Despite Leeds-headquartered games studio and developer Dubit creating experiences and games for global brands across the “metaverse”, it’s a word the company’s CEO now tries to avoid.
The metaverse was touted as the next big thing by social media tycoon Mark Zuckerberg, who plunged billions into the emerging technology as he envisioned a utopia of virtual and augmented worlds filled with people gaming, socialising or working.
Meta, formerly known as Facebook, has reportedly started to shift away from pitching the metaverse to advertisers in the midst of staff layoffs, cost-cutting and billion dollar losses.
“We have tried to avoid using the metaverse word because it’s become very blurred,” Matthew Warneford, CEO and co-founder of Dubit, told Prolific North.
Building games and experiences for brands, artists or musicians, Dubit has worked with Nickelodeon, UEFA and H&M and has even created concerts for the likes of Charli XCX and Pink Pantheress in the metaverse.
Charli XCX’s performance in the metaverse was nominated for MTV’s Video Music Awards (VMAs) first-ever metaverse category last year. Created in Roblox by Dubit for Samsung, the team used motion capture to film the artist performing, turn it into 3D and publish it on the platform.
“What Facebook and now Meta has done is try to conflate virtual reality (VR) with the metaverse,” Warneford explained. “When we talk about metaverse, or at least with gaming and UGC (User Generated Content) gaming, the vast majority of people are experiencing these spaces on mobile phones, tablets, computers. There are very few in virtual reality. Virtual reality is just a way of accessing the content, but it’s not what makes the metaverse a thing.”
Dubit was valued at $55m in 2021 after raising $8m to launch what was the ‘world’s first’ live esports league in the metaverse called the Metaverse Gaming League, which started in Roblox and is now streamed weekly connecting brands and partner games.
“The best way to think about it is it’s 3D spaces that you explore as an avatar, which is very similar to what we did 20 years ago. The key difference, in my opinion, is that anybody can create these spaces and these spaces need to link together seamlessly.”
But back in 1999, there was no metaverse. A budding virtual world was on the horizon, created by Warneford and his group of teenage friends who would later go on to become “accidental entrepreneurs.”
From teenagers to working with global brands
The young Dubit team set out to build the first browser-based virtual world during the dotcom boom, with an ambition to create a dedicated space for young people to interact with each other online.
“We had a very simple vision at the time. There were very few authentic places for teenagers to hang out online. It felt like it was all being done by marketers that were trying to be cool, but it wasn’t cool. We thought: ‘Let’s create our own space.’”
Then 19 years old, Warneford and his team suddenly found themselves hurtling towards success, appearing on shows like The Big Breakfast. Having the youngest directors of a limited company at the time also saw Dubit listed in the Guinness World Book of Records.
“It was hugely exciting. We had half a million people sign up in the first couple of months.”
Then the dotcom crash happened, sparked by the rise and fall of technology stocks. “Because we were relatively naive young people, we didn’t quite know what we were doing. We were a bit blindsided by this.”
Pondering how they could keep their idea going, the teens were “in a way very lucky” when Sky Sports approached them. Seeing the community Dubit had built with avatars, chat rooms and games, Sky Sports wanted one too. “We’d never thought of doing this for other people,” he said.
Motorola approached the Dubit team next, and it wasn’t long before they started working with numerous big brands.
“From almost accidental beginnings of building our own game and our own world, the first of its kind, we ended up being approached by brands that wanted to create either similar things that they owned or take a space inside of our world.
“We had a Red Bull skatepark, we did work with Adidas and a few other different brands that wanted a space inside it. From there, we’ve then continued to grow and hopefully become a bit smarter than we were when we started.”
Back in the 2000s, there were no online safety guidelines. It was the dawn of a new era, ushered in by dial-up internet offering a new, exciting but dangerous virtual world for young users online.
One of the company’s former founders Adam Hildreth went on to found cybersecurity firm Crisp, which was acquired last year, to tackle online safety and cybersecurity on a larger scale.
“Child safety has always been a priority for us ever since we launched our first virtual world back in the early 2000s. We had a team of moderators who would monitor the chat for our world and those we built for others such as Sky Sports and Motorola, and Dubit was one of the founding members of the Home Office Internet Taskforce on Child Protection,” he explained.
