The Roblox community is fiercely divided over whether "blocky" or "Rthro" avatars are the best. To find out what stance the platform's owners take on this issue, Newsweek spoke with Bjorn Book-Larsson, Vice President of Product for the Roblox Corporation, in an exclusive interview.
If you're unfamiliar with Roblox, then there's a good chance that opening paragraph was utterly impenetrable to you. After all, it often feels like users of this gaming system are conversing in their own secret language, complete with indecipherable initialisms (SMH), alienating abbreviations (Obby) and perplexing portmanteaus (Robux).
For the sake of clarity then, "Rthro" is a particular body type that players can select for their customizable avatars in Roblox. It's mainly defined in opposition to the older "Blocky" models, whereby characters are made up of a handful of simplistic cubes (much like in Minecraft or Lego).
By comparison, Rthro avatars look more like realistic humans, with authentic body proportions, extra facial features, and detailed textures. Given that they are, by every convenable metric, more graphically sophisticated and believable, you'd be forgiven for presuming that Rthros are accepted as the definitive character models in Roblox.
Yet, oddly enough, that is not the case. If you type in the phrase "Blocky vs Rthro" into a search engine, you will find dozens of Reddit threads, message forums and YouTube videos with people arguing over which avatar type is truly the best.
Reflecting on this split, Book-Larsson said: "I think Roblox has a certain house style [resembling] Minecraft, which was kind of created by accident. It wasn't an intentional look, but people have since become attached to it.
"When Rthro was added in 2018, there was a lot of opinion about how the original Blocky art-style was cooler and more Minecraft-y. I think there was a misunderstanding that we were trying to replace that, but we weren't."
Creating a 'Digital You'
The initial reception to Rthro (a shortened form of anthropomorphic) was indeed quite hostile, with pockets of the fanbase declaring that it was the beginning of the end for Roblox.
To this day, it's still a thorny issue, as some users posit that the Roblox Corporation is trying to force the avatar style onto those who don't want it and that it is being pushed more heavily in marketing materials.
Speaking about this bizarre controversy, Book-Larsson laughed: "It's ironic because we don't care what you choose. If you look at the dev forums, you will see many opinions about Rthro and how we are compelling people to use it, but it's just an option that we provide. Nobody is making you give up your old blocky avatar.
"You know, my job at Roblox is to look at player identity. That means I have to figure out how to take this massive 200-million-users-a-month community and give them the tools they need to express themselves visually. We don't really build [fixed] avatars for you. Instead, we build the systems that let you then design your own look."
It's true that you do have a lot of cosmetic options to play around with in Roblox. There are multiple outfits you can try on, hairstyles to experiment with, and you can even apply paint onto different body parts.
Book-Larson continued: "We call it a 'digital you' but that description doesn't really fit. What happens when people talk about the metaverse is that they tend to think of it in terms of taking a selfie, right? They want a virtual copy of themselves, but I think that's quite vanilla.
"Our take is that people should be whoever or whatever they want to be in Roblox. Maybe you want to be a lion with glasses for example! I'm already me in the real world, so I'm not necessarily sure I want a perfect clone of myself when I hang out with friends online. Our philosophy is that we want to give you total artistic freedom and expressiveness.
"For instance, I have an eight-year-old and a 12-year-old. And their favorite thing to do is to put a tail and a hat on one of those classic blocky avatars. I don't know why they want [that] but it's important that they feel empowered to do it."
The Evolution of 'Roblox' Avatars
Part of the reason that fans are so passionate about this topic is that the blocky avatars have been around for years. Meanwhile, Rthros are relative newcomers and don't have the same nostalgic appeal for those who grew up on original recipe Roblox.
To give us a better idea of the history here, Book-Larson talked through the origins of those beloved blockies. "In Roblox classic, you would have these avatars that were made up of 6 cubes and the only way to personalize them was by painting details over the individual pieces. They were 2D textures back then because Roblox was just intended to be a physics teaching tool, not the massive gaming platform it is now.
