Who is talking about the metaverse? A better question would be: who isn’t talking about it! Some of the biggest brands in the world, from Gucci to Nike, from Disney to Warner Bros, are jumping into this or that platform to test the waters for a future of branded content in virtual reality.
And now it’s Velvet’s turn to make the dive and explore this brave new world. What would I discover?
As a gamer, the obvious place to start my adventure was Roblox. The game creation platform has, in one way or another, hosted content from all the brands mentioned above, and it felt like the quickest way to access the metaverse through my laptop. Plus, Velvet gave me absolutely zero budget…
For the non-gamers, Roblox is a platform released by David Baszucki and Erik Cassel in 2006. The Roblox community platform is entirely web-based, and it can be accessed via mobile (Android and iOS) or with any web browser, free of charge.
A small plot twist here – despite being an avid gamer, this was my first experience of Roblox. But I had a rough idea of what to expect. So I signed up for an account under the guise of UnluckyMrWolf (MrWolf was taken) and started looking around.
I was met with a pretty crowded interface, trying to push me into one of the (presumably) tens of thousands of games available in Roblox. It was chaos. My first impression was that anyone trying to enter it from outside the world of gaming would be easily overwhelmed in the first few minutes.
Creating my Avatar
Well, well, well. What’s this? ‘Builderman,’ the CEO of Roblox, has slid into my DMs, welcoming me to the platform. There are links to configure my privacy and security settings, customise my avatar and read the rules of the Roblox community. All the boring stuff.
But it felt easier to follow those steps than dive head-first into the community, so I started creating my blocky avatar. I ended up with this handsome devil:
For some reason, at one point my 2D avatar snapshot broke and it never came back. So now I have a plain grey circle as my profile picture.
Customising the avatar itself is a rather painful process on desktop. Loading times are a bit too long for an editor that should let you try on different things at speed, but the experience is much more pleasant on mobile. The most interesting hats were all paid-for, and unfortunately, all the free types of male hair were spiky and a bit too unnatural, so I decided to remain bald and put on some very tacky shades instead.
Shame, as I really wanted that chicken hat.
It’s worth digressing here to explain the two different types of in-game currency in Roblox: regular and premium. Both are customisable through development, but their use remains consistent across all platforms. Regular in-game currency is awarded through activities and play-time, while premium currency corresponds to ‘Robux’, a paid-for type of currency that grants you access to more exclusive items.
In Roblox, you use Robux to buy pretty much anything, from avatar items to exclusive costumes and in-game inventory, and sometimes even packs of regular in-game currency. Anyone familiar with mobile games will find the concept of Robux quite close to ‘coins VS gems’ in some sim/management games; the former you can grind, the latter will boost your game experience – but can only (or mainly) be obtained with real money. Robux are the only way for creators and brands to monetise their Roblox platforms.
Anyway, back to our scheduled programming.
Finding the brand experiences
With my fancy avatar ready, I decided to browse the community for some branded experiences…
Immediately it was clear that… there were no branded experiences on the homepage. I could see plenty of recommended games and platforms, but unless you knew exactly what you were looking for, there was no way to find branded games without putting in some extra effort.
Top of the list of places I wanted to visit was NIKELAND and VANS World. But I had no idea where to find these fabled lands without looking them up.
The McLaren F1 Racing Experience
Soon though I stumbled across the McLaren Experience, listed as a special ‘event’ currently happening in Roblox. It was little more than a showroom with a platform for a McLaren F1 car, which was modelled and introduced in 3 different Roblox games.
The showroom itself offered a chance to take pictures, buy exclusive costumes and avatar items, socialise with other players, but very little else. You could, however, jump into 3 featured games straight away to drive the F1 car – though it would require an extra loading screen, and no easy way to return to the showroom afterwards. Hardly the smoothest of experiences.
I tried all of the featured games for a bit pretending to be Lando Norris and made lots of F1-car-noises fun – but with no way to return to the showroom straight away, I don’t envision players going back just to spend real coin on the featured showroom items.
I’d heard great things about NIKELAND, and I was not disappointed. Instantly it felt like a gigantic leisure park full of activities, some of which were created by users themselves. There was a basketball field, a showroom with exclusive Nike gear to use in the park, and even a ‘floor is lava’ mini-game.
Completing mini-games would grant Nike coins, useful to purchase gear and shoes around NIKELAND. It felt like an honestly thought-through experience, clearly great for social activities, varied and incredibly fun to navigate. It’s a shame there was no external link to social accounts readily available, nor a way to connect with the brand outside of Roblox.
Also, I’m pretty sure those shoes are too big for my avatar’s feet.
When your alarm goes off on Monday mornings
Next up was VANS World. VANS has put a lot of effort into this platform, and it really shows. VANS World is a huge skatepark overflowing with things to do, where players can perform tricks, customise their board, and even buy their own pair of personalised VANS – to use exclusively in VANS World, of course. You can’t be walking over to NIKELAND in your new treads…
Events are automated and they happen all the time, pairing you with actual players to compete for points or in skatepark races. Plus, the game gives you experience points for every core gameplay action you make, from grinding rails to performing mid-air tricks, and gives you goals to keep you engaged over time. It was more than a simple collection of mini-games; it was a full-on game by itself, layered in many ways, integrated within the Roblox experience.
Finally, I decided to head into Magic Kingdom, a highly rated and popular experience modelled after the Disney theme parks. An AI-powered park guide showed me around as soon as I joined, and I was surprised to find a number of different areas and attractions similar in every way to the original Disney ones – including in sounds and music vibe.
I put on a Minnie hat (a hat at last!) and wandered around the park, speaking to non-playable characters here and there, entering attractions and visiting Boardwalk to see what the restaurants had to offer. I did a full ride in the Hollywood Tower and, save for the screams, it felt gut-churningly close to the real one.
What I found most interesting, however, is that this park experience is not an official Disney branded game. A random developer decided to recreate Magic Kingdom and gained incredible support from the Roblox community, which clearly loves visiting a theme park in Roblox when it can’t do so in real life.
Roblox is an interesting platform, incredibly flexible, full of opportunities for brands to monetise their branded content and build loyalty. But my branded experience was mixed. Some were incredibly good, others with great potential – but what stood out was with each the lack of a possibility to connect with the brand outside of Roblox.
Some creators cleverly put links to their social channels in their games’ interfaces, which is an easy win. But the fondest memories I have left from this journey are those instances in which I simply had a lot of fun, or when I felt emotionally connected to the experience.
I wrapped up my journey into the Roblox metaverse by sitting at a Mary Poppins musical in Magic Kingdom. It was an actual musical, with Roblox actors driven by AI, songs, and a changing background on stage. My jaw dropped when I realised how much care was put into creating that experience, and again, it wasn’t even a branded one. There is a lot to learn there for every brand.
I know that there will be fireworks at the “Disney” castle at 6pm. Maybe I’ll pop by. I may just see my very first metaverse Mickey.