My entire job may be dedicated to playing and discussing videogames, but I'm not ashamed to say that up until a few weeks ago, I knew absolutely nothing about one of the world's biggest online games platforms. Roblox is one of those games I sort of just wrote off in my head. A game for kids, it's sort of like Minecraft, but with more multiplayer elements. Lots of young kids playing silly little games with digital blocks is something that simply had nothing interesting to teach me.
Or so I thought.
It's undeniable that Roblox's playerbase does skew young. As of June 2018, the game was getting 25.5 million monthly users under the age of 13 – a little under half of the game's then 64 million total players. Given how huge those numbers are, it felt important to actually jump into Roblox and get a feel for what it's all about.
Put simply, Roblox is an online toolkit for playing and creating simple video games. Genres of games vary wildly, from management sims to third person shooters, sports titles to platformers, with the studio behind Roblox providing all the back end tools for players to access a variety of multiplayer content from one big shared hub. It's essentially a storefront of largely child friendly games, mostly free-to-play and supported by in-app purchases. Designed by the community who makes the games, those in-app purchases financially support both the work of Roblox Corporation as well as the game's creators. Roblox itself isn't really a game – it's an ecosystem of user-generated content; a mix of social media platform and game hub.
Considering how huge the platform is, I felt like a good way to understand Roblox properly was to sit down with some of those who know the service best. I took some time at London Games Festival to sit down with both Roblox Corporation employees and the people who use and develop using the Roblox platform. I spoke with Jon Smith and Alex Dooley, two university students making popular games on Roblox under the name Block Evolution Studios; Laura Higgins, Roblox's head of community safety and digital civility; and Chris Misner, president of Roblox International. My goal was to try and understand not only what makes the platform interesting, but how having such a young playerbase impacts the kind of considerations made by those most involved in the platform.
Speaking first with Smith and Dooley, both Plymouth University students who got into Roblox development due to boredom during a highly theoretical portion of their robotics course. I wanted to understand what it was like becoming financially successful game developers on a platform primarily seen as for children.
"Roblox could almost be given credit for how we ended up in university," said Dooley. "Roblox for both of us was some of our earliest exposure to programming and code. As young teenagers it was where we learned the logic of all that. That moved to us being interested in coding, then robotics, technology, and embedded systems. We took that knowledge into university and that’s where we met. We both took very similar paths here."
While studying robotics provided a great background for Roblox development, stigma around the game's perception was a big factor in getting people on board to try making games using the tools on hand.
"Back in the very earliest days, when I first suggested someone come in and help me make a Roblox game, I did ask in our robotics course group chat, and there was some interesting responses – people shocked at the idea of 20 year olds still playing Roblox, stuff like that," Dooley explained. "I knew the opportunity was there to make proper money, but I knew I needed help. I knew I needed to find someone with the same skillset as me, so I wanted to find someone on the course with me to work with. I did ask quite a few people if they would be interested in collaborating, but most of them saw Roblox as just some silly kids game and had no interest in taking creating for it seriously. Jon [Smith] obviously saw the potential as he has played Roblox before, so we gave it a try together."
Dooley and Smith came to Roblox from a perspective of understanding the audience – they'd both played it themselves growing up. They knew the kind of games that were popular in the space, and they knew to keep their scope small. As a result, they managed to strike gold on the platform without much trial and error along the way.
"We wanted something that wasn’t too technically taxing. Obviously, something that would do well, but didn’t involve too much technical effort on our part. So we came up with this idea of making a zoo. We tried to think about what kids are passionate about, and animals are obviously a major hit with kids, so we decided to make what would become Zoo Simulator," Dooley told me, with professional confidence uncommon of someone so young.
"Players go out and find zoo animals, they build their own zoo. It was a very simple concept, but it wasn’t bogged down beyond this simple set of goals. We built the game, and it launched in such a basic state looking back on it now. I think that’s what people liked about it. They could look at it and instantly know what they had to do. It was a simple, consistent game."
"We completed Zoo Simulator, and then started marketing it," added Smith. "This is one of the big benefits of Roblox. They allow you to market your games on their platform. We paid to take over some banner ads, marketing was super easy. Everything is very internal to the platform: you advertise on Roblox, and try to get some traction on YouTube, but that's all you really need to do in terms of promotion."
"We reached out to about 40 YouTubers, got them lined up releasing content through the week leading up to Friday," Smith explained. "We started ramping up our ad spend through Twitter and Facebook and that sort of promotion. On the Thursday it sort of all just kicked off."
"Alex was at the gym, I was in a driving lesson, we had maybe 300-400 players when we both went out, and by the time we both finished and got back online it had scaled up to 12,000 players. By the end of the evening we had peaked at 18,000 concurrent players."
