Investigation: How Roblox Is Exploiting Young Game Developers

Investigation: How Roblox Is Exploiting Young Game Developers

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This story began when I learned  three stunning things about Roblox. If you don’t know much about Roblox, it’s  the most popular video game in the US   and Europe today, played by around 200 million  mostly young people every month. Roblox is more   of a creative platform than a game, though; it’s  a downloadable portal to a staggering quantity   of multiplayer games of all different genres,  that are all just a little bit floaty and janky. That’s because anyone can download Roblox and use  its free tools and free hosting to start making   and monetising games, and an astonishing  number of people have done just that. Where today Steam has almost 55,000 games,  Roblox hosts more than 20 million experiences,   which is what Roblox calls games because,  legally speaking, the company can’t admit to   selling games within Apple’s app store, as that  would make it a game shop within a game shop.

So, I learned three things about Roblox that made  me do the internet equivalent of a double take.   One, the developers making all of  these experiences earn a cut from   everything they create -- but that cut is  shockingly small. To put it in perspective,   Steam catches heat from developers for taking 30%  percent of each sale while Epic and Microsoft’s   PC store take 12 percent. Roblox claims that  developers receive around 24.5% of any sale,   although as we’ll soon see,  in reality they get even less.

The second thing I saw? When Roblox went  public on the stock market this year,   it was valued at $41 billion dollars.   A value somewhere between Nintendo and Electronic  Arts. Roblox is now worth SEVEN UBISOFTS. And three, in the words of Roblox’s vice  president of marketing, Tami Bhaumik,   “From the very beginning, it was about  having kids develop games for other kids.” These kids aren’t just hobbyists,  they’re doing real work that is   driving the value of one of the biggest video game  publishers in history. But with a cut that’s one  

third of the industry standard and nobody looking  out for their health, we had to ask- are the next   generation of game developers being exploited  before they’ve finished secondary school? But before we look at how  Roblox treats its workers,   first we have to look at how the platform turns  its young users into workers in the first place. So the good thing about Roblox - as I've said -  is that the tools are free, the hosting's free,   the tools actually let you skip the  traditional learning curve associated   with 3D modelling. Roblox even handles  the moderation of your players for you. But people using these tools to just get creative  doesn’t make Roblox money, it actually loses them   money because servers are expensive. Which is  why the moment Roblox’s core playerbase of 9  

to 15 year-olds start playing, they are submerged  in this idea that they could be an entrepreneur.   After all, it’s impossible to play Roblox  without making other Roblox users richer,   because you’re buying passes for their  experiences, you’re buying their cosmetics. But we’re just getting started. The tabs at  the top of are basically find games,   find cosmetics, and start making stuff yourself.  

But if kids click on that, they see: “Make  Anything”, “Reach Millions of Players”,   and “Earn Serious Cash”. “Creators like you,” it  says, “are getting paid for what they love to do.” If you go to Roblox’s YouTube channel the  first videos you see are documentaries about   successful game developers. In general Roblox’s  PR department loves shining a light on the game’s   younger success stories. The official Roblox  tutorials and the game's support website both  

assume you want help with monetisation. And  if you go to which hosts   lesson plans for educators, one of the  lessons is how to earn money in Roblox. Or in the words of one 11  year old I interviewed...

I saw other big games, I saw other developers  getting money in a way that looked easy So are any of these kids  really “Earning serious cash”?   Well, while the average indie game on  Steam makes several thousand dollars,   the vast majority of games-- sorry, “experiences”  on Roblox earn their creators zero dollars. To understand why that is, we need to take a  closer look at the Roblox marketplace. Because   it took me WEEKS to get my head around this. I'll   let you decide for yourself what chance  you think kids have of understanding it.

So making a game in Roblox is easy. It’s when  you want other people to play it, to reach   the millions of players that Roblox promised,  that your journey will start heading uphill. If you want to figure out what to play on Roblox,   it only shows the thousand or so games out of its  20 million that have the most players right now.   There are no discoverability tools that let you  see the newest games, or to help new designers.   The “Up and coming” section still shows games with  thousands of players. So if you’re a kid trying to   make games for Roblox you have two choices at  this point. You can hustle and try and get your  

game in front of streamers or YouTubers....  or you can pay Roblox to advertise it. But to buy anything in Roblox, you first have  to convert your real money to the company’s   virtual currency: Robux. Developers on  Roblox bid with Robux for ad slots in   an auction, a system that is discussed by  developers in forum threads as a gamble,   with developers hoping that with the right  game and the right ad, they’ll grab enough   players that their game ends up surfacing in  the churning froth of the Roblox marketplace.

