Teach a child physics and they will stare out the window while you talk. Give a child a video game and they will test out the principles of physics by toppling buildings and slamming cars into each other all day. That was the lesson learned by the Canadian entrepreneur David Baszucki back in the late Eighties, when he first tried to harness computing for education.
“Seeing how kids lit up when they were creating things,” Baszucki once recalled, “made me think of what would be the ultimate platform for our imagination.” Three decades later that platform is known to the world as Roblox – a name that inspires affection in millions of children and strikes mixed gratitude and exhaustion into the hearts of parents everywhere.
From its quiet launch in 2006, this Lego-like online world has boomed under lockdown to more than 150m monthly users, including more than half of all British ten-year-olds, who employ it for everything from virtual classes to birthday parties to learning computer programming.
Having raked in more than $2bn in lifetime mobile purchases, as well as selling over 40m spin-off physical toys, Roblox this month confirmed its intention to go public in 2021, with reports valuing it at up to $8bn (£6.1bn).
All that for a video game? Not quite. Even Fortnite is only estimated to be worth about $2bn. Roblox, however, is not one single game but a toybox for creating games: over 19m of them at the last count, ranging from the digital equivalent of children’s doodles to hugely popular titles from professional creators making up to $10m a year.
Popular games include Adopt Me, a pet-raising simulator, Natural Disaster Survival, a non-violent co-operative adventure game, and Piggy, a horror game in which players hide from a demonic parody of Peppa Pig.
“Most kids now, they’ll say their dream job is to be a YouTuber – but we’re also hearing how they want to make Roblox games,” says Andrew Douthwaite, chief operating officer of the children’s digital consultancy Dubit. He describes Roblox as “the YouTube of games”, believing that companies are missing the potential of its fast-growing developer ecosystem.
“The two most popular things kids do are play games and watch videos,” he says. “Roblox and YouTube are the most used platforms for games and videos. And Roblox, like YouTube, is an open platform, which means companies can promote themselves easily to a huge audience. It’s where the kids are, and brands go where the kids are.”
That is not far from Baszuki’s vision. For years the 57-year-old chief executive has hoped to build a space for “human co-experience” – a virtual world where people chat, play games, hang out and buy and sell their work all in one system.
While Covid has made that dream more concrete, it had already been slowly coming true for some time, with many children treating Fortnite and Minecraft as social spaces just as much as games.
Even so, Roblox bobbled along for years without mass success, described by Baszucki as being “lost among the crowd”. PitchBook funding data shows a slow drip of single-digit millions from angel investors and venture firms such as Kleiner Perkins.
Piece by piece, however, Baszuki was cultivating a little game industry within his walled garden. It began to blossom in 2013, when Roblox allowed developers to earn real money by selling virtual items, and grew via awards shows and start-up accelerators into a thriving economy sustaining a new class of creators, collectively on track to earn $250m by the end of this year.
Austin Weller is one of them. At only 20 years old, he is a lifelong Roblox fan from Kentucky who now works full time at RedManta Games, which makes more than $1m a year from Roblox. Like many others, Weller graduated from high school through internships right into professional Roblox game development, without any experience of more traditional video game engines or tools.
“I’ve essentially spent most of my life on Roblox,” he says. “I grew up on the platform and I’ve spent the entirety of my adult life supporting myself financially on the platform. A lot of my closest relationships stemmed from either my work or my play [there] over the past ten years.”
The strength of Roblox, he says, is its supreme ease: “You have a base cost of absolutely $0… you don’t have to worry about running your own servers or any other networking problems that would come from creating a multiplayer game in an engine like Unity.”
Investors agree. From 2017 Roblox’s funding began to multiply, from $4m to $25m and then $150m. In February Marc Andreessen, a prolific Silicon Valley investor who backed Facebook and Airbnb at an early stage, extolled Roblox as the gaming equivalent of Microsoft Word, making creation tools suddenly accessible to millions of laypeople.
Recalling Baszucki’s vision, Andreessen said the company was well on its way to building a “metaverse,” – the permanent virtual universe that software engineers have been daydreaming about for decades.
In fact, Douthwaite argues that Roblox is a better bet for many companies than Apple’s iPhone App Store: a comparatively untapped territory where users face no barrier to instantly trying out new games (the average player gets through 20 a month).
He thinks that within three years, “all major kid brands” will have a Roblox game. Many already have huge unofficial followings that they are not exploiting – such as the WWE wrestling league, with more than 6,500 unauthorised tributes.
One drag on Roblox, however, is its trail of child safety scandals. In 2018, two players hacked its safety systems to upload custom code that let them virtually “assault” a seven-year-old girl. The next year brought problems with neo-Nazi recruiting.
The company has also been fighting a cat and mouse battle against a seedy underworld of hidden, hack-enabled cybersex parties, where teenagers as young as 13 reportedly venture to flirt with maturity, but where adult predators may also be operating. One teacher told The Sunday Telegraph that her generic avatar received intrusive questions from a seeming adult player within hours of her first login.
Yet Roblox can argue it protects its users better than many online games, with the NSPCC giving it an overall safety rating of “good”. It employs automatic scanning and about 1,600 human moderators to check images and videos before they are seen, and automatically filters all text chat (hacks notwithstanding).
It has also hired former Children in Need boss Laura Higgins to lead a “digital civility” designed to reward children for being nice to each other.
Parents too have powerful safety controls: they can log separately into their children’s accounts, limit them to approved games, go through their chat records, block settings changes, control who they can message, and switch off chat. Baszucki said in August. “Safety is not a retrofit; it’s been in our DNA since day one.”
After ten years in Roblox, Weller believes it to be largely safe. He certainly has not encountered any secret sex parties, and says such content is rarely encountered without determined effort. True, it is common knowledge that children sometimes simulate romance and even sex more generally (a practice dubbed “OD’ing”, for “online dating”). But who can stop a truly determined teenager?
“The real problem is that kids seek out places to ‘get freaky’ online in the first place,” he says. “Children might role-play ‘dating’ each other in any town or home role-play game… I don’t think this is necessarily healthy, but it’s something parents need to try and teach kids not to do.”