Roblox, a social network of virtual pocket worlds with a daily user base roughly the size of the Hispanic population, is ubiquitous among children 13 and under and mostly puzzling to adults, who generally can’t see beyond the simple gameplay and blocky environments.
Those blocks are made up of what Roblox calls “materials” — things like wood for trees, concrete for streets, and brick for buildings. Now Roblox is rolling out updates to make those materials look and work more lifelike so that sand will look more like sand and you can also get the tires of a truck stuck in it. The changes are part of Roblox’s mission to update visual fidelity across the board and will be available to all developers starting today.
As a generation weaned on its polygonal malls and murder mystery simulations grows up, Roblox tries to grow with them. To that end, Roblox has introduced improved lighting, spatial voice chat and more realistic avatars, and now the company is overhauling core aspects of the visual toolkit developers use to create the games and social spaces it’s known for.
The goal is to hang out in Roblox to get more of the feeling of exploring the real world, right down to the kind of cascading effects you get when different parts of that world interact with each other, according to Roblox Product Director Josh Anon, who spoke with londonbusinessblog.com on the update.
“I sometimes tell candidates that Roblox is a physics engine with a game engine around it,” Anon said. “…This ensures that when our users go and they enjoy our experiences, their natural intuition of how things should work will work out of the box that way.”
How Roblox handles materials in the game is a big part of that. If you are playing a bowling game in Roblox and you hit pins with a wooden bowling ball, it will behave differently than if you made the bowling ball with a denser material such as granite.
With the new update, the wooden bowling ball and the granite bowling ball both look more realistic, but Roblox developers could introduce a new variant material that looks completely different and make the ball instead. In addition to the visual updates, Roblox also adds a tool for creating custom materials through a new “Material Manager” menu in Roblox Studio, inviting developers to give materials a unique look and feel and open up a world of visual variety.
The company’s long game vision for a fully interactive virtual world evokes something closer to Breath of the Wild’s sandbox of emerging behavior – the wild combinations and interactions that’s physics and “chemistry” engine – than what most people would think of when they think of Roblox. At his recent developer conference, Roblox CEO David Baszucki conjured up visions of a virtual forest in Roblox that could burn down if you drop a match into it.
“It’s great for developers because when you’re building they don’t have to code all this behavior, they get it for free with a physics system,” Anon said. “So this idea of replicating the real world, matching people’s intuition, giving them an emergent behavior is really important to us.”
Roblox is sensitive to the fact that its users still really enjoy the experience they have today. The new materials will be enabled by default in anything new developers build, but existing experiences will only be updated if that option is enabled. Anyone can make custom materials, but you can also just keep building for the time being with what you already know and like. The company has been introducing materials for over a year, and earlier withdrawn from a plan to automatically update materials after community pushback, and choose to give developers the choice instead.
Long-term Roblox users may notice the change in visual fidelity right away — or they may not even notice it. It all depends on what the developers who create the experiences they spend time on decide to build into those spaces. A handful of developers have had beta access to the new materials and have been able to experiment with them in popular Roblox experiences such as Jailbreak, Winds of Fortune, and Rolling Thunder.
But where developers choose to implement the new materials, the change will be easy to spot, according to Anon:
“We deliver one brick out of the box,” Anon said. “But if you look at the world around you, there isn’t just one type of brick… what is the size of the brick with the space in between? What is the weathering and texture on the brick? And by tweaking this simple thing, you can really set your world apart, where you can have a Chicago suburb that looks like a one-way street and then maybe a building that looks like it’s from London and it’s been around for hundreds of years.”
Over time, Roblox’s decision to make its textures and avatars more realistic could be instrumental to another big presence on the platform: brands. If you’re betting on selling a whole range of virtual goods, it’s a good thing to make those wearables and the spaces in which they are displayed visually interesting and distinct from one another. From Gucci and vans until Ralph Lauren and NikeRoblox already has luxury brands lining up to court young users, but more visual fidelity could help those shoppables pop.
Ultimately, upgrades to what’s buzzing under the hood at Roblox are meant to please the platform’s unusual mix of developers, kids, and brands. But instead of an overarching visual theme or recognizable drive for a certain kind of gameplay, Roblox just wants to allow people to build Lake Roblox – whatever that may look like.
Roblox lacks the polished visual language communicated by an Epic Games – or even a Minecraft, arguably – but what it lacks in thematic coherence it makes up for in choice. The company doesn’t even necessarily have the experience of wanting to steer the community toward building. It just wants them to build whatever — vibey subwaysshopping centres, murder islandsParisian cafes, or a whole-ass Gucci Towncomplete with a apparently overheated secondary market.
Roblox is a place to build a bunch of stuff and those things will look more like real things, if you want to, and it will interact with other things in a more realistic way too. But if that’s too rich for your blood, the regular Roblox will still be there with its grain-box avatars, flat graphics, and a plethora of virtual suburbs – for now, at least. (These icons of Roblox are comfortable and completely inexplicable at the same time, just like the Roblox experience for anyone my age.)
Updating Roblox’s iconic lo-fi visual style is a risk, but the company sees it as a risk worth taking to unlock the platform’s true potential as a place where just about anything is possible.
“One of our developers actually said you know, [this update] will be the thing that will push Roblox away from the ‘Roblox stereotype,'” Anon told londonbusinessblog.com. imagination doesn’t necessarily resemble our imagination.”