So the first thing Roblox tells its young  developers is “Make anything! Reach millions   of players! Earn serious cash!” And then  the next thing it says is: “Oh. I mean,   if you want people to actually play your  game, I guess you could give us money.” But as duplicitous as this sounds, we know it  works because Roblox has 20 million experiences   made by its mostly young audience. Even though  when I spoke to professional Roblox developers,  

they told me that kids should not  expect to make money on the platform. I don't think it's really possible  for young developers to succeed   on the platform anymore. It's really  hard to get into those top 200 games. Sometimes I think of making Roblox games as  trying to make a viral TikTok or a viral meme.  

It's pretty tricky. There's only really one   big market to shoot for in Roblox right  now and that's kids. If you don't hit   that demographic just right and if you don't  get your gameplay loop just right, you fail. Later in this video we’ll get to  why it benefits Roblox corporation   to have hundreds of thousands of  children trying to make games,   ignorant of the fact that the odds  are actually stacked against them.

But first, let’s go back to that question   of why it’s so hard to make money on the  Roblox marketplace because.. we’re not done! Let’s imagine you actually made a game that  beats the odds and becomes a small hit,   and now your game has thousands of players  who are making in-experience purchases with   Robux. Roblox takes a 30% cut of  every transaction on their platform,   and then you actually get paid the rest in...  robux. Which of course isn’t real money, you   can only spend it in Roblox. You wanna get paid!  You wanna withdraw that money as actual cash. Now here’s the bit that I  think is just super shady.

If any Roblox user wants to take robux  back out of their account and put it in   their bank account as actual currency,  the minimum withdrawal amount is 100,000   robux, valued at around $1000 USD. If you make  $900 USD worth of robux selling stuff you’ve made,   your real-life paycheck will be $0. Oh, and also?  You can’t withdraw any money from Roblox unless   you’re also paying Roblox for a monthly  premium subscription ($5/month). Now let me make this abundantly clear. This is a  choice that Roblox corporation has made. Entropia   Universe, the world’s only cash-based  MMO which we did a video on last year,   has a minimum withdrawal amount of $100. Second  Life has a minimum withdrawal amount of $10.  

In making the minimum withdrawal amount  so high, Roblox is increasing the chance   that you won’t hit that cap and so will  just plough their robux back into Roblox,   whether that’s buying games or cosmetics, or  saving up to advertise your next game. Lots of   Roblox developers even use their robux to pay  other Roblox developers to work on their game.   And if they’re not smart about  how they pay these developers,   Roblox will take a cut of that paycheck, too. But for now let’s imagine you make a game and  

it’s a hit and you do make it to 100,000  robux, so you're allowed to withdraw it,   finally, to your real life bank account. You see  Roblox buys robux from users at a very different   rate than it sells them. So withdrawing 100,000  robux doesn’t get you $1000, it gets you $350. Think about it- If your assets in Roblox become  substantially devalued only at the moment you   take them out of the platform, why not keep them  on the platform in case you need them one day?   And so tons of Robux don’t ever make  it out off the platform, instead going   round and round, with Roblox taking cut after cut. And so, while on paper developers get that 24.5%  of a game's sales, in reality is even lower.   If we look at Roblox’s published records we can  read that for every $1 Roblox earns in bookings,   only 17 cents make it out of  the ecosystem to developers. Or at least, that’s my best guess as to  what developers are getting. The platform  

is actually so opaque that even full time,  professional devs who've been doing this for years   do not know what fraction of  the pie they're taking home. Like, you just have to roughly  estimate it based off of those   exchange rates and that's all you get. And by the way? The lack of regulation in  today’s tech sector is causing a lot of   historically illegal practices coming  back again with a new lick of paint.   Roblox paying people in robux is  very, very similar to historical   mining and logging camps in the United  States paying people in company scrip. Scrip was currency invented and manufactured  by these companies that could only be used   to buy things within the company's camp. For  example, in the stores that they would build. The mining camps liked paying people with their  own invented money for the same reasons Roblox   does. One, it means workers spend their money at  the company, which makes the company richer. Two,  

