If Sesame Street still ran its Word of the Day segment, today’s word—and yesterday’s…and the day’s before—would be “metaverse.”
But what does that word actually mean? Well, not all metaverse visions are created equal. Meta sees a virtual-reality metaverse used by businesses and consumers alike, while companies like Niantic swear by augmented reality. Meanwhile, Linden Lab’s Second Life, which lets players create virtual avatars and literally live a second life in-game, has been chugging along happily on the PC since 2003.
One of the most successful players in the metaverse world is Roblox. Founded in 2004, the platform now has 47 million daily active users globally and 9.5 million developers who build out “experiences,” aka user-created worlds and games. Roblox is more akin to Fortnite–parent Epic Games, in that it’s focused on building an immersive world within existing gaming tech, rather than investing heavily in nascent tech like AR and VR. In July 2020, the company told The Verge that over half of American children play the game.
Craig Donato, chief business officer at Roblox, told Emerging Tech Brew that part of what makes Roblox successful is its bottom-up reliance on the creator community, which develops all of the experiences found in-game, which can range from DJing a party to playing a game of cops and robbers.
“Our job is simply to enable creators to pursue their vision,” Donato said. “The good news for us is if we have nine, 10 million people building on our platform, that tends to work itself out.”
Roblox says it has over 24 million experiences for players to dive into, and Donato said that one of the challenges of developing a metaverse is creating rules in order to prevent it from being a “Wild West.” Moderation is a challenge for any internet community, and Roblox is not immune. The problem can be accentuated on the platform when players have been subjected to graphic violence or sex in experiences since it heavily markets to children.
Roblox currently has over 4,000 human moderators, Donato told us, who are dedicated to policing the platform and making sure the experiences in the game don’t violate the community standards. Roblox also uses machine learning algorithms to scan and review content that it finds inappropriate, and also filters content by age level.
Donato emphasized that metaverse experiences need to be both “immersive and social,” in other words: able to transport players into the world, while also giving them avenues to explore those worlds with their friends. Roblox hasn’t acquired any AR/VR hardware companies, instead investing in online communities platform Guilded and digital avatar startup Loom.ai. However, Donato says that AR/VR might not be all that necessary to create immersion.
“When you read a lot about metaverses in the press, I think we naturally gravitate toward immersion being the problem. Like, ‘Oh, we need VR and AR, and that’s when it’s going to really take hold,’” Donato said. “I think that we’ve already kind of hit the tipping point for immersion. What I would say, though, is that there’s an incredible amount of innovation that still needs to occur on the social side.”
For Roblox, the social side is partially what Donato calls the “shared fabric” of the Roblox metaverse, made from the unique identities players can create using their avatar, the social graph of who you hang out with, and the economy of the metaverse where players buy, sell, and trade goods among one another using an in-game currency called “Robux.”
Beyond facilitating in-game purchases, community developers also get paid in Robux, and Roblox’s largest source of operating cash is collected from players buying Robux. Last quarter, more than half (54%) of Roblox’s $509 million in revenue came from Robux sales on the Google Play and Apple app stores. Roblox itself is free to play.
Despite Roblox’s progress, Donato emphasized that we are still in the very early days of the metaverse, and it will be a while before we see things like interoperability between metaverses and full immersion.
“There’s so much more when we think about kind of where we are in the metaverse journey, we’re probably somewhere in the first inning,” Donato said. “Right now we’re just building the stack. We’re all building the stack.”