Roblox pushes toward avatar realism, plans to add NFT-like limited-edition items

·5 min read

At its annual developer conference Thursday, Roblox painted a picture of what’s next for the fast-growing online multiplayer portal that’s like catnip for kids and teens.

In his keynote, Roblox co-founder and CEO David Baszucki outlined plans to spruce up player avatars, introduce new in-game monetization streams and streamline the experience for developers dreaming up the user-generated content that turned the company into a massive success at the intersection of gaming and social networking.

Roblox is known for its blocky, relatively unsophisticated character models and game graphics, but the style hasn’t dampened the company’s explosive growth. Still, Roblox is working to make player avatars more life-like and customizable, choices that fit well with the company’s aspirations, both to keep the platform attractive as its young core user base ages up and to enable many forms of self-expression across its endless hub of virtual worlds.

"I think people are going to realize Roblox is not just one thing," Roblox Chief Product Officer Manuel Bronstein told TechCrunch.

On Thursday, Roblox announced a few meaningful changes in this direction. The first is layered clothing, a visual update that will make avatar outfits more realistic and dynamic, so your favorite Roblox virtual jean jacket will fit your character model whether you’re a humanoid version of yourself or a dinosaur. Clothing will fall around avatars and drape naturally, like it would in a more photorealistic game.

The newly announced Roblox avatar updates aim to inject both more customization and more realism into the blocky Lego-like looks that are synonymous with the platform now. Bronstein described the changes as a “huge evolution” of the avatars at the core of the Roblox social experience. “Self-identity is a crucial pillar of the metaverse, and the ability to precisely customize your clothing to your unique avatar is paramount in personal expression,” Baszucki said in the keynote.

Given the booming business of selling in-game items, Roblox has plenty of financial incentives to make its virtual fashion scene more sophisticated and life-like. It's also got to keep up with competitors like Epic Games, which sets the bar with both its Fortnite character designs and its brand partnerships, which can bring in $50 million in a single go. Roblox has its own brand and IP deals, but the more good-looking virtual stuff you have floating around for sale, the sweeter those deals will be.

Roblox avatar updates
Roblox avatar updates

Image Credits: Roblox

In the vein of building toward more realism, Roblox is also giving developers beta access to what it calls “dynamic heads” — facial animations for avatars that could even be interwoven with facial tracking to make a character model’s mouth move along with what it’s saying. Roblox is tapping its acquisition of Loom.ai, a digital avatar startup the company bought in late 2020. The company says that devs will be start playing around with the new facial animations starting with a handful of head designs that evoke the platform’s blocky roots. The first iteration of facial animation in Roblox won't be rolling out to users yet, but the company wants to get it into developers' hands, the first step in that process.

With Roblox continuing the big voice chat rollout it announced last month, the company is quickly pushing its previously text chat-centered experience toward more natural, immersive interactions. The company also noted Thursday that all eligible users who are 13 years old and up are now able to opt into age verification, a screening process that will give some players early access to new features as they make their way to the full player base. Verified users will begin getting access to Roblox’s new voice chat abilities “starting later this fall.”

Beyond improving the avatar experience, Roblox also announced plans to introduce limited edition items, an interesting new way for people to make money (in the form of Robux, which can be traded for actual bucks) from its bustling in-game economy. Roblox creators can put items they design up for sale for a set period of time or in a limited run, building an element of collectability into the game’s well established virtual economies.

Creators can also generate money off of subsequent sales by enabling royalties — a perk that Roblox’s in-game items will share with some NFTs. “The idea is that you [will] eventually be able to set the rules of what happens in the resale of an item,” Bronstein told TechCrunch, noting the NFT connection.

Developers will also be able to enjoy more flexibility while creating content for the platform through a new system Roblox calls Open Cloud. Open Cloud will allow developers to create content in third-party tools and then plug that into Roblox, rather than being restricted to Roblox Studio, the company's own developer environment.

The company is making a push for the cloud, granting content creators on Roblox more data storage and generally making the platform an attractive, versatile developer destination. Roblox also announced some graphics improvements that developers can start to play with, like more realistic collision physics and aerodynamics that could portray a visual like a parachute deploying.

In 2021, the company is on track to pay out $500 million to developers who craft content for its user-generated game worlds — up from 70 million three years ago.

"We believe that the metaverse is going to be fully user generated,” Bronstein said. “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."

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