My house is packed with video game consoles, phones, and computers hosting a world of shiny AAA games and quirky indies, yet my 8-year-old daughter spends the bulk of her time in a free-to-play game called Roblox on whatever screen is in front of her. She even spends a chunk of her allowance on a Roblox Premium subscription.
She’s not alone. Roblox is the most popular game with 5- to 12-year-olds in the US, according to Rooster Money, and it topped the pocket money spending charts in the UK in 2020 ahead of Fortnite. The company recently began trading on the New York Stock Exchange and was valued at a staggering $45 billion. You can play it virtually anywhere, from an Xbox to a phone, laptop, or PC, and it boasts more than 165 million monthly active users and 7 million active creators. It’s completely free to make a Roblox account.
My 11-year-old son plays other games and says he’s not that into Roblox, but the fact that he’s often playing it when I look over his shoulder tells a different story. He says it’s one of the few games he can play with all his friends.
Let’s get one thing straight. Roblox isn’t really a game. It’s a free platform where players can dip in and out of different virtual worlds and play any game in them. It’s packed with user-created content spanning a dizzying variety of genres and titles. The graphics are basic, there are glitches and bugs galore, and even many of the most popular games lack polish. I didn’t get the appeal after watching my kids play, but then I joined in.
My daughter wanted me to play SharkBite first. She was on her phone, and I joined in on my PC. In SharkBite, one player is a giant shark and has to eat other players to win. Those cast as survivors grab weapons and try to kill or evade the deadly jaws. It’s rough around the edges—a boat collision left my daughter’s avatar floating around in a sitting position—but that didn’t stop the shrieks and laughter as we tried to hide and inevitably got eaten.
One of the keys to the platform’s success is the ease with which you can invite friends to join you in different virtual worlds or games. They can spawn right next to each other at the click of a button. With open chat channels to friends on their phones, my kids are constantly negotiating which game to join. There are no lengthy downloads or loading screens, plus avatars and basic controls are universal. The sheer variety and quirkiness make exploration a lot of fun.
We also played Royale High, which is unlike anything I’ve ever tried before. I reached out to its creator, Callmehbob, who didn’t want to share her real name.
“I created the game I’ve been wanting to play but couldn’t find anywhere,” Callmehbob (also known as @Nightbarbie) says in an email. “Turns out, a lot of people were looking for the same type of a game too, and it exploded completely unexpectedly.”
Callmehbob started playing Roblox in 2007—yes, it’s been around that long—but it wasn’t until 2017, at the age of 22, that she decided to start developing a game for the platform. Despite no prior experience, she turned her hobby into a full-time gig: Royale High has been played more than 5 billion times. She says the key to success is replay-ability, including ways to earn money in the game, and making a game that you yourself would want to play.
“There are so many players on Roblox, you will find your special, perfect audience,” Callmehbob says. “I’m still shocked to see how many players have my same mindset and like the same things as me.”
In Royale High, I attend English class in a school that resembles a castle. There’s an interactive spelling test (10/10 for me), then I rush to get the right book from my locker before chemistry. Later, I get ready for a dance by bathing and choosing a new outfit. After dancing around and drinking punch, I’m touched when I get voted king of the ball, a prize that comes with a bouquet of flowers and 500 diamonds.
“Developing Royale High has been a constant balancing act between making fun games to earn currency and creating fun shop items to spend that currency on (giving players a goal to work towards),” Callmehbob says.
There’s a delightful sweetness to Royale High, and it includes a wider magical world to explore beyond the school. At one point, my daughter and I discover a forest clearing with a campfire and all the ingredients we need to make smores. There are various mini-games and ways to find or earn currency you can spend on fabulous outfits and accessories.
“I think we helped contribute to bringing a whole new wave of people, by making a more feminine game, a style/genre I frequently search for and want to play but is somewhat difficult to find,” she says, talking about the growth in Roblox players. “Shout-out to the other female-oriented games before me that paved the way!”
