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If you have a kid under the age of 16, then you’ve probably heard of Roblox. The online game creation platform that launched 14 years ago has recently become a daily fixture in households with tweens since the pandemic started last March, as kids (and their parents) search for activities to stay engaged and learning from home.
Roblox was already on the rise pre-pandemic, as the gaming site — which allows players and content creators to create unique digital experiences for free for a global community — surpassed its competitor Minecraft’s number of monthly active users by hitting the 100 million player count in August 2019.
New York Times reporter Kellen Browning wrote in August that around 75% of American kids ages nine to 12 now play Roblox. And at the Roblox Developer Conference in July (which went virtual last year), David Baszucki, founder and CEO of Roblox Corporation, announced that the creative platform currently attracts 150 million active users a month. The company is set to go public today, with an estimated valuation of $30 billion.
Roblox creators have the potential to earn more than $250 million this year, Baszucki revealed at the conference. Browning noted that business is booming for Roblox game developers, most of whom are college students, young adults, and teenagers.
24-year-old Alex Hicks, who started playing on Roblox when he was 13, began developing his own games in 2010. He now owns his own game development studio, RedManta, and manages seven full-time employees.
RedManta has generated nearly one billion plays combined for all of their projects and their two games “Robloxian High School” and “World // Zero.” Prior to founding RedManta, Hicks had made over a dozen other games covering multiple genres.
Testing the waters in game development and making $500 a month
Hicks said that when he first discovered Roblox, it took him just a couple of months to get comfortable developing.
“I’d always been into creating things and after playing a lot of games, I wanted to try making my own,” he said.
He released his first game in 2010 titled “Ro-Pets,” a game that allowed players to adopt a pet and play in a digital town. The game, which he said took him a few weeks to make, hit the front page of Roblox with 50 players online at the time.
“[This] was extremely motivating and made me want to continue developing games,” Hicks said.
Some of his more popular early games were role-playing games like “Swordburst Online.” He also released many small projects and prototypes, whose names he’s since forgotten, that helped him experiment and gain development experience.
His first games didn’t make him much money, he said, and Roblox didn’t introduce their developer payout program, Developer Exchange (known as DevEx), until 2013. Through DevEx, developers have the ability to monetize their games by offering players in-game items (upgrades, gear, accessories, etc.) that can be purchased with Roblox’s virtual currency called “Robux.” Developers are then able to redeem the Robux they earn for real money.
“A lot of my initial projects weren’t motivated by nor did they take revenue into consideration,” Hicks said. “I was just trying to build ideas that I wanted to play myself, and others would often enjoy them as well.”
Hicks said he was making around $500 per month on a handful of smaller games when Roblox introduced DevEx.
“These games were mainly RPG-style games where you’d travel through worlds defeating tougher enemies,” he said.
The advent of DevEx was a turning point in Hicks’s career, as he was able to convert his hobby into a part-time job. The revenue he made from each of his games increased as his audiences grew.
“It took probably a year to move from hundreds to thousands of dollars as we were introducing regular game updates,” Hicks said. “Some of those early games had been created before 2013, but I was able to start monetizing them later once DevEx launched.”
Taking on internships and a computer science degree before dropping out to found his own company
Hicks attended Carleton University in 2014 and was on track toward earning a computer science degree while interning as a software engineer at Roblox’s headquarters in the Bay Area. But he dropped out of college after three years of courses to put his full attention toward developing a video game company.
“Initially, Roblox got me interested in software development, leading to my interest in getting a [computer science] degree,” Hicks said. “But my attention then actually switched to game development and project management in the process.”
Moving from a small Canadian town to the heart of Silicon Valley to intern in person at Roblox, Hicks said, was an incredibly valuable life and career experience.
“I was helping improve the platform by creating a game during my first internship, where I got lots of great coaching on game design practices in the process,” he said.
In subsequent internships at Roblox, Hicks worked on improving the developer toolset and the Roblox engine, which provided him with a solid understanding of how large software development teams operate and scale.
Before he left school he prioritized completing the most important courses for his business, such as game design and development, which he was able to take without prerequisites because of his Roblox experience.
“The main reason I left my studies was because my games got to a certain point of revenue and number of users where I felt like it was important for me to dedicate myself full time to this work,” he said. He added that he could always return to college and finish in the future if he wanted.
