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Portraits of Roblox's leading makers: the roleplayers

The building blox of life

Image credit: Roblox

One of the most popular genres on Roblox is the roleplay game. By roleplay, I don’t mean RPG. Many of these games won’t even seem like real games, since they often don’t have rules or mechanics.

Roblox’s roleplay games are places for playing make-believe. They’re themed free-roam worlds filled with minigames and interactive bits and pieces, plus wardrobes of clothes and other cosmetics that let you look the way you want. Most give players certain roles to perform. Some are focused on certain activities which bring in more traditional game mechanics, such as running a pizza restaurant or breaking out of jail. Others are almost completely freeform, acting as glorified chatrooms, imaginative alternative worlds, or places to show off and be seen.

”I grew up with roleplay, not just on Roblox but also playing with my friends when I was little, so transitioning to doing that online felt natural. It’s a way more natural play style than running around and shooting,” a Roblox developer called "Mimi_Dev" told me.

Roleplay very much reflects Roblox’s breadth of expression and the way in which it provides very different kinds of spaces for play, compared to the world of games outside the platform. There are, simply, no other places which offer the same mix of 3D worlds to explore and play in, social interaction with other players, and a constant supply of new material served by developers who expect to support their games for years after launch.

Sure, GTA Online supports roleplay, if you can stomach getting shot by players who aren’t roleplaying, and there are mods for games like ArmA 3 which let you play being a soldier in more detail. I suppose The Sims offers third-person roleplay. But there’s nothing quite like the breadth that exists on Roblox.

I suspect that part of the reason why Roblox is where it flourishes is that Roblox implicitly encourages world creation. Its editor, Studio, presents itself from the off as a tool for making terrain and populating it with 3D objects, and most players start off by releasing 3D spaces that have no game logic.

“My own take is that Roblox is a very creative platform as a whole,” says Mimi_Dev. “You can create worlds yourself, make what you need to roleplay easier. When I first started, me and my friends used to create the worlds we wanted to roleplay in. I think it’s just the platform is built to do that.”

The exciting thing is that these kinds of games attract new audiences who are looking for social and creative ways to play. And now they’re growing up as designers themselves. I spoke to the teams behind two of Roblox’s leading roleplay games, both women, about how they started, and how they work.

Callmehbob: Managing one of Roblox’s biggest games

“Most of my audience is under 18 and they’re just so talented. I try to use a lot of what they make. I’m trying to instil confidence in them, because they could go beyond me in a second. My other builder, she’s way more talented than me, too, but she feels that she couldn’t run a game, and that’s just because of lack of confidence.”

"Callmehbob" first played Roblox back in around 2007, when she was 12. But while that puts her among its earliest players, it wasn’t one of her top games - she also played Neopets and Gaia Online - hence not putting an awful lot of thought into her username. And then she started high school, got into League Of Legends, and that was that for a few years.

Now she leads a game that, depending on the time of day, can have up to 100,000 concurrent players.

An English lesson in Royale High.

Royale High is a hugely popular (nearly 2.5 billion visits) roleplay game set across many themed realms, from Earth to a college for fairies. Together they constitute a kind of multidimensional school where you can take classes in English, baking and swimming, and dress up using a vast catalogue of clothes and cosmetic styles.

It all sprang from a nostalgic trip back to Roblox after Callmehbob finished high school in 2016. She wanted to learn mouse and keyboard FPS controls in a low-pressure environment, so she logged into her old account and started to play roleplay games like Work at a Pizza Place and asymmetric deathmatch Stop It, Slender!.

It was in Stop It, Slender! that she saw a map contest which offered a prize of 1000 Robux, which was just enough to buy a name change that would rid her of Callmehbob, her 12 year-old idea of a joke.

“I guess I’ve always been a person who never ever puts money into games, so if I see an opportunity to win something I’ll jump on it,” she tells me. “So I messed in Studio for a month, making this spooky map for Stop It, Slender! It was really bad. Completely full of free models, and it took me an entire month.”

She didn’t win, which is why she’s still called Callmehbob. But she did get the bug for making maps.

“There were a lot of Roblox games that I pulled inspiration from, that were not polished in exactly the way I’d want them,” she says. “One of my biggest inspirations was High School Dorm Life, which was a regular grey-walled high school and I thought it could be so much more magic. This was the first time I really got into roleplaying. I just got sucked into it, so immersed. I’d never felt that before, to pretend that there was a school dance to go to at night and going into the bathroom and pretending to put on makeup and stuff.”

“It was months and months of creating and recreating,” says her husband, "Launcelot". “Six, seven months, before she released anything.”

Art class is about matching a pixel drawing under a time limit.

What Callmehbob understood, and what led to Royale High’s success, is that roleplay games thrive when they offer a creative outlet for players. “There have to be so many unique areas and scripts and stuff to be able to properly roleplay and to get the creative juices flowing, so you can do anything,” she says.

The game is filled with interactive doohickeys, framed by going daily events: art class (pack the paint kit stored in your locker), breakfast (be ready to pay with diamonds you earn), PE (play an obby (obstacle course)) and so on. Continuing to develop Royale High, then, is all about building stuff, keeping up a constant supply of new outfits, areas and things to do.

