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Roblox wants to shed its reputation as a kids-only platform

Protocol Entertainment

Hello, and welcome to Protocol Entertainment, your guide to the business of the gaming and media industries. This Friday, we’re diving into Roblox’s developer conference and the company’s tricky ambitions to serve kids and adults alike. Also: what to read, watch and play this weekend.

Roblox is wading into uncharted waters

Roblox wants to shed its reputation. The game-making app, which counted a staggering 52.2 million daily players last quarter, is one of the most-used platforms for kids on the internet. With its blocky graphics and cartoony user-generated content, Roblox is one of the very few digital spaces that opens its arms to children under the age of 13 — the cutoff for the U.S.’s federal children's privacy law.

But that’s beginning to change. At its two-day developer conference, which kicks off today in San Francisco, Roblox is announcing a number of major changes to its platform designed to make it more appealing to its fastest-growing demographic: players ages 17 to 24. For a company with grand ambitions to build the metaverse, or what Roblox has coined “human co-experience,” catering to more than just kids is paramount. But inviting more adults onto the platform also carries unprecedented responsibility — and risk, too.

Roblox is increasingly dividing its app into two parts, with one half geared toward under-13 users and the other for those who verify they’re over 13. The goal is to foster more mature games and experiences on the platform and help those find the right audiences, while also giving parents more control over what their younger kids are exposed to.

  • Roblox said today that it would launch a proper discovery feature that recommends experiences based on features like monetization, safety and engagement.
  • At the same time, Roblox said it would launch what it’s calling experience guidelines, or, in other words, a rating system. The company said the system will categorize content as either 13+, 9+ or All Ages. Last quarter, slightly less than half of all Roblox users were under the age of 13.
  • The difference will depend in part on how violent the game is and to what degree it depicts blood, from light to heavy and unrealistic to realistic. (Other senstive subject matter, like sexual content, remains outright banned.)
  • “We’re hoping that the users — adults, kids and parents — can make informed decisions,” Roblox Chief Product Officer Manuel Bronstein told me in an interview. “It’s up to the user and the parent to make the decision on what’s appropriate for them.”
  • Bronstein told me there would also be revamped parental controls that allow for more granular restrictions to be placed on what types of content kids can and cannot access without approval.
  • On the topic of moderation, a thorny subject for Roblox, Bronstein said the company does not employ a three-strike system, as is popular on social platforms like YouTube. But he did say Roblox will rely on a combination of “proactive moderation” and user reports to try to catch mature or violent content that tries to slip through its filtering.
  • “Every type of different violation of a policy has different degrees of consequences,” he said. “Not everything, of course, will ban you from the platform forever.”

Roblox is striving for more realism and immersion on the platform, and a big part of its push is enhancing the look and feel of avatars and adding real-time communication.

  • While Roblox has been steadily improving its avatars so that they look less Minecraft-y and more Fortnite-y, the company outlined how it’s now letting Roblox developers incorporate more-accessible face and body animation capture into their games.
  • Building on its layered clothing update, which helps virtual clothes morph to a player’s body whether they look like a human or a fantastical creature, the new Animation Creator in Roblox Studio will soon be usable with a smartphone camera, requiring no animation experience or sophisticated hardware and software.
  • Bronstein told me this will work for facial capture — think Apple’s Animoji and Memoji that mirror your facial expressions — as well as body capture, so a developer could theoretically record a dance emote and then monetize it on the Roblox Marketplace.

The other side of the immersion coin is chat, Bronstein told me. Roblox has for some time now been testing proximity voice chat (or what it has called Spatial Voice) for players over 13.

  • The company plans to continue expanding access to that feature, but it will also start rolling out text-only chat to all players with filters in place for users under 13.
  • “The idea of course is to mimic — to the degree that we can — how communication happens in the real world,” Bronstein said. “In the same way a G[-rated] TV show may have some language that is appropriate for that age, a PG show might have other language appropriate for that age, and we can’t ignore it.”
  • Rather than dump the features on the entire Roblox user base, Bronstein said it’s going to take the same approach it’s been using for proximity chat by starting in beta, requiring age verification for 13-plus features and tweaking as it goes.
  • “One of the things we’re very proud of is, because of our origins, safety has been part of our DNA from the get-go,” Bronstein said. “We have always been comfortable taking our time to get it right from a safety standpoint.”

Roblox’s business hinges on attracting creators and advertisers. To that end, the company announced a suite of monetization and Roblox Marketplace updates today that are designed to lay the foundation for an economy that goes well beyond standard video game microtransactions.

