Should You Develop Roblox Games?
Roblox made headlines this year after it went public with a $41.9 billion valuation. According to their IPO filing, they have 31.1 million Daily Active Users. The most popular game on Roblox, Adopt Me, has been played over 22.7 billion times and, if it was on Steam, would be the third most popular game just under CS:GO and Dota 2. According to The Verge, “Over half of US kids (under 16) are playing Roblox”. Developers, like the ones who made Call of Duty-inspired Bad Business, are making upwards of $49k a month off of the platform.
After reading all of this you may be thinking the same things I was, “Wow, I didn’t realize Roblox’s player base was so massive” and also “that’s a lot of money flying around.” So I hopped down the Roblox rabbit hole to see if it was something worth investing my time in.
What is Roblox?
Roblox is a game engine, game distribution platform, and social network all merged into one. Users create Roblox accounts with customizable LEGO-like avatars that they can walk around in virtual “experiences” with. Experiences can be things like games or concerts, where users can talk and interact with each other. Outside of experiences they can add other users as friends and chat with them through a web interface. There’s an Avatar Shop where users can buy clothing for their avatars.
All of the experiences in Roblox are created using Roblox Studio, Roblox’s custom “creation” engine. Any person with a Roblox account can download Roblox Studio for free and start creating their own experiences. Once they’re finished, they can instantly upload it to the Roblox platform and let other users start playing.
Are the experiences worth playing?
With 31.1 million users, there must be a bunch of good experiences on there that make people keep coming back, right? Well...yes and no. It’s safe to say that most games on Roblox are crudely built, if not downright ugly. There are some decently polished games, such as Outlaster, a game clearly based off of the TV Show Survivor. It’s filled with nicely built minigames, great UI polish, and highly-coordinated cutscenes that make it feel like a TV show. But there are many popular games on the platform, such as Royale High, that have completely inconsistent art styles from the environmental art to UI with completely boring minigames that are buggy, unpolished messes. The “quality threshold” needed to appease the Roblox user-base is seemingly much lower than what it is for more-mainstream games.
Now, this isn’t to say that crudely built games aren’t worth playing! My brother and I have had a lot of fun hopping around trying different games out, seeing what’s getting Roblox users excited.
When you give everyday users with no formal game design experience, programming experience, or 3D modeling experience, easy access to these tools, you start getting the gaming equivalent of “naïve art.” It’s exciting to play games about running away from a Gorilla, building a boat to float down a river, or amassing a swarm of bees.
How do the experiences make money?
Well, this is where things get a little ~ethically dicey~.
There’s two ways for developers to make money in Roblox: selling things for Robux, or having Roblox Premium members play your game.
Like the Microsoft Points of the Xbox 360 era, or V-Bucks in Fortnite, Roblox uses a virtual currency called “Robux” to obfuscate the real-world cost of virtual items. The mapping from USD to Robux is not easily done in your head. 400 Robux is the equivalent of $4.99, and games are riddled with microtransactions of arbitrary amounts like 55 Robux. Unless I have a calculator handy I’m not able to quickly equate 55 Robux to being $0.69, and a child certainly isn’t going to be able to do it either.
There're many ways developers choose to monetize their games in Roblox. Some games offer purchasable “battle passes”, some allow users to directly buy virtual items with Robux, some sell “boosts” (in-game advantages like double experience points), some games have you pay Robux just to play them, but most games make money through loot boxes.
Players purchase loot boxes with Robux and open them to receive items of different “rarities.” Usually these are cosmetic items such as a “uncommon” blue dog or a “legendary” flaming dog. In the most popular Roblox game, Adopt Me, players (who are mostly children) purchase loot boxes from Santa Claus who claims that buying loot boxes helps pay for the presents at Christmas time (Yikes! Talk about child manipulation!). When a child opens up their loot box, what they’ve received is announced to everybody on the server, which, once they see someone get something that’s super rare, almost certainly motivates kids to buy more loot boxes.
Roblox tries to skirt around this dubious gambling behavior by forcing developers to list the odds of getting certain items. From their guidelines they say “developers must indicate the actual numerical odds (such as a 30% chance) of what users may receive when they are buying a random virtual item in-game using Robux or other currency”.
At the end of the day though, even if the odds are disclosed, it’s still gambling. In fact, in a paper by the University of Plymouth and University of Wolverhampton titled Lifting the Lid on Loot-Boxes: Chance-Based Purchases in Video Games and the Convergence of Gaming and Gambling, their research concluded: “When reviewing the academic evidence, our systematic review has established that engagement with loot boxes has been robustly associated with problem gambling behaviours in around a dozen studies.”
