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Insider's Guide to the Metaverse: How to play, make money, and party in 7 of the most popular virtual worlds right now

Lisa Kailai Han,Kari McMahon   

Insider's Guide to the Metaverse: How to play, make money, and party in 7 of the most popular virtual worlds right now

For the past several weeks, the Insider reporters Kari McMahon and Lisa Kailai Han have been attending concerts with some of the hottest stars in the music industry, visiting stunning temples, skateboarding on the streets of California, and fighting undead villagers in Dracula's castle.

This is all happening in the metaverse, of course.

The "metaverse," a term coined by Neal Stephenson in his 1992 science-fiction dystopian novel "Snow Crash," is defined today as a 3D virtual-reality world that's supposed to be the next, more physical evolution of the internet.

Last year, the concept shot into the global spotlight when Facebook rebranded to Meta, kicking off a Gold Rush-esque sprint into the space by companies far and wide.

Following in Meta's footsteps, tech titans like Microsoft and Google announced their intentions to pioneer the new frontier, investors poured $106 million into virtual real estate in a single week last November, and brands including Gucci, JPMorgan, and the Care Bears swooped in to launch virtual clothing lines, corporate lounges, and games.

With all that hype, it's easy to think that the metaverse has arrived.

But has it?

Having never set foot inside the metaverse before, we explored seven of the hottest virtual worlds to find out what the metaverse is really all about, whether it's ready for mainstream adoption, and what's still holding it back.

We also went behind the scenes to interview the founders and creators of the worlds we explored to get their perspective on what the future holds for the metaverse.

Insider hopes to serve as your guide to the metaverse, providing unbiased and frank opinions on the good, the bad, and the ugly of these virtual worlds from the ground up. The metaverse promises a lot, and in this series we wanted to find out whether it's living up to its potential.

Click on any of the virtual worlds below to find out more, or, if you've still got any lingering questions about the metaverse, check out our original guide to the metaverse.

Axie Infinity

In a throwback to the early aughts, the 2D game Axie Infinity consists of cute creatures battling against one another in a turn-based card game — think Pokémon crossed with Neopets. What makes Axie Infinity stand out is the fact that players can earn real money by playing the game. During the pandemic, the platform became hugely popular in the Philippines when some players earned more from the game than in some minimum-wage jobs there. While Axie today is more of a gaming platform than a complete virtual world, the developers' ultimate goal is to build Axie into a wider universe of games.

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The online world Cryptovoxels is one of the smaller, lower-key metaverses on this list, since its creators haven't really focused on big brand partnerships thus far — though that may change this year. Rather than aimed toward gaming or questing, the platform is used primarily for social events like digital concerts and fashion shows. The mostly older user base includes a huge community of artists and creators, with a large emphasis on NFT wearables modeling. The world itself has a pixelated feel and is crammed with eclectic, user-built structures, spanning from bizarre Doge temples to funky jungle gyms that are a ton of fun to explore.

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The 3D virtual world Decentraland, one of the more predominant metaverses to make headlines in recent months, recently hosted a digitized Australian Open and has also worked with other prominent companies like Sotheby's and Samsung to build virtual replicas of their real-life headquarters and stores on the platform. The open world, which features neon, cartoon-like graphics, is divided into more than 90,000 parcels of land for users to buy and build on. While some smaller minigames and quests exist, they're often glitchy, and the major draw of Decentraland seems to be the platform it provides for its community to attend virtual events together.

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Founded in 2006, the seasoned gaming platform Roblox enables people to interact, build, and play together. The company, which went public last year, is much more commercial than the other virtual worlds and is also the only one not built on blockchain technology. While the platform originally catered to a younger audience, Roblox is now actively trying to target an older demographic. The user experience, which was more advanced than some of the other worlds we visited, is a testament to Roblox's existing immense popularity. Famous DJs have played sets on the platform, and key brands like Nike and Vans are also prominently featured, with each having its own themed game. At the same time, the central ownership and commercialization has led to the exploitation of creators, many of whom are startlingly young.

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The Sandbox

The voxel-style gaming world The Sandbox has jumped to public attention for its large number of expensive real-estate sales, particularly after the clamor over the re-creation of Snoop Dogg's mansion. The platform, which is still in the alpha testing stage and hasn't been widely released yet, also counts brands like the Smurfs, the Care Bears, "The Walking Dead," and Adidas in its wheelhouse of partnerships. Compared with the other featured platforms, The Sandbox stands out because it emphasizes a mix of quest-style gameplay and events like clubbing. The platform is also unique because it actively seeks outside game developers to create diverse quests in return for funding, marketing, and guidance.

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Somnium Space

Somnium Space is one of the few virtual worlds that primarily focus on the virtual-reality component of the metaverse, with the company developing its own proprietary headsets and haptic Teslasuits for complete sensory immersion. While Somnium Space has been under development for years, the platform has managed to stay relatively under the radar — with its founders seeming to prefer it that way. Somnium Space focuses on highlighting art, housing both the Beeple and Dogecoin museums, and on providing its users with a social experience, hosting daily events for new members to meet up. While the virtual-reality visuals look fantastic in the tutorials, this platform also has the highest barrier to entry.

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Star Atlas

As the name implies, Star Atlas is a space-focused game offered in an immersive virtual world with sophisticated graphics. Because of its proposed visual and gameplay complexities, Star Atlas targets more-experienced gamers than the other metaverses. Users are able to earn income from the game, though we've found that it involves quite an outlay on the player's side to get involved. This virtual world is still in the early innings, with development starting in 2020, but it's already gained a lot of attention as one of the biggest games on the solana blockchain.

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