CEO's Talk: User-Generated Content Is VR's Future

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CEO's Talk: User-Generated Content Is VR's Future
September 11, 2016

Virtual reality and user-generated content aren’t just buzzwords. They could be the future of the gaming industry, and they could compliment each other.

At our GamesBeat 2016 conference, we talked with Dave Baszucki, the chief executive officer of Roblox, and Todd Hooper, the chief executive officer and founder of Vreal. Roblox is a user-generated content platform that is opening up to VR, while Vreal allows players to spectate game competitions in a virtual reality space. Each executive talked about how virtual reality is changing the future of user-generated content. Here is an edited transcript of our interview.

Above: David Baszucki, CEO of Roblox

GamesBeat: Can you start by introducing yourselves and talking about what your companies do?

Dave Baszucki: I’m CEO of Roblox. We’re on a mission to build what we call the imagination platform. Every month, we power the imagination of more than 20 million players who come to our platform to role-play, create, and hang out with their friends. The platform is powered completely by user-generated content. It runs in the cloud, all 3D, physically immersive, physically simulated. We’ve had great growth recently. We’re acquiring new users at five times the rate of Mojang.

We have a vision of running across all platforms with great UI on every platform. On the Xbox, our app, in the last three months, has been the top one or two downloaded app in the Xbox ecosystem. On the iPad, we’re the number eight download in games. On phones, we’re number 30, about. We’re bullish on the future of social in VR, powered by the crowd. We believe user-generated content is a huge engine to power empathetic, immersive social experiences.

Above: Todd Hooper, Founder of Vreal

Todd Hooper: I’m the CEO and founder of Vreal. We’re a Seattle-based company building a VR game-streaming platform. People today go home and watch game streaming on Twitch and YouTube. We’re thinking about what that looks like in the world of VR. It turns out it’s something pretty cool. You put on a headset, and you’re in a game. I want to come and join you. I put my headset on, and I can appear inside your game and hang out. It’s a different kind of social experience. It’s not just a flat screen. It’s immersive and engaging. You feel like you’re in the same space with people.

GamesBeat: You both have different approaches to user-generated content and social. You have this more spectated version, and you have a literally user-generated version. Right now, when I hear about the things people are doing in VR, they’re solo experiences. How do we turn VR into more of a social experience?

Hooper: We haven’t seen that many social experiences yet. The way we do it is at a level below the game design level. A lot of people who design solo games think that’s about only one person, but we’ve found a way to inject social into that model. Take a solo game like Surgeon Simulator. You could be playing that game, and I could appear in that game and have an interaction with you. We’ve come at it from the viewpoint of, there’s a way to technologically recreate a game where everyone experiences it in a synchronized fashion to give you the illusion that you’re interacting with other people.

Realistically, if you went to a developer and said, “Hey, can you recreate every single game as a multiplayer social experience” — that’s not going to happen. We’ve taken a platform angle where here’s a technology that will enable any developer to turn any experience into a social experience. It’s a different way of thinking about it than asking developers to create all new social experiences.

Baszucki: We have a thesis at Roblox. There are lots of technologies that involve non-interactive content that will have their place in VR. A lot of technologies involve communication. But a very complex human interaction is doing things together co-experientially — imagining you’re doing something with someone else. That’s what we try to power — that experience, where empathy and immersion can transcend and make people feel like they’re doing things together.

At Roblox, we have at peak time almost 600,000 people imagining they’re working in a restaurant, imagining they’re birds, imagining they’re surviving a natural disaster, imagining they’re a fashion model. VR dials the immersion up to levels we’ve never seen before. The phone is difficult for getting that immersion. A big screen is better. But when we brought VR to Roblox, many of the experiences I’ve been playing for four and five years — it was the first time I really felt I was in the experience.

On our side, it’s always been social. VR is a natural extension of immersion that will more thoroughly transcend all the players on our platform.

Above: Vreal lets you become a live spectator in VR

GamesBeat: Your games are already social. Has VR changed the way people interact with each other in a Roblox environment?

