This story was originally published in Digiday, our sibling publication.
Roblox has overhauled its Materials function, allowing creators to upload their own realistic block textures and exert greater control over the in-game physics of their virtual worlds. It’s the latest effort to improve the verisimilitude of Roblox’s proto-metaverse, and brands and Roblox developers have already started to lean in.
Roblox has been beta testing its new Materials tools for several months, but officially launched the update in late July. Users now have the ability to build with materials and textures that more accurately represent the physical world, including realistic brick, glass and metal. For the first time, Roblox creators can also upload entirely custom textures for their experiences.
Brands such as the cosmetics and skincare company NARS have already started taking advantage of this increased visual detail via activations such as its NARS Color Quest experience. “NARS is a brand with a distinct and iconic creative identity,” said NARS vp of global digital innovation and strategy Dina Fierro in a written statement. “To authentically translate its style to Roblox, we developed a visually sophisticated beauty adventure experience deeply rooted in the history and creative cues of the brand.”
To ensure that the activation accurately represented the brand’s visual aesthetic, NARS worked closely with the Roblox developer studio Supersocial to build the experience, providing reference images and color palettes that Supersocial creators translated into makeup-inspired textures.
“A big part of the concept of NARS Color Quest was really mimicking the gradients, the material, the surfaces of the makeup products themselves, and really turning them into those world surfaces that you see in the experiences,” said Supersocial CEO Yonatan Raz-Fridman. “Material variants, the tech — that’s what really enabled us.”
Developers have long been able to use various hacks and workarounds to create more realistic textures and in-game physics inside Roblox, but the release of the overhauled Materials tool opens up this type of detailed building to the everyday creators that form the bulk of the Roblox community. It’s an example of Roblox taking note of the work done by independent developers and applying updates to make that work easier and more accessible.
“For us, this opens up mostly visual and aesthetics,” said Alex Balfanz, one of the creators of the popular Roblox experience Jailbreak. “But for a lot of players, I think it’s going to open up a lot of freedom of features and interactions between physics.”
Ultimately, updates to make Roblox feel more realistic are necessary if the platform wants to maintain its leading position in the metaverse.
At the moment, Roblox boasts the largest and most active brand–creator ecosystem among early metaverse platforms — but Epic Games’ Fortnite Creative has been gaining ground over the past year. Epic’s biggest advantage is its ownership of Unreal Engine, the increasingly hyper-realistic game engine that some observers have described as a building block for the metaverse, and as brands have become more familiar with Unreal, they’ve started to clamor for the same types of visuals inside their Roblox experiences.
“A lot of people come with this preconception of game engines. They know what games are, but they don’t know what Roblox is,” said Patrick Mead, CTO at the metaverse development studio Dubit. “That’s why the Materials changes, whilst not necessarily a critical epoch for us, is definitely a welcome thing, because it allows us to start creating things in higher fidelity, to what clients want.”
Roblox cannot afford to stop here. As the metaverse takes shape, the company is constantly looking for more ways to make its virtual world feel more realistic. Roblox product director Josh Anon’s blog post announcing the Materials updates ended with a paragraph of speculation about what these updates could look like — wooden objects should catch fire when exposed to flame, and rainfall should pool on the ground and seep into porous materials. Roblox developers desire all these functions and more.
“Of course, Roblox would always have the ability to turn these features on and off,” Balfanz said. “But for small creators to be able to get those for free and take advantage of it — that’s great.”