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Masters of Disruption: How the Gamer Generation Built the Future 
"What would a toy version of the metaverse look like?" Part one of my interview with Rec Room co-founder and CEO Nick Fajt.
This post is part of a longform project I’m serializing exclusively in my newsletter, Disruptor. It’s a follow-up to my first book, Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Built an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture, and it’s called Masters of Disruption: How the Gamer Generation Built the Future. To follow along, please subscribe to Disruptor and spread the word. Thanks!
“Okay,” Nick Fajt tells me, “we’re going to go on a little bit of an adventure.”
The adventure is taking place inside Rec Room, the cross-platform metaverse. Fajt is Rec Room’s co-founder and CEO. At the moment, we are each on our Oculus headsets on opposite coasts. Inside the virtual world we share, we’re standing inside a rustic lodge with a rack of bows and arrows to one side, and some swords to the other. Fajt’s avatar looks like a LEGO ranger.
“We’re going to fight through a couple armies of goblins, all right?” he tells me, “You can grab a sword, but I think the bow and arrows are better.”
The metaverse is making a lot news these days, with Facebook recently rebranding itself as Meta. But, as I’ve chronicled in other posts of Masters of Disruption, the roots go back to the PC gaming community of the 1990s and the work of developers such as id Software, makers of Doom and Quake. Today, Rec Room is among the leading developers, with over one million players per month. Diehards in Rec Room are playing games, having weddings, holding conferences.
I spoke with Fajt about the influence of games, the metaverse hype bubble, and the trouble with Facebook. Here’s part one of our conversation, edited and condensed for clarity. Part two will be posted next Tuesday.
David Kushner: There has been a lot of talk about the metaverse lately, but people still don’t really get the idea of meeting in virtual spaces. What’s the biggest challenge facing Rec Room?
Nick Fajt: I don't know that it's any one thing. I would say I think it's kind of similar to Google Meet. Google Meet is an incredible tool, but I think it took the pandemic for people to get really used to doing it and for it to become the default way that you have meetings. I think it'll take another couple of years before the default way of having meetings is in a more embodied sense or in a more virtual sense. I think that's what's happening with this trend more broadly. You wrote Masters of Doom. All of us grew up playing those games, but I think games had a very different meaning back then. Games meant I was playing a game. I think today, gaming, especially to a younger audience, means social. It means music. It means fashion. It means events. Games are becoming so much more than games. It's becoming embodied socializing. I think you just need to wait for that demographic to grow up and that to move from the fringe to the default.
David Kushner: When you say games are more than games, how do you mean?
Nick Fajt: If you were to look at gaming 10, 15 years ago, it meant you were playing an FPS and holding a gun and shooting things in a level. Those concepts existed. There was a level. I had an inventory. I was shooting non-playable characters. That was probably what was happening, or I was controlling a player, and there was a platformer, and I was moving from platform to platform. If you look at something like Rec Room, you're not going to different levels. You're not collecting more things. You're not advancing a status bar. That's not really what you're doing. You're going to a place and you could be hanging out with friends and going to an escape room. You could be going to a model UN. You could be Rec Room going to a debate club. You could be going to a Battle Royale island. So is really just a place for socializing. I think you see this in other games as well. People are going into these games, and they're going to concerts. They're going and shopping for luxury Gucci handbags. They're using these spaces as a place to go on dates. That's what gaming means now. I think in the early days of the internet, the internet meant blogs and e-commerce, but it's expanded to a whole lot more. I think that's what you're seeing with games is the way people are exploring. The way younger people are exploring the internet is not with a browser anymore. It's with games.
David Kushner: How much of a gamer were you as a kid, and how did they inform your ambitions and your thinking?
Nick Fajt: I was always a pretty serious gamer when I was younger. I had the fortune of having an uncle that worked at Sony on PlayStation distribution.
David Kushner: That helps.
