Forbes’ new neighbours are Snoop Dogg and Paris Hilton. The New York-born business magazine hasn’t upped sticks to Los Angeles. Instead, it has set up shop in the so-called metaverse.
The business magazine is not new to Web3 tinkering, having claimed to be the first publisher to have turned its cover into an NFT (non-fungible token) in 2021.
But now, its chief technology officer Vadim Supitskiy told Press Gazette, the 105-year-old publication is setting up its own little world on the web.
Supitskiy said he was confident the venture will pay for itself in time – but that creating this virtual experience was mainly about positioning Forbes for the future and broadening the value proposition for subscribers.
Forbes CTO: Web3 will help us create a ‘full circle’ for our users
Forbes said its “first-ever metaverse destination and event” would see members receive a “wearable” NFT as their ticket to enter, allowing them to “interact with other members, purchase Forbes-branded wearable NFTs in the Forbes Store, and even check out the famous Forbes Highlander Yacht”.
The meaning of the term “metaverse” is contested. It originated in Neal Stephenson’s 1992 novel Snow Crash to describe a virtual reality planet accessed through headsets, but is used today to describe a wide range of online experiences.
Supitskiy told Press Gazette the publisher's approach was to build a "Web3 ecosystem" of which the metaverse is one part.
Supitskiy said: “What we want to do is to create that full circle of our users, our members, our subscribers being able to interact with us in Web 2, Web3, in real life and tying it all together, making it more of a smooth experience.
“And then if you're talking about NFTs specifically, they’re definitely going to be part of the metaverse. And one of those ways will be we’ll actually be giving you a wearable NFT that you will be able to use in Sandbox, anywhere, as a ticket to access the metaverse.”
Forbes has raised at least $333,333 (£290,000) for charity through its cover NFT sale, as well as around $75,000 (£65,000) in profit through its “Billionaires” NFT series.
[Read more: How news publishers made $12m selling NFTs]
The latter NFTs - which are each associated with an imaginary stock portfolio and thus ever-changing net worths - will be on display in a gallery in Forbes’ virtual world.
Into the metaverse
Unlike Stephenson’s metaverse, or indeed the one Meta's Mark Zuckerberg says he is building, Forbes’ virtual world (the entrance to which is pictured at the top of this article) is not accessed through a headset. Instead, it is on a smallish plot within The Sandbox Game, a programme users can download to their computer like any conventional free-to-play PC game.
The Sandbox is visually reminiscent of the open world game Minecraft, but functions more like Second Life or the old noughties children's favourite Habbo Hotel - users walk around a space and use a chat bar to communicate with others in the area.
The South China Morning Post went live with a Sandbox experience earlier this year, using its archives to let users explore the Hong Kong Star Ferry Pier as it was in the 1980s up to the present day. In Forbes' case, the space is a luxurious clubhouse, complete with outdoor dancefloor and a yacht modelled on Malcolm Forbes' Highlander party boat.
Supitskiy showed Press Gazette a video in which a visitor to Forbes' metaverse experience sampled its amenities.
"So you can dance, you can do things like that," Supitskiy said as the player toured the estate. "You can just enjoy yourself. But also, while you're doing it, you're going to be learning about Forbes...
"The idea is that the user will be able to go and communicate and compete with others if they want to, and just hang out. But if they want to do something fun, they can go on a quest."
After speaking to a non-player character representing Malcolm Forbes himself, the player embarked on their quest. A notification popped up on the screen: "New objective unlocked: find the cocktail bar."
Supitskiy narrated the journey: "So this is kind of a pool party area; a DJ; you can do your dance moves, whatever you want.”
The avatar in the video entered the clubhouse building.
"As you can see, you get clues while looking around. Malcolm was famous for riding motorcycles, for example, and his car collection. So you get a lot of clues there. And then, to proceed, you [need] to answer... three questions as well."
The house contained virtual renderings of artefacts from Forbes' past. Some objects, when clicked, provided text about the publication's history. The game was essentially a tour of the artefacts, rounded off with quizzes about the experience. The walkthrough took approximately 12 minutes.
"If you complete it Malcolm will congratulate you, and you'll get some fireworks."
