This past February, Alex Jafanz spent much of his 18th birthday on an important phone call discussing the future of his video game business.
About three weeks earlier, Jafanz and his business partner had published a cops-and-robbers video game called “Jailbreak” on Roblox. Although Jafanz and his partner had created Roblox games before, “Jailbreak” was their first overnight success, hitting about 65,000 simultaneous players on the day it launched and maintaining that level afterward. “Jailbreak” is on track to generate “seven figures” in revenue this year, and Jafanz said he’s already made enough to cover the entire four-year cost of his undergraduate education at Duke University, where he plans to study artificial intelligence starting this autumn.
Now, Roblox’s developer relations department wanted to pick Jafanz’s brain about the game’s success and figure out how they could work together. It was just the exclamation mark on a period where he had to manage both the last few months of his senior year of high school, and a growing community of paying players.
“That was pretty crazy,” said Jafanz, who lives in Florida “A lot of things happening at once.”
The same might be said about Roblox. The company offers a massively multiplayer online platform that encourages anybody and everybody to create games for its mostly-younger audience to play together.
This past weekend, Roblox held its annual conference, an invite-only event for the platform’s top developers. At the event, Roblox officials said the company expects to pay out $US30 million to developers this year. One young programmer is on track to bring in $US3 million. Two more could hit $US2 million each.
I was on the ground at the conference, aiming to hear more about Roblox, the massive entrepreneurial opportunity it’s creating, and how it’s turning teenagers into media moguls. Here’s what I found out.
The big deal
If you’re older than, say, 15, there’s a good chance you’ve never heard of Roblox. Although it’s been available for PCs since 2005, it exploded in popularity only over the last few years as the newer smartphone, tablet, and Xbox versions of the app have opened it up to a new generation of players.
Nowadays, Roblox boasts 56 million monthly players. That actually puts it ahead of Minecraft. Earlier this year, Microsoft said about 55 million people play its hit game every month. Meanwhile, by some measurements, more people search for Roblox’s website than for Lego, company officials boast.
Roblox’s platform is open; anyone with the requisite skills can make a game for it. That openness is reflected in the tremendous variety of games on offer. Beyond “Jailbreak,” popular games include “Roblox High School,” a high school role playing game; “Work At a Pizza Place,” which is pretty much what it sounds like; and “Pokémon Brick Bronze,” a multiplayer homage to the Nintendo franchise.
Players use a virtual currency called Robux to buy items in games. In “Jailbreak,” for example, you can buy a stereo for your in-game car, or a VIP pass with unique privileges.
Roblox sells Robux for real money; alternatively, players can earn the currency by playing games. When users spend their Robux in a game, the game’s developer gets a cut.
Robux’s platform is “a free market that works remarkably well,”David Baszucki, the company’s CEO, told Business Insider in an interview earlier this year.
The supply chain
In conversation with Jafanz and other Roblox developers, one thing became clear: Most people who make Roblox games started out by playing games on the platform when they were younger.
Take Andrew Bereza. Bereza is an 18-year-old who lives with his father in New Jersey. He started playing Roblox as a kid, but as he got older, he started experimenting with programming and designing in Roblox and released some basic games.
Nowadays, Bereza is best-known as the creator of “Miner’s Haven,” a “tycoon” game that casts users as mining barons. First released in June 2015, the game is still going strong with thousands of players. Bereza said he’s “lost track” of how much money he’s made on the game. But it was enough to pay for his entire undergraduate education at the University of Washington, where he’ll start later this year.
Some developers, as their experience deepens and ambitions broaden, abandon the Roblox platform to pursue their own fortunes. But Bereza said his success wouldn’t be possible without Roblox.
“The cool thing about Roblox is that it handles a lot of the hard parts,” he said.
If you’re building with Roblox, you don’t have to worry about configuring servers, or building a way for players to connect with each other, or setting up a payment service. You also don’t have to worry about porting your game to different platforms, because Roblox has already done the hard part of configure its app to work on a variety of devices, from PCs to phones to games consoles.
Because of that support, and because Roblox is accruing so many new players, Bereza plans to continue developing for the platform for the foreseeable future. In fact, he’s working as an intern at the Roblox office right now, bringing his perspective as a developer back to the company’s Silicon Valley mothership.
“I think Roblox is growing at an incredible rate right now, and it would be silly to abandon it,” he said.
Jafanz and Bereza are extreme cases, but there’s a lot of opportunity on Roblox even for those who aren’t the developers of a hit game on the platform.
Jafanz and his partner, for example, have subcontracted out lots of work for “Jailbreak,” including sound design, the user interface, and character art. To really stand out in the crowded Roblox marketplace, you need your game to be as polished as possible, Jafanz said. That’s creating a booming opportunity for specialists.
Among those who are benefitting is Anne Shoemaker, 18, who was visiting the Roblox Developers Conference from Florida. A 3D artist and scripter, Shoemaker goes by “Myzta” on the platform.
Shoemaker’s been taking on freelance work for other Roblox developers while she raises funds to make her own passion project. Thanks to Roblox, “I started falling in love with game design,” she said. She now intends to pursue it as a career.
Another beneficiary is Kacey “KaceyWillEatChu” Matthews, a 17-year-old from North Carolina. Matthews does freelance design and also streams Roblox gameplay to her Twitch channel. She hopes to parlay her participation in the Roblox community into a job at the company itself.
And then there’s Vivian “EvilArtist” Arellano, a 17-year-old freelance artist from Texas. She’s made about $US1,000 from Roblox in the last few months, contributing art to projects and drawing custom portraits of in-game characters. As Roblox grows and matures, there’s more demand for artists and designers, not just programmers, Arellano said.
Arellano praised the Roblox community for being supportive. She brought her stepfather to the Roblox Developers Conference, and while he was sceptical at first, even he was won over by the generally positive atmosphere at the event.
“They’re all nerds,” Arellano’s stepfather told her, approvingly.