Nick Fajt: I would get a huge number of games for free all the time. I remember playing all the Crash Bandicoots and all the Naughty Dog games really early, Final Fantasy VII, Metal Gear Solid, all the real golden age of some of those single-player stories. I remember being really into Mech Warrior 2 and joining clans. That was my first experience with, "Hey, we're going to cobble together voice chat over here. They're going to jump into this voice chat thing, and then go into the game. We're going to try to find each other." I remember that being a magical, magical experience. It was also a shit-show to set up. It was like you had 10 different programs running. You had somebody's username over here, somebody's username over here, just getting everything in place was crazy. But lot of my socializing took place on the web through things like AOL Instant Messenger or ICQ or video games. The internet was always a place that I could go and hang out with people. It was always a place that I could go and be creative. Video games weren't as welcoming to the creative input of the communities back then. You definitely had mod communities, but very rarely were you doing something that was part of the game.
"That’s what excited me about Doom. It felt like you as a player were a participant in the world, and you could affect what direction the product took."
David Kushner: What do you mean by that?
Nick Fajt: Games generally couldn't be modified in a way that was really official. I think it was one of the things that people really appreciated about Doom was that you could swap out texture libraries and kind of change the game around, but that didn't propagate out to other Doom players, unless you hosted somewhere. It was sort of a byproduct of how they had built Doom, not so much a fully supported feature of Doom that you could modify the game and get other people to see your modifications. That was a thing that always really excited me was playing games where it felt like you as a player were a participant in the world, and you could affect what direction the product took.
David Kushner: What was the first game that gave you that feeling or the first online experience that gave you that sense?
Nick Fajt: I think for most people, it was probably Minecraft. In Minecraft you were a deep participant in the world. It wasn't that it had an edit mode. There were other games that had level editors and edit modes and stuff like that. The entire game of Minecraft was, "Please mess around with this and change it and alter it."
“What would a toy version of the metaverse look like? Maybe if we can solve that problem, we can slowly strip away the elements that make it a toy and grow it up into something bigger."
David Kushner: How did you experience at Microsoft working on the HoloLens inspire you to create Rec Room?
Nick Fajt: With HoloLens, it became pretty clear to me we had the wrong app model. There was a virtual travel app. You could put on the HoloLens and travel to the Colosseum and walk around, or travel to Machu Pichu and get a sense of what that looked like. But you and I couldn't go to Machu Pichu together and let our pets run around Machu Pichu. You could see your pet, or you could see me, or you could see Machu Pichu, but nothing together. I was like, "This seems problematic. This doesn't seem like the right model moving forward.” I really wanted to fix that. Our theory with Rec Room was, "Hey, maybe we could start solving this solution by building a toy version of the solution. What would a toy version of the metaverse look like? Maybe if we can solve that problem and we can stay in business long enough, we can slowly strip away the elements that make it a toy and grow it up into something bigger." That was the animating idea that started Rec Room.
David Kushner: When you say a toy version of the metaverse, what do you mean by that?
Nick Fajt: Today when people use the term metaverse, I think they think operating system, platform developers, contributing objects and rooms. We all talk about a lot of the same scenarios. We're like, "Hey, someday it would be great if you and I could meet up virtually and then go sit in the front row of the Super Bowl. Then we could take out our SnapChat camera and take a photo of us sitting in the front row of the Super Bowl. We can decide we don't want to be in the Super Bowl anymore. We want to move from the Super Bowl to we're going to go fight aliens together. We fought aliens for a while, and now we're going to do some virtual shopping. We're going to go to a virtual Nordstrom and walk around the mall and pull out a Spotify speaker and listen to music while we shop."
Well, how does all that work? How do you have an object authored by one company and rooms authored by another company? How is all this networked together? When you and I are leaving the alien game and going to Nordstrom, are we closing our game and then launching Nordstrom again and then finding each other in Nordstrom? No, there's probably some social substrate that's making all of this work. Somebody's writing the rules for moderation, trust, and safety. Somebody's writing the rules for commerce. Somebody's writing the rules for identity. Somebody's writing the rules for messaging, social. But who? Who's doing it?
A lot of people come at it from, okay, what's a platform that would enable all of these things? With Rec Room, we didn't focus on the platform. We said, "What would a VR version of Wii Sports look like?" That started to solve some of these problems. There's three or four different rooms. They're all different games. What if you could bounce between them with your party? So you and I can move from room to room to room together. What if we could spawn objects that worked in the room? What if all of these things were originally authored just by the Rec Room company, but in the future, maybe they could be authored by other people? So that's what I mean by toy. It's just a very simplistic version of a solution. It's a very constrained problem set.‘