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Roblox: The 10bn hour gentle giant

Even someone with little gaming interest knows how big Minecraft or Fortnite are. Roblox? Best case scenario, parents who’ve seen their kids play it are aware of its existence. But it seems like very few people in the mainstream are aware of exactly how big Roblox is.

As of September 2018, Fortnite had 78.3m monthly players, while Minecraft exceeded 90m monthly active users in October 2018. Roblox sits in the middle with 80m players on the platform each month, chief business officer Craig Donato (pictured top) tells us.

And its success lies not only in its playerbase but in managing to turn its players into creators, as every single game on the platform is created by members of the community, with 10bn hours spent playing Roblox in 2018, if you’re into figures.

Roblox has been around for much longer than both Minecraft and Fortnite too, going from strength to strength since its inception way back in 2006.

So what is it exactly that makes Roblox so successful with kids without having to rely on big ad campaigns and viral marketing?

“We’ve always very much been a word of mouth phenomenon,” Donato says. “The No.1 way that kids find out about Roblox is through other kids. And that’s just always how we’ve been. We’re not a flashy company.

“I’d say one of the things that distinguishes Roblox is our mission of bringing the world together through play. And we believe that play, like sleep, is an essential human need. There’s lots of research that shows that play is how we learn to take control of our lives, how to adapt to new challenges, how to collaborate with our peers. And most of all play is also fun, right? It makes them happy. A world at play is better for everyone, not just children. A traditional game has very specific rules, where you have to follow a narrow path, you have to win… That’s not really the experience that you have in Roblox with these wide open worlds that you can just participate in.”

He gives a few examples: “One is Bird Simulator where you become a bird and you fly around the world. Another one is called Work at a Pizza Place, where you literally just work at a pizza restaurant,” he smiles. “I mean they’re all very very wide open experiential kind of worlds, versus ‘I’m going to score 100 points by shooting 100 people’. So I think that’s what we’re really doing, that’s why we’re so attractive: we’re tapping into this kind of instinctive need for self-directed play, using your imagination interacting with friends. Even one of our top games, which is about breaking out of jail, really just is a modern day version of cops and robbers.”

You rarely find that sort of genuine and positive ambition in a games company this big and it certainly feels refreshing. And Roblox doesn’t stop at wanting to bring joy through play, it also encourages imagination, learning and creation.

“We’re just a very unique company,” Donato says when we point out that it’s surprising that Roblox is still independent considering its success. “So when you think about gaming… The industry is based on publishers publishing games from large studios. And that’s just not who we are. Roblox doesn’t produce any games, we’re a platform. Not only are we a platform, we’re a platform where all the content is produced by young adults. I’d say, we’re just kind of odd I guess…,” he smiles, before immediately adding in a laugh: “Odd might be the wrong word to use in a conversation like this I guess, but we are a very unique company, there aren’t many companies like us. We have a very clear mission and a very clear sense of purpose on what we want to do and we just put our heads down and quietly go about that business. We’ll see where that takes us but I think we’re just super focused about what we need to do and how we want to do it.”

EMPOWERING CREATORS

And what Roblox wants to do is support and grow its huge roster of creators, as it’s by keeping those creators engaged that the platform keeps its players engaged.

“We paid out over $70m to creators on our platform [in 2018],” Donato says. “We’re a platform, not a game. So we want to make sure that the experience is different every time someone comes to Roblox, that there’s new games for them to see. It’s evolving. Just to give you a sense of it, our creators in Europe alone published over a million and-a-half games last year. So there’s constant amounts of content being published.

“Moreover we make it super simple for our creators to make constant updates to their games. Successful game creators are updating aspects of their game on a weekly, monthly basis. So we want to create this dynamic experience for our audience, so that when they can log in they’re always going to be experiencing something different.”

He continues: “When you look at the total number of people in a given month that are actually creating something, last month we had over 4m. So that’s a huge portion and that’s because the way people get inspired to create is through playing.”

Donato sees Roblox as a very important first step for would-be developers: “Some of our creators are developers that are making millions of dollars a year,” he stresses again.

“They all tend to follow a very similar path. They start off as players on Roblox, they get inspired, they want to create something. And this makes them want to go on and become a game developer or it might inspire them to pursue a career in technology or to just have a positive attitude towards technology.

“So we think it is a good way for them to just embrace technology in a positive way, inspire some of them who don’t just want to play with technology but to actually create and build on technology. We think that’s very positive.”

An extension of that ambition is Roblox’s investment in education programs. The company created an educational curriculum that reached over 48,000 students in 22 countries last year and participates in Hour of Code – a movement created by Code.org to help people learn computer science.

