Compose, component, combine, compound, composability — all of these words stem from the same common Latin root, com, meaning together.
What we can accomplish together is more powerful than any one of us can do alone. That is the subject of this article: composability in the metaverse. I will explain how the real-time internet will harnesses the creative potential in each and every one of us.
In this article, I will cover:
- What composability means, with examples of composability in nature, art and technology
- Why we are are the forefront of a new era of the internet in which all aspects of the metaverse value-chain — from the semiconductor level all the way up to what we experience — benefit from composability
- How to create systems that favors composability
This is part two in a series about interoperability. This article stands on its own, but you might also enjoy Metaverse Interoperability: Part 1, Challenges.
People often define the metaverse within one of several technology categories:
- Virtual world platforms enabling real-time games and social experiences (like Roblox)
- An embodied experience using augmented reality or virtual reality (Meta’s vision)
- A framework for interoperability of assets, distributed computation and value-exchange in the next generation of the internet (Web3)
The metaverse encompasses all of these technologies. Underneath it all is something deeper than the technology: a social and cultural evolution. Our digital identity and experience are becoming as real and meaningful to our lives as our physical experience.
And at the heart of our digital identity is what it means to be human: our expression, our communication, our creativity.
This is what composability is all about: creativity — with media, with software, with art, with experiences, and with how we project our identity into digital space. Whether we create something in Roblox, Unity or Unreal; architect an immersive space in VR; or build a decentralized application — we draw upon not only our own creativity, but build upon those who have come before us.
Composability is Compound Interest?
Chris Dixon wrote that composability is to software as compounding interest is to finance. I like the analogy, but it doesn’t go far enough.
At the start of this article I claimed that composability is the most powerful creative force in the universe. Albert Einstein is said to have claimed the same thing about compound interest. If Einstein really did say that, I believe he was talking in metaphor — as he often did — and that it is the power of iteration and building upon the past that’s so powerful. That’s what composability is.
Back between entrepreneurial adventures I had the incredible fortune to study and teach computational biology and neuroscience alongside some of the most brilliant minds in genomics and vision. During that time, I gained a deep appreciation for the biological systems of the brain and our genes — and the natural tinkerer of evolution. The experience has led me to see these metaphors in our culture and technology.
In the natural world, composability happens when there are networks not only of biological structures, but of information — along with means of aggregating, transmitting and iterating.
At various time scales — whether over the billions of years where evolution holds sway, or the shorter periods of epigenetic and neural development — it is composability that is at work.
Composability was at work when mitochondria in aeons past aggregated into eukaryotic cells, which in turn gave rise to multicellular organisms.
Composability is at work in the mycelium beneath the forest floor, interconnecting nutrient networks between life and death, plant and animal.
Composability is at work when the ancient code at the nucleus of our cells instructs neurons to wire and fire together in circuits that affect how we process information.
Composability is at work in our natural information processing systems, which equipped many animals to communicate, including the “language” of humans and our ability to engrave it on stone and paper and electrons — telepathy across time and space.
…we’ve come to realize that life is more about information than energy. Fire has most of the characteristics of life. It eats, it grows, it reproduces. But fire retains no information. It doesn’t learn; it doesn’t adapt.
— Dennis E. Taylor, We Are Legion (We Are Bob)
Like the natural-world examples, the context for composability occurs in technology where there are opportunities for aggregating, transmitting and iterating components.
Composability is at work along the entire computer technology stack, from your end-user experience down to the semiconductors that power it all.
Composability was what Jim Barksdale was talking about when the legendary CEO of Netscape said that bundling and unbundling were the only ways to make money in business.
Composability is at work when you embed a YouTube video inside another webpage and explore the recursive links to other videos from within. It is present in this very article you’re reading right now, as I’ve linked and embedded other parts of the wisdom of networks into this article.
Composability is when a DJ uses a sample from music or a hiphop artist mashes it up into a new track — a trend that’s rapidly accelerated thanks to the digitization of music and the ready availability of DJ and composition software.
Composability is at work when you repost a meme or iterate your own version of it.
Composability is when you post a TikTok duet.
Composability is at work when you download and install a Minecraft mod to power your own unique creation, mod a game, or design your own level.
Composability is central to what it means to have a hobby. It’s about collecting, customizing and sharing your joy. Composability is when you buy a miniature from the hobby store for your D&D campaign, paint it yourself, and then use it in multiple campaigns.
Composability is also at work when you pull code from an open-source software repository and embed it into your project.
Composability is at work when you use build any protocol on top of TCP/IP, the foundational technology that allows internet devices to communicate with each other.