Supitskiy said the company planned to add more. "We're gonna probably have new quests, as well as new events, potentially - more educational material and more learning here, more NFT drops, more NFT collections and things like that. So continuing to tie it all together, maybe to even live events as well, like 30 Under 30 and things like that."
Press Gazette noticed a health points bar at the top of the screen. Could you die in Forbes' metaverse?
“No, you actually can’t die. You can’t die here.”
What is new about virtual shared worlds?
A virtual, shared world accessed through a computer isn't new: most people born in the late Eighties onward will have experienced it through games like Second Life, World of Warcraft, Fortnite or Runescape.
If these technologies have existed for decades, why are publishers only getting into it now?
“I think it's that connection, in Web3… to NFTs, where you have ownership of these things," Supitskiy said.
“So what's interesting here is that for us to be here we had to buy land. We had to purchase the land, and there are a lot of celebrities also purchasing land in the Sandbox metaverse.
“Snoop Dogg has a land there. Paris Hilton has a land here. Steve Aoki has a land there. So now we own that space, that land, so we have that ownership."
This chimes with Stephenson’s original story, in which you had to buy real estate in the virtual world.
Supitskiy added: "Our members also, they will be owning pieces of this, they will be owning NFTs, not just wearable [NFTs], but we're showing NFT Billionaires, for example, where it's theirs, and they're gonna get more and more utility based on what they own as well.
“So it's an ownership part. It's kind of immutable, you have it and that's part of it. And for us, this is a space that we bought, this is the space that we own in that world. So it makes it more real than just like a game. And that part, I think, is the difference. The ownership for a company and ownership for the users as well. Having it decentralised in that way.”
Many of the earlier social virtual worlds also had components of ownership, as any parents forced to purchase their children Habbo Hotel credits will attest. The newer element is that ownership can now be recorded on a blockchain. In The Sandbox objects and land are purchased with Sand, the game's cryptocurrency.
Paying for it
Forbes says it paid the equivalent of approximately $15,000 for its space in The Sandbox. The company has some of its developers working on the project, but hired creative agency Polygonal Mind, which specialises in metaverse design, to shape its Sandbox plot.
Forbes' metaverse experience launches on 10 November, and will initially be open to subscribers.
Gary Liu, the former chief executive of the South China Morning Post who has since left the business to spin-off its NFT project Artifact, told Press Gazette in April that SCMP had decided to build in the metaverse, despite the expense, because it had little choice: "If media companies are not involved in establishing what information in the metaverse looks like then once again our business won't be disintermediated and somebody else will come and invent it on our behalf and we're going to have to play by those rules."
Supitskiy shared a similar sentiment: “We're definitely focusing on investing in the space because we believe that's going to be the future. We do think that it's going to change a lot. That's why we’re experimenting, and we want to be on the forefront of whatever is happening in technology and be innovative.
“So we definitely don't want to be left behind. But we know that it will change a lot - one of the big things that needs to happen for mass adoption is it needs to be more frictionless. And we’re trying to work with others, also, to see how we can help, how we can educate."
To get onto The Sandbox in the first place a user needs to have a cryptowallet. Those are easier to set up now than a decade ago, but still add cumbersome steps to getting online.
Supitskiy said Forbes would be sending "a lot of different videos and instructions" for its Sandbox launch but that "the industry has a long way to go to make it really easily accessible to the mainstream world".
"And that's where I think it's going to be a huge, huge change in the next year or so.”
Supitskiy said Forbes did not have a timeline for when the company's metaverse would pay for itself.
"We do believe that, if we continue to build in there, that monetisation will come," he added. "I think it's just natural. It will be there if we have our community, we have something exciting to offer to our audiences, and then potentially our advertisers and brands.
“I don't see monetisation as being a problem in the future. But we don't want to fixate on that. We want to, number one, build that value proposition to our users and audiences first." It is ultimately part of Forbes' larger membership strategy, he added, through which subscribers get fewer ads, member-only events and full digital access.
And come 10 November, will Supitskiy be hanging out often in Forbes’ metaverse?
“Yeah, absolutely. 100%. We've done already a bunch of that internally, and it has been very successful for us. They've done some really cool events for our teams at Forbes.”
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