Comedians are trying to make the metaverse cool, but it won’t let them
Rodney Ramsey typically dons a VR headset to tell jokes, but one day in January, he was on a stage in a virtual world called ProtestLand leading a rally to stop Meta from burying his stand-up comedy shows.
ProtestLand is a small world in Meta’s metaverse playscape, Horizon Worlds. (Ramsey and his partner-in-comedy, Simon Josh Abramovitch, hired a creator to help them build it.) A monolithic, Barad-dûr-esque tower represents Meta, complete with a giant Eye of Sauron-like Meta logo perched at the top. Legless Horizon avatars mill around a stage, holding the kind of pithy signs you’d find at a real-life rally. “Is this the meta VERSE or the meta WORST?” reads one.
Ramsey himself kicks things off with a chant: “Change our events, stat, or we go to VRChat!”
“The reason why people keep coming back to this metaverse is for the stuff that the creators are making, not the stuff that Meta is making,” Ramsey says onstage, holding a virtual megaphone. “Even though their stuff is cool, too, and we love that they built the metaverse, the metaverse is about us.”
“We want to see real shows! In VR!” shouts Abramovitch. “With avatars, entertaining you. We want to just have a chance to be seen.”
Ramsey and Abramovitch operate the Unknown Theater, a small, experimental venue inside the virtual world of Horizon. But their grievance is familiar to countless creators across the internet: they think the huge platform they rely on is quietly undercutting them, making their work harder to find. Horizon is central to Meta’s futuristic ambitions, but to Ramsey, Abramovitch, and others, it feels like the tech giant is ignoring their needs in order to promote its big-name stars.
Horizon is Meta’s attempt to bring about the “metaverse,” a nebulous term that typically refers to 3D game-like spaces where people conduct business or social calls. So far, it’s not going particularly well.
The platform is struggling to attract and keep users. It’s glitchy, and its graphics look primitive. It’s competing with services that already have passionate user bases, particularly Roblox, VRChat, and Fortnite. And maybe 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 its virtual world — including Ramsey.
Ramsey is a longtime VR enthusiast with a 20-year career in comedy. Inside VR, he’s 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 to Pooh Bear and Knuckles,’” he says. “I want a rule-based universe with other people.”
Ramsey saw potential with Horizon Worlds. “Everybody I met was an adult,” he says. “They were cool. And there’s a lot of comedy activity.” He started producing shows for Simon Says Laughs, a Horizon Worlds venue, teaming up with Abramovitch to be his sound guy for those shows. Soon after, they decided to build their own venue called the Unknown Theater — which he describes as an “incredibly tight, intimate, scaled-down comedy club version of the Muppets theater.”
The Unknown Theater sounds like a Horizon success story. The venue hosts regular Thursday comedy shows for a dedicated community of fans, and typically between 40 and 50 show up, Ramsey tells me. Fans also hang out in an Unknown Theater Discord channel. But Ramsey says he’s had trouble getting an audience through Meta’s own tools.
When users first open Horizon Worlds, Meta offers a grid of featured places to consider checking out, like its own “Arcade” hub that has portals to other games and the day’s top 20 experiences. The platform separates “Worlds” from “Events,” and you’re supposed to be able to find the Unknown Theater’s shows under Can’t Miss Events, which takes a bit of scrolling. “Like on the sixth row,” Ramsey complains.
But once you get to that tab, the prime spots are usually occupied by a few high-profile events featuring names like J Balvin and Carrie Underwood that are essentially venues to watch a video on a giant screen. They’re also not necessarily live — they’re often simply videos playing on a loop. To find smaller-scale events, you have to click the tiny “View All” text off to the side and scroll down through the available options.
That’s a change from several months ago, when you could see upcoming events in a top-level tab in Horizon’s “Worlds” menu, with rows separating Meta’s events from creator-made ones. (You can see the old format in this video at 0:22.) Browse the Horizon Worlds creator Discord, and you’ll find complaints about the new presentation.
It’s not necessarily strange for big-name artists to get billing over smaller events. But these big events also tend to be Meta-backed collaborations. While they’re designed to attract people to VR, they’ve left Ramsey and other protest participants feeling like they’re getting elbowed out by the very platform they’ve adopted.
“It’s super frustrating and disheartening, is the way I would put it as a host,” Richard Slixton, a stand-up comedian who hosts a weekly comedy open mic in Horizon, said in an interview. “You go through all this effort to build the world. That takes hours and hours, and you’ve got to learn new skills. Then, you’ve got to go through the effort of putting the event together. Most creators, they put the event together, they won’t even get anybody there because there’s no way to get noticed at all.”
It’s already tough for creators to make money on Horizon. While Meta does have a partner program, Meta takes a big cut of creator earnings, the program is currently available only in the US, and you have to be invited by the company to be a part of it. In an internal presentation in February, Meta’s VP of the metaverse, Vishal Shah, told employees that the company wants to get Meta in a place where it’s easy for creators to build from their ideas and make a living doing it. But for small creators, that doesn’t seem to be possible yet.
Meta, and several other metaverse companies, have poured resources into high-profile experiences. (Epic Games is famous for its splashy events like Fortnite’s 2021 Ariana Grande concert.) Companies have also built their own (largely lackluster) experiences, like Walmart’s Roblox world or the NFL’s Fortnite world. But creations like the Unknown Theater often offer a more unique and intimate virtual world, and they could be the types of things that actually encourage people to hang out in the metaverse.
