Inside Roblox, the game platform that’s rivaling Minecraft

I’m camped at the end of a large hall, hoping my view over a tunnel leading to the capture point covers the enemy team’s entry through the large windows and skylights. Distant gunfire rattles from the other end of the map and I see grenades popping on the point. And yep, I’m right. Someone jumps down from above and I shoot, taking them by surprise – 100 XP – but not before a buddy spawns on them. I’m down, killed by an AUG HBAR with Coyote Sight, Muzzle Brake, Angled Grip and Green Laser.

Roblox [official site] has come on some lately. Phantom Forces is a full-featured modern FPS that runs on Roblox, offering multiple map types with 32 players, a daily login bonus and ranks. It tracks kill-death ratios, its guns feature bullet drop dynamics, sprints into slide moves, Battlefield-style spotting, and hundreds of weapons and attachments. And you can be playing it, for free, in seconds from launching via a link on its Roblox web page, and it’ll run smoothly on a basic PC. On the Thursday morning I try it out, nearly 4000 other players are online with me, and since it was launched in September 2015, it’s been played over 120 million times.

But that doesn’t make Phantom Forces Roblox’s biggest game right now. That would be Jailbreak, an open world team game with 13,000 players online that morning and reaching 30,000 in the evening. Police players attempt to control criminal players by sending them to jail, while the criminals attempt to break out and rob banks. I played police and found a place in the prison where the criminals could break a door control in order to escape. As they bashed at it I’d nip in and handcuff them, sending them off to respawn in their cells for $25 a head.

Until, that is, another crim pickpocketed my door pass and used it to scarper through the police spawn room. I jumped in a police car to gave chase but soon lost my quarry and found myself driving through the desert and into the city, where I found a bank heist going on. Criminals were hovering overhead in a helicopter; four police cars were left in the street, lights and sirens going. I readied my shotgun, despite knowing you don’t get rewarded for killing crims, and was promptly murdered by a gaggle of them as they exited the bank with $3000.

I’m not going to say these games are exemplars of the form. They all feel slightly off, as if their scale and ambition is being squeezed into a platform that’s just a little too basic. But they’re entirely playable. Take Counter Blox Roblox Offensive, a full-featured CS:GO clone. I couldn’t find a button to show my gun off, a notable omission, but it’s got the same tactics-driven immediacy, and all in a form that that’s playable at no cost in moments on a parent’s crappy laptop.

It’s no wonder Roblox is so overwhelmingly popular among kids and teens. And there’s so much variety. Big right now are tycoon games like Lumber Tycoon 2, a mix of idle game and crafting where you invest and reinvest funds to build and earn quicker. Murder Mystery 2, played 220 million times since January 2014, is still huge. A bit like The Ship, one player has to kill a target player with a knife while the others try to identify and take them down. I played a great game called In Plain Sight where one player watches public areas busy with NPCs through various CCTV cameras while the other players try to rob it without getting seen, a kind of SpyParty meets Five Nights at Freddy’s. There are sim games like Work at a Pizza Place, a kind of multiplayer Diner Dash where some players take orders and others make the food in the kitchen.

Attracting thousands of players at peak times, they’re leading Roblox’s continuing explosion in popularity. At 48 million active players a month and breaking a million concurrent players at peak times, it’s starting to rival Minecraft. It’s also a fair bit older than Minecraft, originally launching in beta form all the way back in 2005.

Roblox is the Lego game that Lego could never have made, a platform for playing games entirely created by its own community. It was originally styled to fit that vision with a visual language of prefab bricks with studs and blocky minifigs for avatars. But over the past few years it’s been shucking off that image; recently, makers got the ability to upload their own 3D meshes to their creations, and avatars are, bit by bit, getting more complex.

“Roblox is fairly powerful and I think a lot of people underestimate it,” says Matthew Fulton, creator of Tradelands, in which you craft, trade and battle pirates on the high seas. He first got into playing Roblox games in 2008, taking special interest in flight sims, but he was disappointed with the quality of the plane models, so he decided to make his own. Then he learned Lua, the programming language that Roblox uses. “Before I knew it I was making my own flight sims on Roblox. Roblox made learning Lua really easy since I could look at other peoples’ code and learn by example. A strong, loyal community for my game supported the development of multiple iterations of my flight sim which helped me stick with Roblox for the next few years.”