Baszucki: As we work through comfort issues, the games that tend to be more social — as opposed to first-person high adventure, high movement, high acceleration — those will have an advantage on our platform. There are many experiences that involve walking around and socializing. Roblox Top Model is a runway model show. Those types of experiences will have a more immersive VR experience. We’re trying to launch those experiences by allowing VR players to interact with phone, tablet, PC, and Xbox players at the same time. Our VR players have a more immersive experience. The phone players have a less immersive experience. But they all play together.

We believe that immersive 3D multiplayer physically simulated content is most suited for VR. We’ve just been hamstrung up to this point where VR has come around.

GamesBeat: Todd, you have active and passive participants, players, and spectators. Does that relationship work like it does in the real world, where there’s a pretty big division? Or is there more interaction in VR between those two groups?

Hooper: I think of it as kind of like Oprah. You go to an Oprah taping. There’s maybe a thousand people in the audience, and she’s on stage. She’s doing a show for everyone in the audience. But if she wants to, she can walk down to the front and pass the microphone and say, “Hey, where are you from?” Then, she can take the mic back. At the same time, you can have a discussion with your friends quietly in that audience.

We’re trying to recreate that same kind of feeling. I can hang out with my friends in VR. I might be in a stream with thousands of people watching. I’m not going to try to interact with those people. I might see some representation of those people, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s an influencer, a performer, a streamer, and then it’s my friends and [me] watching and interacting in some fashion. Obviously, a very big influencer — they won’t be interactively speaking with everyone in the audience. But if you look at big streamers on Twitch or YouTube today, they don’t do that either, and they still create a sense of intimacy.

GamesBeat: With this new idea of social VR, what kind of gaming experiences that we’re used to represent something that would work better as a social VR experience?

Hooper: I think it’s still too early to say. It’s clear that heavy movement, first-person shooter type games will be challenging in VR. That said, I’m sure people are working on ways to overcome those challenges. Heavily story-based games don’t traditionally stream very well. People feel like they’re ruining the story. You do tend to see things that are more strategic, tactical, or competitive.

The way I think about it, I can sit in my ivory tower and say, “This is how it’ll work,” or I can take the tools and technology out to the streamers and influencers and say, “We built this. You guys tell us how to use it.”

One of the things I find inspiring about streaming communities is, if you go to a Twitch con and meet one of these kids, they’re not college grads. They’re young. Some have just come out of service jobs. But they’ve created these online communities around themselves purely through force of personality. Whatever their thing is. I don’t want to be the guy who says, “I don’t think you should do this,” because frankly, I’m not their audience. And these young people are way more creative than I am when it comes to creating engaging content.

They’ll take a game that you never thought would be interesting to watch, and they’ll figure out a way to engage people as they play. I think our job, really, is to provide the great tools, a little bit of guidance, and then let the influencers run with it.

Above: Dean Takahashi using the Oculus Rift with oculus Touch

GamesBeat: Your games are already social. Has VR changed the way people interact with each other in a Roblox environment?

Baszucki: As we work through comfort issues, the games that tend to be more social — as opposed to first-person high adventure, high movement, high acceleration — those will have an advantage on our platform. There are many experiences that involve walking around and socializing. Roblox Top Model is a runway model show. Those types of experiences will have a more immersive VR experience. We’re trying to launch those experiences by allowing VR players to interact with phone, tablet, PC, and Xbox players at the same time. Our VR players have a more immersive experience. The phone players have a less immersive experience. But they all play together.

We believe that immersive 3D multiplayer physically simulated content is most suited for VR. We’ve just been hamstrung up to this point where VR has come around.

GamesBeat: Todd, you have active and passive participants, players, and spectators. Does that relationship work like it does in the real world, where there’s a pretty big division? Or is there more interaction in VR between those two groups?

