Roblox has become a video game titan, in recent years dominating the world of kids’ gaming and earning $454 million in revenue last quarter alone. A new report argues that success is built on exploiting young game developers, many of them children, who are making content for the game.
As a platform, Roblox provides gamers the tools to both create and play an almost unfathomable array of “experiences,” from climbing an enormous stairway to running a restaurant to escaping a prison. Tens of millions of these games live on Roblox’s browser—hundreds of times more titles than exist on Steam. Every day, 43 million people play those games, mostly kids. Some of the most popular experiences have received billions of visits and earn their developers millions annually.
According to a new report, however, this model—which powers much of Roblox’s enormous success—may take advantage of young game developers. Published Thursday by People Make Games, a YouTube channel by independent games journalists, “How Roblox Is Exploiting Young Game Developers” takes a deep dive into the promise of “making it” on Roblox and alleges that the platform actually sets kid developers up for failure.
“Since becoming a publicly traded company, Roblox is now worth more than Electronic Arts,” producer Quintin Smith of People Make Games tells WIRED. The company was valued at $45 billion in a direct listing earlier this year. “With most of the games on the platform being made by minors and a revenue split that’s just one third of the industry standard, we looked into whether these young developers were in fact being exploited.” (Traditionally, game stores have taken a 30 percent cut of revenue that publishers earn on their platforms, and hand 70 percent over to the devs. Roblox gives developers just 25 percent, plus payouts based on engagement.)
People Make Games’ analysis of Roblox’s economics highlights the chasm between Roblox’s promise as a way for kids to become game developers and the reality: It is very challenging to make money on Roblox, and Roblox profits from people trying.
Few things are more tantalizing than making bank doing what you love, and with the ballooning value of the games industry, it finally seems possible for young gamers: working for a game development studio, streaming on Twitch, competing professionally in esports. Over the past decade, though, the games industry has reckoned with widespread poor labor practices—from 12-hour workdays at top studiosto ludicrously imbalanced contracts with managers. Low wages and egregious workplace conditions are common. The furious, all-consuming passion gamers feel for their favored media makes them an easy target for exploitation.
Roblox leans into the potential for financial success developing games in its marketing copy. The website for Roblox Studio, its developer engine, advertises the company’s three tenants for aspiring young developers: “Make Anything,” “Reach Millions of Players,” and “Earn Serious Cash.” On that last point, Roblox notes that top developers earn over $2 million a year through the platform. Developer testimonials celebrate how Roblox set them free from the financial difficulties of being a college student or even tease the prospect of a lifelong career in games. Roblox’s YouTube channel also promotes mini documentaries glamorizing its most successful developers. Across the Internet, publications like Forbes and the BBC publish stories about Roblox developers paying off their parents’ mortgage or their college tuition.
Roblox provides a lot for its developers: server space, marketplace infrastructure, cross-platform capability. Roblox Studio is, like the game, free. Developers can make money through Roblox with its Developer Exchange program, or DevEx, which gives developers 25 percent of a game’s earnings. (Part of Roblox’s justification for this split is its huge investment in infrastructure for these devs.) Roblox’s VP of marketing toldAListDaily in 2018, “From the very beginning, it was about having kids develop games for other kids.” DevEx’s terms require users to be 13 or over.
Most of Roblox’s user base is under 18, with about a third between 9 and 12. Emil, 11, tells People Make Games that he “saw other developers getting money in a way that looked easy.” It wasn’t easy. To withdraw money earned through microtransactions in a game, a developer must earn a minimum of 100,000 Robux, the platform’s in-game currency. Buying 100,000 Robux through Roblox’s store costs $1,000. Selling 10,000 Robux back to Roblox earns you just $350. Withdrawal is not even possible unless these developers pay a five-dollar monthly fee for a Roblox Premium Subscription. (Second Life and Entropia Universe, which also allow players to sell items, respectively have $10 and $100 minimums for withdrawing money.)
“If you accept that we need to treat minors who are doing a job better than we treat adults doing the same job, that’s just abhorrent,” says Smith. “Especially when you consider the platform is encouraging kids to come and work for them.”
Smith believes this setup disincentivizes users from withdrawing Robux. They’re devalued off-platform, so why not spend them on other Roblox games? Smith compares Roblox’s currency to mining camps’ company scrips, a now-illegal currency used by miners to purchase goods at company stores. Miners were encouraged to spend their money on their employers’ goods because, elsewhere, the scrip was moot.
A Roblox spokesperson tells WIRED that “building experiences on Roblox teaches the fundamentals of coding, digital civility, and entrepreneurship and has helped many begin their careers in STEM.” Roblox gave developers $129.7 million in the second quarter of 2021, and according to the spokesperson, over 600 developers earn over $85,000 a year from their Roblox creations. The company also hosts programs and offers Developer Relations professionals to help developers succeed.
Roblox’s gargantuan valuation and outstanding success is in part due to the number of children hoping to strike a vein of gold making games. Children can’t organize for better working conditions, though; in fact, adults in the games industry are having trouble reaching quorum to unionize.
“Kids working too hard with unreasonable expectations isn’t bad for the company. This is the heart of Roblox’s success,” says Smith in the video. “In convincing its young users that making money on the platform is possible, it gets hundreds of thousands of young people pouring their imagination and spirit into making the next big Roblox success story.”
This story originally appeared on wired.com.