While Zoo Simulator managed to take off in terms of numbers of players, I was interested in some of the logistics of becoming a hit on the platform. What's it like adapting to those sudden large online player numbers, and, ethically speaking, how do you turn a game played by kids into something financially viable?
"We had maybe 300-400 players when we both went out, and by the time we got back online it had scaled up to 12,000 players. By the end of the evening we had peaked at 18,000 concurrent players."
"I think the great thing about the Roblox community is that young people are probably the toughest critics out there," Dooley said, explaining how he feels the young player community does a lot of the work in avoiding exploitation on the platform. "They won’t just stay quiet if something is wrong; they’ll just tell you how it is. If you over monetise the product, they will just say 'no, this isn’t fun, I’m going to go and play something else'. They're surprisingly resilient to pricing, and they make it known they don't want to be pressured.”
"I think there’s a moral responsibility when it comes to deciding how to monetise our audience and our games," Smith added. "We’ve never blocked progress behind money, we always want our free players to be able to get to the end of the game. We want them to have fun."
"The way we see it is that you can easily make money off of a good game, but without the player having fun already, how do you morally convince them to spend money? When you make a game, you need free users to try it out, to have fun, to tell their friends it’s fun, so you have users there who might want to pay for the fun they’re having. It’s in our best interests, even from a money standpoint, to make a good product that all our users will enjoy."
Switching to the topic of their overnight success, Dooley was eager to sing the praises of the platform, and explain how creating games there, rather than elsewhere, facilitated them growing at the speed they did.
"When the game suddenly got big overnight, at a time we couldn’t have anticipated, being on Roblox really helped," Dooley said. "They handled everything server side. They allowed us to scale in real time, so when we went from 300 players to 18,000 players while busy elsewhere, we didn't have to suddenly stress about sorting server capacity and these excited new players being unable to get into a game. If we’d developed and hosted an online game like this ourselves outside of Roblox, our server cost would have doubled or tripled in an instant – and that's best case if we had been awake and available to increase those servers when the need arose as demand grew".
"Roblox have a really awesome developer relations team, a team within their HQ," Smith added. "They constantly reach out to developers who are performing well on the platform and give them opportunities to feature on the front page, help you with questions or concerns. Unlike social media platforms like Twitter or Facebook or YouTube where creators often feel on their own, ignored by management, shouting into the void, Roblox is really good at communication and support."
While these two university students clearly found success on the platform, and had the best interests of their young players in mind, I wanted to hear from those at the top of the company about what they were doing to protect young players from any developers not as level-headed and responsible as Dooley and Smith at Block Evolution.
"We don’t often see pushback from parents, which feels like a good sign about how we’ve handled that side of things," stated Laura Higgins, Roblox head of community safety and digital civility.
"Gambling is banned on our service, but protecting our users is more about protecting them from anything at all that seems like predatory monetisation. Loot boxes, for example, are an absolute no for us; we do not want our platform going down that road. If there are developers on our service we feel are coercing players for money in any way, we would have zero tolerance for that."
Higgins' entire job at Roblox is making sure the children playing her game are courteous to each other. Hers is not a job role squarely about blocking profanity and hate speech, as shown by the word "civility" in her job title, it spreads much wider into the realm of keeping children both safe and happy online.
"When we talk about moderation on Roblox, we’re generally talking about really young children," Higgins elaborates. "Kids that age are generally nice. We don’t necessarily have to deal with some of the issues that you might have to moderate on other platforms. Safety is really paramount, we focus a lot on keeping our users safe, it’s our number one priority. We have a huge team of around 700 moderators all over the world, in all different time zones so we have 24/7 cover."
"There’s lots of tools parents can use on the platform. Parental settings, so parents can curate the experience for younger children. We try to then encourage parents that, as their children grow, they relax those limits a bit, allow the children’s horizons to grow. One of the main things that’s relevant for us is the chat filters that we have on the platform. For very young children we’re quite strict on that, and as they age up we relax a little bit. We recognise that communication changes as children get older, and build that into the way our chat filters work."
"It is often more about solving bickering incidents than it is about fights or overstepped boundaries you might see in other online spaces."
I was curious where Higgins thought the line between moderation of bickering and allowing disagreement lay between children, and for her it seemed to be very much about having a healthy tone to that disagreement
"It’s okay for people to disagree, it’s okay to not agree on everything, but it’s important that children understand how to do that in a healthy way. Our moderation team try to help them to manage those situations in healthy ways. Bickering fights are things that will happen in real life too, not just in the game, so we feel we have a duty to use our moderation style to teach children to handle those situations in healthy grown up ways, so they know how to not agree but still be nice to each other."