Another developer who started making games in Roblox is Nelson Sexton, who struck gold in 2013 with Deadzone, a DayZ clone. He attempted to make a sequel but found Roblox struggling to support his vision, so he decided to make it in Unity, releasing it as Unturned, which is one of the most-played games on Steam (I wrote about it a while back here). “Roblox is still very limited in comparison to making your own game in an engine like Unity or Unreal, but they make it a lot easier and provide all the infrastructure,” he says. “It seems to have advanced a lot towards being more fully featured like one of those game engines.”

By infrastructure, he principally means multiplayer server hosting, which is the beating heart of Roblox. It finds lobbies and matches players up quickly and seamlessly for any game, whether polished or scrappy. Mind you, the breadth and scale of what Roblox is achieving with its multiplayer means that it’s entirely common to face game-breaking lag in Phantom Forces and Counter Blox Roblox Offensive. Given that it’s simple and free for both developers and players, such practicalities don’t seem to really matter.

Well, I say ‘free’. Much of Roblox’s recent growth is down to a move made back in 2013 to allow players to convert its in-game currency, Robux (R$), into real money. Called Developer Exchange, or DevEx, it kickstarted a full economy in which makers wield all the weapons of mass monetisation in order to get Robux out of players. There’s a huge market of items to buy for your avatar, items to buy in specific games. Games sell game passes, giving access to VIP rooms and areas where better gear is available, and VIP servers.

In the games I’ve played, I haven’t come across anything particularly egregious or different to what you’d find on mobile or anywhere else, but it’s faintly depressing that a generation of pre-teens and new game designers are immersing themselves in a rampantly commercialised world in which purchase dialogs and reminders of what you don’t have are constant.

Here’s an example: Fashion Frenzy is a game in which players have three minutes to find an outfit, mixing clothes, hair, hats and facial expressions, before going onto the catwalk to have their sartorial choices and performance voted on by the rest of the players. It’s fun and cute, but the best clothes are in a VIP area, access to which costs a one-off 399R$. To buy 400R$ costs $4.95. But there’s more: custom music is another 399R$, extended selections of props, effects, pets and emotes cost between 49 and 199R$. It’s a social game: you don’t need the best items to win if you’ve got the sass, but on the other hand, its social nature could well apply an extra dose of pressure to purchase. And remember, Fashion Frenzy is just one game among tens of thousands you can instantly switch to, each with its own set of stuff to buy.

And this is just the tip of the iceberg: Roblox itself has Builders Club, subscription tiers that cost between $5.95 (‘Classic’) and $19.95 (‘Outrageous’) a month that remove ads and give access to bonus gear and social features. You will, though, get roughly that value back over the month in daily Robux payments, a genius feature that keeps player money moving around Roblox’s economy while also encouraging them to play every day.

On the other hand, DevEx is powering its game makers. “DevEx has definitely made a huge impact in the way that Roblox developers work,” says Fulton. “They are much more invested in the quality of their games to ensure that they attract the most players for the longest time in order to make the most money. A majority of developers would probably not even be on Roblox if it wasn’t for DevEx.”

Fulton is hoping to earn around $50,000 a year from Tradelands, and this is a game on which he hasn’t really been focused because he’s studying for an engineering degree. “I suspect that the developers that devote more time to their games easily make six figures,” he says, and he’s right. CEO and founder David Baszucki said recently that the leading developers are currently making $1 million in annual revenue.

Let’s talk DevEx exchange rates. In March, Roblox put them up from $.0025 per 1R$ to $.0035 per 1R$, meaning that while Roblox charges players $4.95 for 400$, developers get $1.40 for selling the same amount. When you also consider that developers pay Robux to promote their games on Roblox’s website and for preferential listings, you realise that Roblox itself must be making an extraordinary amount of revenue.

Crucially, Roblox knows its future lies in its relationship with its creators, and right now it’s a good one. “The current popular game devs on Roblox don’t show any sign of quitting any time soon,” says Fulton.

After all, Sexton’s breakaway to Unity and Steam is a rarity. “I know there are popular people who had been on the site for years when I joined that are still active today,” he says. “It’s their community, their job, their hobby and they all know each other so there’s no reason to leave. I’m not aware of anyone who’s had quite the same luck as me making indie games outside Roblox so far, and nowadays there’s no reason not to just make your game on there, but I know there are a lot of smart people on Roblox who could make something huge outside.”

23 Comments

  1. BradleyUffner says:

    Has anyone tried to recreate Space Station 13 in this?

    • brucethemoose says:

      Almost certainly.

      But good luck finding it. It’s probably buried under the thousands of other games.

    • Premium User Badge

      Harlander says:

      I must admit that as the article discussed the sort of things being created in this, my mind immediately went to SS13.

