Roblox's Odd Blocky Avatars Are A Key to the Platform's Success: Excerpt, <em>Making a Metaverse That Matters</em>

Pictured: Intrance and LAGurlz, creators of the hit Roblox experience Starving Artist

As Roblox reaches upwards of 300 million monthly active users and continues expanding its feature set, one common reaction is basically: Wait, isn't that just a game platform for kids with blocky, LEGO-like avatars?

Yes… and very much no. As I explain in Making a Metaverse That Matters, Roblox has succeeded not in spite, but in good part because, of those avatars:

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Someone should finally say something in praise of Roblox’s simplistic avatars. In fact, it’s actually a default avatar identity that wasn’t intended to be what users would generally use, but still went on to become a popular choice (and by default, deeply associated with the Roblox brand.). It has its origins in a very early version of Roblox, which began as a software tool for teaching and experimenting with physics.   

Whether Roblox developers intended it or not, these blocky, avatars, abstract cubistic human at best, offer a liberating power to players that’s not fully appreciated.  

Virtual world researcher Nick Yee, who co-led the groundbreaking studies on the mirror-ing power of avatars known as the Proteus effect (see Introduction), concurs: “With Roblox and Minecraft in particular,” Yee observes, “you see a lot more creativity when [players] weren’t sociologically encouraged to be obsessed about their hair, because they couldn’t.”  

The kids who play through them, in other words, think less about what these avatars’ appearance says about who they are in real life, and more about how they can express their interests and personality. Monitored offline by their parents and other elders at all waking hours about their appearance and behavior — how they are dressed, whether they were smiling enough, how disruptive they were being, and so on into their teen years, when their peers join in on this endless scrutiny —- kids finally have a chance on these metaverse platforms to simply be, and do. More realistic avatars would only introduce heightened peer scrutiny into the virtual world.

Freed from these expectations, Roblox’s player base can focus on the creativity of their peers. 

And the hunger for user-created experiences is voracious: Adopt Me, a user-made roleplay pet care game experience on ROBLOX, created by a small team of grassroots creators, regularly attracts peak daily concurrency numbers in the low-mid six figures — making it roughly as popular as some of the very most successful games on Steam, such as Electronic Arts’ Apex Legends and the latest installment of Call of Duty®: Modern Warfare from Activision, titles costing well over $100 million each to produce (let alone market).

Presented with these numbers, a common rejoinder among colleagues in the game industry is that Roblox games are simplistic and low frills, and therefore only popular with very young kids. There is some truth to this, but only so much; as the company adds new features to the development tools, this stereotype will rapidly change.

More obviously here. Interestingly, even as Roblox the company adds avatar options that aren't the blocky avatar default, longtime community members tell me they still prefer the original, since it's so tightly associated with the experience.

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