"These are life skills we’re trying to teach these young players. How to resolve arguments, how to work together. Civility is such an important skill for people to learn at a young age, particularly while their online communications are in as safe an environment as possible."
"Bickering fights are things that will happen in real life too, not just in the game, so we feel we have a duty to use our moderation style to teach children to handle those situations in healthy grown up ways."
In terms of the tools developed to keep kids safe on Roblox, some of the specifics being done by the company are really fascinating.
"When we talk about those highly strict filters we have in place for children, they’re so strict that numbers are not allowed, because they could be part of personal data trying to be shared. We have automated steps in place to make it so even trying to get that data out of a user would be technically challenging. Anything that maybe could be a password, we hope to catch in filters before it’s sent."
"We are constantly updating our chat filters, keeping them relevant. For example, we keep an eye on memes which might become issues in our community and update our filters to be prepared for those. Momo recently was a really good example. We saw a lot of chat and discussion online saying that unsettling examples of the Momo meme were showing up on our platform, kids playing Roblox were at risk of being upset by Momo memes. We took action immediately to try and root out any content which might be an issue, to ensure that the kinds of content people were worried about were not on our platform. It turns out most of the issue wasn’t actually on Roblox, it was situations like YouTubers playing Roblox games and mentioning the meme while they played, rather than the meme itself being prevalent in content on the service."
A Momo character model in Roblox, which was swiftly removed.
"In game, we cracked down fast. We made it so you couldn’t reference Momo or variations on the name, we stopped anyone from wearing in-game clothing with the character on it."
"Our chat filter isn’t just about monitoring vulgarity, bullying speech, things like that, we have to stay aware of trends online and be prepared to keep those off the service where appropriate. Things that on their own may not seem offensive, but in the context of the community we’re working with might become problematic."
While it's a reality that children will try and push the limits of tools designed to keep them safe or control their online communication, the team at Roblox is fairly confident it has managed to prevent most ways kids would avoid their filters.
"Kids try and get around any filter there is. We also block things like variations with numbers, letters or gaps. We block if you try to spell the word a single message at a time, hitting return between letters to try and get around the filter. We try and account for every possible way we know to circumvent filter rules."
"We have a really lovely community, I can’t stress that enough. When I talk about reports and moderators, it’s honestly not really bad stuff – as we said earlier it’s mostly squabbles. Friends falling out and fighting online."
"We have a really lovely community, I can’t stress that enough."
But what about the future of Roblox? Roblox International president Chris Misner said that for him, it's all about getting wider audiences to see there's something for them on the platform, and getting the game out to wider areas of the world with the same level of care and attention it has had in English speaking regions.
"I wish [more] people would realise what a diversity of experiences there are to experience on Roblox. So many of the things on Roblox are really varied, there’s really something there for everyone. Any age, any interest, we cover such a huge spectrum of genres and experience types. That blocky style is just a small part of what’s out there, and doesn’t paint a full picture of what there is to see on Roblox."
"In terms of things I aspire for the game in my role, Roblox is not a phenomenon globally yet," Misner explained. "Europe is a super huge market for us, it’s currently second only to America and will probably overtake America in the next couple of years. But there’s still work to be done getting the game to the rest of the world. Eastern Europe, Latin America, Asia."
"For me, in terms of priorities, I want to expand our trust and safety efforts to better support the non-English speaking parts of the world," Higgins chimed in. "That’s important not only in terms of reaching players in other parts of the world, but having support teams in place to support players there. We want to disseminate safety advice in those new regions. Listen to their communities, and ensure we are culturally sensitive in new places as we expand."
"The rules of the platform are the rules of the platform no matter where a player is. Moderators will have consistent rules regardless of country. In terms of sensitivity culturally, a great example is Germany where violence with guns is taken a bit more seriously. We wouldn’t ban those games in that region, but we also would know better than to promote them there. That’s what we mean in terms of tailoring content to a particular region."
After playing some Roblox myself, and talking to the people working within that ecosystem, I definitely have a better understanding of what makes it stand out. It's a platform where players can play all their games using a consistent avatar that feels representative of themselves, hopping between genres and themes, with an expectation that not having money won't be a barrier to finding content to enjoy. I'm an adult with disposable income so I can afford to pick up whatever new AAA online game my friends are playing, but if you're a kid with no pocket money and no way to spend cash online without help from your parents, the idea of a space full of popular online games that isn't financially locked does have a certain appeal.
I'm not going to say that the games on Roblox are of such a quality that my paid game library is at risk of getting replaced, but as someone who grew up playing free Flash games on sites like MiniClip, I can understand the appeal of a unified collection. Knowing that the platform houses passionate developers like Smith and Dooley and has such a large and careful team of moderators behind the scenes, there really is more to Roblox than meets the eye.