Hooper: I think of it as kind of like Oprah. You go to an Oprah taping. There’s maybe a thousand people in the audience, and she’s on stage. She’s doing a show for everyone in the audience. But if she wants to, she can walk down to the front and pass the microphone and say, “Hey, where are you from?” Then, she can take the mic back. At the same time, you can have a discussion with your friends quietly in that audience.

We’re trying to recreate that same kind of feeling. I can hang out with my friends in VR. I might be in a stream with thousands of people watching. I’m not going to try to interact with those people. I might see some representation of those people, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s an influencer, a performer, a streamer, and then it’s my friends and [me] watching and interacting in some fashion. Obviously, a very big influencer — they won’t be interactively speaking with everyone in the audience. But if you look at big streamers on Twitch or YouTube today, they don’t do that either, and they still create a sense of intimacy.

GamesBeat: With this new idea of social VR, what kind of gaming experiences that we’re used to represent something that would work better as a social VR experience?

Hooper: I think it’s still too early to say. It’s clear that heavy movement, first-person shooter type games will be challenging in VR. That said, I’m sure people are working on ways to overcome those challenges. Heavily story-based games don’t traditionally stream very well. People feel like they’re ruining the story. You do tend to see things that are more strategic, tactical, or competitive.

The way I think about it, I can sit in my ivory tower and say, “This is how it’ll work,” or I can take the tools and technology out to the streamers and influencers and say, “We built this. You guys tell us how to use it.”

One of the things I find inspiring about streaming communities is, if you go to a Twitch con and meet one of these kids, they’re not college grads. They’re young. Some have just come out of service jobs. But they’ve created these online communities around themselves purely through force of personality. Whatever their thing is. I don’t want to be the guy who says, “I don’t think you should do this,” because frankly, I’m not their audience. And these young people are way more creative than I am when it comes to creating engaging content.

They’ll take a game that you never thought would be interesting to watch, and they’ll figure out a way to engage people as they play. I think our job, really, is to provide the great tools, a little bit of guidance, and then let the influencers run with it.

Baszucki: User-generated content platforms create an [incredible] way of discovering new types of gameplay, the types of gameplay that will be most applicable to a platform. At Roblox, we’re kind of running a Star Search or American Idol for game creators. What we see are new, emergent types of social gameplay.

Games can run to a point where they have 20,000 people playing multiple instances of some of these creations. You see weird things, like a hide and seek simulator that gets very popular; 10,000 or 15,000 people want to play it at the same time. One of the top experiences on Roblox is called Work at a Pizza Parlor. Who would have thought that experience would get played 200 million times? It’s all about either cooking pizzas, working the check stand, delivering pizzas, or driving a pizza truck. [User-generated content (UGC)] can be an engine, just as it is on YouTube, for the discovery of emergent gameplay. It’ll be the place where we find good matches for VR over time.

GamesBeat: It’s interesting that you talk about talent shows because it’s something I think of as well. Xbox 360 had that 1 vs. 100 digital game show a while back. It was a cool idea that they didn’t sustain for very long. But that idea of all these people with their headsets on who get placed into a virtual world — you’re the next contestant, come on down — is a really cool idea.

Is that how it’s working in Roblox? Is it people making things together, or is it somebody making something by themselves and sharing it? Where is the social aspect?

Baszucki: The social aspect, where we believe the social comes together, even more so than the co-creation, is the co-experience. Friends getting together, having a common interest in where they want to hang out, and having enough long-tail content created by users for them to find new and interesting things as well as. If we wanted to find the Roman Colosseum, a Civil War simulator, the Taj Mahal, there’s enough UGC on these platforms out there that you can find that and hang out with your friends. The social aspect, more than creation, is getting the feeling with your friends that you’re doing something together and experiencing that level of co-experience.

GamesBeat: Todd, your user-generated content isn’t something you create so much as something you show — somebody playing a game or sharing an experience. I guess the challenge there is how people react to the social elements in what you’re watching, how you define that.