  • Bronstein said a major new push for Roblox will be so-called immersive ads, which will start testing this year and launch in 2023. The company describes these ads as an “innovative 3D advertising experience that’s native, unobtrusive, and consistent with our values around safety and privacy.”
  • These ads will take the shape of portals that transport users to 3D worlds similar to Nikeland and the many other immersive brand activations that exist in Roblox today.
  • “Think about a 3D, immersive world with native, innovative ads that fit the experience,” Bronstein said. “We’re going to give our community the ability to design the containers for the ads, where to place them and how much they want to charge.” Bronstein said immersive ads will only be available for users 13 and up.
  • The other big initiative Roblox is touting this year, as it did at its dev conference last year, is NFT-like digital scarcity (but without the NFT acronym and all its baggage).
  • “We want to inject true market dynamics that reflect the real world. If you have more scarcity, you can buy, sell and trade,” Bronstein said. “Imagine if people start saying, ‘For this collection of shoes, you can only have a 100.’ You can resell it, and creators get a cut. It’s taking an amazing and thriving economy we already have, and it’s taking it to second gear.”
  • Bronstein told me “you don’t need to go to the blockchain” to implement digital scarcity, and Roblox fully intends to control the aftermarket for digital items when it does launch this feature, which doesn’t yet have a release date.

The metaverse doesn’t exist yet, but Roblox is arguably the most ambitious and furthest along of the gaming and tech companies intent on making it a reality. And today’s announcements make clear that its for-kids, by-kids approach, which has hinged on turning young players into entrepreneurial game developers, has become a major funnel to its growth as a proper social network. If Roblox can keep that pipeline intact — and maneuver the inevitable moderation hurdles — it very well may win the metaverse race.

“Many [creators] were on the platform when they were 12 and have stayed on the platform for the last 10 to 12 years. Now they’re 22 and have their own studio and are creating something, or they hang with their friends on the platform,” Bronstein said. “The ambition of the metaverse and Roblox is so large we never thought we could do it by ourselves. We know it's their inventiveness and creativity that will make this thing amazing.”

— Nick Statt

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#TGIF: How to spend your weekend

The story behind Google’s Fuchsia OS — 9to5Google. Chris McKillop was one of the main people behind Fuchsia, Google’s new operating system for smart displays and other consumer electronics devices. 9to5Google’s interview with him is pretty geeky, but also pretty fascinating, as it charts the path from the much-maligned Nexus Q (the cannonball-shaped home audio device that Google ended up killing before its official launch) to modern smart displays and beyond. McKillop talks about what it takes to build an operating system, why that is very different from actually shipping it to millions of consumers, and why other companies may fork Fuchsia for their own devices in the future (something that Meta was planning to do for its AR efforts before deciding to stick with Android).

“Royal Britain: An Aerial History of the Monarchy” — Plex, Tubi. The death of Queen Elizabeth II marks the end of an era, and depending on whether they grew up in the U.K., in one of its former colonies or somewhere else altogether, people understandably have very different feelings about this moment. I firmly fall into the third bracket, and fully expect to learn more about the queen than I ever have while I’m inundated by the wall-to-wall coverage over the next couple of days. If you, like me, could use a bit of a refresher on the British monarchy, I recommend this documentary, which delivers a very different perspective: Consisting entirely of aerial shots, the film takes a look at the many castles that had once been part of the British empire, and explains their role in the country’s history.

Interkosmos 2000 — Meta Quest. When it first launched in 2017 for PC VR, Interkosmos was hailed as an equally clever and terrifying simulator of 1970s space travel. In that same spirit, Interkosmos 2000 lets you try your luck as an astronaut in a Y2K-era spaceship. Interkosmos 2000 is a bit like Job Simulator, but instead of flipping burgers, you’re charged with saving humanity from within a tiny spaceship that runs on floppy disks. What could possibly go wrong? Apparently a lot, judging from the fact that the training session already asks you to hit random instruments with a wrench in order to “fix” them.

“Ivy & Bean” — Netflix. If you’ve got kids, you’ll surely know Annie Barrows’ “Ivy & Bean” book series about two girls who overcome their differences and become best friends as they discover the adventurous sides of their neighborhood. (And if you have kids and don’t know the series, change that, stat!) Netflix’s adaptation of the book series is pretty adorable, and shows kids and grown-ups alike how much fun you can have once you leave your comfort zone.

— Janko Roettgers

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