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Digging into the game-making platform phenomenon with dot big bang creator Robert Anderberg

ControlZee CEO and co-founder Robert Anderberg breaks down the appeal of UGC platforms like the browser-based dot big bang, and what they mean for the future of game development.

It was a chance encounter with ControlZee CEO and co-founder Robert Anderberg and his company's game creation platform dot big bang that helped me grok the appeal of Roblox. We were on a Zoom call hosted by Games Industry Gathering, and when it came time to introduce himself and his work, Anderberg only briefly talked about himself, and instead invited everyone on the call to click a link he'd dropped in chat.

When we did, a new tab opened up in Chrome to reveal the world of dot big bang: a fully playable three-dimensional environment that can be accessed right in the browser. A 3D game world running fully in Chrome without any cloud computing technology is impressive enough, but what Anderberg showed off next began to reshape my entire worldview.

Once we'd all loaded into the environment, Anderberg just casually started building a jumping puzzle for us to interact with—in the environment we were standing in. As he worked and dropped blocks into the game world, we were free to jump on them, interact with them, and mess around while he worked with dot big bang's developer tools.

Those tools weren't just proprietary features Anderberg had access to; they're part of the core appeal of dot big bang. In a few moments, Anderberg had invited us all into a game world that ran in our browsers, showed how we could immediately move around in 3D environments, and shared tools we could use to collaborate on a game experience.

And on dot big bang, there are plenty of fascinating experiences already. User voxeleus created a Fall Guys-esque racing game. Mehleventyone made a very popular first-person shooter. And Anderberg described bobbyd's work as "his favorite art piece."

Dot big bang is far from the first collaborative game-making platform that also doubles as a game playground, but its browser-based tech is the first one to help me understand the phenomenon. I wanted to know more about what it was like developing in this environment, and why Anderberg would make a game like this after years at companies like Google, CCP, Linden Lab, and more.

If you want a grounded look at the "metaverse" future that everyone's salivating over, Anderberg's got it. Here are some core takeaways from our conversation.

Why are game-making platforms so popular anyway?

To those of us not born in the Roblox or Minecraft generation, their explosive population among young players can seem like a total enigma. Why do kids and teenagers want to spend so much time in these spaces? Why are so many learning to make games using these limited, proprietary tools?

Anderberg's perspective is quite particular on this subject: "There's a basic human desire to create," he explained. During the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, a friend of Anderberg's over at The Lego Group told him the company was selling "the equivalent of Black Friday sales of Lego" every single day. When people were trapped inside, they wanted to entertain themselves, and some of that entertainment took the form of creation.

"Way more people create on a daily basis than they would ever give themselves credit for," Anderberg said. It might be building Lego sets, it might be gardening, but Anderberg's philosophy for creating dot big bang is that people of all ages like to create.

Now when it comes to "creating" on computers, that's actually pretty hard. From machine code to assembly language, to high level languages, to C and C++, to modern game engines, creativity in digital environments has gotten easier but not entirely accessible. But Anderberg remembers when he advised students at university and seeing them start to make games using Unity in an era where Unity was written off as "a game engine for babies."

A screenshot from bobbyd's dotbigbang sculpture
A screenshot from bobbyd's dotbigbang sculpture

"I was like 'what is this, you don't need to deal with memory management?!'", he recalled. "Memory management is the cause of 50 to 80 percent of bugs in games. Removing memory management...enabled a whole generation of people to build games."

You can tell similar stories about Flash, about Unreal, about modding tools that were so popular in the '90s, etc. "Historically, game development has been about grinding away using tools that are often very annoying to eventually get to some vision that's in your head that you love," Anderberg said. "What we need to do is make that less and less the case...we need to make these tools fun in-and-of-themselves."

You can feel these principles in the foundation of dot big bang. Anderberg is the first to admit that it's not the perfect game-making tool, and some level of friction still exists that prevents some users from jumping in right away. But it's a huge step forward. And in a sign of the times, it's not just about being a fun tool to use on your own, there's magic in using a tool that can feel like a multiplayer game as well.

Back to the browser

One of dot big bang's big hooks, as previously mentioned, is that it's all playable in browsers like Google Chrome. Bigger platforms like Roblox or Manticore Games' Core rely on downloadable apps to bring users into their worlds. Anderberg remembers looking at the total number of monthly active browser users and having a revelation about this kind of software.

He took a look a couple years ago at the total number of monthly active browser users that can do 3D environments. That total was 2.4 billion users. "If you think about 2.4 billion [devices] that can run your runtime today, and all you have to do is get your code on it, to me that's a no-brainer," he said.

"What's interesting about web browsers today is, if you apply even a small amount of game development technique to making something in a web browser, and you do it consistently over the years, web browsers are incredibly fast."