Composability is at work in hardware when you link high-speed CPUs and GPUs together, such as how PCI or NVlink enable tens of billions of transistors to be recombined to optimize for certain use cases:
Composability isn’t always present.
Sometimes gatekeepers and toolbooths seek to limit or monetize the flow of information and creativity. At other times, composability is the threat these vested interests perceive.
In these environments, it is systems of control that are more important than systems of creative emancipation. We see this within cartels, within old guard financial networks, within “company towns” and technology platforms whose owners benefit most when you stay inside them.
Composability does create new issues, and some of the backlash you sometimes hear about newer technologies — whether smart contract blockchains today, or social media over the last decade, or email back in the 90’s — was because there are unintended consequences.
Security, privacy, reliability, safety — these are part of the cycle of recombining, forming new boundaries and fostering innovation as we alternate between unbridled creativity and the formation of boundaries that protect the ability to continue.
In nature, the Red Queen hypothesis poses that the emergence of sex was to speed-up the evolutionary response to organisms in the face of parasites and viruses. It’s why we have nuclear envelopes for our DNA, immune systems and blood-brain barriers.
The Red Queen also lives in our culture-technological complex. Composability accelerates creativity and innovation. Security holes, social scalability problems and clashes with existing institutions are inevitable. These systems are always playing catch-up.
Composable experiences are at least as old as the paleolithic, when people started to tell and record stories. It exploded in the Renaissance workshops, the publishing industries spawned by the printing press, and the emergence of mass media.
Today, composable experiences grow exponentially due to the digitization of so many forms of creativity. As is often the case, the forefront of this revolution has occurred in games and virtual worlds.
“Mods” are modifications to a base game that are made possible when a game provides interfaces into their code and content.
Some of the most successful games of all time began as mods: Dota and Counterstrike being two of the most prolific examples. In fact, Dota inspired an entire new category of games — the Multiplayer Online Battle Arena (MOBA).
Minecraft is essentially an entire platform for composability.
Today, the line between creator and player is blurring. It began with the role of the Dungeon Master in D&D (and today there’s a cottage industry of professional DMs). This is why I’ve sometimes called D&D the first metaverse. Thus, it shouldn’t be a surprise that today you can play D&D and other tabletop games via online platforms like Roll20 and Multiverse.
Overwolf is a “guild for in-game creators” who are helping people monetize their creations in moddable games.
Roblox is an all-in-one development platform and social network built around the principle of composability. The genius of Roblox is its astonishing power to harness the collective genius of its community.
The systems in Roblox teach us a lot about what can accelerate an environment that is designed for composability:
- Simplicity of its tools: Lua scripting, with tight integration between the client and server development experience
- Interoperable framework for common user, data and social objects
- Marketplace for exchanging code snippets and graphical assets
- Social systems to facilitate discovery and joining each other in experiences
The “meta” of games is the experience that happens around the game — in communities, content and economies.
Composability also happens in the meta of popular games as well — not just inside them. Streaming your gameplay to educate and entertain has become a large industry of its own. Ninja, the largest streamer on Twitch, has over 17 million followers.
We have hyperlinks that connect the world’s information together on the internet. Would it make sense to have hyperportals that allow interconnects between different immersive worlds?
This is already a feature within some platforms, such as VRChat:
This might not be a means of teleporting between “theme park” styled worlds like World of Warcraft — where all of the economic incentives exist to get you to stay and never leave. But for worlds that are more social or interdependent, there’s good case for why they might want to cooperate through such connections.
Kim Nevelsteen composed a set of portals that link together Minecraft worlds:
Nevelsteen has even shown a proof-of-concept where he links between Doom and Minecraft, or between different Web-based platforms like Cryptovoxels.
Metamundo is a project that hopes to create a marketplace for 3D art assets for use in 3D worlds — essentially a “Unity Asset Store” for the metaverse — designed to compensate creators for the variations you’d need to create to deliver the same content through varying interfaces. One of their use cases is the “metaportal” which is intended as a visual and smart-contract architecture to link worlds together:
As noted earlier, the metaverse is not simply a convergence of technological innovations — it is a culture change. It is about projecting one’s identity into a dematerialized and digitized space. It is about being who you want to be, and taking your identity wherever you want to go. The representation of you in virtual space is an avatar.
GenZ understands this: they grew up with Roblox and Minecraft and livestreaming. In Roblox, your avatar may be freed from any one particular game and taken with you. That’s why Roblox is investing in systems that let you remap digital fashions (i.e., “skins”) onto different form factors.
