR's style of appearance can also lead to awkward moments. Someone forgot to mute their microphones when they started talking to someone in real life until Abramovich raised a sword (named "Exabilbar") on the wall and shot lasers at him to banish him from the theater. Gave. The last comic tried to start his set with a call and response joke that involved the crowd clapping together in time. it was bad.

But Ramsey was an expert host, and most of the comics were honestly more entertaining than I expected. It felt really natural to watch them in VR. It helped that it was a fairly warm room: People were receptive to the comics and laughed a lot. It felt like, well, a comedy show.

This illusion of an actual theatre, and everyone's desire to participate in such a space, is a significant difference from previously recorded venues such as the J Balvin Playing Cave. Even though Horizon Worlds Unknown Theater has crude graphics and is subject to a few bugs, it felt like a more interactive and human experience. It was a bunch of people who just loved comedy, and they were happy to watch it over and over again in VR. On newer platforms like Horizon Worlds, one-hour comedy shows that are so short they won't drain your headset's battery have become a great niche.

But filling it requires a lot of tradeoffs. Virtual worlds like Fortnite and Roblox are accessible from a wide range of cheap, common computing devices. Even VRChat, despite its name, is available outside the headset. Horizon is working on web and mobile versions, but for now, its user base is limited to people with Quest headsets, which currently start at $399.99. By the end of my evening the anonymous theater space was filled with over 50 people, technically exceeding the meta limit at one place by designating some attendees (including me) as mods. However, most of the events I see on meta recommendations have at least two digits of attendance at any given time.

While Roblox has spawned entire game studios and entrepreneurs are building businesses out of Fortnite's creative tools, making money on Worlds is tough. (Roblox takes an even bigger cut from its creators, but at its massive scale, developing such a world might still be worth the price.) Abramovich told me that Unknown Theater is working on some monetization ideas, such as private Hosting corporate comedy events or providing sponsorship opportunities. But it's still a leap of faith, especially because Meta, like other tech giants before it, has no compulsions about copying or absorbing successful creators.

For now, Ramsey isn't planning on abandoning Horizon, though he is trying to reduce his reliance on one platform by creating a Discord server. But at least for now, Meta isn't the only game in town for Metaverse events. "There are definitely places in other platforms where entertainment happens," says Abramovich. "Something like VRChat has a great user base and an active comedy scene."

Meta could use more organic locations. Depending on when you check, most of the experiences featured in the day's top 20 have fewer than 100 people in attendance at any given time; Many have less than 20. And many of those experiences are created by Meta itself.

According to a memo reported by The Wall Street Journal, it's unclear whether those organic spaces are going to happen, though Meta is looking to launch "at least 20" New Horizons experiences done in partnership with other party studios. wants to Those experiences can help drive Meta's broader 2023 retention improvement goal, Shah said in an internal presentation. Right now, Meta sees less than 10 percent of Horizon's users return to the platform every week after its first month, and in 2023, it aims to bring that up to 20 percent. Shah said that for users, second-party studios will provide them with more space to check out on their first day. For creators, that work will show where their creative tools are lacking, which, according to Shah, can be fixed by making the tools better for everyone.

In the weeks following the protest, Meta has not turned up a search for incidents that Ramsey is aware of, he says in an email to The Verge. He is not currently planning a protest elsewhere in the Horizon Worlds. Meta did not respond to a request for comment.

It remains to be seen whether Meta's second major layoff has an impact on Horizon Worlds' development in a way that slows things down for creators. In his memo to employees about the cuts, however, Zuckerberg said the company's metaverse work "remains central to defining the future of social connection."

With Horizon Worlds, Meta has created something that, despite being deeply flawed, has found people who are willing to fight for it. But they are not convinced that the company is on their side. At least they can go somewhere to laugh about it.

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