Roblox Puts the "Me" in "Metaverse"

Keith

July 16, 2021

The dimensions of the Street are fixed by a protocol, hammered out by the computer-graphics ninja overlords of the Association for Computing Machinery's Global Multimedia Protocol Group. The Street seems to be a grand boulevard going all the way around the equator of a black sphere with a radius of a bit more than ten thousand kilometers. That makes it 65,536 kilometers around, which is considerably bigger than Earth. — Neal Stephenson, Snow Crash

Mapping the Metaverse: Transmission II

Mentioned somewhere in the cacophonous backstory of Snow Crash (and pretty inconsequential to the plot) is the Global Multimedia Protocol Group, a *once-fictional** software consortium responsible for the Metaverse protocols that gave shape to the void. Hackers buy access to code on the Street's endless chain of discrete blocks, and GMPG uses those funds to maintain the infrastructure of the Metaverse at large.

The Roblox Corporation seems to have worked up a similar arrangement. Almost everything in Roblox's self-referential Metaverse has been created by users. By providing players with creative tools and a curriculum of self-starter tutorials, Roblox permits even the most casual users to create wearable cosmetic upgrades, characters, and game experiences from whole cloth.

Like the Global Multimedia Protocol Group, Roblox plays impartial custodian to these innumerable libertine experiences. Their modus operandi is to offer a world-class platform for the unbridled imagination—and collect enough dues to keep pace with its exponential expansion.

Thus Spake Roblox

Roblox isn't one game, but a dilating universe of user-created experiences. Players download the Roblox app to freely access millions of servers, where they can raise pets, work in a pizza kitchen, fight pirates, and do anything else they can imagine. It only takes a click to get from one pastime to the next. Founder Dave Baszucki uses similarly glowing terms:

People do everything from playing traditional games, to social experiences that are more around hanging out and just being together, whether it’s working together in a restaurant or running away from a tornado.

The company recently scrubbed all mention of "games" from its website, preferring to brand these multitudinous minigames as "experiences." It's a slight but telling change in nomenclature; Roblox isn't a place to while away the time, but a universe to behold. In a conversation with Protocol, Roblox CBO Craig Donato likened the Metaverse in the making to "a digital place that your mind's eye gets transported into."

They've created a world to suit the vision. Every day, more than 42 million players frequent its innumerable experiences and social hangouts, creating and trading items in shared, ever-changing scenarios for literal billions of cumulative hours.

A Fistful of Robux

Since the introduction of the UGC catalog in 2019, Roblox users have created millions of individual items, costumes, avatar faces, and countless other cosmetic upgrades.

Robux, the platform's native currency, forms the heart of this creative economy.

Uploading more sophisticated items costs just a few Robux, and players can earn even more when they sell their creations to other users on Roblox's in-game marketplace. Players can enjoy most platform experiences for free, but Robux opens the doors to premium content in those experiences, as well as the ability to create items and trade them with other users. And for those designing and monetizing their own game experiences, there's real-world money to be made.

In 2020, Roblox introduced Premium Payouts, a supplemental form of engagement-based earnings, to support the ongoing development of its top experiences. The longer Roblox Premium subscribers spend in-game, the more Robux its developers earn to exchange back into real-world currencies.

The COVID-19 pandemic provided the perfect catalyst for the new initiative. When global stay-at-home orders deprived kids of their usual social spheres, Roblox underwent explosive population growth. "We’ve seen a lot of people using Roblox as a way to stay connected," Baszucki told GamesBeat.

Users flocked into the game to host birthday parties, high school graduations, and countless other analogs for real-world experiences. With the addition of Premium Payouts, platform developers earned more than $250 million—double what Roblox paid out the year before.

As Roblox continues to reach more than 200 million unique users every month, living room creators are earning a king's ransom.

Something for Everybody

Roblox's cross-platform engagement is uncharacteristic to say the least. During a 2020 presentation for VentureBeat, Roblox VP of Developer Relations Matt Curtis revealed that 51% of the Roblox user base joins from mobile platforms. The share for PC clients clocked in at 44%, with consoles rounding out the remainder.

