When shares of Roblox, the insanely popular video game platform, went public last week and the company surged to a valuation of more than $45 billion, I had to congratulate myself for the role I played in getting them there. After all, over the past few years, I’ve probably bought $45 septillion worth of “Robux,” the platform’s in-game “currency,” for our daughter Mirabelle.
Mira is obsessed with Roblox, as are most of her cousins and friends. If you’re raising children now, Roblox is very likely … a thing. Kids of all ages are constantly begging for more screen time so they can resume playing games such as Jailbreak, Meep City, Adopt Me!, Royale High, Murder Mystery 2, Work at a Pizza Place and Welcome to Bloxburg.
The platform is a “freemium” business model in which it’s entirely free to play, but Robux can be purchased (with real-world money) which allows the player to acquire virtual goods to accessorize avatars or enhance the playing experience.
Pop the hood, and you’ll discover Roblox Studio, where developers of all skill levels can create and publish their own interactive games without having to worry about hosting, payment processing, security, distribution, etc.
With more than 7 million game developers launching their own games with Roblox Studio, we figured some of these Roblox “tech creatives” must be from Charlotte. So, we reached out to Roblox HQ in San Mateo, CA to find out – and turns out, we were right.
Native Queen City Coders
Twenty-two-year-old Charlotte native, Daniel Njinimbam (Roblox username: Radstar1), went to Mallard Creek High School before studying computer science at CPCC. He started coding and creating Roblox games in 2019.
“I used to play (video) games heavy,” Radstar1 explained. “I would play them all the time. Eventually … they got really boring to me. Then Roblox helped me test out trying to make (games for) myself. Now I can make something that I would like to play. It wasn’t super hard to get into. I could just look up tutorials on YouTube.”
Radstar1 says what he likes most about Roblox is that “you can put your vision on there and make whatever you want — which is great, because if it’s fun to you, it’s going to be fun to someone else.”
Joshua Zhang (Roblox username: GodOfDonuts) grew up in south Charlotte and graduated from Providence High School. He discovered Roblox in 2008, when he was eight years old.
“I had been playing games since elementary school, when I learned how to go to find flash games on the internet,” said GodOfDonuts. “Eventually, through playing those games, I stumbled across Roblox. It was really cool because there was so much variety. I had never seen games that were created by just other players. Normally, the creators were some far-off entity. But here I was playing games with creators.”
The more he played, the more he wanted to make adjustments to the games. By the time he reached high school, he learned about Roblox Studio, and between the studio and YouTube tutorials, he learned how to code. His first game: an immersive coffee shop experience.
“Providence High is right next to the Arboretum,” said GodofDonuts. We’d hang out in the Barnes & Noble and get Starbucks every day after school. And I just really wanted to hang out with people in the game, as well. So, I made a coffee shop.”
There are many such role-playing games on Roblox. Young game developers love them because they are relatively simple, but also extremely engaging. “It was less so a fully-featured game with a story and with core mechanics of shooting or driving,” said GodOfDonuts. “It was just you hanging out with people, and here are some other things you can do, like drink coffee.” In essence, it was a good way of expressing creativity without having to know a lot about making games.
Today, there’s an entire subgenre of games on Roblox called “café groups.” But GodOfDonuts’ very first game (now called Frappé) was the first of its kind.
“I remember a bunch of (coffee shop games) springing up in the months following,” he said. “We had the OG status, so people gravitated toward us, anyway. But it was really funny because there was competition. There was innovation in how nice the coffee shops were, how well the scripting was done and competition between the coffee shops. There are still new café groups popping up, which is really interesting to me, because here’s this idea that I had seven or eight years ago … and now, people are still playing with that idea and improving on it.”
Hitmen, Mercenaries, Floating Blocks and Donut Shops
The first game Radstar1 developed for Roblox was Hitman Reborn, based on a show he used to watch. As he described it, “Hitmen have to protect the city, and players would go around collecting superpowers and fighting off evil people.”
That game helped him get comfortable with coding. Now, he’s pouring everything he’s learned into designing his second game, called Skirmish. It’s based on “a group of mercenaries that come from different planets, and they gather in teams, and now they are paid to fight each other, to defuse bombs.” Skirmish isn’t ready for play yet; Radstar1 is still developing it behind the scenes.
GodOfDonuts has created about a dozen games. He followed his coffee shop immersion with a game called Coalesce. “Playing around in the Roblox Studio, I found that if you took blocks and programmed them to follow your character, and if you hop on top of the blocks, because it’s still trying to follow your character, they’ll push you up. And if you had a bunch of blocks, they would coalesce into a little platform around you. And you could compete with the other players because they were programmed to follow the closest player. So you could steal all their blocks, or you could blow them off their platform and rise higher than them.”
Although he regrets calling it Coalesce (because “it’s a really difficult name for kids to pronounce”), the game was featured on Roblox Live! and on the Roblox YouTube channel. It’s also available on mobile and has been translated into Spanish. Eventually, it became one of the launch titles for the Roblox-for-Xbox port.
Since then, he’s made a pirate ship fighting game called Overboard and a detective game that experiments with story and dialogue, A third game he’s challenges players with a “procedurally generated obstacle course” inspired by the current “speedrunning game craze.” He’s also developing a “tycoon-based” game — one based on players running a simulated business — in which you run your own donut shop.
Blocky, Free and Anything You Want
Over half of U.S. kids and teens under the age of 16 play Roblox. I asked Radstar1 why my daughter, her friends and 32.6 million other young people are so obsessed with it.