workers become more afraid of breaking  company rules because the company can   take away your ability to spend your scrip,  essentially confiscating your paycheck.   And three, scrip makes it harder for workers to  walk quit their job because the moment they do   they get poorer. Unbelievably, these camps  would have booths where you could exchange   your scrip for US dollars, but the exchange  rate hurt the worker. Just like Roblox. Scrip so messes with workers’ ability  to make money that it was banned in   the United States in 1938 and until we  legislate scrip again in the digital age,   Roblox is going to keep paying  developers with pretend money. Now when the question of whether Roblox is  treating its designers fairly comes up? And   it does come up, you can find long threads on  the official Roblox forums ofdevelopers banding   together to request, or beg, really, for a more  fair profit share.. you’ll always see the same  

two things. You'll see Roblox posting a  super corporate and disinterested response   that sort of ends the discussion without  having it, but you also see people saying   that devs asking for more money is silly  because Roblox has never been a profitable   company. It loses money every single year  and so there’s no extra money to give out. That is bollocks. But don’t take my word  for it, take the word of the market analysts  

who have decided that as a money-making  machine Roblox is worth SEVEN UBISOFTS.   The idea that this company has no more money to  hand out is a repulsive one. Roblox is just doing   the same thing as companies like Spotify, Uber and  AirBnB, something known as platform capitalism. All of these companies and Roblox have  a business model based on unsustainable   expansion, always moving into  more countries, hiring more staff,   increasing their expenses, until they control  the entire market sector and all of its data   and can use this monopoly to make incredible  money, as we saw with Facebook and Amazon. If Roblox WASN’T losing money  year after year its investors   could reasonably turn around and say “Why not?” And so when Roblox developers come around  cap in hand asking for more revenue,   there’s never any left. Even though the  platform has 200 MILLION monthly users,   and the CEO is a billionaire. Because if Roblox  were to give more money to game developers,  

that’s simply less money it can spend  growing the platform and becoming a monopoly. Wee reached out to Roblox Corporation for an   interview or comment on how they  treat their young developers.. They did not reply to us. Let’s take a moment to put  a human face on all this. Was it harder than you expected  to make money with your levels? That is definitely a big yes.

This is Emil. Emil is 11. And he got his parents  to send him to a special summer camp where he   could learn to code for Roblox. And he made  a game all by himself! And the game flopped,   and he ended up sounding like a 30 year old  industry veteran in an 11 year old's body.

Even though Roblox encourages you to   make games, the likelihood of you making  a successful game is basically zero. You always compete with the people that have   lots of money and like... would it be  a problem if I showed you something? No, please, show me whatever you like. This is like a big game developer that has lots  of success. The amount of people that they have  

means that they get the successes, and that means  they get a giant spike, and even if the spike   lowers they still go back up and it's just an  infinite cycle of spikes that just go up and down. But your small game developer, you'll have that  spike, you come all the way down... you stay down. Were you tempted to spend robux  advertising your game after you made it? I didn’t even have robux but I wish I did because  then I could advertise it and maybe have a chance. Emil’s disappointment wasn't to do with  whether Roblox's revenue split was fair, he   hadn't really thought about that concept. He was   just upset that Roblox only shows its  users games that have tons of fans. But the thing is, Roblox corporation benefits from   making a very small fraction of its  developers almost all of the money   because then those devs can then keep updating  their popular game, or make new games,   they can go full time and hire people to work  for them, they can even become celebrities.

I wanted to make this video to  really tell you my story and   give you my honest thoughts on  the 8th annual Bloxy Awards. And interestingly, the ONLY concession Roblox  has made in recent years to giving developers   more money is to give the most successful  developers on the platform even more money.   Experience-Based Payouts is a  new sliver of Roblox’s revenue   that goes to the games that Roblox  subscribers play for the longest.

This also Roblox corporation tacitly  encouraging its developers to make games   that are addictive rather than fun. But  the way that Robloxs encourages its users   to make games that are manipulative would be a  whole other video and I’m gonna stay on topic. Here’s games professor and labor activist  Ty Underwood on why Roblox would be trying   to empower its most successful developers  and ensure the rest have no power at all.

