Even when fashion and video games seemed, in the popular imagination at least, polar opposite pursuits, players have always liked to dress up. Now, fashion in games isn’t just grand cosplay festivals or finding a neat mask for Link: it’s tapped into older industries, and no better demonstration of this fact is Roblox, where, for instance, a Gucci bag sold for $4,115, or 350,000 Robux, $800 more than the real thing.
In fact Roblox, now played by close to 50 million people each day and the most valuable video game company in the US, is one platform where character customization, and the self-expression it affords, is fundamental to the experience. Now Roblox has created a new system that improves this customization: “layered clothing.” It has the potential to further the company’s goals of being more than a game: a place—whisper it, a metaverse—for games.
Customization Is Key
If you’re unfamiliar, Roblox is not a game but a space where you make games: You don’t play Roblox exactly, but play games inside of Roblox. Its most popular traditional avatar looked essentially the same from 2006 to 2019 (it went from 6 movable parts to 15): squat and blocky, a mix of Lego and Minecraft. For these 14 years, these avatars’ clothes were 2D textures. All you had to do, explains Bjorn Book-Larsson, vice president of avatars at Roblox, was open Microsoft Paint and whip up a pink top or jean jacket, and it would fit the avatar as if you had painted it on to their skin.
“The problem is that when you started making more complicated characters, which the system actually allowed, there was no way to change the clothes of these more complicated characters,” says Book-Larsson. Basically, you’d have to rebuild the character. This was a crucial problem to solve, because Roblox emphasizes combination: You can rip an arm off and put a different arm on, like a doll. In 2020, Roblox developed technology that led to smoother and more realistically shaped characters, yet the problem of not knowing the body type your design would end up on remained the same.
This is where layered clothing comes in. In most games, the designers tailor outfits to fit a specific range of body types: a suit of samurai armor, say, for a tall or short avatar. Yet Roblox doesn’t know what kind of crazy character one of the 9 million indie developers on the Roblox platform might come up with. One T-shirt must fit on millions of different bodies, from a dinosaur to a zombie, and have to accommodate for the programming within that game, too: You might get shot and your body fall into pieces, for instance. Now people can design clothing for all avatars on the platform, not just a specific body type, without having to rebuild the character. Book-Larsson shows a human avatar wearing some “hip hop pants and puffer jacket.” As he goes to dress a dinosaur, the pants stretch to accommodate the reptile’s frame. “And if I put on a T-shirt and then put on the jacket, the two of them layer and affect each other,” he says. “There’s technically nothing stopping you from putting a jacket on a tree, or pants on a car.”
The tech required to pull off this trick is complex: It derives, quite literally, from rocket science, inspired by the way air changes a rocket’s shape as it soars. “One of our engineers was looking at the topology of how rockets get affected when they get shot up into space and how both the skin of the rocket deforms and how you control that rocket,” he says. “And then he started using some of the papers around that to figure out how you control multiple layers that are effectively connected to each other.”