Originally a platform of kids for kids, the success of Roblox has caught the attention of adult-led studios that polish the games as the players grow up.
In the fall of 2018, Mary Rukavina was enjoying her first day of college at the University of Minnesota, where she had enrolled to study biomedical engineering, when she received an intriguing phone 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 allows people to program their own games and play games created by others.
“I moved on my second day of college,” Rukavina says. “My parents said, ‘You’re crazy.'”
Rukavina had discovered Roblox as a 13-year-old fiddling with her mother’s laptop. Every day she would sink into the fast-growing virtual world for at least three hours, fascinated by games about raising animals such as turtles or dragons. Over time, she also started inventing her own games using the company’s own platform, Roblox Studios.
Rukavina never dreamed that it could become a career. But it’s been four years now 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 take advantage of 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 intended to be a platform where content was created by children, for children, using the simple programming language Lua. Parents and educators loved the platform because it was seen as a tool for children to learn to code. Roblox can be played just about 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 with a direct listing last year.
Roblox’s trajectory sparked interest from professional game developers, many of whom are now battling to beat kids for success on the highly competitive platform. At the same time, non-gaming companies that had peripheral experience in technology or entertainment began to glance at Roblox and wonder how they too could incorporate their content into the platform. The rise of studio-developed games has also coincided with an aging Roblox user base, reducing the proportion of children under 13 to 48% of daily active users in the fourth quarter of last year, compared to 57%. early 2019. Though a pandemic darling, Roblox has seen an uptick in use during the lockdown months, it has lost favor with investors in recent months as school and sports resume and compete for children’s attention. The stock has fallen 64% this year. More professionally developed games could appeal to the older users of the platform and offer a very different value proposition in the coming years.
“At certain points in our growth, it probably didn’t make sense to have a 50-person studio, but today it does,” Roblox said in a statement.
One of the first games on Roblox to achieve notable success was Adopt Me!, created by two players in 2017, in which people collect and raise pets. Around that time, “there were a lot of games that started doing really well,” Rukavina said. “The community started moving away from the ‘amateur’ and you started seeing companies develop 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 simultaneously. The developers of Adopt Me! then founded 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. It’s changed since then,” said Guy de Beer, chief operating officer of Tel Aviv-based Toya, which was founded in 2016 by two women to create games for girls. He said he initially encountered some backlash from Roblox about the magnitude and scope of their pursuit.
Now Roblox is fully invested in the idea of remote 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, California-based company launched a $25 million grant program to bring more sustainable content. The program provides grants of at least $500,000 to Roblox developers and studios. Half of the recipients are “off-Roblox developers” and the other half are from “the traditional Roblox community,” said Matt Curtis, Roblox’s vice president of developer relations. “Many of our community members started 10 years ago with the original intention of learning, socializing and creating cool content for their peers and themselves,” said Curtis. “That evolved as the platform evolved. Now some have become huge studios with over 40 employees making millions of dollars a year.”
It’s actually unclear how much money the studios are making, after Roblox’s cutbacks. The company says a developer takes home an average of about 27 cents per dollar spent. Roblox is free to play, but games make money through microtransactions. Since kids under 18 — and especially under 13 — generally don’t hold credit cards, monetization can be a problem for these expensive studios. “The tricky part is that to really build a significant company on the Roblox platform, you have to build a mega-successful game,” said Yonatan Raz-Fridman, who founded a Roblox gaming studio, Supersocial, in 2020. “The problem is, there aren’t that many Roblox platforms that generate really significant revenue.”
These expensive studios are pitted against kids, who enjoy developing Roblox games for free in their spare time — a habit that critics say has created an exploitative environment. Curtis of Roblox noted that the “vast majority” of developers on the site who make money-making games are currently 18 years of age or older.
Games that take Roblox by storm are very different from those that thrive on PC game market Steam, Sony Group Corp.’s PlayStation, or Microsoft Corp.’s Xbox. There are no high-resolution graphics or tight shooting mechanics or expansive open worlds. Roblox games are weird, often with emerging social dynamics, like role-playing as cops and muggers or throwing a fake party at a suburban house you designed. Other games, like Bee Swarm Simulator or Work At A Pizza Place, can confuse even AAA game developers more accustomed to $80 million budgets.
Creators with the most success on the platform understand what this new-fangled youngster is looking for, because they grew up with it. For those with short attention spans, grabbing is everything. While Roblox’s active users spend an average of 2.5 hours per day on the platform, they can jump between two, three, or six experiences per play session. In 2021, 27,000 Roblox experiences received more than 100,000 visits. However, what grabs the players is not always predictable.
“I saw a very similar circumstance early on in mobile,” said Curtis of Roblox. “You had a lot of traditional AAA developers from console or desktop trying to use a very successful playbook on mobile, and it didn’t work out the way they expected.” The studios coming into Roblox now have a bit of a learning curve — especially since Roblox hosts game genres that Curtis said he’d never seen anywhere else.
That challenge is something Raz-Fridman of Supersocial admits. 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 encounter with Roblox was ahead of its time,” he says. “We built a great Nintendo Switch game on Roblox. But that’s not really what Roblox wants today.” Now, he says, SuperSocial is taking those lessons and building a new original game: Weed Whacking Simulator. The company has received $5.2 million in funding since launch. Venture investors are very interested in supporting developers who want to build Roblox, said Gamefam Chief Executive Officer Joe Ferencz. “Anyone with a piece of paper with Roblox on it can now raise $3 million to make Roblox games. But that doesn’t mean you’ll have much success with it,” he said. Like other Roblox studios, Gamefam also deals to create branded experiences within Roblox, such as concerts.Gamefam’s virtual concert in late March with musical artist 24kGoldn peaked at 105,755 concurrent users.
Roblox also offers an engagement-based payout program where 40% of the top 10,000 longest played Roblox experiences earn more from the program than from in-game purchases.
Right now, building a business on Roblox is part of the Wild-West promise of companies looking to define the next generation of the Internet, such as the e-commerce platform Shopify Inc., which helps approximately 2 million merchants worldwide to running their websites. One day, says Raz-Fridman of Supersocial, Roblox may have the same power. “I don’t know yet if we can build a large-scale enterprise on top of the Roblox platform, but I made a bet that we can and investors trusted us,” he says. “But I think it hasn’t proven itself yet and it will probably be a few more years before big players come out and build on it.”