Comparing it to YouTube, you and I know of many  YT channels where it's like "Oh, I'm actually a   boss with employees now." And so are all the  top Roblox games. You can't organise bosses.   Their interests do not align with workers. The  worker's power comes from their ability to stop   production, and all bosses everywhere it is  against their interest to stop production. That does track with my experience.  I reached out to one extraordinarily   successful Roblox developer for this  piece and they did agree to speak to me   on the condition that we didn't  reveal their identity, saying quote: “Despite some fair criticisms we have a good  working relationship with Roblox and I wouldn't   necessarily want to be directly featured or  quoted in a video critical of their platform cut." I asked that same anonymous developer what   message they’d like to get out to  young developers. They told me...

“On Roblox many young devs crunch  and burn out... they're not privy   to ongoing dev community conversations about  healthy working practices... My advice would   be to not over-work. Don't feel pressured to  work long days especially as a young person.” And “Lower your expectations - there are  millions of experiences on Roblox and only   a handful become 'top games', make sure to have  fun even if only a few people play your game.” There’s just one problem about getting these  messages out to young game developers. Roblox  

is a publicly traded company now, which means  it has a legal obligation to maximise profits.   And kids working too hard with unreasonable  expectations isn’t bad for the company. And this is the heart of Roblox's success. In  convincing its young users that making money on   the platform is possible, its gets hundreds of  thousands of free workers pouring all of their   imagination and spirit into inventing the next big  Roblox success story. And while by my estimation   99.9% of them flame out and make no money at all,  that doesn’t affect Roblox’ bottom line one bit. Here’s Genya again talking about his experience  in the Roblox official internship program.

For instance in my class I was the  only person who released a game,   and that game was the only game from  the whole class that actually did well,   and we had like 7000 people online. So it’s  kind of rare for those games to actually work. But then if some young wunderkind does make  the nest great thing on Roblox there is   nothing to stop an older team of  developers taking the idea, refining it,   re-releasing it and then advertising it. But whether young developers find success  on Roblox or not, the platform benefits   from young developers training themselves  up before they realise the odds are stacked   against them. And once they've done that,  they're that much less likely to walk away. You can’t take your game anywhere  else. If I’m on Steam, theoretically   I can move my game to Epic or try to make a  deal with Apple, or something like that. But  

once you’re in Roblox it’s impossible  to extract your game or your work or   even your skills from Roblox, because it’s  such an idiosyncratic system to work with. And this is all so infuriating for me because  if Roblox was actually operating with care for   its young audience, it could just be  a great thing for the games industry. Free tools to get kids messing around and making  stuff, that their friends can come and play,   also for free? That’s awesome. That anonymous  developer who spoke to me said that they wish   Roblox was around when they were a kid and  trying and failing to make games in flash. But that's not what makes Roblox money.  What makes Roblox money is empowering  

kids into workers with unreasonable  expectations of what they can achieve   on this platform in a way that would be  illegal if it wasn’t happening online. So what can we do about this? The question of whether or not it’s possible to do  labour organising with children productively is a   really bizarre question. With much older young  adults I’m only now introducing the idea that   your boss may have interests that diverge from  your own in some cases, and this is mindblowing. I think the answer in this case is it should  simply be regulated that Roblox cannot   have people sell within their games if their  audience is largely children. That’s not  

usually what I reach for because top-down  regulation doesn’t build worker power, but   in this case... they’re kids, is what's going  on here! It’s a very weird and scary situation. And what about Emil, our 11 year old game  developer? What does he think should be done? Do you think kids should be encouraged  to try and sell things on Roblox? I think that kids should be encouraged,   by they shouldn't be lied to about  how easy it is because it's not easy. But the one thing that we know for sure is that  Roblox isn’t going to legislate itself in a way   that affects its ability to earn money. Roblox is  going to continue doing anything it can to scratch   revenue out of its young, vulnerable audience,  no matter whether they’re getting fair pay,   whether it’s good for their health, or  whether they’re fully empowered to walk away. Thank you for watching this video everybody.  If you enjoyed it please share it because  

the more awareness we can give this issue the  more pressure we apply to Roblox to be better. But also please share it because this  video took absolutely ages to make,   and for that we have to thank the  supporters of the People Make Games patreon. If you believe in games journalism like this  video, we would love to have your support. If  

you head over to you  can also see all of the cool rewards you can get,   like Bad Idea House, a regular feature where  Chris and I go through stories we researched   but couldn’t quite turn into  videos for one reason or another. Ah, the catharsis of actually getting  to turn this work into something. Yeah. At least now it was worth something because  

we've been able to talk about  it and tell it to you people. Thanks again, everybody. That link  was

2021-08-25 14:05

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