ReadyPlayerMe created an avatar system that is interoperable across different platforms. Here’s a short video in which I use an RPM avatar in both Animaze and VRchat:
Crucible Networks is working at the intersection of avatars and Web3 digital wallets, creating a means of embedding them inside 3D engines:
Privacy and sovereignty over your own virtual identity will become an increasingly important concern. Will an oligopoly rule the identity systems of the future, much as “Login with Google” and “Login with Facebook” have done in the current generation of technology?
One way to protect your identity without giving it all to a centralized authority would be to use zero-knowledge proofs, which use cryptography to allow you to disclose only the information you’re willing to share with another party.
In the world of composable avatars, it will be you who decides how to present yourself in compatible spaces — and exactly what you’re willing to share.
Traditional finance has a massive number of gatekeepers and rent-takers — along with a byzantine and aging set of technologies that limit composability. (Fun fact: 43% of financial institutions still run on COBOL, and those technologies power $3 trillion in daily commerce.) It’s no wonder that the rate of iteration in these systems is so slow.
When people talk about Web3 financial networks, they point to a lot of aspects — freedom from these institutions, lower fees, greater independence, freedom from their aging technology, idealistic notions of independence… but what I find more interesting than all the idealism is the opportunity to bring composability to financial systems.
This is what Piers Kicks is writing about when he explains composability in the context of Web3 and the metaverse:
The new tools available mean now is an incredibly exciting time for entrepreneurs wanting to build digital products and experiences. Due to composability, participants in the ecosystem are able to pick and choose key infrastructure legos as they go building on the shoulders of all those that came before them.
The enabling technology of Web3 financial networks is on-chain programs (i.e., smart contracts), which enables composability of tokens and protocols.
And yes, these systems do create new problems at the same time as they enable disruptive creativity. The irreversibility of blockchain is a harsh mistress — and fraud, scams and exploitable code remains a problem here in in 2022. These problems will need to be dealt with through better digital wallets, better security, AI, and better user experience.
Play 2 Earn, Play & Earn… or Compose & Earn?
For the virtual worlds and avatar systems where composability and interoperability are critical — composable finance is the bridge that unites the economic systems between parties who would not ordinarily cooperate or trust each other.
Now, some of the earlier products in the cryptogaming markets embraced the concept of “Play to Earn.” I’m not bullish on games where earning is intended as the primary purpose for their existence, because it implies that there’s a perpetual demand for the outcome of that labor. The only way for that to happen is if most of the experience revolves around the core entertainment value. Play AND Earn may be a better brand for these games, because that’s already what happens in many games.
Magic the Gathering is a “play and earn” game (most people play and collect for fun, and only a small segment are speculators and tournament players).
Earlier, I referred to composable creativity — whether from modding, livestreaming, or esports.
There will be new forms where people don’t simply “play” to earn — they’ll compose to earn. They’ll be storytellers, designers, coaches, dungeon masters and leaders.
In most cases this will be done for the fun of it, and in others it will form the basis of a career. And as new forms of interoperability emerge (such as markets, avatars, etc.) there will be new opportunities for composing and playing in the gaming and virtual world ecosystems. Composable financial systems and composable creativity can be convergent forces for innovation: many of these markets and development frameworks will be freed from their costly dependence on specific platforms and their tollbooths.
Network World describes composable infrastructure as cloud computing that:
treats compute, storage, and network devices as pools of resources that can be provisioned as needed, depending on what different workloads require for optimum performance.
“Composable Compute” is that — and all of the software to enable you to more easily take your code, run it anywhere, recombine it, reuse it and learn from others.
The great unbundling of cloud-based infrastructure is underway. In the past you’d purchase entire hosts and pre-provisioned services. Now, resources like computation, storage, memory and input/output bandwidth may be composed into solutions more economically because you mix-and-match and pay for the workloads you use, rather than having computers on standby.
This has led to serverless architectures that allows workloads to be run without all of the work that normally requires manual provisioning and management. However, enabling the world to take advantage of this serverless infrastructure also means creating the software framework to orchestrate and enable composability.
One approach to composability is to enable programmers to write code that compiles to bytecode that can run anywhere. That was the original idea behind platforms like Java. WebAssembly takes it to another level by allowing developers to code in their preferred language (Rust, Go, C++ or whatever) and deliver binaries in a platform-independent manner that can run securely on everything from web servers to web browsers.
Another approach is the use of container technology. Containers allow packages of code (including whatever libraries and dependencies you wish to compose into your program) to be separated into isolated units that can be delivered to different runtime environments in the cloud — serverless cloud infrastructure, edge nodes, individual developer workstations — or even an end-user device.
Microservices are a software design pattern that takes advantage of containers so that you isolate pieces of software to specific use cases and limit interdependencies on storage and other shared resources. When coupled with a serverless environment, you can scale-up both your ability to deliver services to customers — as well as scale-up the ability of your team by maximizing reusability across different systems and products.