“If you have any desire to start learning how to build, whether it be coding or graphic design: we will help you with that,” Donato says. “And we do that in two ways. We have a team that builds curriculum for teachers on how to teach coding and other principles on Roblox. We distributed it to many many summer craft camps all over the world and after school programs already.

“We also periodically run self guided online curriculum, where we encourage kids to build their first game and we make it very simple. We provide a lot of self guided tools and prizes and had hundreds of thousands of kids complete that last year alone.”

MAKING IT SIMPLE

Roblox won’t stop there of course, as the firm received $150m (£115m) in funding back in September.

“International growth is our big focus as a company in 2019,” explains Donato. “We started 2018 being available in English and we left the year having translated the platform into French, German, Portuguese and we’re rolling out other languages very soon. So a lot of work there. For Roblox to roll out internationally it’s not just about translating the platform. There’s a lot of infrastructure we need to put in place to actually manage our platform successfully on an international basis.

“For us to be available in French or German isn’t just to translate it, we need to have 24/7 moderator teams and customer support teams in place who speak that language. We need to train our algorithms that are constantly monitoring all the communication between players looking for bad behaviour to be sensitive in French and German languages.

“We stream all of our content from the cloud, so we need to basically put in data infrastructure so that we can stream around the world in a very performant way. So there’s just a lot of human infrastructure, technological infrastructure that we need to put in place as we expand it around the globe. And that’s what we’re doing aggressively, what we started rolling out last year and we’ll continue to roll out this year.”

Due to its unique nature, Roblox isn’t short on challenges then, and that also applies to other aspects of its business, for example allowing for crossplay between so many different platforms – it’s currently available on Xbox One, PC, Mac, iOS and Android – all while making sure it looks super simple to its users.

“One of the things that we’ve spent a lot of time on – and this goes back to the ethos around young creators – is how do we remove all the friction from enabling a teenager to not only build a game but to publish a game that’s played by millions of people on our platform?” Donato starts explaining. “And there’s a lot of things that need to be done right. We need to give them the tools. We can’t charge them. We need to make them really easy. We need to teach them how to use them. We need to not just enable them to build a game but we need to host that game. We need to moderate that game and provide customer support. We need to handle things like payment processing. So it’s a ton of infrastructure that needs to be built around that to enable that to happen. And one of the things that we’ve done is to simplify something that’s typically very complex which is cross platform development.

“So kids can build one set of code for their game and then we render it on different platforms. So there’s tremendous complexity that we have to put in our system to enable that to happen, and then obviously tweaking and optimising it for those platforms. That’s something we very quietly have done that’s incredibly complex. And we want to hide that complexity from our creators. So out of the box if you build a game, it should work on everything from an iPhone 4 to an Oculus Rift headset.”

Hearing Donato talk so transparently about Roblox’s cross platform play makes Sony’s posturing on the issue a bit laughable. Which leads us to ask Donato if there’s any plan to expand Roblox’s availability to PS4 and Switch.

“That’s something we’re always looking at,” he replies. “We’d love to bring our platform to other platforms like that, it’s a trade off for us about investing in new features versus taking into new platforms. That’s always something we’re evaluating.”

EXPRESS YOURSELF

In addition to the company’s core expansion plans of features and territories is its toy line – but Donato doesn’t see it as business strategy.

“We don’t do [the toy line] for revenue, it’s a celebration of our community. All the toys that we create are based on creations that our community built. How cool is it if you’re a young creator and not only did you build a game but it got turned into a toy! That’s freaking awesome right?,” he enthuses. “We want to reflect the diversity of our community. We look at the kind of things that are trending in our community and we find ways to turn them into toys and allow them to be purchased by our community.”

Nurturing its community seems to be Roblox’s first and foremost motivation then, as is reflected by Donato’s conclusion to our chat: it’s all about providing tools for kids to boost their creativity.

“We’re always trying to figure out how to make our platform more immersive and entertaining. We recently launched an update to our avatar system to enable a wider range of characters as we’re starting to expand into new looks that enable kids to use their imagination in more broader ways.”

About Marie Dealessandri

Marie Dealessandri is MCV’s senior staff writer, having joined the publication during its days as a weekly magazine. After testing the waters of the film industry in France and being a radio host and reporter in Canada, she settled for the games industry in London in 2015. She can be found (very) occasionally tweeting @mariedeal, usually on a loop about Baldur’s Gate, Hollow Knight and the Dead Cells soundtrack.

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