      There’s actually a game by that exact name in the list, though the project seems long-abandoned.

  2. dontnormally says:

    Seems pretty neat.

  3. Snowskeeper says:

    I’d like to point out that I was muted for using the word “damn” in a game where getting killed (by a huge, grotesque werewolf) causes blood to fly every which-way.

    Moderation in this platform is really weird.

    • Doctor K says:

      Well, as an American, that sounds pretty much par for the course. Violent PG-13 movies have more fatalities on average than violent rated R movies, after all.

      • Baines says:

        To be fair, the US movie ratings system has gone a bit wonky for various psychological reasons. PG-13 and R have somewhat blended together, in part became Hollywood films have become tamer over the last couple of decades. While the number of acts of violence might be high in modern films, in general the visual consequences of those acts are censored compared to the past.

        It has been argued that several old G-rated films would be rated PG or PG-13 by modern standards (due to themes), that there are old PG films that would risk being rated R by modern standards, and that there are modern R-rated films that might have made PG or early PG-13 in the past.

  4. poliovaccine says:

    Am… am I supposed to understand from this first paragraph that you, esteemed author, are one of those, aherm, *individuals* who is inclined… when playing multiplayer games… to camp… in the vicinity of a spawn point…?

    I… I no longer wish to know you.

    *locks door to heart*

  5. natebud says:

    Looks great

  6. April March says:

    That sounds pretty interesting. I bet there are many first-time devs who let their first idea die because netcode is very hard to code if you’re trying to figure it out as you go.

    But I found it hilarious that they use R$ for their currency. I’m Brazilian; that’s what we use for our actual, government-backed currency. (“But wait” you might ask “don’t you call it BR$, Brazilian Real?” And if you ask that I’ll have to answer, with a completely straight face, that no, we don’t call it “Brazilian” in here.)

  7. TheAngriestHobo says:

    So it’s Second Life without the sex?

  8. Howard says:

    My curiosity was piqued, but…no inverted camera? Seriously?

    • Reefpirate says:

      I know, right? I was struggling for about an hour with ‘normal’ mouse look. I need that inversion for FPS games.

      I’ve always wondered how many of us there actually are out there, and whether one day the option might just quietly disappear leaving me struggling to play these types of games. Nice to see someone else has the same issue!

      • bill says:

        I’m currently deeply conflicted on this.
        I’ve always used an inverted mouse, and my kid is just getting to be old enough that they can play mouselook type games.

        So should I teach them to play inverted – which would be much easier as that’s what I do, or non-inverted, which seems to be more common among the youngsters?
        Dilemmas…

  9. El Acordeonachi says:

    So Roblox is safe now and not going to give my computer viruses like it did the first time I let my kids use it somewhere in the neighborhood of 5-10 years ago? It’s been banned in my house since then.

    • Someoldguy says:

      I’ve been content to let my son (now 8) play on it for over a year and there have been no virus issues stemming from Roblox. Of course there are still the usual problems – he is now far more aware of the risks of giving away passwords after he did it once to “get free robux” and instead lost control of his account and had his robux wasted on an item he didn’t want. Fortunately they have enough security that regaining control of the account was easy and it now has two step identification switched on.

      I’m continually impressed by the variety and quality of the content he finds to play on the platform. It makes paying for the classic builders club good value for money compared to almost all kids PC games.

    • Premium User Badge

      Phasma Felis says:

      …I’m not saying video games don’t have virus problems occasionally, but I’m not sure why you’d imagine that a game could fail to fix a virus for ten years and somehow be successful for all that time. Besides which, it’s much more likely that the virus came from visiting dodgy websites, and your kids either didn’t realize it or didn’t want to tell you.

      • El Acordeonachi says:

        I’m not a complete iron fist of tyranny. I did let him put it on his Kindle. But if it’s got the endorsement of RPS, I guess I can give in. When it originally happened I was letting my oldest use my computer, which required a subsequent wipe and reinstall. Now my youngest wants to play it, but we’ve got a second computer which he primarily uses, so it’s less risky, at least to me.

        • ColonelFlanders says:

          “I was letting my oldest use the computer”

          I really don’t think Roblox was the source of that virus, bud.

  10. lorddon says:

    My youngest two kids love the platform. And I’ve tried, but man I can’t get over the aesthetics of it. For some reason I find Minecraft infinitely more appealing to look at and play than Roblox.
    It all just looks and feels cheap, like if Geocities lived on in game form.

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