The one other way games make money is by having users with “Roblox Premium”, the monthly Roblox subscription, play their game. The more time premium users spend in your game, the more Robux you get paid. Game makers try to entice Premium members by offering boosts and other items for free to Premium users. This payment model has seemingly also led to a genre called “simulators” which have users playing Cookie Clicker-esque incremental games that essentially have you waste time by clicking (or in some cases literally waiting) to make some sort of in-game currency increase. You then spend that in-game currency on items to generate money faster and so forth. It’s like a Skinner box created for children.
Another way for people to make money in Roblox is by creating cosmetic items to sell in the Avatar Shop. Recently Roblox has partnered with luxury fashion brand Gucci on creating exclusive cosmetic items that were available for a limited time in their experience, Gucci Garden. Roblox is turning children into conspicuous consumers at a young age!
If you choose to develop a game and monetize it in a way you deem ethical, one thing to keep in mind is that Roblox takes 75.5% of every transaction made. If somebody spends 100 Robux on your game, you get 24.5 of them. Even with that awful developer payout, the top games are making millions of dollars a year...but the likelihood of whatever you make competing is extremely slim.
What’s the developer experience like?
Out of the box, Roblox Studio leaves a lot to be desired for people coming from a professional development background.
Things that programmers use every day such as version control and standalone text editors aren’t possible with the base version of Roblox Studio. In order to use those tools you have to download third-party applications such as Rojo.
From the art side of things, although you can import 3D models with custom textures, there’s not any ability to add custom materials yet. There’s a limited amount of materials such as “plastic” and “metal” you can use for terrain and models. The ability to create custom shaders is completely absent from Roblox Studio, leaving simple effects found in many other games such as object outlines, impossible to do. Roblox didn’t even have the ability to have skinned meshes until December 2020, a feature that’s been a part of 3D video games since 1998, so I’m sure there are other things missing as well that I’m not aware of.
But it’s not all bad! There are some nice collaboration features that are built into Roblox Studio that let two people edit the same world at the same time, placing models, building terrain, and adding scripts. It also allows players to hop in and instantly test their “experience” together, straight from the editor.
Roblox uses a modified version of Lua called Luau for its scripts, and it’s very easy to pick up whether you’re familiar with other programming languages or just starting to learn.
One of the benefits you get from Roblox taking 75% of the money you earn is the nice ability to not worry about networking, server management, or database management. The Roblox APIs are easy to use and a developer doesn’t have to worry about any sort of scaling issues, Roblox handles all of that for you.
If you’re a young developer with tons of time on your hands, Roblox is the perfect place to start learning programming, 3D modeling, or animating. Collaborating on maps with your friends in real time, showing them the results of your programming or your latest 3D model, is extremely easy to do with Roblox Studio. Those skills you obtain while making things for Roblox can be brought to other game engines or industries in the future.
If you’re an experienced developer from the video game industry, or some other industry thinking about creating things for Roblox...it’s probably best to look elsewhere. Achieving financial success on Roblox is going to be a complete gamble, the 70% cut simply doesn’t make sense for anybody except the top 10 most popular games. Plus you’re locked into the Roblox platform, and don’t really have any control over your product.
But if you’re not worried about monetizing your game, Roblox is the perfect platform to start creating multiplayer experiences. The player base is absolutely huge, users can start playing your game in a few seconds, and you don’t have to worry about any sort of networking or database troubles.
Roblox isn’t the only platform out there trying to get you to develop games for them, though. There’s a few alternatives such as Core, Crayta, dot big bang, and s&box.
Core allows developers to develop games using Lua, similar to Roblox, except they can’t import any custom art assets. Unlike Roblox, all of the “Credits” (similar to Robux) developers earn goes directly to them but if they want to convert “Credits” to USD, Core takes 50%.
Crayta just got bought by Facebook, so don’t even bother.
s&box is the successor to the extremely popular Garry’s Mod. Users will be able to create custom games for the Source 2 engine using C#, being able to add custom art assets and shaders just as they could in other professional game engines. Unlike with Garry’s Mod, there’s plans for monetization but nothing concrete, all that’s been said so far is “it's important to me that this time around we let developers profit from their work in some way.” For reference, Facepunch’s other game, Rust, allows artists to create skins for the game and they get 25% revenue share for each sale.