This kind of gameplay is underrepresented in the wider games industry, which is still male-dominated, even though half of all gamers are female. There are countless violent or competitive games, but many people prefer a gentler pace or a different kind of gameplay.
Another of my daughter’s favorites is Dance Off, which is a mix of dance and fashion that challenges you to pick an outfit and hairstyle before taking to the stage for a performance. Each player rates the others to decide the winner. It’s repetitive, but perhaps that’s part of the appeal. My daughter has played it enough to have a Popular status. (“Popular” floats above her head while “Novice” floats above mine.)
“I have very fun childhood memories replaying games over and over again,” Callmehbob says. “Knowing what to expect can be very comforting, especially in a young person’s life, where they might be going through uncertain, rocky waters.”
First released in 2006, Roblox has grown steadily, but it surged during the lockdown in 2020, adding around 50 million monthly active users and 5 million active creators. The developer community is set to earn somewhere around $250 million for 2020, up from $110 million in 2019. While most creators are amateur Roblox players, some like Callmehbob have turned it into a full-time job, and the platform has also begun to attract professionals, like Swedish game studio the Gang.
A teacher in Singapore has even been using the platform to teach game design to students from 11 to 18 years old. Roblox is still rife with unimaginative clones of popular games, but there’s plenty of invention and innovation to be found. Plus, all of the building blocks and tutorials you need to get started are freely accessible.
“Roblox offers quite an easy starting point for students new to game design while also offering the opportunity to develop high-level coding, modeling, and game design skills,” says Philip Williams, head of Library Services at United World College of South East Asia’s East Campus, via email.
The platform’s in-game economy is Robux, which you can buy with real cash. Money for developers comes through premium payouts, which give them a share of subscription fees based on how much time players spend in their games or virtual worlds. Developers can also sell game passes and virtual assets, usually clothing and accessories, but in some games, you can buy vehicles, weapons, and special abilities. My daughter tells me you can identify “noobs” by their default outfits, which is why she wanted to subscribe.
Robux can also be used by developers to advertise their games within the platform. Discoverability is key when there are so many other virtual worlds to choose from. Roblox has a slightly confusing bidding system where the higher you bid the more often your ad will appear. Converting those ad views into profit is complicated. My kids say they rarely click on ads and discover most games by word of mouth.
Next up is Brookhaven, a role-playing game set in a large city. You can buy a house, drive various kinds of vehicles around the streets, and even get a job. My daughter leads me on a bank robbery, after which we escape through underground tunnels. Then I get a job as a pilot, we trigger an emergency, and we parachute back to the streets below. It’s chaotic and random, but undeniably fun.
Most Roblox players are under the age of 13, almost half are female, and I get the sense that the platform is keen to increase its appeal for older gamers–everyone I speak to says it’s not just for kids. That’s especially true with kids who grew up with Roblox and continue to play it as they become adults.
But growing pains are inevitable. Roblox has largely built its player base as a family-friendly environment, yet now there are concerns about online dating and inappropriate behavior from some players on the platform. My kids chat and play almost exclusively with real-life friends and say they haven’t run into anything disturbing, but a few games I tried have a more adult vibe. Inappropriate language is filtered for younger players, and there’s human moderation, but a platform this large will inevitably have darker corners.
Flee the Facility is another big favorite and proves a fitting finale. One player is cast as a beast and tries to hunt down survivors who have to hack computers to open escape doors. The beast emits a red light, and there are musical cues to let you know when they’re approaching. It’s reminiscent of Dead by Daylight and has the same addictive hook, with a real sense of peril, though violence is implied rather than graphically depicted. My daughter is the beast and shows no mercy as she hammers me into oblivion.
“Ha ha, die noob!” is the last thing I hear.
For all its flaws and quirks, Roblox is a hotbed of creativity. It caters to a wide variety of interests, and it has been a lifeline for my kids throughout lockdown—they’ve hung out with friends there almost every day when they couldn’t in real life.
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