Roblox or sandbox: which platforms will decide the future of the metaverse?

Can gaming platforms retain control of the metaverse? Or will new ones seize the crown?

Gaming was the kernel from which the metaverse has developed. MMORPGs proved that persistent worlds were possible, while games like GTA Online brought virtual real estate and purchases to the mainstream. As part of The Drum’s Metaverse Deep Dive, we look at what’s next for gaming, and whether platforms like Roblox and Fortnite will continue to be the main beneficiaries.

Gaming birthed the metaverse. It laid the groundwork that allows other platforms to develop within the space. It’s the obvious point of origin for what we currently envision as the future of immersive digital worlds. Almost two decades ago, Second Life gave us an open sandbox to build digital spaces. Today we see brands embracing the metaverse to fulfill their creative desires.

Playing space

Mark Melling is head of Yahoo Creative Studios, the agency behind Selfridges Electric/City. He believes that the next stage gaming will have in the metaverse will come in the form of making the in-game experience portable.

“Many believe that the true ignition of the metaverse cannot happen until the walled gardens are opened and consumers can freely transport their digital wearables from one platform to another. Doing so would mean consumers can purchase an NFT-style version of a Burberry trench in Roblox and wear it to an afterparty in the Decentraland platform. This will take the metaverse to the next level, creating not just one place where NFTs can be purchased and sold but a whole transferable community.”

Currently, however, there is a debate between web2 and web3 advocates about the decentralization of the metaverse. Until now, web2 with its Robloxes, Fortnites and Minecrafts has meant those platforms are primarily reaping the benefits. More users means more money for them, but not necessarily for the users themselves.

Samuel Huber, the co-founder and chief executive of in-game advertising company Admix, argues there has been growth in platforms like the sandbox of Decentraland. “While still a game, the end users are shareholders in the sense that they can buy land, which are pieces of the game, and then build on top of that land and whatever money they make on top of that land they can keep for themselves.

“People will soon realize there’s going to be a big shift from the centralized platforms, which are not in the favor of the users, into the decentralized platform. Within the next five years, the biggest platform will be decentralized and the Roblox and the Fortnites are going to suffer from that unless they’re able to adapt.”

But Roblox and Fortnite shouldn’t be too worried, says Matthew Warneford, founder and chief executive officer at Dubit. Taking a look back at the origins of the MMORPG era of multiplayer games, he says those open worlds gained millions of users and, in turn, made their publishers a lot of money to reinvest in content and development.

For users, it created a stronger community where you would join groups and build a sense of community. Users would pay for that. But that was as far as the structure of those games could go. “There was always some way of getting loads of money from somewhere else to build the next Star Wars MMORPG,” says Warneford.

“What’s different about things like Roblox today and Fortnite soon is that, with the latter, the moat isn’t just about community, it’s much more of a flywheel effect. Of course, the more players it they have, the more money they’re spending, but money then attracts developers, developers build experiences and games and so on that attracts more players. And of course, more players gets more money.”

The flywheel effect that Warneford explains is very different to what we’ve seen before. It’s not about just putting more content into a game. Take YouTube as an example. The more popular it becomes, the more creators are attracted to the platform. With more creators comes more content and then the viewers follow.

“Roblox and Fortnite are going for that same flywheel effect, but from slightly different starting points. Roblox started 15 years ago and has that flywheel spinning really well. Fortnite has the users and can now provide the creation tools to allow developers to start expanding that universe, but it will create the same kind of flywheel.

“The hard thing for a lot of these other platforms trying to get into this metaverse space is acquiring users. There’s no shortage of things to do, content to consume, but I think for both Fortnite and Roblox it will be very hard to displace because of that flywheel. It’s very difficult to build an audience that then attracts the developers and so on.”

Decentralizing the metaverse

Right now, Roblox, Fortnite and Minecraft are in the driving seat and brands will go where the audiences are. But soon the audience are going to go to the decentralized web3 as the economics are a lot more in favor to them.

Huber says “it’s a no brainer for them to migrate from one to another once they understand it”.

As yet, however, the industry is not in a place where cross-platform development is feasible in the virtual gaming economy. Currently, Fortnite has approximately 80 million active monthly users, Roblox has 200 million, with Minecraft at 140 million.

Melling explains: “These platforms all have diverse and engaged audiences that present significant opportunities for brands. In addition to simply experimenting with cutting edge marketing strategies, playing in this cross-platform field can return recognizable metrics that even the most traditional brands can develop and strategize around.”

Warneford believes the real benefit lies in the ability to appeal to new audiences and create brand affinity in metaverse platforms: “They’re trying to build a positive brand association over a number of years. TV’s been uniquely suited to that and I suspect the metaverse will be similarly uniquely suited to that idea of building brand affinity. It’s not that I go into a 3D space to immediately go and buy a car. That’s not the expectation.”

The gateway drug to the metaverse

Gaming is readying the world for the full extent of the metaverse. It has thee games and platforms that have developed over decades to allow the metaverse to expand and become more than just a place to play. As a result, socializing and community will play an integral role in this.

What people needed, though, was an analogy to understand what the metaverse is, says Warneford. Those who didn’t grow up with the internet won’t intuitively understand that YouTube is video but different to TV.

“It helps some people understand the metaverse as gaming, because it’s more understandable to audiences that haven’t grown up playing games all their life. Gaming is actually an incredibly important part of that metaverse experience. But I suspect, if you talk to younger people who are already in these platforms, they’ll tell you that today already the metaverse is here and it’s way more than gaming.”

The metaverse is built on game technology. The user will have the same experience with a character that they can move around. That’s why Huber explains to the brands Admix works with that it’s a game with different mechanics.

“Web3 and the decentralization along with blockchain will allow different economics to happen. But it is a game, you have a character in a virtual world and it’s built in a real time 3D engine. It’s the next evolution of games. That’s how we describe it and it makes it a little less scary for the brands and everyone else who is trying to learn more about it.“

Melling concludes that when we interact socially, even in the real world, we often do it with games in the picture. Take a dart board or pool table, for example. It’s something to do in the space in which you are socializing with friends. The purpose of the space is still a meeting ground to interact and share with others. This will stay true to the gaming community and ultimately the metaverse. “It is in the extensive intricacies and attention to detail of the worlds created within gaming that has opened a pathway to the future of how we consume content.”

For more on the exciting new opportunities for marketers in this rapidly evolving space, check out The Drum’s Metaverse hub.