Game developers today are reacting strongly to a YouTube video posted by the channel People Make Games, in which host Quintin Smith argues that Roblox Corporation is taking advantage of young people trying to make games on the platform.
In a 22-minute video, Smith lays out a number of concerns that young developers face when trying to make games on the platform, which include a mix of unrealistic expectations driven by Roblox Corporation’s marketing, a microtransaction system that seems analogous to the old company scrip system of the coal mining days, and a high financial cost of entry to both the systems that put user’s games in front of other players.
In a quick rundown, here’s how each of these issues disproportionately impact children, according to Smith. Roblox Corporation’s platform and website do include messaging that indicates it’s both easy to make games, and easy to get paid. Those statements aren’t necessarily deceptive, but they are prominently featured alongside platforms for downloading Roblox development software and a cosmetics store users are likely interacting with.
Little of that messaging mentions the high cost of entry to making a game that can successfully be found on Roblox’s discovery tools, or that cracking the top 200 or so Roblox games is necessary to start generating real revenue from these projects.
Second, there’s the matter of how extensively Robux (Roblox’s in-app currency) are used to navigate the creator economy. Roblox creators are paid first by receiving a cut of Robux that comes from the sale, which they can use to purchase other Roblox experiences, in-game assets, cosmetics, etc. That means once a developer enters the Robux economy, their money is all spent inside the Roblox system until they’re able to withdraw it.
But to withdraw it, they need to have raked in roughly $1,000 worth of Robux. That creates more incentive for young developers to keep working in Robux, with some even going to far as to pay their collaborators in Robux. Smith points out that the long-running MMORPG Second Life only demands you make $10 worth of in-game currency before you can pull it out.
Smith also notes that creators also receive a relatively small cut of Robux sales, especially when compared to Steam, Epic, or Apple’s developer cuts.
And third, there’s that high cost of entry of getting a Roblox game into the public eye. Roblox’s discoverability platform is based on popularity, and cracking the list of top games can feel “like making a viral TikTok,” one creator told Smith.
Which is to say, it’s a process that’s unpredictable and slightly at the whim of either an algorithm or the ever-changing taste of young users.
There’s any number of ways one can market a Roblox game—chasing YouTubers and streamers, paying for ads on Facebook—but Roblox’s solution inside the platform is to run its own ad system where users can bid for ads the same way you would in other advertising networks.
These ads are of course, paid for in Robux, which loops back into Smith’s “company scrip” argument.
This system all gets more thorny when you wrangle with the fact that it’s advertised primarily for children and teenage players. And if a solo developer manages to jump through all the hoops and create a game that picks up players and starts raking in Robux, there isn’t a lot of protection from another team of developers making a fast-follow game that iterates on and improves the first developers’ mechanic, leaving that first user in the dust.
One young developer (aged 11) that Smith spoke with expressed frustration and exhaustion with having to deal with Roblox Corporation’s platform, even after his parents had paid for a summer camp session where he’d learned to make games, and helped fund his efforts to get his game notice.
His complaints about how Roblox’s discovery system only benefit the top makers sound like a distorted echo of the “indiepocalypse” conversations of 2015-2016.
Roblox’s kid-friendly focus has often put its parent company under scrutiny from the media, and this isn’t the only incident making headlines in the last week. Two days ago, the company apologized for a rash of Roblox experiences making their way onto the platform that recreated the 2019 Christchurch New Zealand shooting.
When asked to comment, a Roblox Corporation spokesperson declined to directly answer our questions about transparency, the cut it takes on Robux transactions, and Robux withdrawal minimums, and instead went on to explain how much money it's made for developers in the last quarter.
Here's the company's full statement:
Roblox is a User-Generated Content (UGC) platform where people around the world come together to connect and enjoy experiences together. All of the experiences are built by our community, who use our free tools to create deep, rich, immersive experiences for the community to enjoy. At the same time, building experiences on Roblox teaches the fundamentals of coding, digital civility, and entrepreneurship and has helped many begin their careers in STEM.
Developers and creators, large and small, are key to bringing this ecosystem to life and realizing this vision. We are heavily invested in making our developer and creator community successful and continue to look for opportunities for community success. In fact, we have seen a dramatic increase in developer earnings as evidence in our Q2 financials:
- Specifically, for Q2 2021, Developer Exchange Fees (the amount of money developers earned on the Roblox platform) totaled $129.7 million, up 53% over Q2 2020 and up 5.6x over the $23.3 million that the developer community earned in Q2 2019. Through the first six months of 2021, our developer community has earned $248.7 million, and we are on page to share half a billion dollars with our community in 2021; which is around 5x the amount our community earned in 2019.
Collectively, developers and creators contribute to our platform in three ways: 1) by building experiences for their friends and users on the platform as a whole to enjoy; 2) by building avatar items for users to acquire and express themselves with; and 3) by building tools and 3D models for other developers and creators to utilize. Our developers play an integral role in the health of the Roblox ecosystem.
We work to help the community grow, support their needs, and ensure mutual success.
- Our community has evolved over the years. Once powered by individual part-time developers, it grew to include small groups of collaborators, and now full-time studios that focus exclusively on developing on Roblox.
- In the past 12 months we’ve doubled the number of developers (now over 600) who are earning $85K+ a year from their creations on Roblox.
- We want to see more developers creating on the platform, and we have a dedicated Developer Relations team that focuses on providing support to our growing community through a variety of resources, programs, and systems designed to help them succeed.
- We host programs to help accelerate developer success through focus groups, game design consultations, beta testing groups, and a public forum where they can have discussions and provide feedback.
- Our developers take surveys and share feedback to help us prioritize roadmap items and ensure we provide the best support.
- We also support developers through a number of programs including an Accelerator internship program, engagement-based payouts, and the recently announced Game Fund and Talent Hub, which were created to help developers find success on the platform.
Continued investment in our developer community leads to better content, which leads to improved user engagement and growth. We nurture this cycle by providing support to our developer community and giving them the tools and technology to easily build, publish, operate, and monetize content. We continue to focus on pushing a greater share of the economics to our developers and growing the overall pool of capital available to them.