Roblox has grand ambitions to ‘replicate the real world’
Hello, and welcome to Protocol Entertainment, your guide to the business of the gaming and media industries. This Friday, we have an interview with Roblox product lead Josh Anon about the platform’s new materials update, as well as recommendations on what to read, watch and play this weekend.
Roblox gets a graphics makeover
Roblox is not a platform known for its groundbreaking graphics or realistic gameplay. The game-making app is perhaps best identified by its blocky, cartoony avatars and relatively simple environments and virtual assets; that's what makes Roblox so immensely popular with kids and accessible on less powerful smartphones.
But that preconceived notion of how sophisticated a Roblox game looks and feels could begin to change. Last week, the company announced a big step forward for its work on graphical fidelity with an update to the materials it lets creators construct their virtual worlds out of.
Protocol caught up with product lead Josh Anon, who helps lead development on Roblox’s custom game engine, to talk through the update, what it means for creators and how it fits into Roblox’s ambitions to create the metaverse.
Roblox’s world is made up of realistic building blocks. When creating a game world using Roblox’s engine, players are allowed to choose from materials like wood, brick, glass and metal, or even custom materials developed by other creators and licensed on Roblox’s marketplace. Now those materials will look more real and also reflect real-world behaviors.
- Roblox says its default materials will now interact with other objects in ways you might expect them to in the real world. A car driving on wet asphalt might skid, while wood exposed to flame will catch fire. Dirt will be more porous, so water might sink into it. Roblox said all new game worlds going forward will default to these new materials, while older games can either be updated easily or keep their old design.
- “Roblox is actually a physics engine that has a game engine built around it,” Anon told me. “It makes it so developers don’t have to code a lot of behavior. If I put an object in midair and let go, I don’t have to code gravity. It just works by default.”
- With the materials update, Anon says developers can now expect more complex so-called emergent behavior, a game design term for when complex systems create unexpected and, in some cases, unplanned outcomes.
- “You can open up an experience from 10 years ago and it will actually be better today than it was 10 years ago because it will have new emergent behavior,” he said.
- Anon referenced The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, which used a novel mix of physics, thermodynamics, weather and other systems to create an extremely flexible game world that players are still experimenting with years after its release.
- The goal for Roblox, he added, is less about tools that make games look indistinguishable from real life and more about ones that feel like real life. “If we get photorealism where it looks great and the behavior isn’t there to support it, then it’s going to be disappointing,” Anon said.
Roblox wants to build the real world. Roblox is among the few companies whose technology and scope reasonably match its ambitions to create the metaverse. The platform counts more than 50 million daily active players and more than 200 million people logging in every month, and Roblox is often cited alongside Epic Games’ Fortnite and Microsoft’s Minecraft as obvious candidates for future metaverse market leaders.
- Anon said Roblox has from the very beginning aspired to “replicate the real world” with its game engine. We’re still years, perhaps decades, away from achieving a fully immersive, 3D version of the internet like metaverse advocates promise, but Anon says these iterative updates will help it get there.
- “We’ve been talking about some really cool stuff. You could imagine a future with a virtual forest in Roblox. You drop a match and the forest catches on fire,” he said. More sophisticated behaviors and worlds that feel akin to real life might take longer. “This is really hard to do and computationally expensive. It might take us 10 years to get to that type of thing.”
- One challenge for Roblox is keeping the game accessible. Nearly half of all Roblox users are under the age of 13, meaning they’re more likely to be using a less powerful smartphone or tablet than a gaming PC or Xbox console.
- “We don’t want to build features that only the top percent of players with the latest graphics cards can use. We want to build things that are accessible to everyone,” Anon said. “How do we keep improving fidelity in a way that’s accessible to everyone instead of a great demo that almost nobody sees?”
- The materials update is a good example of finding middle ground, Anon said, in which Roblox’s back-end technology and cloud resources keep file sizes small and memory bandwidth in check, so games using the platform’s newer technology don't end up ballooning in size or crashing older devices.