Hooper: One thing you forget sometimes is that streaming is a show. It may not be a big-budget Hollywood production, but it is individuals putting on a performance. One of the things that brought that home to me, when we started, my chief streamer — Keith’s a lovely guy — but he’s a total hipster. Very dry sense of humor. Then our recruiter, a young woman named Allie, our community manager — she’s a streamer in real life. She’s been doing social games stuff for a while. The minute she put on a headset and started doing streams, it was completely different. She was doing a show. It was 10 times the entertainment level that Keith could provide.

Now, Keith doesn’t go home and stream at night. But Allie goes home and streams at night. You can tell, that same thought process — “How do I keep people entertained; how do I greet people,” — just simple things like, “Hey, welcome to the stream!” I’ve picked up on a lot of that stuff as well now. We had never done yoga in VR when Keith was streaming. Allie was like, “Let’s do some yoga!” Hey, why not?

Part of it is really that you have to get yourself into the mindset of a person that is putting on a show and think about what they can do. You see that kind of behavior in online communities now, and I think the same will come across in VR.

GamesBeat: What you’re doing is similar to the Twitch model, where we saw this market beginning. You had people who were like hosts playing games, and they had an audience. Do you think those people will transition to VR? Will that be sooner or later?

Hooper: We’re definitely seeing a lot of interest from people that are Twitch streamers and YouTube streamers. It’s very much a generational thing. If you look at that audience, the numbers that Twitch has given out, the average age is 14 to 24. They go home at night and watch 90 minutes of streaming. They don’t watch broadcast TV like their parents do.

Another generational thing we’ve noticed, when we put people who are more my age group into a VR headset and tell them to watch this game, they don’t get it at all. “Why would I watch someone else play a game?” When people that are younger come in, they understand it. “Oh, yeah, she’s playing the game, and I’m just hanging out. I get it.” There’s a bit of a disconnect there between generations. Also, there’s the novelty of VR. That has worn off on 2D screens. It’ll wear off on VR. People will see this more as an opportunity to socialize.

Above: esports will benefit from VR

GamesBeat: Dave, you brought up this historical application or almost classroom stuff. Instead of getting the dead frog out there and dissecting it, you could just do it in virtual reality. Is that something that’s an interesting possibility as far as user-generated content?

Baszucki: We haven’t done it yet, but when we peruse and put a filter over Roblox with the education lens, it’s really incredible. We have a lot of parents who get excited about everyone in their family playing Bird Simulator together. It’s pretty accurate. In VR, you are the bird. On PC, you’re just sitting back behind it. Without knowing it, you’re actually learning quite a bit. It teaches about ecosystems and survival, predators, all that.

I do believe that ultimately, consumers will drive these types of 3D immersive platforms. But as a byproduct, we’ll find educational material created by the long tail of UGC. Just as if you put that educational filter on YouTube today, you’ll find a lot of great stuff.

Question: Talking about children and education, what are your views as far as how you protect yourself with user-generated content when you’re dealing with people creating stuff on a platform that can reach a young audience?

Baszucki: Unlike some others in this space, because we run in the cloud, we have an envelope around this content. … Just as YouTube does, we have … big moderation stuff, computer filtering, highly responsive feedback. No images or sounds go direct to the platform, ever. Everything is moderated and human viewed before it gets there. We have [Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA)] compliance, all of those things. It’s a fair amount of work to keep a platform like this well-groomed and safe.

Depending on the type of content and how risky that content is, you can upload images in Roblox. Every image has to be filtered. Fourteen-year-olds will find out ways of cutting images into puzzle pieces and trying to put them back together. Everything imaginable, we’ve seen it. Images, sound, 3D content, it all has to be pre-filtered. Right now, we probably have 10 moderators working with a 30-second response time if something gets through and needs to be taken down.

GamesBeat: Todd, you have a similar issue with moderation — not so much what people are showing, but what they’re saying.

Hooper: What’s interesting in our world is that what they’re showing is in the context of a game. There are no cameras. It’s a completely virtual environment. Although, as you said, people find ways. Then it really comes down to content. It falls into what you see with YouTube or Twitch, with a use code that’s pretty broad. This is mostly not a COPPA audience. This is mostly 14 and up.

