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Wednesday, July 24, 2024

Soon You’ll Be Zooming in Roblox

Right around the time Meta started making a feverish pitch for the headset-powered metaverse, executives at other tech companies began piping up to point out that the metaverse could already be accessed through hugely popular mobile apps like Fortnite and Roblox. People love these apps—especially kids and teens. Who needs a full-face computer when you can easily spend hours chatting with friends using the screens you already have?

Now Roblox, which isn’t just a game but an entire platform of user-generated video games, is adding more power to its metaverse punch. Starting in November, Roblox plans to launch an immersive video-chat option for gamers, Roblox chief executive David Baszucki said in an exclusive interview with WIRED ahead of the company’s developers conference this week.

The feature, which is called Roblox Connect, will run on any device that already runs Roblox, provided that device has a camera. The feature uses 3D-animated avatars, not photorealistic video, and will place people in virtual spaces rather than showing their real-life backgrounds.

Face-tracking tech will be used to mimic facial expressions and movements in people’s Roblox avatars. The Roblox app will capture the movements of 40 points on the user’s face, then use that data to give expressions to the user's Roblox avatar that accurately convey their emotions. (Roblox is doing this on the user's device and says it’s not sending any personal data to the cloud.) Only one-on-one video chats will be allowed to start, for ages 13 and up, and Roblox users have to have each other stored as contacts in order to communicate via video chat.

“When people see Roblox, they see parts of a Venn diagram, and the big diagram for us is thinking through how people connect and communicate and share stories,” Baszucki says. “In the midst of Covid we all used video systems, and we know that’s going to keep advancing and getting better. And we’re seeing the early signs of that at Roblox, which is moving from audio to video to full 3D.”

Baszucki says Roblox may eventually evolve to offer photorealistic video chat in order to support business users. “It’s possible that in a very professional business situation, at some point, we’ll all choose photorealistic avatars on Roblox. And when we’re doing a business call, it will look like this office. But we’ll probably [see] a few other avatars, too, and younger people may lean more ‘cartoony’.”

Roblox Connect will be opened up for game developers to use as well. This means developers will not only have the ability to build video chat into their games, they’ll also be able to lean on the machine-learning already deployed in Roblox’s audio-calling feature.

And, since not a single tech event can happen this year without an update on generative AI, Roblox developers will soon be able to chat with a virtual assistant to ask for help with coding or to quickly spin up new virtual scenes, like “Create a forest scene with different kinds of trees and a crackling campfire.”

Roblox’s immersive video-chat feature takes direct aim at Meta’s vision for the metaverse, but the two companies are also in a partnership: Roblox says a full version of its app will be available to all Meta Quest headset users this month (it was previously available in beta). And Roblox will “soon” be available on Sony PlayStation, potentially expanding its audience even more.

Grow Up

All of this is part of Roblox’s strategy around growth, but also around growing up.

In its most recent earnings report, Roblox reported more than 65 million daily active users and 14 billion “engaged hours'' in its app, a 24 percent increase from the year before. From’s initial launch in 2006 until recently, the majority of its users were young people. Kids really, really like Roblox. Just ask the Chicago mom who had to hop into live-action gameplay herself to finally get her daughter’s attention and ask her to take the lasagna out of the freezer, a well-publicized incident that likely had Roblox’s marketing department doing virtual cartwheels.

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But last year, 38 percent of those daily active users were 17 or over, and as of the second quarter of this year, 17-to-24-year-olds became the fastest-growing age group on Roblox. Roblox has leaned into the fact that its core user group is aging and two months ago launched a category of games specifically designed for users aged 17 and up. Chief product officer Manuel Bronstein told The Verge in an interview that this new category would allow more graphic content and adult themes, like “depictions of heavy bloodshed and alcohol use.” Accessing these games requires uploading a selfie and a photo of a government-issued ID.

For Roblox, the lasagna-mom incident underscored that communication was going to be a big part of the platform's appeal, beyond gaming. If users—whether they’re 10, 17, or 25—are going to bounce, it’s likely going to be for another app where they can use a camera to connect with friends, be it TikTok, Snap, or FaceTime.

Roblox Connect, then, is an attempt to get people to just … hang out in Roblox, even when they’re not gaming. Hanging out equals more engaged minutes; more engaged minutes leads to better advertising opportunities and “bookings,” the purchase of virtual goods using Roblox’s digital currency, Robux.

Bookings last quarter for Roblox totaled nearly $781 million, up 20 percent year over year. But the average bookings per daily active user has been going down, and Roblox is looking to squeeze more value out of each player.

“We have said publicly that older players tend to monetize better,” Baszucki says. “We’ve actually tended to be pretty conservative and focused on user happiness, user growth, and engagement time. But in parallel to that, yes, we’ve built a virtual economy where traditionally, when we scale these things, we see the bookings go up as well.”

Mod Squad

Roblox has been intensely criticized in the recent past for falling short in content moderation, and now allowing real-time video chats could open it up to fresh forms of harmful content and abuse. Just look at Meta’s metaverse, where an early user reported being groped by a virtual stranger in Horizon Worlds. Meta’s response was that the user should have instituted a “safe zone”—putting the onus squarely on the user. But Roblox can’t necessarily insist that a group of 13-year-olds figure out metaversal social dynamics on their own.

In early 2022, TechDirt reported that a surge in Roblox users during Covid lockdowns spawned new problems for the company. Creators launched games featuring red-light districts, where users could engage in sex acts with other avatars, and some even re-created disturbing mass shootings. In August 2022, leaked documents obtained by Vice News highlighted how Roblox was grappling with moderating things such as “bulges” in avatar clothing, bullying, sexting, and the grooming of minors by child predators on the platform. During a brief Roblox gaming session earlier this week, WIRED observed a gamer repeatedly call another gamer “ugly” in the text chat on the side of the screen and demand that another gamer “get out” of the room.

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Roblox’s content moderation problem is the problem of the internet in general, and like a lot of other influential platforms, Roblox is attempting to solve this with both human moderators and a high dose of technology. A spokesperson for Roblox declined to share how many content moderators it currently employs; in the past it has said it employs 1,600 moderators. In interviews with WIRED, company executives consistently pointed to the machine-learning technology Roblox has developed for audio calling as an example of its technical moderation.

Roblox’s chief technology officer, Dan Sturman, says the company has instituted a policy whereby if a Roblox user declines to answer a series of repeat audio calls from another user, the caller will be penalized. Users can mute or block other users. And he says Roblox is rolling out voice-moderation tools that will automatically detect five categories of abuse, harassment, and bullying in “real time or near real time.” A user that violates policies will get immediate feedback “without having to have a human in the loop.”

“Roblox Connect hasn’t launched yet, so we’re still finalizing technology and our safety measures,” says Juliet Chaitin-Lefcourt, Roblox's head of product communications.

“Our strong belief, and our initial trials, tell us that just reminding someone that they’re not behaving well is going to be a huge impetus to behave,” Sturman says. That’s certainly one interpretation of how content moderation could work; a view of the internet, perhaps, as frictionless and idealized as 3D avatars.

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