“Our tech team also created chat filters to prevent kids using words (or a combination of words) that could be profanity or bullying, or from giving out personal information. A lot of this has entered law through the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) and GDPR legislation which requires all sites with a young audience, and platforms such as Roblox, to comply.”
Working closely with global brands from Disney to Mattel, over the past two years Dubit has launched numerous brands into Roblox by partnering with experiences on the platform. Through specially created portals, players are directed into a client’s branded game or experience on the platform.
From crafting a music event for a K-pop group like NCT 127 on Roblox, an immersive experience for NASCAR or developing 3D spaces within creator games using Roblox’s development tools for Royal Bank of Canada, the possibilities seem endless.
Charli XCX’s performance on Roblox
Just before Easter, Dubit launched an experience for Unilever’s hair care brand Sunsilk on Roblox that has already been played 4.5 million times. Through a ‘special ‘doorway’ within a game on the platform, players can teleport into the Unilever experience. “It’s this very easy, seamless ability to move from completely unrelated games or experiences into another one.”
“We have 100 plus games that we work with regularly, those games are played 100 plus million times every month – it’s this huge reach. By bringing the brands or the music performance of the artists to those games, creators earn money and the artists and brands get to reach a whole new audience.”
As parents and safety experts continue to raise concerns about young people using platforms like Roblox with potential online predators, he said Roblox takes its responsibility “very seriously”.
The platform implements “all parental consent, data security and chat safety checks on behalf of those building on the platform, so child protection standards are effectively built in across all the experiences that kids can access,” he explained.
“Obviously there are always bad actors out there, and kids and parents must always be careful online, but I think legislation and guidelines have done a good job of minimising the threat to child safety.”
NASCAR on Roblox
Leeds, the “big shift in gaming” and future for Dubit
With roots still firmly in Leeds, more than 20 years later Dubit has become a global business with a team of 140 staff with further offices across the US and Australia.
Born in Leeds and as a proud Leeds United fan, he’s not afraid to say that Manchester is ahead of Leeds in terms of its “entrepreneurial spirit” but the region is doing a “great job of developing that”, now home to start-ups and established companies including Rockstar Leeds, Just Add Water, Channel 4 and Sky.
But what does the future look like for Dubit? “We didn’t know how to work with brands – jump to where the world is today, there’s a big shift in gaming that’s happening. Not everyone in the industry is even aware of it yet,” he said. “We firmly believe UGC (user generated content) gaming is going to be very disruptive and will grow very significantly.”
Fortnite’s creator Epic Games recently unveiled its new Unreal Editor, backed by 1bn investment from Sony, to support creators on that platform and accelerate its ambitions in the metaverse.
“It’s another massive bet on the future of UGC gaming. We’re building some experiences for Fortnite now,” he said. “We think there is a tremendous opportunity for both the creators building on those platforms, as well as the brands that want to reach the audiences on those platforms.”
Dubit’s ultimate mission is to help one million creators to earn a living just by building experiences on UGC gaming platforms via the likes of Roblox or Fortnite. As the gaming world accelerates, with around “four billion gamers before the end of the decade”, it might be seen as helping future competitors but the ultimate goal is to accelerate UGC gaming.
“We’d rather take a small cut of that, than trying to be the biggest player in a small pie,” he explained. “We’re also building out tools to help those creators as well because there’s a whole bunch of stuff that they need to do that goes beyond just building the game.”
Similar to the origins of Dubit, droves of young creators are now building worlds and experiences on these platforms – earning around $20,000 each month.
“The young creators that we work with today on those platforms are an awful lot like we were 20 years ago. They’re suddenly realising they can create games and this is hugely exciting.”
With the number of gamers globally estimated to be around 3bn according to Statista, he believes it’s a huge opportunity for both creators and brands.
”Brands want to go where young people are, but young people predominantly are not in VR,” he explained. “That’s the problem that Facebook has. Most of us today still don’t want to spend that much time in virtual reality. We do want to spend time playing games, hanging out with friends and that’s what platforms like Fortnite and Roblox allow you to do.”