GamesBeat: Going back to my roots, what we now call social games were multiplayer games back in the day. They came in two forms. There were social games like what we’re talking about, people doing things together, and then competitive, which gave rise to esports. Both of these things are becoming bigger. Do you think one is better suited for VR than the other?

Baszucki: I feel like social is potentially bigger in the end. The ultimate super universe is social, just as five or eight years ago Facebook was a platform for social gaming. As VR gets social, the ecosystem of social communication — gaming will fit in that infrastructure. Personally, I’m a big advocate of a market that’s potentially bigger than gaming in VR.

Hooper: I’m laser focused on gaming because gamers are the early adopters in this market. There’s a revenue model there. I agree that there is a big market elsewhere. There are interesting, different verticals. But we get a lot of people coming in and saying, “Hey, can I use this technology for something else?” Absolutely. At some point we may make it more available to other people. But one thing I’ve learned about creating companies is focus. Our focus is on gaming.

In terms of social versus competitive, it’s hard to pick. At the moment, it is more social because there’s a lack of highly competitive games in VR. You haven’t seen a lot of people invest that kind of capital yet in those titles. They are coming. But even if you look at, say, the Ubisoft titles, like — technically, it’s a multiplayer game, but it’s a cooperative multiplayer game. It’s not a competitive multiplayer game. We’ve not yet seen a real dedicated, big-budget multiplayer title in VR. It’s probably a couple of years out.

GamesBeat: Does it have to be a made-for-VR competitive title, or do you think we can add a VR spectator mode to something like a League of Legends?

Hooper: Everyone always asks me that question. It’s extremely difficult to retrofit VR on existing titles. We’re talking about titles that are not designed for VR in the first place. There are interesting ways to get around that in some respects, but in general, I prefer to look [at] what’s coming.

My philosophy will be that there will be Riots and Bungies and Blizzards in VR, but they’ll be new companies that we haven’t heard of yet. Some small company is prototyping something right now, and they’ll get traction in the near future.

GamesBeat: You don’t think Blizzard will be the Blizzard of VR?

Hooper: There will be big publishers in VR as well. But what’s attractive about it to developers, just like mobile … I remember in 2011 at Casual Connect, there were these guys calling themselves Supercell running around. No one knew who they were. Just these guys from Finland. Now look where they are. VR will have the same kind of affinity for people who come in and disrupt things.

Question: Have you seen different countries or areas where UGC is developing particularly well on the VR side?

Baszucki: We’re seeing it around the world. We have servers around the world, and we’re seeing good growth everywhere from Singapore to Japan to northern Europe to Brazil to the Philippines. I feel it’s pretty universal. Our overall user base is still weighted to the U.S., though.

Question: How do brands tend to feel about user-generated content and people interacting with them in that environment?

Baszucki: Most brands love it. Disney, Hasbro, Mattel, Lego, Fox, they all send us big six-figure checks to promote their products in our virtual environments. That’s really cool. There’s a parallel to that, too, where just as on YouTube, a very small smattering of brands that think differently can sometimes issue a [Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA)] takedown, in which case we’ll remove their presence happily. But it’s really just DMCA on one side and huge advertising opportunities on the other side. Rather than banners or video, you can immerse players with a brand you consider cool, acceptable, good for them and enter that brand into the 3D space.

Question: How do you see the breadth of content creation? Is it coming from a relatively small number of people, or do you have a more considerable base?

Baszucki: Of 20 million monthly players on Roblox, about 500,000 are creating content. Of that 500,000, about 11,000 are creating content that’s good enough for people to spend virtual currency in that content. Of that 11,000, I’d say there are 400 creators who are making reasonably good experiences. The content is still not as high quality as triple-A gaming or what have you, but our top creators are making half a million dollars a year right now on the platform. They’re not making millions. But we are seeing those top creators banding together, starting to form studios. We have a vision of those top creators migrating to places where they can make millions a year, and we think the quality of content will go up.

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