He's not the first to observe the power of the browser's accessibility. Blockchain game company Mythical Games recently acquired game streaming service Polystream to deliver on a similar promise, publicly stating that "metaverse" games need to let users hop from game to game in browser-like platforms to actually retain users—they're just going in on streaming instead of how ControlZee has built its tech.

So what is Anderberg using to get dot big bang working on browsers? I initially guessed it was cloud computing technology with video running from a server farm, and that the game's low-poly aesthetic helped reduce latency between me and the machine running the game.

Nope. It's ES5 JavaScript. "It's not even ES6 JavaScript," Anderberg said with a growing grin on his face. "It's not even JavaScript 2015. It's the crappiest, simplest, shittiest version of JavaScript you can possibly get." He said that the ControlZee team has relied on game development techniques that don't allocate memory, or make judicious use of it, in order to render dot big bang's fully functional 3D worlds.

Anderberg observed that colleagues in the game industry that he's spoken with have tried to achieve similar goals, but were too entrenched in more advanced game-making tools to take advantage of how web browsers work. "The web browser isn't good at pretending to be a native platform,"  he said. 

Respecting the standards of say, Google Chrome, means that developers can make lightweight apps that can run on phones, tablets, desktops, and even Chromebooks. Anderberg said that the United States has 40 million Chromebooks in schools now, and dot big bang is a game creation tool that can let students mess around with game iteration on a Chromebook.

There are limits to Anderberg's ambitions. Though he reckons he and his team could improve dot big bang's graphics and get something close to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild that has a five-second load time, he doesn't think developers can get anything close to realistic high-fidelity graphics working on this platform. 

So within those limits, what kinds of games are most enjoyable on these simple-to-use platforms? That line of conversation brought us back to the idea of "playground games."

Playground games (the idea, not the company)

In my most out-of-touch, "old man" observations, I can't help but view the success of Roblox and other platforms as being the success of simple game mechanics. Many of the popular games on these platforms (some driven by the success of Netflix show Squid Game, which turns childhood games into a deadly battle royale) are just recreations of what the youths played on the playground. 

Think about tag, red light greenlight, or capture the flag. I described it to Anderberg as not just being games with "lo-fi" aesthetics, but "lo-fi" mechanics too. 

Anderberg's long-term perspective once again provided context on this phenomenon. "Look at all the mods for classic FPS games," he said. "A lot of these playground games already manifested themselves as simple additions to existing games." 

And those classic games like Quake or Unreal...also had built-in playground games (anyone remember capture the flag?). Anderberg pointed out that if you just classify playground games as games with simple rules, you can see their bones in later shooters like Counter-Strike. "Counter-Strike is a relatively simple set of rules on top of Half-Life's multiplayer," he said. "Historically, a massive number of people have played games that are mods, and a massive number of people have made games that are mods."

The winner's circle for dotbigbang creation Chase Heroes
The winner's circle for dotbigbang creation Chase Heroes

What's different from dot big bangRoblox, and these examples from the '90s and 2000s is that even if a mod-maker made a great, popular game mod on top of another game's platform (think Defense of the Ancients, which started as a Warcraft III mod before evolving into the MOBA genre that Valve and Riot Games would later dominate), only the original game developer could generate revenue from that mod. 

Even developers who've tried to let mod-makers monetize their creations have stumbled in this field. That's because letting other parties earn revenue through your game comes with a number of financial headaches. Blockchain advocates have been claiming solutions to this particular problem , but Anderberg doesn't see that technology as necessary to let creators monetize.

Why? Well...

The "messy" talk about money

Anderberg says that dot big bang is still "trialing" its plans to pay out creators, but the plan is for it to be "dead simple."

"You're gonna sell cosmetic stuff like you do in Fortnite, and [creators] get a cut of it," he said. ControlZee would take its own (still undetermined) cut. He does want to take a lower cut than what Roblox Corp. takes from Roblox creators, with the hope of "flipping the whole equation around." 

"Instead of it being like 75 percent of revenue going to [the platform] and you get the crumbs—what if it was a platform where developers could make some real money?"

(Just for clarification, Roblox Corp.'s graph of payment breakdowns shows that the company doesn't quite get 75 percent of each transaction, it's more like 50 percent, with platform holders like Apple, Microsoft, and Google taking their own 25 percent.)

If dot big bang is going to have a lifespan of ten years or more, Anderberg reckons that it needs to be a place where talented creators "want" to stick around, and a reliable revenue stream is a huge part of making that a reality. 

He still doesn't want to use the term "play-to-earn" (or "plan-and-earn") to describe this system—he described titles like Axie Infinity as having an "input output" problem, where if games can't keep adding players who want to authentically play a game, the earning economics start to fall apart. He doesn't necessarily dislike the idea of blockchain technology in games like dot big bang, but he doesn't see how the raw mechanics make it any easier to pay creators. 

