Roblox first launched just over 13 years ago. That’s 13 years of slapdash user-made trash populated by nine year-old trolls, right? Not quite. Roblox is also one of videogames’ most underestimated communities; it’s a huge and vibrant place of play and creation where fortunes and talent are being forged.
It’s definitely true that Roblox has been a mainstay for kids, somewhere they can play with friends for free and exercise dreams of building worlds and becoming game developers. But Roblox has been changing. It’s grown up alongside its first generation of players and makers, who are now in their twenties. Over 40% of its users are now over 13, and its two million developers are set to earn $100 million in 2019, up from $70 million last year. They’ve been building up their ambitions, having become skilled game developers with keen awareness of their audiences, technical skills, managing teams, marketing, and running long-term live games.
Roblox’s biggest games rival the popularity of those on Steam: overall, the platform has 100 million monthly players, with up to two million concurrently playing at peak times. Among its 50 million games, 5000 have attracted over a million visits (Roblox’s term for individual play sessions). Its most popular, MeepCity, has had 4.3 billion visits since it was launched in February 2016. They appeal to a rare diversity in gender (Roblox’s players are 40% female) and geography.
But despite all this, Roblox is an island which the mainstream still overlooks.
If you want to understand Roblox’s fascinating culture - and you definitely should - there’s one important thing to understand about what makes Roblox Roblox. When you install it on your PC, Roblox puts two icons on your desktop. The silver icon (which used to be a red R) is the player, which will load up when you visit a game’s web page in your browser and click the big green play button. It’s all about zero friction: you’ll see a game and be playing it with friends within seconds.
The blue icon is Studio, Roblox’s game creation environment. It automatically installs alongside the player, giving every player on PC the tools to make games, implicitly telling them that they can make games, too. Everyone gets to use a comprehensive set of visual tools, backed by scripting, and also Roblox’s remarkably sturdy multiplayer features.
I met four makers who have used Roblox to start careers. Today, we’ll meet two who started in the platform’s earliest days, and who have found themselves having to professionalise and start up companies to keep up with its evolution.
Next time, we’ll meet two of the key developers in one of Robox’s most popular genres, roleplay, which reflects the platform’s diversity, and talk to them about what it takes to run two of its biggest games. And finally, we’ll meet Craig Donato, Roblox’s chief business officer, to talk about how the company works, and where it’s going next.
ZKevin: From playful doodles to big games
“I’ve noticed that maybe five years ago on the front page there’d be a Cart Ride Into A Noob obby, and now there are actual games that people have spent months and months making. I’m not sure if that’s because the developers are ageing up, or the kids are ageing up.”
Since its inception, Roblox has been home to goofy experiments, doodles and just stupid stuff. It is, after all, a platform which provides kids with tools to build games, distribute them, and let friends play them together. It’s a place where restless notions come to life; few places in games are quite as responsive and fast-moving.
One of Roblox’s most playful and funny makers is ZKevin. He’s the maker of Cleaning Simulator, which blends Viscera Cleanup Detail with object hunts and minigames as you clean your way up through the floors of an office building. Filled with silly details and washed over with infectious good humour, Cleaning Simulator is deeply immersed in Roblox culture.
ZKevin started using Roblox in 2011, having seen an advert that said he could make games. “I was a kid and it looked feasible," he says. "Immediately I tried to make a game. Tried is the key word.” Since then he’s watched many of its trends rise and fall.
Take the reference to "Cart Ride Into A" games in his opening quote, which have been a thing for at least a decade. Players sit on a long and complex rollercoaster which eventually leads into the mouth of whatever the game is about: Spongebob, Pikachu, a noob.
An obby, meanwhile, is a multiplayer obstacle course race, sometimes built like racetracks and featuring tweaked controls; sometimes filled with traps and puzzles to solve along the way. It’s one of Roblox’s oldest genres, chiefly because they're are easy to make one and almost always fun to play with friends.
So Cleaning Simulator features floors with obbys. It also features lots of secret objects to find - tape cassettes which you can play - since the whole project was inspired by ZKevin’s love of Egg Hunts, a long-running series of Easter events that Roblox holds, in which developers hide eggs in their games for players to collect.
“A lot of it was just messing around with my friends and joking and saying, what if this is here?” he says, explaining that Roblox makes it easy for him to drop stuff into a game. “Other platforms are limited, and on Roblox you can literally do anything.” He values the fact that Studio features thousands of community-created models that you can freely drop into a game you’re making.
And he loves Roblox’s viral nature, which means that when he opens a game to the public, players will begin to find it without him needing to launch a marketing campaign (even if Roblox does feature paid advertising).
“And then their friends join it, and it has a snowball effect that doesn’t really happen anywhere else. It’s really amazing we have this platform where we can make something fun and the next day 10,000 people are playing it.”
Other than its still-growing scale, much of what ZKevin likes about Roblox has been true since its earliest days. But Roblox is currently undergoing profound change. ZKevin remembers that it used to be a lot more wild, memey and self-referential, but now bigger games are leading its top charts, and they’re setting new expectations among players and makers.