One night in February, I went to the Unknown Theater to see a show for myself. The theater looks sort of like one you’d visit in real life, with deep red walls and huge posters advertising shows, but all constructed with crude, blocky graphics akin to an advanced PS1 game. A microphone sat on a stand next to a stool on the stage, while a big sign flanked by giant red curtains advertised a “Comedy Night in the Metaverse.” I’d RSVP’d by wading through the deep digging highlighted by Ramsey, and I was soon shepherded through the theater toward a portal that would take me to the event — open for a grand total of 60 seconds, per Meta’s design.
I had a close call. A line from my virtual hand kept flickering, letting me actually click the “travel” button with mere seconds to spare. But I made it into the stand-up venue: a seemingly identical instance of the Unknown Theater, which let people back in the original keep chatting and milling around.
A white horse fell in the mud
This confusion and the clunky graphics aside, the experience actually had the vibe of a real club. As I settled into a booth, attendees chatted amongst themselves while they found seats. One asked somebody how a recent date went. Nobody was technically sitting since Horizon Worlds avatars don’t have legs just yet. But the theater felt like a living space, down to one of those natural collective lulls in the conversation, which somebody filled by shouting a “dirty joke.” (The punchline: a white horse fell in the mud.)
Ramsey floated onstage a few minutes later under his Horizon username, Voodoo_Vinny. People in the crowd cheered and threw virtual confetti, but I never figured out how to do that myself, which made me feel like I was being extremely rude. I like to think I’m somewhat tech-literate, and if I couldn’t figure out confetti-tossing, I’m guessing some other first-time users may have the same problem.
There were frequent reminders that the event wasn’t taking place in the real world. The comics were simple digital avatars whose mouths didn’t exactly sync with what they were saying, and the fidelity of the avatars would sometimes downgrade to improve performance in the world. (Ramsey told attendees not to be worried if their hands started “turning into crabs.”)
Sometimes everything would freeze, and peoples’ voices would briefly drop out. The last comic’s final joke ended unceremoniously when they got disconnected and disappeared off the stage. Guests’ hands and arms hung awkwardly in the air, presumably because the real people behind the avatars were resting their controllers in their laps.
VR’s style of presence could lead to awkward moments, too. Somebody forgot to mute their microphone when they started talking to a person in real life until Abramovitch picked up a sword on the wall (named “Excabillburr”) and shot lasers at them to remove them from the theater. The last comic tried to start their set with a call and response joke that involved the crowd clapping their hands 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 actually felt natural to watch them in VR. It helped that it was a pretty warm room: people were receptive to the comics and laughed a lot. It felt like, well, a comedy show.
This illusion of an actual theater, and everyone’s willingness to participate in the space as if it is one, is a key differentiator from things like a cavernous space playing a prerecorded J Balvin. Even if the Unknown Theater in Horizon Worlds has crude graphics and is subject to some bugs, it felt like a much more interactive and human experience. This was a group of people that just loved comedy, and they were happy to see it in VR again and again. On a new platform like Horizon Worlds, an hour-ish comedy show, which is short enough that your headset battery won’t run out, turns out to be a great niche.
But filling it requires a lot of tradeoffs. Virtual worlds like Fortnite and Roblox are accessible from a wide swathe of cheap, common computing devices. Even VRChat, despite its name, is available outside a headset. Horizon is working on web and mobile versions, but for now, its user base is limited to people with a Quest headset, which currently starts at $399.99. The Unknown Theater’s space packed in more than 50 people by the end of my evening there, technically exceeding Meta’s limit on a single space by assigning some attendees (including me) as mods. However, the vast majority of events I see on Meta’s recommendations have mid to low double-digit attendees at any given time.
Where Roblox has spawned entire game studios and entrepreneurs are building businesses off Fortnite’s creative tools, making money on Worlds is hard. (Roblox takes a big cut from its creators, too, but at its massive scale, developing a world there can still be worth the price.) Abramovitch told me Unknown Theater is working on some monetization ideas, such as hosting private corporate comedy events or offering opportunities for sponsorships. But it’s still a leap of faith, particularly because Meta, like other tech giants before it, has no compunctions about copying or absorbing successful creators.
For now, Ramsey isn’t planning to leave Horizon, although he’s trying to reduce his reliance on a single platform by building up a Discord server. But at least right now, Meta doesn’t own the only game in town for metaverse events. “Other platforms definitely have spaces where entertainment happens,” Abramovitch says. “Something like VRChat has a lot of good user base and an active comedy scene.”
Meta could use more organic spaces. Depending on when you check, most of the featured experiences in the day’s top 20 have fewer than 100 people visiting at any given time; many have fewer than 20. And many of those experiences are made by Meta itself.
It’s not clear if those organic spaces are going to happen, though Meta does want to launch “at least 20” new Horizon experiences made in partnership with second-party studios, according to a memo reported on by The Wall Street Journal. Those experiences could help with Meta’s broader 2023 goal to improve retention, Shah said in the internal presentation. Right now, Meta sees that less than 10 percent of Horizon users return to the platform every week after their first month, and in 2023, the goal is to get that to 20 percent. For users, those second-party studios will provide more spaces for them to check out on their first day, Shah said. For creators, that work will show where its creative tools have gaps, which can be fixed to improve the tools for everyone, according to Shah.
In the weeks since the protest, Meta hasn’t made any changes to the events discovery that Ramsey is aware of, he says in an email to The Verge. He also isn’t currently planning a protest somewhere else in Horizon Worlds. Meta didn’t respond to a request for comment.
It remains to be seen if Meta’s second major set of layoffs has an impact on Horizon Worlds’ development in a way that slows things down for creators. Though in his memo to staff about the cuts, Zuckerberg said that the company’s metaverse work “remains central to defining the future of social connection.”
With Horizon Worlds, Meta has built something that, while extremely flawed, found people that are willing to fight for it. But they’re not convinced the company is on their side. At least they can go somewhere to laugh about it.
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