Roblox, explained

Roblox is one of the biggest apps in the world, and you’ve probably been hearing its name: the company recently went public, and its stock price climbed so high it was temporarily worth more than gaming giants EA and Take-Two combined. Roblox has come up as a contentious topic in the Epic Games v. Apple trial as well.

But it’s also just an astonishingly popular app: 42.1 million people play Roblox daily. And its popularity is surging during the pandemic. Daily active users were up 85 percent in 2020, compared to the year before.

Until recently, though, I didn’t really understand what Roblox actually was, despite the app having been around since 2006. (Just to give you an idea of how long that is in tech years, the App Store for iOS launched in 2008.) So I spent some time in the world of Roblox to help explain what all the fuss is about.

A promotional image from Roblox.

What is a Roblox?

I… don’t actually know! I don’t think there’s any one Roblox object, like a Minecraft block. I guess it could refer to the fact that Roblox lets you build games that you can then explore?

What is a game, even? Apple has me wondering these days.

According to an Apple exec who took the stand during the Epic v. Apple trial, a game has a beginning, an end, and challenges. Glad I could solve that one quickly for you. Roblox (the company), for what it’s worth, says Roblox (the app) offers “experiences.”

What is Roblox then?

It’s a platform where you can play millions of different… experiences… specifically created for the platform. A vast majority of those experiences are games, but you can also do things like attend concerts or visit Stranger Things’ Starcourt Mall re-created in Roblox. I even went to a Roblox awards show — built inside Roblox itself.

That all sounds complicated. How do you win?

It is! And you don’t win at Roblox, really. Sure, there are individual games you could win, but the real draw of Roblox is just to be a place to hang out, play lots of stuff, and maybe do so with your friends.

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Here’s my avatar at the beginning of a Roblox obstacle course game, or an “obby.”

Is Roblox where the cool kids hang out? The nerd kids? (Are the cool kids the nerd kids now?)

Likely all kinds since it’s played by more than half of all US kids under 16.

Wow. How is that even possible?

I’m not entirely sure. That’s a tremendous number! But since Roblox put that stat in the documents it had to file before going public, it seems like a safe bet. If Roblox lied to shareholders, there’d probably be hell to pay.

And while more than 50 percent of Roblox players are under the age of 12, it’s not just kids playing it; 30 percent of players are older than 17. Roblox told me that ages 13–17 and 17–24 are its fastest-growing demographics.

The need for entertainment and virtual connection during the pandemic brought a huge number of new players as well, especially with additions like Roblox’s dedicated space for virtual birthday parties.

Okay, color me intrigued: what would a Roblox birthday party look like?

You could set up a private party in Roblox’s dedicated space, which can almost feel like a virtual rave. But I’d expect that more Roblox birthday parties look like a bunch of friends opening up the app, partying up, and just jumping from game to game and world to world right from the launcher. In the span of an hour, you can hop through all kinds of different experiences because the app loads everything really quickly, which means it’s pretty easy to replicate the chaotic energy of a real kids’ birthday party.

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My Roblox avatar in a psychedelic party space.

Oh, yeah. I heard people do that kind of thing in Fortnite and Minecraft, too. Is this like that?

Sort of. Fortnite has the violence-free Party Royale mode, which lets you run around a small island with your friends shooting paintball guns at each other, and, like in Roblox, you can attend concerts at a huge virtual concert stage. Fortnite’s Creative Mode lets you build entire worlds and game modes using buildings, weapons, and other assets created by Epic. And Minecraft lets you build whatever you want with its blocky cubes and make games in your own private servers.

But Fortnite and Minecraft largely offer fixed experiences around set mechanics. Roblox, on the other hand, lets developers make whatever type of games they want — whether that be a third-person action game, a first-person shooter, or that time Lil Nas X threw a concert — and players can grab their friends and hop from game to game and world to world with almost no friction at all.

Wait, hold up. The Lil Nas X? “Old Town Road”?

Yes, him. He put on an epic, nearly 10-minute performance, towering over crowds of tiny dancing Roblox avatars and teleporting them to new virtual stages for each song. (Yes, including that one.) You can watch the whole show right here, if you’d like:

The concerts were a smash hit, garnering 33 million views across two days and four shows. (By comparison, Fortnite’s huge Travis Scott concerts in April drew 45.8 million viewers over five shows.)

Roblox has big plans for other virtual music events as it works to realize its version of a metaverse. At the end of March, rock duo Royal Blood performed during the in-game “Bloxys” awards and premiered a new song. Also, Roblox would really like not to get sued over music rights, so it just signed deals with Sony and BMG.

Probably wise. So what’s a metaverse?

I think of a metaverse as a collection of virtual worlds, landscapes, and characters that you can experience in one shared space. One example is Fortnite, which lets players dress up as characters from a huge range of popular franchises across movies, other video games, and even sports. Roblox has a huge range of virtual worlds that you can go to and games to play that can take place in any kind of environment that a developer can imagine.

Okay, let’s say I just want to play the games, though — what can I play?

In Roblox, in the span of 15 minutes, you can easily check out a handful of games in just about any genre you can think of. In a popular third-person horror game called Piggy, I had to flee from a terrifying pig wielding a baseball bat. One of the top Roblox genres is “obbys,” short for “obstacle courses,” where you have to navigate precarious platforms and avoid, well, obstacles. I even found a clone of Counter-Strike called Counter Blox.

Are they good?

