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Embracing the metaverse: Roblox’s ambitious vision for building online worlds

CBO Craig Donato on why events held inside game platforms are exploding during the pandemic.

Craig Donato

Roblox Chief Business Officer Craig Donato says, "If you have a metaverse, it has to start to evolve the constructs of a society. We need to think about rules of order. What's allowed, what's not allowed?"

Photo: Courtesy of Roblox

If you're over 30, you probably have never used Roblox in your life. But if you have children of a certain age, chances are that Roblox is their life. The online gaming world attracts 120 million players a month.

Meanwhile, creators within the Roblox community published some 20 million experiences to the platform last year. Many of these are games, including murder mysteries, restaurant simulators and tower defense titles. But in other instances, the lines between gaming and social experiences are less defined. And when 6 million players joined the company for its annual Bloxy Awards online event in March, celebrating the community's creators, it became clear that Roblox had become much more than just a game.

The growing centrality of online games like Fortnite and Roblox in the lives of their players has been described by some as the beginning of a metaverse — a persistent online world that offers participants a wide range of experiences and avenues for self-expression. In a recent conversation with Protocol, Craig Donato, Roblox's chief business officer, explained how his company wants to help build this metaverse, how Roblox usage has changed during the coronavirus pandemic, and how it's often easier for young people to hang out together in the digital world rather than the physical world. He also addressed how soon we might see a Roblox IPO.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

What kind of trends have you seen emerge on Roblox during the pandemic?

At this time, when people need to stay physically distant, Roblox becomes a very, very valuable platform for them to stay socially connected. We have something called private servers, which enables you to play in one of our worlds, but it's only with people you know. It creates this sense of privacy. We see those used for birthday parties and other sorts of functions, where people want to go together into these worlds and just just hang out in a more intimate way.

We've seen a lot more happening in terms of events. Coincidentally, at the very start of COVID, we had our own version of the Oscar awards. We had over 6 million people show up for that event in March. And then shortly after that, we had the One World concert, which was a video concert that we had in a Roblox world. We had 4.5 million people show up for that. So there's clearly a thirst for larger events, and you'll see more from us working on that.

How do you want to make these events different from traditional live streams?

For a concert, you've got these three layers of social constructs that you need to deal with. I go to a concert with my friends, so I want to be able to whisper in their ear or talk to them. I want to feel the energy of the larger crowd. But we will also enable you to do some really interesting, intimate things with the artists that are impossible in the real world.

Fortnite has done some huge live concerts lately as well. Would you consider Fortnite maker Epic Games to be your main competitor in this space?

We are so obsessed about what we are doing, we're not constantly looking over our shoulder. It's more about us having a sense of conviction about what we want to do rather than worrying about what other people are doing. Having said that, clearly there are certain companies that have a vision for this digital place where people go and do things with other people. Something they're calling the metaverse now. Epic with Fortnite is heading in that direction. Minecraft is in that direction. Facebook, to a certain extent, is in there with Horizon. There are certainly companies that have that same aspiration as us, but we all attack it differently based on our own personal view of the world.

The metaverse concept is an interesting one. What is your take on it?

It is this digital place that your mind's eye gets transported into. It's immersive. We think it's important that it is vast and diverse, and that you can move around. I think a lot of people have that vision.

What's different for us is that the metaverse is inherently a social place. It's this shared experience. So your identity becomes important. This ability to be able to have social interactions and maintain and actually make friendships becomes super important. What the internet is for information, the metaverse is going to do for social connections. I'm no longer bound by physical distance or all these constraints in terms of who I interact with or how I represent who I am. All these things are suddenly unleashed. It's insanely disruptive.

Lastly, if you have a metaverse, it has to start to evolve the constructs of a society. We need to think about rules of order. What's allowed, what's not allowed? How are those rules enforced, and are they aligned with real-world laws? What happens in different countries?

