If you really want your platform to become the seed for “The Metaverse”, then you need to give it away.—Lars Doucet
Lars Doucet is an independent game developer and consultant for various multi-million dollar game projects (through his company, Level Up Labs), as well as a games industry analyst, commentator, and blogger at Fortress of Doors.
On July 1st, 2021, Lars wrote a Fortress of Doors blogpost titled So You Want to Compete with Roblox, which is primarily directed at those companies who desire to become the next billion-dollar-valued metaverse platform (Roblox, as many of you already know, obtained a market valuation of UA$41.9 billion when the company went public this past March). However, much of Lars’ wisdom also applies to any social VR platform or virtual world that wants to break into the big leagues, especially if they are competing against an entrenched front-runner in a particular market segment, so I decided to write up this blogpost as an introduction to Lars’ ideas for my regular readers (if you’re not interested in my thoughts, just click over to read Lars Doucet’s blogpost in full; I have links to other content of his at the tail end of this post).
Lars starts off by dashing any dreams of would-be Roblox competitors, saying that they are too late to try and overtake something which has been building for years:
I used to get so many pitches from startups eager to knock PC gaming powerhouse Steam off its block, that in 2018 I wrote one big standard response called So You Want to Compete with Steam, with a follow-up a year later. The dust has now settled and the result is clear: all of the new contenders failed but Epic, and even they have a long upward climb ahead of them.
Flash forward to today, and my inbox is stuffed with pitches from start-ups wanting to compete with Roblox, that plucky Lego-ish multiplayer game-creation platform currently valued at 41 billion dollars.
So I guess we’re gonna do this again. Here’s how you can build a successful business that competes directly with Roblox: DON’T.
I say this out of love: the vast majority of you are going to fail. I admire you and your hard work and dedication; I’m pessimistic simply because your task is incredibly hard.
First of all, you are late to this party. Roblox first launched in 2006, a full fifteen years ago – that’s five years before Minecraft, if you can believe it. They have a massive head start and are playing by an entirely different set of rules. Your only chance is to flip the entire problem on its head.
Lars outlines three components which absolutely must be in any product that tries to make a dent in the ever-evolving metaverse, they are:
- High quality multiplayer support for user creations out of the box
- High performance servers with excellent reliability
- Powerful, user friendly, and joyful creation tools
Note a couple of the words he uses very carefully. “Multiplayer” support for user creations out of the box means the ability to support collaborative creation of user content (an example of this are the user creation toolset in NeosVR, although I would argue that they are not particularly “user friendly”, as they are powerful, but also have a rather steep learning curve). Many social VR platforms still lack collaborative building tools, or any sort of in-world building tools, forcing content creators and world builders to use external tools like Blender and then import 3D models.
Note also Lars’ reference to “joyful” creation tools—in other words, make it FUN to create something. From what I understand, one of Horizon Worlds’ strengths is its content creation tools, which are apparently easy and fun to use. Do this part especially well, and you will empower your userbase to create wonderful worlds, which attracts new users, who then also become content creators—it becomes a virtuous circle.
Then, Lars tackles each of the selling points of products who say they are going to be the next Roblox, “but with…”, harshly but accurately poking holes in the arguments. I’m not going to quote this section in my blopost; it’s better if you go over there and read it in full yourself.
He then talks about how Roblox spends a lot of money on hosting and network infrastructure, and how cloud provider costs (e.g. AWS) can eat up a significant chunk of cash as your platform grows. He then discusses what he sees as the three big problems you’ll face as a metaverse platform creator:
First Problem: Chicken-or-the-Egg Deadlocks
One of the key themes of So You Want to Compete With Steam was a nasty paradox best articulated in Joel Spolsky’s Strategy Letter II: Chicken and Egg problems, which also applies to would-be Roblox competitors:
• You need players
• Players won’t show up without content, so you need creators
• Creators won’t show up until you have players
Joel points out that you can’t expect this deadlock to solve itself – instead you need to just go out there and deliver a truckload of chickens or a truckload of eggs. Typically this means spending a lot of money. Anyone able to rely on organic growth alone started ages ago and that door is now closed to you.
Note particularly that last sentence, which I am going to repeat in bold for those of you who still don’t get it: ANYBODY ABLE TO RELY ON ORGANIC GROWTH ALONE STARTED AGES AGO AND THAT DOOR IS NOW CLOSED TO YOU. I have repeated versions of this statement on my blog until I was blue in the face, and few of the newer social VR platforms have been paying any attention.
Linden Lab’s fatal mistake with Sansar (one of many) is that they 100% expected that they would be able to build a high-end social VR platform with a in-world currency and an integrated marketplace for user-generated content, just put it out there, and expect it to sell itself! What worked for Second Life in 2003 most assuredly did NOT work for Sansar in 2017. A last-minute, hail-Mary pass. pivoting from social VR to a live events platform, essentially failed, and Linden Lab landed up selling Sansar to Wookey. At present, Wookey has suspended all development and furloughed all its staff. Millions and millions of dollars† were sunk into a platform which is currently on life-support, hanging on by a thread, and could be unplugged at any moment. Say a prayer for Sansar; it could use one.
Lars Doucet advises:
Seed your platform with awesome material by paying your own employees to build beautiful creations. Hire contractors and independent content creators and then pay your staff to train them in your tools. Pay these people to make tutorials and guides and videos and post them all over the internet and don’t stop. Set up an affiliate system with creator and influencer rewards. And that’s just the obvious stuff – you need to be thinking about new and innovative solutions to this problem 24/7. Pay any and every price to get high quality content onto your platform.