“I think that now it’s a more diverse playing field, which I really appreciate. We grew up playing Roblox and now we’re making games. We’re also scaling with the platform. Our skills are gradually increasing and because of that, games are getting better.”
This also means it’s taking longer to make the games. Having previously only really worked alone, ZKevin has found his projects taking a year or more to develop, so he’s started to work with a team to speed things up.
“I’m not really used to project managing,” he admits. But at least now he can ask for things without having to do it all himself.
He’s also been part of three-month accelerators held at Roblox’s offices. His current game, a breezy dungeon crawler called Super Cube Cavern, kicked off during the last one. Having launched just over a year ago, it’s had around six million plays, and while he continues to update it, he’s also working on a few smaller projects.
Last year ZKevin moved from his family home in Texas to an apartment in San Mateo, where Roblox is based, with a bunch of other Roblox game makers. He even regularly works from the Roblox offices, using an open-door policy which the company doesn’t particularly publicise but nonetheless allows developers the opportunity to get closer to the platform and get support.
ZKevin, then, is only getting closer to Roblox.
“I really appreciate Roblox for allowing me to spread my creativity,” he says. “It’s probably one of the most important aspects for me, because it’s probably one of the few things that I’m able to do.”
AbstractAlex: Founding a million-dollar company
“I think Roblox is a special case in that it blurs the line between playing and creating. As I play a game I’ll see something in it. How did they do that? I want to make something like it, and the next thing I know I’m in Studio, trying to either copy or make a better version of it, or making my own thing.”
Roblox’s culture has always been a reflection of the internet’s wild churn of appropriations, straight-up copies and riffs on other people’s work. AbstractAlex’s huge back catalogue of games is a perfect example. He’s made games based on Pokémon, Yu-Gi-Oh! and Attack on Titan, which together have attracted millions of plays. He’s also covered its most popular genres, such as with 2010’s A Miner’s Life, in which you mine as far down as you can, cashing in precious ores for better gear; Knife Capsules, a PVP assassination game, features a vast collection of cosmetic knives.
Today, though, AbstractAlex is older, and the way he makes games is more mature, too. Having released Robloxian Highschool, a roleplay game which has had over 740 million visits, he last year moved from his childhood home in Ottawa, Canada, to San Mateo, and founded a company called RedManta.
AbstractAlex first got into Roblox in September 2009, and his first game featured a collection of animals that’d follow you around. “There were other games like this, but in mine you could click to tell your animals where to go, which was revolutionary for the time,” he says.
He was just 13, and the game got on the front page of the Roblox website. “It had 50 [concurrent] players! So that was my first success,” he says, laughing at the contrast in Roblox’s scale between then and now.
His first real breakout game was Swordburst Online, is a simple MMO-like RPG that’s had 22 million visits. He released it in 2014, shortly after Roblox’s Developer Exchange Program opened, which allowed him to cash in his earnings through in-game purchases for real money.
“At that point I was in college and I was able to pay for my rent and other expenses just off Roblox alone,” he says.
Swordburst Online also led to Roblox offering him a short internship at its studio in 2015. By day, he worked on Roblox’s engine. “I understand a lot of the intricacies that go into things, which helps a lot,” he says.
By night, though, AbstractAlex worked with a friend on a new game. This, after all, was one of his first opportunities to actually meet some of his Roblox friends and collaborators. The game ended up really taking off. “It was making more money than we were making during the day,” he says. “So we figured we should drop everything and focus on building this company.”
The game was Robloxian Highschool, in which you play at being at school, whether as a freshman, senior, athlete or teacher. Roleplay games like it are huge on Roblox, from baby-nurturing in Adopt Me! (2.6 billion visits) to the GTA-like Jailbreak (over three billion visits).
Last year, Robloxian Highschool earned a million dollars for RedManta, AbstractAlex’s company, as its eight staff worked with a large roster of art freelancers and learned to harness analytics and deliver a continual stream of new content.
“We’re looking to break that this year, if everything goes to plan with our release deadlines,” says AbstractAlex.
After all, RedManta is also working on an MMO called World Zero, which is now in beta, and has already attracted over 2 million visits.
World Zero is polished, using Roblox’s latest lighting and visual effects, but for AbstractAlex, the most important advances Roblox is making aren’t so much in graphics as in new development tools in Studio which allow large teams to collaborate.
“With individual creators you’re very limited in what you can make, but once you start working with other people you can build much bigger games,” he says.
So why not just move on to something like Unreal or Unity, which are specifically designed to build big games? Roblox’s community is a big factor for its makers. “If I go into Unity and spend 10 hours making a game and I’m really drained, I can’t just show it to someone and get some motivation. On Roblox I can go build something in two hours and have 10 people come and encourage me to keep developing it.”
So he’s not considering any kind of move away from Roblox soon, even if it’s something he says that every Roblox developer considers.
“Roblox is definitely the best platform for us, just because we’re so familiar with the toolset and it’s where we grew up. I don’t think we’d be able to achieve this kind of success on other platforms.”