Virtual Worlds

Up until two years ago, more than half of Roblox’s users were under the age of 13. Even as the online gaming platform has seen gains in the older teen and YA segment, it’s still reaching an awful lot of children. Roblox had some 45 million daily active users in 2021—so if you’re not looking at Roblox, you don’t really know what more than 20 million kids worldwide are doing with a decent chunk of their time.

“Over 50 percent of U.S. 9- to 12-year-olds play on Roblox at least weekly, and they’re spending their money there right now,” says David Kleeman, senior VP of global trends at research and strategy consultancy and digital studio Dubit.

And if you want to get a sense of how the metaverse is developing, Roblox is your best starting point. “You can play any or all of the games on the platform with just one download,” Kleeman says. “You can attend special events. We’re producing concerts in the metaverse. It’s a place to hang out with friends. You can customize gear, your avatar, do a lot of self-expression and earn and spend in-game currency.”

Kleeman calls the popular platform an “emerging metaverse” because, as he notes, “There is as yet no real metaverse. There are little pieces of it. You may have heard the expression that the future is here; it’s just not equally distributed. Well, the metaverse is here, but it’s in pieces, and we need to put it together. The great thing about that is that we can envision the metaverse that we want, not just take one handed by the big companies or anyone like that. We can [create] a metaverse that is great for kids, building on the brand equity that we as tele­vision executives have built over the years.”

At its most basic definition, the metaverse describes “immersive, virtual, global, always-on spaces,” Kleeman explains. “The real idea is that it lowers frustration barriers to people doing the things they want to do. You can be a gamer—you can play a game or make a game. You can tell stories. You can be part of somebody else’s stories. You can learn. You can teach. We mostly find people are using it right now for socializing, communicating, gameplay, and they’re becoming creators. Shopping is emerging in it. It’s more about brand awareness and affinity than about actual shopping.”

For Mattel, exploring ways to engage with kids on Web3 platforms via NFTs and metaverse experiences was a logical extension of its business. “The metaverse is yet another avenue in which our customers can experience our iconic IP,” says Mike DeLaet, the global head of digital gaming at the toy giant. “As with other platforms, we strive to create best-in-class, interactive entertainment experiences that will delight our fans. The metaverse opens up a significant domain for brands like ours, which have built-in communities with passionate fan bases.”

It is all about the fans, Kleeman says, or as he describes it, “fanatomy,” a strategy that might require IP owners to be a little less controlling over how their brand appears in the metaverse. “You serve up your IP the way you want it to be, and fans come back to you and say, Yeah, but wouldn’t it be cool if? If you respond to that, even if you don’t do what they suggest, if you just show that you’re listening, you deepen that fan’s experience, and you make them want to go and share it with their friends, and you make them think, This is a place for me because they listen to me. Fanatomy, in the case of the metaverse, is going to mean letting go of your brand a little bit. It’s the hardest thing for IP owners to do, but we’re seeing some compelling reasons for doing it. Young people chase their favorite brands across all the platforms that they use. If they love something, they will pursue it in toys, products, clothes and games, on television, or wherever they can find it. And they now expect it to be multiplatform. They want to be creators. They want to share their way of thinking about their favorite content, and they deeply want that authenticity—that idea that a brand is speaking to them.”

For IP owners, it’s a balancing act. “I think people are still trying to figure out how to tell stories in the metaverse because so much interactivity happens,” according to Anne Loi, executive VP for M&A and chief commercial officer at WildBrain.

Given its treasure trove of beloved IP, WildBrain has done several deals in this space, including bringing Teletubbies into the metaverses of the online Habbo and Hotel Hideaway games and rolling out the Bake with Strawberry Shortcake Roblox game, coinciding with the relaunch of the Strawberry Shortcake brand.

“It’s not that different from back when we were making mobile games or online web games,” Loi says. “There’s always that challenge of, when you hand control over to the player, how do you create the world where they can tell the story their own way? A lot of our content development people tend to look at that as one form of telling, not the only form of telling stories.”