If you've ever met a child, you probably wouldn't be surprised to learn that 59% of those monthly active users were under the age of thirteen. It's the other figures that may astound you.

Among the most engaged are the 40% of players who are female. These users have made mainstays of populous experiences like Adopt Me! or Robloxian High School (called "RoHigh" among the clique). They've effectively dominated the mindshare of an entire generation. With 68% of monthly active users now originating outside the U.S. and Canada, it's safe to dub it a global phenomenon.

As of 2021, estimates still put 64% of all users under the age of sixteen. For Roblox leadership, the youth of their existing user base is an advantage. "They're growing up with this different perspective about what it means to be in the digital world," said Donato.

Retaining users as they grow up is key to the company's short term strategy, and strong mobile presence suggests the company may have an edge in attracting a teenage audience. After all, Roblox is really just a social network at its core.

Wherever You Go, There You Are

David Baszucki describes Roblox as a "human co-experience platform" where visitors can seamlessly explore millions of destinations with groups of friends. Accordingly, Roblox considers it essential that users be able to practice a core identity wherever they go. What that identity looks like is yours to define.

Some people rejoice when they can be themselves, and some prefer to be entirely unlike themselves. Roblox allows you to do both. You can craft your avatar with any number of customized faces and accessories for use across every experience. In another server, you might opt to embody a sneering fire elemental in business casual.

Roblox has perfected the user-focused philosophy of the Metaverse. The cardinal rule is always to remember there's a person at the other end of the device. We're the same people—the same product of our choices—no matter where we go in life; when the Metaverse arrives, we should get the ultimate say in who we are there, too.

To hear Donato tell it, the Metaverse is going to do for social connections what the Internet did for information. Users are "no longer bound by physical distance" or other constraints in terms of how they interact or represent themselves.

The cooperative DNA of Roblox's user-created civilization is helping kids define themselves even in the face of adversity. When surveyed, most Roblox players responded that they were most likely to report online bullying to the platform itself. "But the good news is, the bully was number two on the list!" said Donato. "That's exactly what we want—people self-advocating."

Roblox has given soil to "the constructs of a society." That engenders a responsibility on the company's part to impose orderly rules and preserve harmony on the platform. The high-wire act is keeping the peace without violating user autonomy.

Ordering the Chaos

Parents of Roblox's youngest players would be happy to know that the developers have made serious investments to revolutionize content moderation on the platform. In addition to an ever-growing team of human moderators, Roblox uses razor's edge technology to protect its users from harmful influences.

They've poured millions into systems that incorporate machine learning and artificial intelligence to individualize content. On-screen communications from other players are filtered through redundant layers of content filters. Because most Roblox users start so young, what they can see and say changes depending on their age.

These measures assure civility on the platform without sacrificing user immersion. It's not about limiting the experience; the curation is so discreet as to go unnoticed. Roblox considers order an essential element to the Metaverse. To that end, their developers implement features that promote positive social interactions and ensure that all users feel comfortable enough to share themselves with the world.

In Roblox, kids can safely explore new contexts without fear of leveled-up subject matter. They'll create game experiences, monetize their creations, and learn to move about in a larger society from the comfort of their homes using advanced technology without knowing how any of it works.

Altered Gravity

Roblox has become an orderly, self-referential universe. Visitors are free to explore its infinite waystations at their leisure, in any guise they choose. Though creative freedom is technically limited to defined contexts, you'd scarcely notice while playing demiurge to kingdoms of your own design.

A hands-off approach does more than keep the lights on. As the game has developed into a global phenomenon, Roblox has emerged as the prototypical Metaverse to emulate. At this point, the in-game economy could fund platform upgrades and expansions for years to come with minimal supervision.

By focusing on platform fundamentals, the Roblox Corporation may one day build the nucleic powerhouse around which every other Metaverse experience oscillates. Supermassive success is a strategy that provokes change from within. Competitors will fall in line from the games' sheer gravity.

Of course, you could also just barrel right through 'em like Epic Games is doing.


*The Global Multimedia Protocols Group is likely one of the only organizations established after its first mention in print. The real-world GMPG is an informational consortium dedicated to "experimenting with metamemetics," or memes about memes. How fitting that they lifted their name from Snow Crash.


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