Second Problem: Platform Dynamics
Here Lars differentiates between different kinds of platforms, from open to closed:
On one end you have open platforms like the World Wide Web where each of the five aspects is owned by no one but the commons.
Towards the middle you have different kinds of closed platforms like Windows and Steam where certain components of the stack are proprietary, but others are unowned; the owner either refrains from (or is simply unable) to capture most of the value that creators produce on the platform.
On the far end are digital company towns, proprietary platform stacks privately owned from top to bottom. In the physical world company towns are communities where a single corporation is not only the sole or principal employer, but also owns all the housing and stores – the company is your boss, your landlord, and even your grocer. Total ownership grants the company power over not only every aspect of their workers’ lives, but also their families and the entire local economy. Digital company towns likewise squeeze as much value out of creators as possible.
And he makes the point that Roblox is a company town, controlling the creation tools (Roblox Studio), the playback engine (the Roblox app), the discovery methods (the Roblox discovery portal), and the marketplace (items can only be bought and sold using Robux through the Roblox Marketplace, with all financial information managed by Roblox). While it might look tempting to set up wannabe Roblox competitors using the same model, Lars makes it very clear in his article that this is a tactical error:
Look, I know some of you as customers actually like company towns from giant companies like Apple precisely because they’re locked down and you trust the platform holder. Good for you, sincerely! You are more than welcome to continue liking them as a customer. But this article isn’t addressed to you; it’s addressed to startups who think they can deploy this kind of vertically integrated stack without already starting from a position of strength.
Simply put, if you’re trying to build a Roblox competitor in 2021 under the company town model, you’re delusional. You should not build a company town for two very good reasons:
1. Company towns are bad, and you shouldn’t do bad things*
2. It’s way, way, way too late to succeed with this strategy
So, if you can’t rigidly control everything in order to compete against the entrenched front-runner(s), what can you do? Lars suggests giving something away:
Give people a reason to build on your platform. Make them owners, not tenants.
What should you give away? Well, that depends on your specific situation, but I recommend “as much as you possibly can.” Recall the five components of a platform:
• Creation tools
• Playback engine
• Discovery methods
• Marketplace / transaction engine
• Relationship with the customer
Again, I’m going to refer you to Lars’ blogpost for more details.
Third Problem: Ownership and Trust
Platforms tend to follow a certain kind of life cycle, and there’s no better primer than Dan Cook’s Game of Platform Power. In it he outlines how platforms transition through “Growth” and “Engage” phases where they are friendly and generous to the creators who produce value on their ecosystems, before maturing into the “Extract” phase where they leverage their size and power to lock-in users and capture as much creator-produced value for themselves as possible.
A classic example of this is Second Life, which is now merrily coasting along, collecting fees for the sale of in-world land and currency, still going strong at the ripe old age of 18 with a locked-in, relatively small but highly passionate userbase who resist leaving their friends and communities behind to join other virtual worlds. For example, it’s hardly a surprise that Linden Lab, now owned by the deep-pocketed Waterfield Network investment group, has recently raised its fees for buying Linden dollars. Second Life is a cash cow, and they are rightfully milking it!
And Lars makes what I think is a somewhat counterintuitive, very nervy, and potentially game-changing suggestion on how to build that trust with content creators: make it easy for them to pack up and leave!
No matter how generous your platform is today, content creators aren’t dumb, they know how this works, and they’re being exploited right now by company towns like Roblox. Words are cheap. What they want is assurance. Trustless assurance. And no, I’m not talking about blockchain.
You really want to shake things up? Give content creators a loaded gun pointed at your platform’s head.
Another word for this is “exit rights.” If you want creators to come over in the first place, give them the power to leave anytime they want.
Mind. BLOWN. I can see how Lars Doucet is a highly-paid and in-demand consultant, just for these few paragraphs of advice alone! However, I would also add that we need to see some metaverse interoperability and standards before we can really put this into action. However, Lars makes a rather compelling case for doing at first what sounds like corporate suicide, using companies such as Substack as an example of how and why such an approach works.
Lars wraps up by dispelling some common myths about what is the “metaverse” (for example, that the metaverse cannot and should not be owned by any one person or company). And he wraps up by saying that anybody who wants to become the next Roblox is embarking on a wild, crazy, risky venture—but that “simply the riskiest thing to do is to play it safe.”
As I said in my blogpost title, this is some harsh advice that many commercial social VR platforms probably don’t want to hear, but should definitely read through at least once.
*As an aside, Lars wraps up his Fortress of Doors blogpost with the following highly-accurate-but-snarky observation:
That’s not to say someone fundamentally can’t craft a “Dark Metaverse” under the company town model. It’s just that their name is Facebook, it will be a dystopian hellhole, and you don’t have a chance of competing on those terms.
🙌 PREACH, LARS! 🙌
†More specifically, 75 million dollars (US) over four years, according to this Sansar Wookey Investor Fact Sheet, which is attached to the publicly-accessible LinkedIn profile of Wookey CEO Mark Gustavson:
This is the first time I have shared this figure on my blog. Mark and his V.P. are currently the only two Wookey employees left on the payroll; as I have said above, all the rest of the Wookey staff have been furloughed.