Roblox attracts professional game developers who compete with child coders
Originally a platform designed by kids for kids, Roblox’s success has caught the attention of adult-run studios that are bringing polish to games as players grow older.
In the fall of 2018, Mary Rukavina was enjoying her first day of study at the University of Minnesota, where she had enrolled to study biomedical engineering, when she received an intriguing call. RedManta, a video game studio founded that year, offered to pay Rukavina $5,000 a month to create games on Roblox, an online platform that lets people program their own games and play games. created by others.
“My second day of college, I moved out,” Rukavina says. “My parents were like, ‘You’re crazy.'”
Rukavina had discovered Roblox when she was 13 messing around on her mother’s laptop. Every day, she immersed herself for at least three hours in the ever-expanding virtual world, fascinated by games about breeding animals like turtles or dragons. Over time, it also began designing its own games, using the company’s proprietary platform, Roblox Studios.
Rukavina never imagined that it could be a career. But it’s been four years, and she’s now the creative director of Sonar Studios LLC, an independent studio that makes games for Roblox. In fact, more than a dozen such studios have sprung up to tap into what was once the domain of middle and high school students.
Founded in 2004 by David Baszucki and Erik Cassel and launched two years later, Roblox was envisioned as a platform where content was created by kids, for kids, using the simple Lua programming language. Parents and educators loved the platform because it was seen as helping kids learn to code. Roblox can be played virtually anywhere, from an Xbox console to a phone, laptop or PC, and had 45.5 million daily active users at the end of last year. The company went public in a direct listing last year.
Roblox’s trajectory has sparked the interest of professional game developers, many of whom are now battling to beat the kids to success on the highly competitive platform. At the same time, non-gaming companies that had peripheral experience in technology or entertainment began to take a look at Roblox and wonder how they too could integrate their content into the platform. shape. The rise of studio-developed games also coincides with an aging user base for Roblox, which saw the share of children under 13 slip to 48% of its daily active users in the fourth quarter of the year. last, up from 57% at the start of 2019. While Roblox was a pandemic darling, seeing an increase in usage during the lockdown months, it has fallen out of favor with investors in recent months as school and sports resume , competing for children’s attention. Its shares have fallen 64% this year. More professionally developed games could help attract older users to the platform and present a very different value proposition in years to come.
“At times in our growth, it probably didn’t make sense to have a 50-person studio, but today it does,” Roblox said in a statement.
Adopt Me!, created by two players in 2017, in which people collect and raise pets, was one of the first games on Roblox to become a huge success. At that time, “there were a lot of games that started to go really well,” Rukavina said. “The community started to move away from ‘hobbyist’ and you started to see companies growing as LLCs to make games on Roblox.” Explosively Popular, Adopt Me! has been played 28 billion times and has an average of over 250,000 active players at a time. The developers of Adopt Me! then formed a studio called Uplift Games, which now employs over 40 people.
“Assembling a professional, large and expensive team was initially a strange creature within the Roblox ecosystem. That has since changed,” says Guy de Beer, CEO of Tel Aviv-based Toya, which was founded by two women in 2016 to create games for girls, he said he initially faced some pushback from Roblox over the size and scope of their effort.
Now, Roblox is fully invested in the idea of external content creation. Last year – the same year Gamefam became the first third-party development studio on Roblox with more than 100 employees – the San Mateo, Calif.-based company launched a $25 million grant program to bring a more durable content. The program offers grants of at least $500,000 to Roblox developers and studios. Half of the recipients are “non-Roblox developers” and the other half are from “the traditional Roblox community”, according to Matt Curtis, vice president of developer relations at Roblox. “A lot of our community members started 10 years ago with the original intention of learning, socializing, and creating cool content for their peers and themselves,” Curtis said. “It evolved as the platform evolved. Now some have grown into huge studios with over 40 employees earning millions of dollars a year.
In fact, it’s unclear how much money the studios are making, after the Roblox cut. The company says the average developer earns about 27 cents per dollar spent. Roblox is free to play, but the games earn money through micro-transactions. Since kids under 18 – and especially under 13 – aren’t usually in possession of credit cards, monetization can present a problem for these pricey studios. “The tricky part is, to really build a significant business on the Roblox platform, you need to build a successful game,” said Yonatan Raz-Fridman, who founded a Roblox game studio, Supersocial, in 2020. “The problem is that there aren’t many Roblox platforms that really generate significant revenue.
These expensive studios are dealing with kids, who have been happy to develop Roblox games for free in their spare time – a habit, critics say, has created an exploitative environment. Roblox’s Curtis noted that the “vast majority” of developers on the site who make money-making games are currently 18 or older.
The games taking Roblox by storm are very different from the games thriving in the Steam PC gaming market, Sony Group Corp’s PlayStation. or Microsoft Corp’s Xbox. There are no high-res graphics, tight shooting mechanics, or sprawling open worlds. Roblox games are bizarre, often involving emergent social dynamics like role-playing as cops and robbers or throwing a fake party at a suburban house you designed. Other games, like Bee Swarm Simulator or Work At A Pizza Place, might even confuse AAA game developers who are more used to $80 million budgets.
The most successful creators on the platform understand what this young audience is looking for, because they grew up there. For those with a short attention span, hook is everything. While active Roblox users spend an average of 2.5 hours on the platform per day, they can jump between two, three, or six experiences per game session. In 2021, 27,000 Roblox experiences received over 100,000 visits. What attracts players, however, is not always predictable.
“At the start of mobile, I actually saw a very similar situation,” Roblox’s Curtis said. “Many traditional AAA console or desktop developers tried to leverage a very successful playbook on mobile, and it didn’t work the way they expected.” Studios getting into Roblox now have a certain learning curve, especially because Roblox hosts genres of games that Curtis said he’s never seen elsewhere.
This challenge is something Supersocial’s Raz-Fridman concedes. His 18-person studio developed a multiplayer role-playing game with elaborate graphics and settings called Ghostopia, which he says didn’t become as popular as he expected. “We think our first foray into Roblox was ahead of its time,” he says. “We made a really good Nintendo Switch game on Roblox. But that’s not really what Roblox wants today. Now, he says, SuperSocial is taking those lessons and making a new, original game: Weed Whacking Simulator. company has received $5.2 million in funding since its launch. Venture capitalists are very interested in backing developers who want to build in Roblox, said Joe Ferencz, CEO of Gamefam. “Anyone with a piece of paper with Roblox on it can raise $3 million right now to make Roblox games. But that doesn’t mean you’re going to be very successful,” he said. Like other Roblox studios, Gamefam also makes deals to create branded experiences inside Roblox, like concerts. Gamefam’s virtual concert in late March with music artist 24kGoldn peaked at 105,755 concurrent users.
Roblox also offers an engagement-based payment program where 40% of the 10,000 most played Roblox experiences earn more from the program than from in-game purchases.
Right now, building a business out of Roblox holds some of the Wild West promise of companies looking to define the next generation of the internet, like e-commerce platform Shopify Inc., which helps some 2 million merchants worldwide manage their websites. One day, says Supersocial’s Raz-Fridman, Roblox might have the same power. “I don’t know yet if we can build an enterprise-scale business on the Roblox platform, but I’ve bet we can and investors have trusted us,” he says. . “But I think it hasn’t proven itself yet and it will probably take several more years for big players to emerge building on it.”