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Roblox wants to advertise to gamers ages 13 and up in the metaverse

The metaverse-hungry platform is looking for more ways to monetize

(Roblox; iStock/Washington Post illustration)
8 min

Roblox, the online game platform with metaverse ambitions that targets tweens, is introducing a host of new features aimed at making its experiences more age-appropriate and profitable for the company. In the coming weeks, Roblox will introduce age guidelines for individual experiences or games, Chief Product Officer Manuel Bronstein said, helping its 52 million daily users better navigate the games hosted on the site. The games will be marked as either appropriate for all ages, suitable for those nine and older or those 13-and-older.

“Our platform is aging up now,” said Bronstein. “More than 50 percent of our users are 13 plus, and our fastest growing demographic is 17 to 24. So it makes sense for people to have control over what experiences they’re going to access.”

Roblox’s platform comprises user-generated games, many created by children and teens, some of whom have made millions of dollars for themselves. The company declined to share exact percentages of how many users are under the age of 13. Last year, it said 54 percent were under the age of 13. Roblox notes that about 90 percent of the developers of its top 1,000 games by earnings are above the age of 18. The platform has over 12 million game developers.

Content approved for all ages could contain infrequent mild violence or light, unrealistic blood, according to the company, while the gated content for 13 and above could feature moderate violence and light, realistic blood. Roblox says it doesn’t allow romantic or sexual content on its platform.

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The San Mateo, Calif.-based company went public in March 2021, at $64.50 per share. At the time, Roblox CEO Dave Baszucki told The Washington Post he envisioned Roblox helping build and grow the metaverse, or a next version of the internet akin to a 3D world wide web, a confluence of music, games, films and more. The company posted a net loss of $176 million in the quarter ending in June, compared to a $140 million loss in the same time period last year.

Roblox has looked to add certain features already popularized by other major tech companies, though the platform faces more challenges given its younger user base. Roblox plans to add a facial animation feature, making avatars change expression based on facial recognition — a feature popularized by Apple’s Memojis. The company said people will be able to chat with each other using the feature in a testing phase soon, and it has plans for a full release early next year. The gaming platform has also been rolling out a spatial voice feature since last November, which works similarly to one offered by Meta, formerly Facebook, via their Oculus VR headset.

While Roblox looks to expand, it still has to deal with a major threat to its business. Unlike many other games, Roblox titles are often aimed at children under the age of 13 and can be multiplayer, allowing users to interact with strangers online. That opens up the platform to a lot of responsibilities, including setting strong parental controls and giving parents education on how to use them.

“Much of Roblox’s user base is simply too young to understand the nuance of features like these when it comes to data and safety, and I don’t think we should ignore that many children use platforms like Roblox unsupervised, either,” said Alisha Karabinus, a games researcher at Grand Valley State University in Michigan who has children ages nine and 14. “So many children are given the same warning when it comes to navigating online worlds: Don’t share personal or private information with strangers; don’t share photos. But what’s more personal or private than your face?”

Roblox requires users to verify they are 13 or older to use the voice chat feature by submitting a government ID or verifying their phone number. It relies on users to report bad actors, in lieu of complete real-time moderation from employees or artificial intelligence, which has traditionally been extremely challenging for in-game voice communications. Bronstein points out that users can also mute individuals or everyone.

“In the future, we may have technology that could eventually do some level of real-time filtering, but that’s not in place anywhere in the world right now,” Bronstein said. “So what you can do is do a lot of good real-time moderation and give users control.”

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Voice recordings may be used in the future to support users’ reports of bad behavior. Bronstein said that Roblox was mindful of data privacy.

“First of all, we let people know that when they’re using voice, their voice could be recorded for moderation and abuse reports and then those files after a certain period of time just disappear,” Bronstein said. “We don’t have any plans to store users’ voice for a long period of time.”

Roblox has also been testing a new version of text chat that would give users above the age of 13 more freedom. The chat filter would keep those under the age of 13 from seeing acronyms like “LMAO,” but allow those over 13 to see the words and acronyms.

Next year, Roblox plans to introduce immersive ads, a way to tap into a new revenue stream in addition to its existing subscriptions and in-game transactions. Warner Bros. and the shoe company Vans have tested ads out on the platform.

“This is going to be our take on what advertising in the metaverse looks like,” Bronstein said. “This is a big area that we’re excited about from an innovation standpoint because I don’t think this has been figured out. We’re thinking about interactive formats, where if there’s a billboard, promoting a beautiful item, like say, a pair of shoes, you can tap on the billboard and immediately you are in the dressing room where you can try on those shoes and complete the transaction.”

The ads will be gated to those ages 13 or older. But gaming experts cautioned against tailoring ads to children, and the harmful effects that could have.

“Even an aging user base is still a young one, and Roblox’s profits are reaped from children. That merits more attention — or should,” Karabinus said, citing studies showing a link between junk food advertising to children and childhood obesity.

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Creators on Roblox can already earn profit by selling items, and sometimes limited-edition virtual items that drive up demand. When asked if this meant Roblox was considering getting into non-fungible tokens (NFTs), which are also digital and collectible, Bronstein said the company didn’t need to get on the blockchain.

“We are not looking into NFTs right now,” he said. “I read about this space and I like it. I like technology, and I like to understand what’s going on. But we think that we get a lot of the value or utility without necessarily having to get into the blockchain. We are the platform where if you buy an item, you will have an avatar or a place to use it. You will have 50 million other people to see it.”

To grow more profitable, the company has expanded into Germany, Brazil, Portugal, Russia and China. It launched LuoBuLeSi, the Chinese version of its platform, in July of 2021, only to shut it down six months later, saying it was working on a relaunch. Last year, the company had listed the venture as a risk factor, as it could be hurt by U.S.-China politics.

“Currently, we have paused services and are focused on making the necessary investments, including investments in our data architecture, in order to realize our long-term vision for LuoBuLeSi,” said Desiree Fish, vice president of global communications at Roblox.

“We’re hoping over time, more and more of our leading developers are coming from China. … There’s also a lot of really amazing content from our global developer base that we believe will do very well in China,” Baszucki told The Washington Post in March 2021.

Last July, Vice reported on leaked Roblox internal documents detailing how it planned to abide by Chinese censorship rules to launch successfully in China, noting that players had national IDs and real names, making it easier to find child predators.

Roblox said in a statement: “Roblox has been actively investigating a phishing incident, which involved a Roblox employee being targeted by cyber criminals through social engineering tactics and using highly personalized scare tactics. These stolen documents were illegally obtained as part of an extortion scheme that we refused to cooperate with.”

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