The challenge with implementing microservices is that it frequently requires new DevOps practices and polyglot tech stacks that make testing, debugging, versioning and deployment far more complicated. At Beamable, we are focused on games and metaverse-builders — so we learned a lot from Roblox, which simplifies the creation of client and server code into one experience.
We wanted to make it easy for game developers and metaverse-builders to take advantage of. What if we just made it so builders of games and the open metaverse could have the simplicity of Roblox but the freedom to deliver your game or experience however you want? We built a framework for Unity that enables creators to code, debug and manage all of their server code from within the IDE you’re already using for game development:
Ultimately, the purpose of technologies like Beamable is to enable a revolution in composability — cutting down on the number of non-creative tasks that get in the way of a creative enterprise — along with a big leap in creative iteration, learning and reuse.
Composable compute also means that workloads can be distributed to exactly where they need to execute. Many workloads depend on low latency — such as gaming, real-time social software, augmented reality, or AI applications that need to be placed closer to sensors and other inputs. In other words: nearly everything real-time that’s being built for the metaverse.
This may mean a revolution in how we think about tapping into the world’s computer power. Edge nodes may become adjacent to cell towers; or the “far edge” may be as close as the device in your pocket. Alongside the “traditional” cloud computing infrastructure like Amazon Web Services (AWS) and Azure are a new generation of companies that are focused on taking computing to this edge: Taubyte and Edgegap are two examples. Others are pursuing fully-decentralized computing networks — such as Theta, CUDOS and Dfinity — who wish to make use of unused cycles sitting in data centers and desktop computers. Companies like Filebase and Akash are creating onramps to decentralized resources like storage and compute that are compatible with established interfaces such as those created for AWS.
Once the game or metaverse experience is deployed on the scalable infrastructure, there’s still a “last mile” problem to overcome. With most games, this means delivering a game client to the user. In other cases, companies are building streaming infrastructure to generate the entire game experience in the cloud and deliver it in a similar way to how you receive video. But a big difference is that games and metaverses are real-time interactive applications, so latency is a big challenge — along with the enormous amount of cloud-based GPU power this implies.
An example of a company working on this problem is Polystream (now part of Mythic Games) which is working towards a “command-streaming” approach: instead of generating virtual worlds in the cloud on GPUs and streaming the generated video to clients — they focus on streaming the commands that a GPU needs. Your desktop computer or mobile phone then uses its own GPU to generate the experience, instead of simply being a “terminal” for receiving streams.
Over the next several years, we’ll continue to see tremendous innovation in the hardware and software to enable composability within a scalable, secure and accessible environment.
In nature, composable elements feature methods for information to aggregate, transmit and iterate.
It is the same in man-made systems. Composability is a mindset as much as it is a technology. Start with your own team, and make sure their path to creation is as easy as possible. Emphasize reuse and learning. Prefer frameworks that unleash creativity rather than constrain it.
When you’re ready: you can challenge yourself to turn your partners and customers into creators along with you. Identify the aspects where customer can create, modify or iterate what you give them. Increase the surface area of co-creation. To do a great job at this, you need to make their creative tasks rewarding and as simple as possible.
- My article, Evolution of the Creator Economy will introduce you to the forces that shape creative technologies as they go from mostly technical to fully composable ecosystems.
- Market Map of the Metaverse covers the many companies and categories that will increasingly offer composability, along with a deeper analysis of creator-economy companies like Roblox, Unity and Epic.
- Network Effects in the Metaverse reviews many of the reasons why some networks grow and some don’t — and explains how important composability is to growth.
- Gartner wrote “The Future of Business is Composable” composability — focusing on the elements of business modularity, autonomy, orchestration and discovery.
- Overwolf, which is a guild for in-game creators (creating an ecosystem for composability inside games), has a post by Wednesday Osiris, “Videogames are the Primary Catalyst of Personal and Professional Growth In my Life” gives you a sense of how transformative play is for so many people. Imagine a world in which players may also become creators.
- Richard Kim, an investor with Galaxy Interactive, wrote up an interesting thread on the challenges for both play-to-earn and free-to-play games — as well as the larger opportunities he sees for cryptogaming that embrace “composability and creativity as the physics of a user-driven simulation”
- Will Bedingfield wrote a piece for wired that will give you a sense of the interesting work happening around composability of digital fashion within the Roblox ecosystem.
- Linda Xie wrote “Composability is Innovation” for the a16z blog, focusing on how composability helps developers bootstrap projects and communities far more rapidly.
- Piers Kicks talks about the disruptive aspect of composability at the intersection of metaverse and crypto.