dope article on roblox… will post below…
“Some people refer to what we’re building as the Metaverse,” David Baszucki, CEO of gaming company the Roblox Corporation, told the crowd that had assembled virtually to hear the company’s pitch to investors in February of this year. “We’re shepherds of the Metaverse.” When Roblox went public a month later, it quickly found itself valued at $45 billion. That’s more than gaming giant EA, as well as the might of Ubisoft, Take Two and Square-Enix combined. Clearly, there’s a significant amount of faith in Roblox’s promises. But can Roblox actually build a Metaverse?
The term originated in Neal Stephenson’s 1992 novel Snow Crash, the story of a pizza delivery rider who spends his free time escaping his daily life by plugging into the Metaverse – a simulated world which allows its denizens to live as whoever they designed their avatars to be, in a shared reality which is always on and beyond the control of any one user.
Technology circles have long believed some version of this vision can and will feasibly exist – Stephenson himself now works at augmented reality start-up Magic Leap – even if what that would look like exactly when transposed into today’s world is still quite unclear.
Matthew Ball – an investor and writer focused on the Metaverse – says that the easiest way to think of it is “as a quasi-successor state to today’s mobile internet. Except instead of accessing all the internet via separated 2D web pages or apps, we’ll experience it via persistent, interconnected, virtual simulations.” It’s a wildly ambitious prize with unfathomably lucrative potential. Many contenders are circling the waters, including Epic Games’s Fortnite, Facebook’s Horizon, VRChat, Core, Sansar, Decentraland, and – of course – Roblox.
Manuel Bronstein, Roblox’s chief product officer, says that the company’s journey began at the turn of the 1990s, when eventual co-founders David Baszucki and Erik Cassel developed the 2D Interactive Physics and the 3D CAD software Working Model. These were “simulated physics laboratories” which allowed users to design environments they could experiment within – by constructing destructible houses, for instance, or crashing two cars together at various speeds, or maybe by taking the tools in altogether weirder and more unexpected directions.
“Witnessing the creativity and imagination of these players as they built and socialised together inspired the team to replicate it on a much grander scale,” Bronstein says. “Their vision was to create a platform for shared experiences and usher in a new category (‘human co-experience’) that did not exist at the time.”
In 2006, Baszucki and Cassel launched Roblox Studio. It was, in Bronstein’s own phrasing, an “immersive creation engine”, blending gaming, creation, and social networking. Roblox might have the veneer of a video game, but it’s perhaps more accurate to describe it as a set of tools its users can wield to build their own video games (or “experiences” as the company sometimes refer to them), to be hosted on the Roblox platform. These creation tools are designed to be less daunting to the entry-level developer than professional game engines, and fully customisable frameworks exist across numerous genres. These include maze-runners, first-person shooters, tycoon simulators, and free-form “roleplay” genre, where developers create worlds – schools, cities, historical eras, sci-fi dystopias, etc – for users to project their own stories onto, informed by their interactions with the setting and other users.
Roblox’s 20 million and counting experiences in existence today generally share a common LEGO block-esque aesthetic redolent of sandbox creation titles such as Minecraft and Trove. Roblox can be free to play, paid, or freemium. Developers receive approximately 70 percent of the “Robux” – the platform’s own mini-currency – spent inside their experiences. As of 2020, the company has launched a scheme whereby developers receive engagement-based payouts according to how much time users of Roblox’s subscription service have spent inside their experiences.
Against the field of contenders vying to lay claim to the emerging Metaverse space, Ball believes Roblox “has, by far, the most robust and multi-faceted economy.”
“If you’re a developer, for example, you can generate income not just by selling your experiences to consumers, but re-selling your creations ( a house, a car) to other developers via the Roblox marketplace.”
What has made Roblox unique in its field has been the interplay between its enormous constellation of experiences and its personalised avatar system. When you enter any given Roblox world, the user does not assume control of a context-relevant character (think Sonic, Mario, or Lara Croft) but as your persistent, user-created avatar. A virtual You, effectively – whoever you’ve chosen to be. Add to that an attendant in-game economy which has sprung up to support this expression of identity, with all sorts of user-generated clothing, hairstyles, accessories and skins available to purchase in the platform’s avatar shop. Roblox offers an opportunity, then, not just for play, but for digital-first designers and entrepreneurial retailers.
Bronstein says virtual fashion is “huge” within the Roblox community. “People can also be whoever they want to be on the platform, and this authenticity is an important part of their self-expression, be it in real life or in the Metaverse.” He points to the recent Gucci Garden event, which saw a virtual bag eventually sell for around $4,115. Its physical counterpart costs $3,400. The bag cannot be transferred out of Roblox, suggesting that some users place primacy on how their avatars look over being able to flaunt these items in the physical world. Plenty of brands have started selling legally licensed digital product replicas, including Nike Air Max trainers and NFL merchandise.
