Jackson Munsell, Brandon LaRouche and Alex Balfanz grew up in very different places. But they’re converging on San Jose, Calif., this weekend as developers of games in the world of Roblox, the blocky virtual world that is a cousin of Lego and Minecraft.
These teenagers have grown up with Roblox, a place where young developers (both boys and, increasingly, girls) can create their own games and make “robux,” or in-game currency from them. And as the online world surpasses 56 million monthly active users (up from 30 million in December), those young developers are finding they can make enough money — converting robux into real money — to pay for college and more. The players engage with Roblox for 496 million hours a month. User-generated content (UGC) is thriving, and these teens and Roblox itself are riding the wave.
Dave Baszucki, CEO and cofounder of Roblox, said in an interview with GamesBeat that platform is benefiting from network effects, as more people realize it’s a fun platform to play and make friends. Roblox has more than 1.7 million developers, and the company has already paid $18 million to developers in revenue sharing. Two individual developers are closing in on $2 million in revenue from their Roblox games. And Baszucki is announcing today that Roblox expects to pay out more than $30 million in revenue to players in 2017, compared to $5.5 million in 2016. Roblox’s top games are now making over $100,000 a month.
To date, developers have made 29 million games. Baszucki said teams and studios are forming to make multiplatform Roblox games, and Roblox itself raised $92 million in funding back in March.
The payments to developers are the latest evolution of what Silicon Valley futurist Paul Saffo calls the “creator economy,” where users move beyond consumption to creation.
Roblox shares about 30 percent of the proceeds with developers, who convert robux into dollars. Baszucki said that the split makes sense because Roblox invests heavily in the infrastructure, and it is reinvesting the money in growth, which will generate even more money for the young developers. Last week, Roblox hit No. 1 in terms of downloads in the Google Play store.
Grace Francisco, vice president of developer relations at Roblox, said in an interview that the company realizes it has an opportunity to change the diversity of the tech industry in a grassroots, bottom-up way. It is the beginning of the pipeline, with users who are under 10 learning the Lua computer language and growing up with it.
The game used to be about 90 percent male in earlier days. Now it is more than 40 percent female in the U.S. Among the developers, the majority are ages 13 to 20. Roblox encourages the most talented developers with internships. The accelerator is now in the third year, and the applications are growing. The incubator program is newer, where the developers are encouraged to push the limits of the platform. At the end of the day, the developers own the intellectual property.
“They’re learning wonderful life skills and making real money, paying for college or their parents’ cars,” Francisco said.
“We’re moving toward gender parity in Roblox, as the content gets broader,” Baszucki said. “Jailbreak leans to boys, and Roblox High School leans to boys, and so on. There’s enough content to find something you like.”
Roblox has 27 interns working on games this summer. They get to mingle in the same room with the company’s programmers. They are mostly male now, but Francisco hopes that will change over time.
“The education initiative is a huge opportunity for us to bring computer science to younger audiences and make it engaging and exciting for them to learn,” she said. “They can also learn basic business skills. This is a pinnacle of an emerging developer audience. We’re going to have a lot more than the 1.7 million developers that we have now. This is where we can make meaningful changes when it comes to diversity. You tap into it, and you get a more diverse audience. And we’ll feed our people into the developer pipeline, which is so thin now. We are heading into the future with not enough developer talent.”
Baszucki said he’ll talk to the top 300-plus developers at the invitation-only Roblox Developers Conference, telling them the company’s roadmap for the year ahead. LaRouche is the old man of the bunch at 21 years old. He started playing Roblox nine years ago with his twin brother Ryan. He started programming games, and, at the age of 13, he started making iOS games. In 2012, at the age of 15, he published a book, Basic Roblox Lua Programming. In 2013, he published a second book, Intermediate Roblox Programming. The two books have sold more than 10,000 copies, and his apps have been downloaded 750,000 times.
With that money he made from the books and apps, LaRouche put himself through multiple startup incubators, and he’s paying for college. He’s now at Boston College, studying computer science, and he is spending the summer as an intern at Roblox. This career sprang from playing Roblox every day for about 15 minutes before school and then again at night with his brother, after they did their homework. He stayed in the game because it was a real community, where he made friends and saw the instant gratification of seeing people play his programs.”Now I can skip some programming classes in college,” he said in an interview. “Roblox gave me a competitive advantage.”
Jackson “Biostream” Munsell, 18, is also one of 27 interns this summer at Roblox. When he was younger, he looked up to LaRouche. Munsell started playing in 2008, at the age of nine, and he started programming at 11. He made a game that was played 3 million times, and he is remaking it from the ground up with another friend, Chris “Crykee” Hyde, from England.
“The line between a player and developer is so thin,” Munsell said. “It’s unbelievably easy. I stayed with it because it’s social. It takes the socialization in Facebook, and brings that to games.”
He will be a freshman this fall at Louisiana State University, where he will have a full scholarship.
But the hot kid to meet at the Roblox Developer Conference will probably be Alex Balfanz, an 18-year-old from Florida. He also started playing about nine years ago and became addicted to it. In January, he started working on a game called Jailbreak, and he released in after four months of work. After three months, the game has been played 210 million times.
“34,000 people are playing it right now,” Bazsucki said. “You can rob banks with your friends or escape from prison.”
Balfanz’s title is a “cops and robbers” game, where prisoners try to escape, rob banks, get into helicopters, and roam around a big map. It’s like Grand Theft Auto with blocky characters. He and his friends are updating it weekly, and they just added apartments that players can buy.
Balfanz plans to study artificial intelligence at Duke University, and he has already generated enough money to pay for it.
“When you tell people you make money with Roblox, they get really interested,” he said. “This was so easy to get into, and it has led me to so many other places. You can have a whole career on Roblox right now. I’d like to start my own company.”
Disclosure: My daughter was an intern at Roblox in 2016. Our coverage remains objective.