Virtual worlds – machines, vehicles, objects, places, artscapes – a playground and a laboratory where the imagination seems to have no limits. That’s Roblox, a place CEO and Founder David Baszucki calls “an oasis of ideas and play brought to life.” Launched in 2006 by two people crammed into a tiny office, Roblox now hosts more than 10 million builders a month creating and exploring stunning virtual architecture, simulations, games and economies in a massive global sandbox that celebrates and empowers the invention and imagination of tech-savvy kids — and the child in all of us.
At first glance, Roblox looks and feels a bit like the realization of the virtual wonderland promised by radical thinker and mad genius Jaron Lanier back in the late ’80’s, when his VPL Research pioneered the term Virtual Reality and first demonstrated the possibilities for virtual objects and simulated worlds built on computers. But, whereas Lanier’s virtual reality was perhaps too far ahead of its time, Roblox seems to be very much anchored in the right decade with a UX and a toolset that is accessible to the masses. In Roblox, you can build anything you can imagine. It’s very much in the vein of the Make ethos, the magazine turned movement that “celebrates your right to tweak, hack, and bend any technology to your own will.” (Roblox will have a conspicuous presence at this year’s Maker’s Faire – the do-it-yourself Mecca of geek-chic held in San Mateo every year).
Roblox is described by Baszucki as a massively scalable online sandbox grounded in realistic physics. He sees Roblox primarily as a toolmaker and an infrastructure for creation and play. Roblox users create well over five million places and environments a year. It is free to build, explore, and play, but Roblox also offers paid products such as Builders Club memberships, virtual gear and purchasable items using a virtual currency called ROBUX (as well as real dollar purchases through their mobile app). Their goal was to build a platform where a user can make anything they imagine, and to create a toolset where users could build libraries of objects, machines, parts and ideas. In short, Roblox has managed, through much hard work, experimentation and user feedback, to bring a collaborative neighborhood of tinkerers and art-scientists together in a scalable simulated online universe. A universe where, Baszucki says, “We have more level designers and artists than any other video game studio in the world.”
Before Roblox, Baszucki was the VP and general manager of MSC Software – a physics and engineering based simulation firm that works with aerospace, manufacturing and medical industries, where he ran the desktop simulation division. Before MSC, he founded Knowledge Revolution, which made physics simulation software for education and engineering. That company was acquired by MSC in 1999. Baszucki’s physics simulation and engineering background is key to Roblox’s success and unique niche as a sort of hybrid tools/game company. “We want to create less of a traditional game company pipeline and more of an infrastructural pipeline. Our core client is written in C++, which bodes well for the future. It’s easy for clients to customize the mobile experience using this language,” he says.
In fact, mobile has added a significant boost for Roblox in terms of retaining users and offering them more options for accessing and managing their creations. The release of Roblox on iOS last December now makes it possible for users to play on their iPhones and iPads. According to Baszucki, early numbers have been “astonishing.” Last month, Roblox users logged a total of just over three million hours of play time on mobile devices alone. Clearly this is a huge potential growth area and something that users want.
The idea behind Roblox came when Baszucki began thinking about people playing with virtual parts in a 3D world. He wanted to make a platform where if you searched for, say, a bulldozer, you’d find hundreds of results, each of which you could take apart piece by piece and modify. “In a world where schools tend to focus on facts and testing, and opportunities to exercise imagination and inventiveness have dwindled, Roblox is the neighborhood sandbox gone global,” Baszucki says. He considers Roblox users as the true creative engines that drive the platform. They are the content creators that inspire other users, empower them and keep them coming back. Baszucki asserts that every Roblox employee is expected to be a self-organized individual—able to spot and identify and work through problems with little supervision. The Rolbox culture minimizes bureaucracy by allowing its people to think for themselves and by instilling in them the utmost respect for its users, or what Roblox calls its builders – the key to their success. This understanding is reflected in every new release they publish and every feature they add.
Baszucki stresses the importance of shipping features early and often. “Roblox was and will always be a work in progress,” he says. “We are constantly iterating on features, and constantly looking for areas to improve.” Roblox is not any one product, any one world. It is the sum total of every product and every world created by its users. As such, there is no development pipeline per se because the toolset they provide to their users is the pipeline through which they create products – the products of their choosing. Roblox’s latest feature is a dynamic lighting system that offers users the ability to populate their worlds with an infinite amount of light sources, each of which behave realistically. These fixed lights have already dramatically changed the overall look and feel of Roblox, allowing builders to add mood and set tone like a cinematographer does when lighting a film.
In the days before desktop computing and transportable tablets, kids like me read books to fuel our imaginations and used pencils and paper to bring our own ideas to life. How quaint that sounds now. And compared to Roblox, how primitive. Now, if you think it, you can make it, accurately and immediately. You no longer have to imagine faraway places and fantastical machines. Thanks to David Baszucki and the Roblox team, you can actually make them.