Investigation: How Roblox Is Exploiting Young Game Developers
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 Roblox.com 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 education.roblox.com 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 patreon.com/peoplemakegames 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 patreon.com/peoplemakegames