Posted By Austin Yorski about 1 year ago
“It’s ironic,” laughs Roblox Vice President of Finance Matthew Finick, “We talk to a lot of people who say, ‘We’ve never heard of you,’ but the next day they come back and say, ‘I talked to my kids and they say everyone is using Roblox.’”
As someone who had likewise never heard of the platform, I was shocked to learn how popular it was. Like Minecraft and LittleBigPlanet, Roblox is a service that allows you to create a digital world of your own, and to share it with friends. However, whereas Mojang’s creation lets you play around in a sandbox, and Sony allows you to create custom levels for a game, Roblox gifts its users with the tools to create entire stand-alone games. With over 5 million games completed last year alone, it’s not hard to see why it is ranked Ranked #1 in the US for total engagement time within the 8-14 year old demographic.
The company isn’t content to stay in the shadow of Minecraft forever though. “We view ourselves as a bit of a different animal,” Finick says, “Minecraft is building within an existing world. With us, one week it could be zombies. Another week it could be spaceship games. We’re giving a platform and tools for people to build and publish.” It appears to be striking a chord, as the enterprise’s stranglehold on the middle school population demonstrates.
But what about older crowd? I asked Finick if Roblox has strategies in the works to reach out to young adults and fledgling programmers, and he was hopeful. “15 years-old and older is our fasting growing segment. We’re trying to attract that demographic by increasing the complexity of our physics engine. We’re adding additional tools: More moving parts, more simulation, water, fire.” By broadening the capabilities of the development platform itself, the company hopes to augment the advantage that it already has on other user-generated games. This plan is already paying dividends; Roblox has close to 100% annual growth since its inception in 2005.
Coincidentally, gaming physics is not only Roblox’s future, but also its past. Founder and CEO David Baszucki “liked the idea of physics and simulation,” having been the General Manager of MSC.Software, where he ran the desktop simulation division. He and co-founder Erik Cassel “envisioned Roblox as being able to build an entire city with your friends,” explained Finick. The physical simulation aspects have only grown from there, drawing a crowd that spends 21 million hours a month on their site, whether it be creating, sharing, or playing.
Playing games on Roblox is free, but there are account upgrades that will allow you to publish more games, turn off ads, and sell merchandise for your creations. With a two-currency economy and language moderation appropriate for its age demographic, the user experience is very different from the trash-talking atmosphere of, say, Xbox Live. “As our users begin to skew older, we’re starting to segment our site by age. Right now we have blacklists for certain practices (like swearing), but soon 18 year-olds will be playing games made by other 18 year-olds in their own segment.” This eventual partitioning of the service is dependent on the increasingly complex physics simulation bringing in older users, but it also speaks to the pedagogical applications of the platform.
“We have power users who are getting into game production. One kid who lives nearby… we’re going to convert him into a full-time employee.” Another user made an iPhone app for the company and self-published a book an Lua scripting based on their time with Roblox. “You really can learn basic scripting and coding,” Finick assured me, before going on to discuss some of the potential retail options the company is considering. “We’ve looked into bundling some of our more popular games,” he explains, and the implications are clear. There are teenagers out there making games on Roblox who already have programming experience, and are on the cusp of being published.
I asked Finick if he thought there was any correlation between the rise of user-generated experiences and the recent boom in the indie gaming scene, as small to one-man programming teams have become extremely relevant in the industry as of late. “We’re very grassroots,” he answered, “but I think we’re separate. A lot of our growth is viral. We don’t really do ads.” It seems as though word-of-mouth alone has allowed Roblox to assemble this burgeoning group of entrepreneurs and artists. He did acknowledge the way both products like Roblox and Minecraft have benefitted from the same industry paradigm shifts, commenting that, “You used to have to release a retail game, which meant a publisher. Nowadays there are probably fifteen different digital distribution companies all out there actively looking for games.”
Getting philosophical for a moment, I compared the modern wave of user-generated games to the advent of home recording and the invention of the printing press, asking Finick if he saw what Roblox does as putting the tools of distribution in the hands of people who otherwise wouldn’t have been able to express themselves through the medium. “That’s our vision for the company,” he said, “I want people to see these incredibly complex games and say, ‘I can’t believe this was made by a 15 year-old.’” Only time will tell if advanced physics will draw in older users to the platform, but for now it is clear that Roblox is an incredibly popular and interesting service that just may be responsible for training the people who make the video games of the future.
Matt Finick was also a senior finance/operations executive that “played a key role in successfully launching the studio division that self-produced the Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk feature films in 2008.” You can follow him on Twitter @MattFinick.