"This 'R6 body', as we call it, was just a lump of blocks. Then one day somebody had the idea to connect the pieces with a motor, which in turn let you build a proper functioning character. That's how that classic blocky avatar style was born.
"What we have then done over the years since then is incrementally progress. For instance, the R15 characters (which are the ones most popularly used in Roblox today) were an evolution of the R6 bodies, as they were made of more cubes with upper and lower torsos, as well as upper and lower legs. They just looked a little more real.
"The next step after that was to introduce the Rthro in 2018 which, technology-wise, was just a scaling change to the old R15 characters. All we really did was resize the blocks to human proportions [This] was intended to empower developers who wanted a different style."
Old vs New
For many, the problem is not with the Rthro avatars themselves, but rather with how prominently they are featured in all the promotional stills and trailers.
For instance, when the official Roblox YouTube channel uploaded a video in 2021, entitled "Celebrating 15 years of Roblox", old-school fans were quick to point out that the 51-second clip was almost entirely dominated by Rthros (even though it was supposedly recapping the entire history of the platform).
The comments are especially critical, with viewers lamenting that there isn't any footage from "the old days", that no "appreciation" has been shown for long time users and that the video is just a celebration of" the past two years of Rthro".
If you install the relevant browser extension, you will see that the like-to-dislike ratio is also quite negatively skewed. There are many separate uploads on YouTube as well, lambasting the anniversary video for under-representing classic blocky avatars in favor of the Rthros.
"It's interesting how people read so much intent into these things", remarks Book-Larson. "We have this catch-22 where we can't showcase any new updates without using avatars, but the moment we pick samples we'll be accused of having a bias."
Book-Larson elaborated upon this, presenting Newsweek with a recent example. It turns out that, when the team [was] putting together the news post for the launch of Roblox's layered-clothing beta, there was a lot internal discussion about which avatars should be used to demonstrate the feature.
"We agonized over this so much. We needed to make sure that a classic blocky character was front and center in the image because if we put them on the edge of the frame, or in the background, then people would have read into that. It would have caused an uproar.
"Again, our goal is not to push you towards any particular avatar type. The community is a little confused about this [because] they assume that we have a preference in how you look. Our goal is to [provide] this technology where you pick whatever face or body type you want. We don't have an opinion on the subject. We just want to empower you to make your own decision."
How 'Roblox' Moderates Avatars
While the company is insistent that this freedom to choose is a vital part of the experience, there are obviously some limitations. Specifically, there is a dedicated legion of moderators whose job is to make sure that nothing inappropriate or offensive makes its way into Roblox.
Speaking about this, Book-Larson said: "In most traditional games, like Fortnite or PUBG, you unlock professionally designed skins. Granted, you can customize them to some extent, but they're still fairly rigid.
"Whereas Roblox gives you almost infinite options to mix and match different parts. It's a total pain in the ass [because] we don't know really what the users will do. So, we have to ensure that our moderation system is up to the task."
It makes sense that the company would be vigilant for inappropriate content, given that children are a huge part of its demographics and there have been reports of certain unsavoury things falling through the cracks before. What may surprise you, however, is just how much resource is committed to this effort.
Book-Larson explained: "It's a hidden part of what we do that people don't think about. We have more contractors doing moderation for the company than we do actual employees. Roblox has about 1,500 members of staff and then 2,500 contractors who are doing nothing but moderation. Which is pretty bonkers!"
Of course, these experts are aided by a suite of automated tools. Yet it's still the case that an entire workforce is dedicated to just moderating user content.
Book-Larson continued: "It's not just the avatars either. People make experiences, patterns, objects and levels. If you think of it like digital Lego then that gives you an idea of what we're up against. I mean, it's really difficult to stop people doing dumb stuff with Lego!"
"As much time as we spend giving people new features and creation tools, we spend almost as much time figuring out how to moderate it all. Making sure it's all safe is just as much of a challenge."
Correction, 01/29/22: this article has been amended to correct the spelling of Rthro in the headline.