“However, at this point I’m feeling I’m much farther ahead than many of the people I know who graduated with game design degrees,” he said.
The decision to found RedManta in 2018 was made when one of his projects, “Robloxian High School,” broke $100,000 in revenue in a single month. Today, the game has generated over 934 million plays.
“At this point, there were a few contractors working on the game and they were excited by the prospect of becoming employees and working out of a physical office space,” Hicks said.
RedManta, LLC has already brought in over a million in revenue for 2020, all from Roblox. The company’s newest game “World // Zero” has been in development for over a year and a half and is being released for free next week.
Focusing on efficiency and effectiveness over the tried-and-true business formulas
Hicks and his cofounder at the time leased out an office space and filled it with equipment for their team to use. The original RedManta team included a mix of employees and contractors, but Hicks said that the size of the team shifts depending on projects and resource needs.
Diving headfirst into running a business was a quick way to learn a lot of lessons, he said.
“Initially when we found success, we wanted to try and meet something of a mold of what a game development company should look like,” Hicks said. “We didn’t ask what really makes us effective.”
For example, after working with a team on site, Hicks found that people were getting distracted with additional things to manage in the office. The group was also trying to add new, overly ambitious projects that took away from their key focus areas and games.
“We’ve learned a lot from this experience, and we are now able to be much more effective in our workflows,” he said. “Having consistency is really important.” The RedManta team now has daily syncs to ensure everyone is on the same page, as well as planning meetings to tackle the bulk of the work in lengthy sprints without constantly having meetings that interrupt their workflow.
“It was time consuming at first and made it difficult to prioritize game development, but the workflows we’ve established since have made us more efficient than ever before,” Hicks said.
Networking his way to a strong team, valuable user feedback, and a million in revenue
Hicks said that his first projects found success after he began to pair up with other developers he’d met playing games.
“We would hang out, discuss the game, and sometimes people asked if they could help improve things they saw I wasn’t focusing on,” Hicks said. “Gradually we’d decide to work on a project together.”
Many of these fans asked to help with the artwork, while Hicks himself focused on the game design and implementation.
“This was five years ago, but I’m still working with those same developers today as they’ve joined RedManta,” he said.
He said that he enjoys building systems and pipelines, while he finds it more challenging to focus on smaller details, like individual assets. This is where partnering with people who have different skill sets than his own helped him excel.
“For example, if we needed a tree that looks nice, I’d much rather focus on building a system that deals with all of the trees,” Hicks said. “I like to look at the bigger picture, but need people on the team to focus on various details — not just in the artwork, but also other assets like map design, sound effects, etc.”
According to Hicks, there are countless examples of teams being formed through Roblox because of its ability to allow developers to find each other and connect.
“The key here is making sure you put your project out there for everyone to see,” he said. “Roblox is not the kind of platform where you develop your project in secret for years and then release it. Make your prototypes and beta open to all and see how the reception feels.”
“Lots of developers are looking around at what others are doing, so all you have to do is publish [and] share what you are doing, and at the same time also take notice of others’ work that you may be interested in and start conversations with those creators,” Hicks said.
Hicks stressed that you can publish your game on Roblox literally within minutes of downloading Roblox Studio.
“That’s what many of the developers do — publish a project to seek quick user feedback and make some initial improvements, and later keep updating the game based on the feedback people who try it are giving,” he said.
The founder added that once you’ve captured an audience, it’s much easier to integrate premium content since you have a proven concept.
“I think too many developers will look at what’s popular today and try to recreate it, when they should be looking back one step further and asking themselves, ‘Why do people have a fun time playing this game?'” Hicks said. “If you try to make a game you wouldn’t play yourself, it’s going to be difficult convincing others they should. Pick something you’ll wake up wanting to work on every day, rather than the idea you think could be big but aren’t passionate about.”
Hicks and his team also embrace their communities. Every staff member at RedManta is someone who came from the Roblox community in one way or another.
“We have people who were huge gamers before they started working on their own development projects and people who are really interested in artwork and the graphical kind of things,” Hicks said. “We did posts on the developer forum [and] Twitter and asked people to spread the word that we are hiring for projects.”
This article was originally published on Insider September 19, 2020. It has been updated with new information.