This model has been staggeringly successful for both Roblox Studios and its developers alike. In its pitch to investors, the company revealed its user-base earned $328.7m in 2020 alone, meaning it has the potential to make millionaires.
All of this may well be intriguing, but does Roblox actually represent a Metaverse? Bronstein thinks so. “These experiences are not just in a single category, like gaming. In fact, we see them as a combination of media, gaming, entertainment and commerce, and the future of social interaction.”
Both Roblox and Fortnite have made plenty of recent headline-grabbing attempts at said experiences. Interactive sponsored worlds have been created as in-game events, supporting the releases of Hollywood blockbusters Ready Player One, Spider-Man: Homecoming and Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker, replete with Easter eggs and exclusive trailers. In February, Fortnite hosted a film festival screened on in-game cinema screens. Artists such as Weezer and Ava Max have held album listening parties, and the likes of Travis Scott and Lil Nas X have performed in-game concerts.
Bronstein holds up the Lil Nas X gig in particular – a Roblox experience visited nearly 37 million times – as an example of how these events closing the gap between the “between the physical and digital worlds”.
Richard Bartle – a senior lecturer in computer game design at the University of Essex, where in 1978 he created the Multi-User Dungeon, a text-based game credited with being the first-ever virtual world – is unconvinced that experiencing media and meeting other avatars inside game worlds can be interpreted as the inception of a Metaverse. “Yes, you can [do those things]. But why would you?” he says, matter-of-factly. “In pandemic times, it’s easy to say that: ‘You can go online and watch movies with your mates!’ But why would I need to go online, when I can just watch it on my television, which is much bigger – and doesn’t have little [avatars] anywhere?”
Bartle wants the medium to become more ambitious. “At the moment, it’s as if there’s emerging technology and it’s looking for a solution,” he says. “If you’re in an online world or a ‘Metaverse’, why are you there? What are you hoping to gain from it?”
Roblox’s Bronstein is more bullish. “While shared experiences in the Metaverse today are about doing fun things together, in the future they will be about literally anything people can do together in real life: learn together, play together, or work together.” Roblox, in other words, wants to replace the workplace and the classroom, the pub and the tennis club.
If these new spaces were indeed to emerge, it’s worth considering the issue of control and mediation of information. The internet as we know it today wasn’t developed by any one single entity, but built collaboratively around open standards and protocols, including, notably, net neutrality. Whether such principles would govern this would-be internet successor is a topic of debate. If any company were able to consolidate power over the Metaverse’s formation and become its de facto gatekeeper, the control they could wield over the dissemination of information and in setting their own commercial and security practices would be enormous.
The Apple vs Epic Games trial, which took place in May and whose verdict is expected later this year, could wind up being just the first of many similar clashes. The court battle started last year, when Apple removed Epic’s Fortnite from its App Store after the developer had engineered a system to prevent Apple from taking a 30 per cent commission on Fortnite sales to iPhone users. Epic’s defence was couched in the language of worry about how Apple’s behaviour could affect and shape an emerging Metaverse.
That might have been just legal manoeuvring, but the question will eventually arise: who gets to decide what appears on the Metaverse? Given Roblox’s significant audience of under-13s, the company is understandably keen on safety, employing over 3,000 people around the world to screen for inappropriate content. That is good news if you’re a parent, but bad if you’re a creator in a hypothetical future where a moderated Metaverse becomes the primary conduit for entertainment consumption and your work is judged sufficiently inappropriate.
Decentraland is another Metaverse candidate that grapples with this very issue. Dave Carr of the Decentraland Foundation tells me that the founders decided that “rather than have these environments be controlled by central bodies, they should have a decentralised structure and be open to everyone to own and govern.” From economic matters, to content moderation and even the maintenance of its servers, Decentraland’s user base dictates its entire policy course through regular votes.
But the “open Metaverse” Decentraland gestures towards is still very far away. Bartle, the Essex academic, says that today most developers are building up discrete and proprietary “walled garden” virtual worlds. “You can’t move between them, or take what you’ve got from one world into another,” he says.
Roblox has 43 million daily active users, Fortnite 25 million, and Facebook Oculus-powered Horizon could potentially tap into billions. All of them might style themselves as Metaverses, but they are not – yet – interoperable with one another. This is an aspect that Bartle feels is antithetical to his definition of the thing. “You can’t have a Metaverse, you have to have the Metaverse,” Bartle says.