You also need to have an integrated economy. You need to make sure that people can make a living. We have our own currency, Robux, and we have our own economy. We do think about rules of order and enforcing them. We've really tried to be very thoughtful about what it means to have this kind of online place and how to make it a productive, good place for people to go.

How do you keep people engaged in these online worlds? How do you get them to come back?

When I think about it in my own life, how I build friendships, and maintain friendships … we go out, we go to a concert, or kayaking, or hiking. It's a similar thing in this digital world. We go find some fun things to do together. We come together around a shared vision, or a shared obstacle, or something that creates a conduit for having fun. In Roblox, we drop you into a game and say: You just woke up in prison, try to break out. Or you just got transported to a desert island. A tornado's coming. Try to survive.

I also think it helps that we are naturally attractive to younger kids that are much more flexible in thinking about this kind of new world. They're growing up with this different perspective about what it means to be in the digital world.

Do you need a young audience like yours to build the metaverse?

I think that certainly helps. It's a digitally native generation. They grew up with the internet and phones. Also, if you look at the amount of free time that people have in their lives for unstructured play time, it has been declining for decades. When I grew up, I would take my bike and disappear until the street lights came on and my mom would yell out for me to come home.

Now, my kids, they've got an after-school activity that's led by an adult. They come home, they've got two to three hours of homework. And when do they actually have time to hang out with their friends? It's in the evening, and they're popping into Roblox. I think the lives that kids live today, they're finding that venue for unstructured hangout time, it's easier for them to do it in the digital world than in the physical world.

As entire families spend more time at home together during shelter-in-place, parents also suddenly get to see what their kids are doing all day. Roblox recently published a blog post along those lines, telling parents how to respect their kids' boundaries. Is there more need for education like that these days?

What we've seen in a lot of focus groups is that kids and teens don't know how to talk to their parents about all the stuff that's going on in the digital world, because their parents don't understand it. When they do, the reaction of a lot of parents is that they're scared. And of course, when parents are scared, the first thing they do is they're going to lock it down. And that's exactly what kids don't want. This is how they're primarily engaging with their friends. So it creates this really challenging dynamic.

We did a survey a few months ago, and one of the questions we asked was around online bullying. We asked: Who's the first person you go to if you get bullied on Roblox? They said they'd come to Roblox first. Parents were probably about 15th on the list. But the good news is, the bully was No. 2 on the list. And I thought: That's so good! That's exactly what we want, people self-advocating.

We have such a large percentage of the young population on our platform. If we can help them learn how to be more respectful and civil to one another, that's a really good thing. And there's a lot of work that we do from a safety and civility perspective. To maintain the safety of our audience, we track everything everyone's saying. And we double-blind it. How old I am dictates what I can say, and how old you are dictates what you can see. We are literally filtering every piece of communication twice. We have tons of moderators reviewing content that goes into games, and we've made huge investments in machine learning and AI that enable us to track all this at scale.

Roblox raised $150 million earlier this year. What do you want to spend the money on? What's next for the company?

We have very big aspirations, so it was great to add that money to our bank accounts. It gives us the ability to go out and do some big things. You want to be well-funded and well-capitalized.

As for next steps: Continued global expansion. For us to do global well, it's not simply a matter of translating the games. We need to understand how someone swears in that language, what inappropriate memes in that language are, all these sorts of things. We're currently available in English, Spanish, French, German, Korean, Japanese, Chinese and Portuguese. We will be rolling out more languages all throughout the year. That's going to be a very big active area for us to expand.

We'll also continue to invest in the core technology. We stream all our content in our own cloud. Building that cloud out across the world, that's a big focus.

Is there an IPO in the future for Roblox?

In our immediate future, I would say I don't think so. The hallmarks of being a good public company is predictability. A very solid, straight business model. There are so many things that are still going to happen as we talk about the metaverse, business models and new opportunities for us. We want the flexibility to grow and chase all these different opportunities. I don't think it makes sense for us right now. When the time's right, we certainly will.

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