with David Baszucki, CEO of Roblox
There's cross-platform game development, and then there's Roblox.
While most developers tend to focus on creating games specific to a smartphone or tablet versus a desktop, Roblox offers a platform whereby it hosts games in a cloud computing environment and then streams them to various devices. This will soon include the Xbox gaming console.
Beyond the platform itself, Roblox's developer program includes Roblox University, an online training program on game development, a Ycombinator-like accelerator program that pairs college-age developers with its own team and a series of conferences throughout the year.
FierceDeveloper recently spoke by phone with Baszucki to get a better sense of how Roblox is offering an alternative approach to the gaming sector. This interview has been edited and condensed.
FierceDeveloper: You've said that many of the developers you're working with are between the ages of 15-22. Why have you gone after that market in particular, rather than more experienced mobile game creators?
Baszucki: The vision of Roblox is to allow anyone, anywhere, to create and share their first game. By focusing on making it as easy as possible to create a game, of course, you're likely to attract first-time creators. It just so happens that a large percentage of people who are passionate and willing to try to build their game tend to be on the younger end of the spectrum anyway. I don't know about you, but back when I was learning to code, it was in the fourth grade. The first thing I tried to do as a kid[was] to build a game. I didn't have the skills or the technology at the time, but I was really interested in doing it.
So I looked around for a long period of time, and built a little text adventure, but I didn't have everything I needed to take my passion for games and game creation the whole way to make something my friends could see. For Roblox, the idea has always been that if we provide the right tools that are flexible and grow with the skills of a creator, that we're going to be able to reach a large market of game creators of all ages, but particularly at the younger end of the scale.
FierceDeveloper: What kind of resources are you offering to help people get from idea to published game more easily?
Baszucki: Well, first and foremost, everything that we're offering is free. So we provide not only an IDE and a game engine for free, but also all the hosting, all the networking, multi-player, social features and monetization. That's something that no other development platform offers. Usually if you want to work with, say, Unity, you have to get the Unity software, then work out your own hosting and networking. It's a pain in the butt. We're an integrated stack. You just focus on creating your game and we'll take care of the rest in terms of distribution and scaleability. That's critical for a first-time developer, because they're just learning things like how to create a 3D environment, integrated game environments and so on. Having to worry about all the technical stuff just makes it impossible for them to really engage and to fully create their game. Secondly, I talked about how our platform scales with the skills of the developer. That starts this easy drag-and-drop environment where, let's say you want to build a city. We have a toybox that's filled with millions of Unity-created models. They're already wired up and ready to go. So if I'm creating a city, I just drag in streets and buildings and lamp posts and cars.
Now let's say I want to have the city under a zombie attack. Well, I just pull in a bunch of zombies. The cars are drivable for your characters to get in and drive around; the zombies will chase you. As a first-time developer, you're able to build a 3D environment. As you learn more about game design and coding, you can open up every one of those elements and actually inspect the code. You can see, for example, "This is how the zombies' behavior is programmed into that model," and then start modifying it. This is where you move from building to modding to creating everything from scratch and developing your high-end coding skills.
FierceDeveloper: How does this work from a monetization platform? You stream across everything from PCs to smartphones.
Baszucki: There's zero cost to developers. They never pay us anything. Well, that's not entirely true. There are these weird edge cases where, to prevent fraud, for example, there might be small customer service fee we occasionally charge, but by and large it's all free. We participate in a revenue share that takes place, very similar to the YouTube Partner program. It's not a fee-based model.
FierceDeveloper: You're looking at offering your games on the Xbox. Are there any trends you're seeing around whether certain games perform better on a smartphone or tablet?
Baszucki: The vision of Roblox is to build a game once and then push it simultaneously to all platforms. We handle the form factor adjustment automatically. Games are highly playable across the entire ecosystem. That said, there are some games that are specialized for a particular ecosystem and work better in some places rather than others. You might imagine that the big screen in your living room with a game controller is very different than your iPhone 5 on a LTE signal. There are games that are becoming increasingly specialized for each platform.
FierceDeveloper: What opportunities, if any, do you see for people creating games on Roblox that are offered on wearable devices like smart watches or eyewear?
Baszucki: I think the future is wide open for us. We've already taken our core engine and ported it from PC to Mac, and then into iOS, then Android, now Xbox. Our goal is to be available for consumers on any device that matters to them. I don't think I have anything to say about wearables or where we're going to go next, but our goal is to be wherever our consumers are, and our engine moves pretty easily from platform to platform as it is. We've already done this five or six times.
FierceDeveloper: How much of an education process is it for developers to realize your form of distribution versus more traditional methods?
Baszucki: The skills you build on Roblox are highly transferable to all kinds of other areas. You learn how to build in 3D, you learn how to build applications in CAD, in facial syncing. Our scripting language happens to be Lua, which is not the same as Java but isn't that far off. In terms of why Roblox might be more of a bubble than other places is because of that vertically integrated stack. That allows us to take essentially all the costs for the developer and provide a clean, consistent experience.
FierceDeveloper: To what extent do you see Roblox starting to engage more experienced indie mobile game developers over time?
Baszucki: We are starting to see the experienced game developers who are frustrated with the lack of discoverability in the mobile ecosystem start to look at Roblox as an opportunity to just get their game out there to market. Because we take all of the friction out of the distribution process and also take the risk out of it, people who have experience on other platforms are more willing to try things on Roblox and just start coding for the joy of game creation again, as opposed to covering the costs required to get into the App Store, the Google Play Store.