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If you ever wondered about science fiction inspiring tech in real life, look no further than Roblox. Roblox CEO Dave Baszucki and chief technology officer Dan Sturman started an official Tech Talks podcast today with a discussion about the rise of the metaverse, the universe of virtual worlds that are all interconnected, like in novels such as Snow Crash and Ready Player One.
Sturman recalled how he interviewed for his job many years ago and learned about the long-term vision of Roblox, which was always about building a metaverse. In the month of April alone, Roblox had 43.3 million users, up 37% from a year earlier. Those kinds of numbers enabled Roblox to go public in March at a value of $41.9 billion. More than 1.25 million creators have made money building games on Roblox, and players have played the best games billions of times. Arguably, alongside Epic Games, Roblox is the leading contender to build the metaverse.
“We’ve had this vision of the metaverse way back in the 2000s, when we made our first business plan,” Baszucki said in the podcast. “This new category had elements of social and 3D immersion from gaming and media, and we more and more are thinking of these tenets of a metaverse — persistence, identity, avatar, the shared cloud fabric, universal accessibility, fast jumping from place to place, and an amazing variety of experiences.”
While Roblox doesn’t build games itself, it does build the platform and tools that enable players to create their own games, all within the confines of Roblox’s blocky, Lego-like virtual world. That technical work is a huge load, Sturman said.
The tech of the future
“[We have] a game engine, C++, a lot of graphics experience, and build a lot of back end apps — the majority of our engineers are probably working on back end systems,” Sturman said. “Whether you’re trying to build the platform software, or building the translation app or the content management app, what works best at Roblox is when folks come in because of the technical challenges, not because you want to major in a specific technology. A lot of what we do here is fairly custom to us because of the uniqueness of the problems.”
Sturman said that eventually, the way the company could scale its platform to the highest level is by jointly designing hardware and software together. That might be a bit of a scare for the console makers and phone makers out there.
“As we think about how we massively scale the game engine – that really will end up being a hardware-software codesign,” Sturman said. “And accessibility to custom hardware has skyrocketed in the industry as a whole, and that’s something I fully expect we will take advantage of and use those trends moving forward. But doing it in a way where we’re thinking about that vertical design of the whole game engine.”
But Sturman also pointed to the challenge of digital safety and using sentiment analysis and AI to monitor it.
“There’s a growing amount of work on what safety looks like … with sentiment analysis, and AI,” he said. “But not too many folks are putting it all together and saying, ‘We’ve got 100 milliseconds to make a good decision on what you’re saying right now before we bleep you out or something like that.’ I think that’s an example of where things are uniquely Roblox and uniquely exciting, and I’m very confident we’re gonna solve these problems in some really groundbreaking ways.”
Baszucki said that it was clear early on that Roblox shouldn’t be making the experiences itself.
“We learned very early on that our creator community is vastly better than we are at making just about anything related to experiences, avatars, content,” he said. “The more we’ve leaned into it, the more successful we’ve been, and humbled at the same time which has been really wonderful for us.”
The company’s job becomes taking the barriers out of the way for the creators. ( I wrote about one such 16-year-old creator last weekend.)
“The way we’re thinking about scale: we don’t exactly know what a 50,000 player experience might look like, but we think people are going to come up with really unique ideas,” Sturman said. “One of the real benefits of Roblox is: We’ve got a million-plus-strong developer community, and they’re going to have their great ideas, and what we need to do is just unlock the barriers. For us, innovation is about unlocking, not about hitting a specific delivery vision in what we do.”
Baszucki added, “One of the things that I’m excited about as we build out our own platform layer, is that possibility someday that we’re running Roblox on some of the same stuff that our developers are running on, whether it’s a persistence back end, or analytics event capture system, or lambda functions in the cloud. I know it’s still early, I just loved the idea of it.”
Roblox was recently named one of 2021 Best Workplaces for Millennials — with 80% of the team in engineering and product.
The Roblox Tech Talks Podcast is live and the first episode “Stepping Into the Metaverse” with Dave and Dan is now available on Spotify, Google, Apple, Amazon platforms.
The podcast will air every other Wednesday (next episode will be released on August 4) and episodes will be around 30-40 minutes in length. The podcast will cover a number of topics that dive deeper into the technological breakthroughs that are shaping the metaverse.
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