Callmehbob is at the centre of that effort, and she still builds a lot of the 3D assets that appear in the game. But as head designer, she also doles out work to a new assistant who helps her build, and to Launcelot, who primarily animates characters alongside doing admin (“and making sure that our house and dogs are taken care of”), and to two scripters, who integrate new assets into the game.

“I’ve never met them in person, I’m just talking to them through text on Discord,” she says. “I build first, which is weird because I think most of the top developers are scripters, but I’m a builder. It’s a lot easier to build something and then script around it, because you need the door to script it to make it open. I have no idea how they operate.”

A taste of Royale High’s vast wardrobe of outfits, hair and makeup.

Next, she wants to add more ways for players to create their own stuff in the game, to add more ways to play together, such as jobs in the various buildings, to add more realms. There’s no real conceptual end to Royale High.

But Callmehbob also finds running such a big game is intimidating. “I’m thinking of all the times I’ve shut down the game and people have lost friends that they made,” she says.

“If we need to post a big update we need to force-shutdown the game,” explains Launcelot.

“Or if their mobile crashes and they can’t meet their friends.”

“Online games were a huge part of both our lives when we were younger,” says Launcelot. “They were very social and you could make long-term online friends, so it’s daunting to know we’re facilitating that.”

Mimi_Dev: A dance game family business

“I made it because I danced in real life and I started replicating what I was seeing in real life: the studio, the way we practised in our classes. I started copying all that and it kind of just worked.”

At the heart of roleplay is the idea of performance, of audiences watching others play. It’s an intensely social kind of game, where the complexity isn’t so much in its mechanics but in other players.

Perform dance moves by assigning them to keys, then tap while controlling your avatar. It’s surprisingly tricky.

Dance Your Blox Off is one of the most interesting of these kinds of roleplay games. In it, players practise and then perform dance routines for other players to judge, and while there are quite a lot of games similar to it, few have the same free-form nature.

"Mimi_Dev", Dance Your Blox Off’s lead, first got into Roblox when she was 11. She loved Lego and was looking for a game that featured unlimited building. “I didn’t actually play games for a while until my sister got me into them.” She didn’t know that Studio would also let her script games. So she started out making simple roleplay places, one of which - Robloxia Zoo - is still operating today.

Robloxia Zoo is a simple zoo roleplay space.

By 2013 or so, Mimi_Dev began to realise that she could try making something more sophisticated. Her first major project was a dance studio game where players could create routines and dance with their friends. It was based on holding competitions: they’d then perform the routine they’d developed in front of other players, who’d act as judges. But all this was informal. The game had no scripts to run the logic of dance competitions: the players needed to directly organise them in the world.

By now, Mimi_Dev’s dad, "DarthChadius" had gotten involved. He was already a programmer, working on embedded software for hardware devices, and he helped Mimi_Dev learn to script. Then, as the project grew, he took more and more of a role.

“I think I got involved just because there was a lot more to do, it was more complicated, but I started to enjoy spending time on the platform and Lua was a new language to me. It was fun just doing stuff with Mimi.”

Dance Your Blox Off launched in February 2017. It started quietly, but that summer, as the school holidays started, it took off. “We had just added the ability to dance with a friend,” says Mimi_Dev. “We always intended to allow players to dance with their friends, but we needed to figure out how to scale it and make it work properly.”

”I would say that I didn’t know we were going that way, so there was a lot of refactoring that needed to be done to allow duos,” says DarthChadius.

“We weren’t very good at communicating back then,” says Mimi_Dev.

Now, though, the entire family works on the game. DarthChadius, who has a full-time job on top, continues to work on all the game’s technical aspects, from scripting new features to building content pipelines so Mimi_Dev can easily add new things to the game, while she and her younger sister create all visual assets, from animations to clothing, while her mother QA tests the game. “I think as a family we’re a little bit more secure,” says Mimi_Dev, who’s also part-way through a university degree.

Sit in the audience to watch and chat, or enter the queue to dance.

Dance Your Blox Off’s audience is young, averaging nine or 10 years old. They practise in the studios, choosing the moves they’re going to use in their routines by assigning them to buttons. Then they play in a never-ending cycle of dance competitions, selecting outfits and makeup to wear and then sitting in the audience and judging other competitors until it’s their turn to perform.

“We also host ballet classes and competitions with human power! We still do that!” says Mimi_Dev. “Players like it and it’s more personal than a computer, right?”

But now, as Dance Your Blox Off’s popularity is beginning to tail off, Mimi_Dev is thinking about new games. Maybe more dance games to satisfy her existing audience, but also new things. “At some point we want to release a really big game,” she says.

Recent updates to Roblox have allowed developers to stitch together multiple games so they can appear as a single release that’s divided by loading screens, as well as upping the limits on block count and mesh components. “Definitely in the future our games are going to be multi-world, big, MMORPG-large games, so those things are really helping.”

The lobby, before I put custom clothes on.

It sounds ambitious, but Mimi_Dev has the experience to know the work it’d take. But I hope that she’ll be able to integrate in it the intimate, social and performative nature of games like Dance Your Blox Off, which is a kind of game which simply doesn’t exist anywhere outside Roblox.

That’s important because it inspires people to make games who might not otherwise ever dream of making games. Mimi_Dev tells me that at Roblox’s annual developer conference in August, she met a young girl whose aunt had driven her to her hotel because she heard Mimi_Dev was staying there.

“She wants to be a scripter. It was really cool.”

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