Somewhat of a mix between a social network, a virtual world and a creative platform, Roblox has just reached the level of 100 million users… and is on its way to reaching 1 billion. Portrait of an astounding success that was carefully prepared over the space of more than a decade.
These days, fans of Roblox (which is a blend of “robot” and “blocks”) are receiving quite a special gift: a free accessory for their avatars courtesy of the platform’s creators to celebrate having reached the milestone of 100 million unique visitors per month after 13 years of work. Today, Roblox can boast that it has more monthly users than Minecraft (91 million).
Roblox owes this all but instantaneous success to the loyalty of its young fans and to a community of millions of “experience creators.” However, the company, whose coffers were filled with $150 million in venture capital less than a year ago, is aiming for much, much more.
A social network or a video game?
Founded in 2006 by Dave Baszucki, the co-creator of an online learning software and one of the first to have invested in the Friendster social network, Roblox defines itself as a “co-experience” space in which visitors give free rein to their imagination and interact among themselves instead of complying with the rules and constraints of a traditional game.
The co-experience resembles a creative and unstructured game that naturally interests children. Rather than completing missions at different levels of the game, participants explore experiences the goals of which may be inconsequential or even non-existing. This philosophy is reminiscent of the one behind Second Life and Habbo Hotel among others some 15 or so years ago.
It’s in 2016, i.e., ten years after Roblox was launched, that its user base began recording explosive growth: from 9 million unique visitors per month in February 2016 to 48 million in March 2017 and 90 million in April 2019. And this growth shows no signs of slowing down. Between last April and July, Roblox saw its fan base grow more than during its first ten years in existence.
To reach new clients, Roblox depends on word-of-mouth as well as the popularity of a certain number of personalities who broadcast their gaming sessions on YouTube among other platforms.
Roblox users are very young. In 2018, close to half of the platform’s fans were aged 12 or less. Moreover, the company claims that it counts half of all American children aged 9 to 12 years among its faithful fans. This young base is also highly captive: according to a study conducted for Roblox by advertising analysis firm comScore, children aged under 13 spent 51.5 million hours on the site in December 2018 (compared to 19.4 million hours on YouTube and 3.4 million hours on Netflix). Consequently, according to Fortune magazine, Roblox is the most popular destination on the web among this age group. Note that Roblox arrives second after YouTube among 13–17 year-olds.
A business model based on participation
Where Roblox is different from its predecessors is the robustness of its participative content ecosystem. The company provides its users with a design tool called Roblox Studio. It enables them to build and share experiences with minimal effort by assembling components whose look and behaviour are relatively standardized. By calling upon its fan base’s imagination, in a comparable manner as we observe with Minecraft and LEGO blocks, Roblox has built up a catalogue of some 69 million experiences and the company has become a sort of video game YouTube for kids.
(Curiously enough, the English version of the company’s site states two million different creators for its 69 million experiences, whereas the French and Spanish versions instead mention four million creators.)
In general, the experiences made available by Roblox developers are relatively simple. They resemble the games that were available for free when the web came into existence and the first applications designed for mobile devices rather than what we usually find on the other platforms today. Among successful Roblox games are games that simulate weight lifting, pizza parlours, zoological parks and simple parks where friends can spend time together. The simplicity of Roblox Studio also allows young creators to develop non-traditional experiences. For example, an 11-year-old Montrealer developed an activity designed to raise awareness of mental health issues among his classmates.
Roblox’s participative ecosystem extends to the marketing of experiences. The platform provides its developers with marketing tools that enable them to contain the promotion of experiences within the ecosystem. Roblox also hosts experiences on its servers, which avoids developers from having to manage infrastructure needs that may quickly increase in the event of a success. In one particular case, an experience’s number of simultaneous users increased from 300 to 18,000 in the space of a few hours during an internal promotional campaign that was particularly successful.
The developers and Roblox share the revenue generated by the experiences, especially from microtransactions involving the purchase of clothing and accessories for the avatars. This model appears to be fair for both Roblox and its partners. Free participation allows a maximum number of players to access the ecosystem and remain in it. The cosmetic nature of the advantages gained through microtransactions ensures that competition—if there is any—is not unfairly influenced by participants’ ability to pay. Finally, for both players and their parents, the fact that the microtransactions are carried out in virtual currency that is exclusive to Roblox (robuxes) makes it possible to simplify purchases and, especially, to exercise control over the amounts that children can spend.
However, as in most digital participative ecosystems, a minority of Roblox experience developers receive most of the revenue. If a dozen of developers have received up to today an average of $3 million each, a total of $150 million has been paid out to all of the developers, which translates to a little more than $2 per experience posted online.
The breadth and loyalty of Roblox’s clientele are catching the attention of an increasing number of brands that hope to reach children and teenagers. Roblox fans were given the opportunity to dress up their avatars free of charge with costumes and accessories in the colours of the Liverpool and Barcelona soccer clubs or those of the WWE’s star wrestlers. Promotional items associated with Netflix’s popular series Stranger Things were also provided to the players during the launch of the latest season. To win them, players had to solve daily puzzles. Also, as part of an annual digital Easter Egg hunt event, players had the possibility of acquiring virtual objects in the colours of the Avengers: Endgame film, which began appearing on theatre screens at about the same time.
In the short term, Roblox intends to turn to the lucrative Chinese market in the pursuit of its expansion. A partnership with Tencent, China’s online service and advertising giant, intended to facilitate this expansion, was announced in the spring.
Another sign of Roblox’s planetary ambitions is the fact that its webpage is published in 45 languages…
Roblox also intends to go beyond the youth market, but it remains to be seen if it will be possible to adapt the co-experience model to an adult public. Despite a considerable media presence, Second Life’s never garnered the interest of more than a few tens of thousands of loyal fans. And if Roblox were to demonstrate that it is possible to develop a video game creation, editing and consumption ecosystem for adults that is accessible to all, industry giants such as Sony, Nintendo and Electronic Arts would certainly not let the bandwagon pass by without trying to get on it themselves.