Toonz Media Group set up an NFT design lab last year as part of its efforts to position itself as a leader in this space. “Be it the immersive storytelling experience providing deeper engagement for the viewers or gamification to ensure increased engagement time, adoption of the metaverse fits with our larger strategy to provide quality content to kids and families,” says Bruno Zarka, president of distribution and the feature films division at Toonz.

DeLaet at Mattel says that the focus is always on creating “an amazing experience for fans” via metaverse platforms. “Staying true to our brands is critical for us, and we maintain strict processes to ensure that the quality bar is met with everything we do,” he explains. “We perform extensive research on what our consumers want and how we can extend our mission in this area, which is to create innovative products and experiences that inspire and entertain through play.”

The immersive experiences being developed on Roblox “lend themselves well to our IP,” DeLaet adds.

Of course, being found on Roblox isn’t easy, given the sheer volume of games and experiences for users to access. “Discoverability will be an issue,” WildBrain’s Loi says. “It’s a very democratized platform. If your game is not good, people just simply won’t come. You don’t need anybody else to tell you that you have to do better. We love that, but it’s challenging as a company wanting to take risks on these things. Six to eight months ago, our thinking was that an individual stand-alone game is the way to do it. Now we’ve evolved. If you are looking for your brand itself to get noticed, we see a lot of success with in-game collaboration with another very well-known game. We will create experiences as part of that bigger game, but that’s very brand specific. We’re doing testing with kids who have played it—before and after. Do they have a higher awareness level of that brand? Our thinking has shifted back and forth on where you actually want to create a stand-alone experience. There has to be some pretty special reason to do that. [You can] collaborate with where the big eyeballs already are and try to take advantage of that.”

While established IP is already resonating on metaverse platforms, those with brand-new ideas can’t afford to ignore this space either, Kleeman notes. “As a television company, you need to be thinking about how kids are going to discover you: through a game or the TV? And this is a generation that considers authenticity and connection with their favorite brands to be really important. They need to sense that you’re listening to them. And an immersive space in the metaverse is a really good way to have that two-way exchange with your fans.”

Zarka notes that NFTs and other metaverse opportunities can be used as a source of funding for new content. “We can build brand experiences by creating communities.”

IP owners with limited budgets should not despair about the level of investment required, Kleeman notes. “You don’t need to build a really big, deep, always-on, long-term game to be present in the metaverse. We’re doing a lot of short-term activations. Or you can integrate with an existing game.”

And thinking about the metaverse can begin at any time in an IP’s lifecycle, Kleeman states. “If you are in the creative development phase, you can create playable concept testing that’s going to be much less expensive than producing a pilot. You can watch how your fans play with your characters, play with your settings, what they like, what they don’t like, and use that in your development. We had an experience with a brand-new television IP where we launched a very small Roblox experience—you could live in the setting of the program—and spent about £1,000 to promote it. We got tens of thousands of views in the first weekend at an acquisition cost of about $0.04 per user. Now compare that to the App Store, where it’s multiple dollars per user. Some fans made videos because no one had seen this IP before. Free promotion via the fans.”

Roblox and other gaming communities are presenting the greatest opportunities for content owners, but several companies are also playing in the NFT space. “NFTs with utility factor into all types of gaming experiences,” DeLaet says. “The metaverse is no different in that sense. Players want true ownership of their digital assets. We think about this space in the long term, determined to shape the future of play by continuously stretching and scaling our brands to find the bridges between traditional toys and what’s next: Web3 (NFTs), the metaverse, traditional gaming and beyond.”

“The thing about the metaverse is, if you don’t find what you want, create it,” Kleeman says. “Today’s young people are creators on these platforms. There are millions and millions of Roblox games, and substantially, they are made by the users themselves. And with the metaverse, because it’s not here yet, we hope to create it from the start as a safe, engaging, fun place for kids where they can do what they want.”