That’s a tough question to answer, actually. Often, playing a “good” Roblox game or even being good at a game is secondary to just hanging out with your friends. A lot of games lean into this more relaxed vibe by focusing heavily on roleplaying elements — and I mean roleplaying in the most literal sense of the term. In one game I tried, I worked at a pizza parlor. In another, Animal Simulator, I galloped around a virtual world as a horse.

One of the top games on Roblox, Brookhaven, drops you in a small town, lets you pick a house and car, and gives you free rein to just be a person in the town you loaded in. (It reminded me of a kid-friendly version of a GTA Online roleplaying server.)

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Me in front of my new house in Brookhaven, a popular Roblox game. I have no idea who the cool skateboard person is. They photobombed me.

You shouldn’t hop into Roblox expecting to play games with the production values of something like Final Fantasy VII Remake or even Fall Guys. Many of the Roblox games I’ve tried feel somewhat rudimentary, offering simple controls and graphics. But the point isn’t really to go pro in any one Roblox game — it’s more that there are millions of virtual spaces to hang out, and many of them have the added benefit of being games.

What’s your favorite game you’ve played?

Thanks for asking. It’s Theme Park Tycoon 2, a Roller Coaster Tycoon clone that brought back a lot of my capitalist theme park-building instincts from my childhood. I’ve been going out of my way to avoid playing it so that I can actually finish this article. I also like jumping into random obbys, like this McDonald’s-themed one.

How do I pick what to play?

There’s not a single Roblox experience that you can enter in the way you can hop into a world of vanilla Minecraft and immediately start building houses and crafting tools.

Think of Roblox instead like an app store. The “storefront” recommends games for you to play, and you can also search through the games available or browse through different categories and genres. A lot of players also share games among themselves or find things recommended online by creators and YouTubers.

Because there’s so much to choose from, it can be overwhelming at the start. But since it’s so easy to jump into a game, you’ll probably be able to find something fun just by exploring.

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Roblox’s Discover tab.

Who makes these games?

Anyone. Everyone! Kids do, and you can, too. Roblox has free development tools to get started, and it offers extensive documentation and guides to help you learn how to make games for the platform. Unlike Minecraft, where you’re literally building the environments around you using blocks, Roblox offers developers a more traditional suite of game development tools along the lines of Unity or Unreal Engine.

And it’s not just amateurs making Roblox games — there are entire studios dedicated to Roblox. I spoke with one, The Gang Stockholm, while writing this article, and they’ve now built an official Nerf battle arena game for toymaker Hasbro. One of Roblox’s top games, Adopt Me, grew from a two-person development team to being supported by a full development studio that has ambitions to hire 100 developers by the end of next year.

So there’s money to be made in Roblox games?

Developers can make money by selling things like items, cosmetics, or avatars (often in their own in-game stores similar to those in mobile apps) in exchange for Roblox’s in-app currency, Robux. And it seems like some of the most successful games can pay out nicely, once they’ve reached critical mass.

But if you’re considering developing games for Roblox, you should know that Roblox (the company) can take an up to 73 percent cut of revenue from Robux players spend on your games if you decide to cash out Robux into real money. That’s much higher than the 30 percent cut taken by Apple and Google’s app stores (in most cases) and the 12 percent cut Epic Games takes from games on the Epic Games Store. The company will take less if you spend within the Roblox ecosystem, though, such as on ads.

Say I want to try Roblox now. Where can I download it?

It’s on PC, Mac, iOS, Android, Xbox One (and, by extension, Xbox Series X / S), and you can even play in VR using the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive. It’s free to download, though buying Robux costs real money.

No Roblox for PS4 or PS5? What about Nintendo Switch? Or Oculus Quest?

Right now, no, but Roblox hasn’t shut the door on the possibility of the app coming to those devices in the future. On the company’s most recent earnings call, Roblox co-founder and CEO Dave Baszucki said that, in the long term, the Switch, PlayStation, and Quest all make “perfect sense for Roblox” but that “we won’t share any ship dates for them.” So it sounds like Roblox could come to your Switch someday, but it’s hard to say exactly when.

You said Roblox is hugely popular with kids — how does Roblox protect them from bad actors?

There are a number of settings parents can toggle to help control what their kids can do in the app and even who they can talk to. Parents can also toggle a switch to require a PIN to change settings, and they even turn on a restricted mode that limits a user to only accessing content curated by Roblox.

Roblox also says that players who are 12 or younger have posts and chats filtered not just for inappropriate content but also to prevent personal information from being shared. That way, a child theoretically can’t share a home address with a Roblox friend using Roblox’s chat, for example. Players can also block and report users. You can read more information on Roblox’s parents guide and in this support article.

Roblox is also working on content ratings for games, though hasn’t said when the ratings system might become available.

It seems there are still some potential gaps, though. Wired’s Cecilia D’Anastasio, as part of an article with the headline “How Roblox Became a Playground for Virtual Fascists,” detailed a Roblox experience she visited earlier this year where she spoke with someone who roleplayed as the Confederacy.

And I don’t know how Roblox can stop kids from finding this terrifying clown video hidden in the game.

I could do without the clown thing, but Roblox seems like a big deal. So: should I invest in the stock?

I can’t give financial advice, so you’re on your own for that one. With how wild the stonks market has been this year, though, I suppose Roblox, like anything else, has a lightning-in-a-bottle chance of being the next GameStop. Better than spending that money on NFTs, right?

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