Roblox is opinionated about the metaverse. Very few Web3 boosters and tech futurists can seem to succinctly nail down what the metaverse is and what it might actually look like (save perhaps VC Matthew Ball). But Roblox has been talking about this for a long time, and the updates to its platform can’t be separated from its vision of the future of entertainment and digital life.
- In its most recent shareholder letter, from May, Roblox wrote, “This new category that we call co-experience (sometimes referred to as the metaverse) will change how we connect with others. We believe the long-term opportunity is potentially larger and more profound than the various innovations we’ve seen in social networking, messaging and video.”
- Roblox also said it’s now beginning to develop new “native and immersive” ad formats for the Roblox metaverse, and that “the future size of the human co-experience / metaverse category is profoundly large, but will only be realized through an unrelenting focus on invention and innovation,” adding elsewhere in the letter that the “economic opportunity for immersive co-experience is vast.”
- This is consistent with what CEO David Baszucki has said; last year, following Facebook’s rebrand to Meta, Baszucki said his company has been building toward this vision since its founding 17 years prior.
- More recently, Baszucki has taken to saying the metaverse is in fact already here, and that Roblox is one of the preeminent developers of an early version of it.
- “We believe that the metaverse is going to be fully user generated,” product chief Manuel Bronstein told TechCrunch last year, after Roblox announced updated avatars and virtual clothing. “And we think that by empowering everybody to be a creator we’re going to get more immersiveness and a larger variety of [experiences] on the platform.”
Roblox’s vision for the metaverse conflicts in some ways with its rivals. Epic, for instance, does not yet allow Fortnite creators to monetize their creations like Roblox does, a key pillar of the Roblox platform that has drawn criticism for how it compensates underage users. Epic’s Unreal Engine 5 is also a professional software suite geared toward helping seasoned studios create photorealistic visuals running on advanced hardware, which Anon said would clash with Roblox’s philosophy on accessibility and democratization. (On that same note, Meta has said it is in a "very deep, philosophical competition" with Apple over the direction of the metaverse, more specifically with regard to mixed reality hardware.)
Roblox is notably absent from a new industry group, too, called the Metaverse Standards Forum, which was formed last month with Epic, Meta, Microsoft, Sony and others. (Apple hasn't joined either.) When asked about interoperability and whether any of Roblox’s advances in fidelity might be helping it build toward a shared metaverse, Anon said, “Our focus is what things [creators] need to be successful,” and not much else.
For now, Roblox wants to make its platform the preeminent destination for its own brand of so-called co-experiences while the metaverse remains very much under construction. And what shape the metaverse takes might very well depend on which platform gets there first.
— Nick Statt
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#TGIF: How to spend your weekend
“Ex Machina” — Plex. The story of human-made creations turning on their masters has been told for centuries, but rarely in such a mind-bending way. “Ex Machina” makes you question the fine line between heroism and villainy, all while exploring the role of AI in our future. The movie was first released in 2014, but now’s a good time to rewatch it, as Plex is streaming it for free through the end of the month as part of a limited showing of A24 movies.
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“Street Food: USA” — Netflix. Are you done watching “The Bear” on Hulu? Then this is the perfect follow-up series. Netflix’s “Street Food” documentary series has been shining a light on some of the best food carts and trucks around the world. Now the show is coming to the U.S., and the season is starting off with what some would consider the street food capital of the world: Los Angeles. What makes the show great is that it doesn’t just find vendors that are representative of the incredibly rich and diverse food culture of L.A., but that it also shines a light on the people manning the counter, working the grill and putting their life into their dishes. I dare you to watch the first episode and not wonder where the next taco truck is …
Axie Infinity has left Filipino gamers despondent and in debt — Time. The story of Axie Infinity is a cautionary tale for anyone interested in the future of gaming and entertainment. The effects of the crypto downturn on average Axie Infinity players has nowhere been more dramatic than in the Philippines, whose players at one point made up 40% of the game’s user base. Time magazine visited some of them to learn how the crypto roller coaster affected their lives.
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Thoughts, questions, tips? Send them to email@example.com. Enjoy your day, see you next Tuesday.