"They keep saying 'blockchain,' and I hear like 'database,'" he quipped. "Why? That's not a game mechanic. That's not a business model. That's not something that I think people want."

The way Anderberg sees it, Roblox already solved the problem he's working on with Robux; the in-app currency that players can buy and developers can cash out with. He explained that dot big bang can't just handle USD transactions between players because the per-transaction cost is sky high. If a PayPal retailer wants to sell somebody something for a dollar, PayPal takes 30 cents plus five percent of that transaction. 

(He took one more dig at blockchain tech again here, commenting that gas fees on different cryptocurrencies can make that prospect even more expensive).

With blockchain and straightforward USD transactions unavailable, that just leaves centralized virtual currencies like Robux. That system has caused controversy in Roblox for a number of reasons, one of which being that you need to earn a hefty amount of Robux before you're allowed to cash out your earnings. This has led to micro-ecosystems of developers paying each other in Robux to make experiences, as well as grey-market cashout systems for Robux that offer a higher conversion rate for players if they're willing to break the rules.

That setup confuses Anderberg. He says that ControlZee is using the same "cashout provider" as Roblox, and he doesn't see a need to have creators stockpile such high amounts of virtual currency before they can cash out. "As a person who runs a business, I could not believe how cheap it was to use that service," he explained. "I've checked with this them multiple times. Per transaction—no matter how big that payout from that transaction is—it costs $1."

(We did ping Roblox Corp. to ask if they could explain their methodology cashing out Robux. They did not respond to our query by the time of publication).

So why does Roblox require creators to have $175 worth of Robux before they can cash out? Anderberg doesn't know. For dot big bang, he wants there to be "some limit" (he tossed out a $20 minimum, but that's not a finalized number as of yet), but otherwise if creators have earned virtual currency from their projects, he wants them to easily cash out. 

"I don't think they're bad tools," he said in reference to the different means of letting creators process transactions to sell custom in-game content. But he thinks tools that used in a way that's "toxic or destructive to your community" might drive creators to other platforms. 

Don't you know that you're toxic?

Speaking of toxicity, we couldn't let Anderberg go without asking about the infamous toxicity that has become associated with content platforms like Roblox. Journalists like People Make Games have discussed how that toxicity seeps all the way down to the creator level, but you can just have a street-level conversation with teachers or parents who talk about the ugly content their kids have seen in the game. 

Any platform has to deal with moderation, but Anderberg sees moderation on dot big bang as a question of scale. "When you phone up a company, and they say 'your call is important to us, but we're under really heavy load at the moment, what they're really saying is 'we don't want to pay [enough] people...to solve this problem," he quipped. "You have to have a commitment in the spirit of your project to the safety of your community, and you have to put it before profits in order to be successful."

That's why dot big bang currently doesn't have an in-game text chat system. Anderberg noted it would be technically easy enough to add one, but doing so would massively expand the moderation needs his smaller team needs to handle. As it is, they struggle to moderate comment sections that players try to use as a chat system. "It's kind of painful to see them trying to do that," he said with a bit of a wince. "It's all public, every single comment they make is visible to everybody."

There is a moderation queue on that log, but he admits "it's not perfect." Dedicated moderators review the log and ban toxic users, while on the company's Discord server, a team of moderators work to kick people out who don't follow ControlZee's "very strict rules."

Not going all-in on social tools has a cost. Anderberg argues that dot big bang could be a "bigger product" if they added tools like in-game voice chat, but when he pops into other small games with in-game voice chat and discovers players calling each other racial slurs, or pedophiles, he doesn't see the costs as worth the benefits until he's got the resources to handle it.

In an industry where fads and investor hunger can frequent drive over-the-top statements, Anderberg's attitude on community management feels like a capsule of he and his team's larger approach to dot big bang. He describes a "fundamental direct competition" between companies that want to make quick money with explosive growth, and companies that "build something for the long term, but you do pay a price."

"We are paying a price today," Anderberg firmly said. "I know we could be going faster, we could have more users, but I don't think you can build something that's going to be successful and going to be a great place if you don't do that."

Anderberg also wasn't willing to say this is a perfect process for game development. "We're going to make mistakes," he admitted "but if we're trying to do the right thing, we're going to have a much better chance than if we just brush it under the carpet."

It's morale-boosting to hear a developer talking about why they'd rather take a well-founded community over explosive profits, but it also speaks to the challenges of the current "creator" fad sweeping different companies. Right now, lots of companies want to build business models where they take a cut of players selling digital goods to each other. Some use blockchain technology, others don't. 

Dot big bang is an interesting air bubble in this oncoming tidal wave—a project that is trying to meet the massive demand for playful creativity and social spaces without endangering its users. It's a clarifying snapshot of this moment in the video game industry, illuminating why so many developers are finding success in this uncharted territory, and what stands to be gained (or lost) depending on how that space is managed.

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