“If it’s not the blocky style, it’s literally the idea that you can find whatever game you want on there,” he suggested. “It doesn’t matter what you’re into. It could be a show, or something you’ve seen in real life, or even jumping on a trampoline. If you’re into it, you can find it on Roblox. You’re not limited in what you can play.”
GodOfDonuts agreed. “There are just so many games, so there’s bound to be something you like,” he said. “There is everything from really cute role-playing games where you can adopt pets and build your house, all the way to [military games] and simulation racing games. The “freemium” model also makes Roblox games accessible. “When you’re a kid, you don’t have much money,” explained GodOfDonuts. “You can’t just buy games. Even if you have a console, you’ve still got to buy the games. I remember when I was a kid playing Xbox, I could only play the demos of games. And so I’d just play a 30-minute demo of a game just to quench my thirst for gaming.”
The inherently accessible nature of the platform is what makes it so appealing to game developers like GodOfDonuts: “Because there’s so much freedom within Roblox, developers can really make their game the way they want to and not have to go through committees or all the bureaucracy. Just make something simple and fun and easy to understand.”
A Pathway into a Creative Career
For Radstar1, developing Roblox games is a big step toward a dream career. “It’s definitely a full-time thing for me right now. If you take time with it, you can make it a full-time job, and that’s what I’m trying to do.” He says he spends six to seven hours a day working on the platform.
GodOfDonuts said Roblox is “really generous with its monetization. It’s completely up to developers whether or not they want to monetize their game and how they monetize their game.”
Players can purchase and spend Robux on in-game items that the game developers create. For example, let’s say you want to buy a “speed power-up.” You could pay 25 Robux to have that, and that 25 Robux gets sent to the developer, with Roblox taking a small cut. Once you reach a certain threshold, the game developer can cash out and receive it from Roblox as real-world currency. Especially popular games can create an impressive revenue stream.
In fact, over 4,300 Roblox game developers and creators earned $328.7 million in 2020.
“There are a few studios that have popped up on Roblox that are pretty large companies,” GodOfDonuts reported. “They employ developers. The studio behind (the popular game) ‘Adopt Me!’ consists of around 30 developers, and their website quotes around $70,000 a year or more for new hires. So it’s definitely profitable for developers and it’s become a major revenue stream for a lot of people, much in the same way YouTube has.”
For Radstar1, Roblox is a strategic part of his journey into a video game development career. “After this, I want to develop my coding skills some more and then create my own video game company,” he said.
GodOfDonuts is studying mechanical engineering at N.C. State’s College of Engineering and eyeing a career in the automotive engineering industry. “Despite Roblox being such a large part of my life, I figured that, as with most things, when it becomes a job, it’s no longer fun,’ he said. “I really wanted Roblox to stay fun, because it’s been fun for these past 13 years. So I didn’t want to make it a job. It’s a nice side project, a hobby to have on the side while I do my college classes.”
Staying in CLT, Returning to CLT
Both Radstar1 and GodOfDonuts love how creative Charlotte is becoming.
Radstar1 loves “all the artwork that’s just popping up. For creative inspiration, he skateboards at the Eastland DIY SkatePark. He also loves creating music with a friend, which gets his creative brain working.
Radstar1 likes “the expressiveness of Charlotte. Have you seen all these drag races that have been going on around here? I was like, whoa, what is going on here? Charlotte’s kind of ‘wilding’ out a bit.”
GodOfDonuts could foresee moving back to Charlotte after college. “Roblox is location-agnostic,” he said. “You can have a successful career working on Roblox, as many have done, in whatever town you choose. You don’t have to be in Silicon Valley to make games, and you don’t have to work at a studio. And especially with Roblox, you can live anywhere and work on games, find your passion without ever leaving your door. ”
Add to this the fact that, last year, Johnson C. Smith University became the first historically black college and university to offer an Esports and Gaming Management program to undergraduate students, and the future looks exciting for game development in the Queen City.
But in the here-and-now, Radstar1 said, “Roblox is a great way to just express everything you want.”
Let’s Put ‘Em to the Test!
We asked six young Roblox aficionados to play a few of the games created by Charlotte-bred game developer, GodOfDonuts.
- Mirabelle Olin (age 8), offspring of The Biscuit co-publisher, Matt Olin
- Zoë Bridgmon (age 8), Mirabelle’s friend and pandemic pod-mate
- Shyanne Winston (age 8) – daughter of Charlotte City Council member, Braxton Winston
- Chase Bokhari (age 7) – son of Charlotte City Council member, Tariq Bokhari
- Charley May Bokhari (age 5) – daughter of Charlotte City Council member, Tariq Bokhari
- Channing Bokhari (age 3) – son of Charlotte City Council member, Tariq Bokhari
- Chase: “It’s cool because you can hit blocks with a rocket launcher. I’d play it more because the leaderboard makes it fun.”
- Shyanne: “Coalesce is fun. I just kept falling and the blocks kept coming. I like this one the best!”
- Zoë: “I loved it! I loved how you could click a block and you get more bricks. ”
- Mirabelle: “I liked how you can spawn bricks and you can use your rocket once you reach a certain height. You try to be the highest player!”
- Chase: “I thought it was cool, especially when I found out you can steer the boat, but there were no people in it to play against so I stopped.”
- Zoë: “I like it very much. It’s cool when you fight and you can fire the cannons.”
- Mirabelle: “I like how you can choose between Navy and Pirates. You can be a good guy or a bad guy.”
- Chase: “It was cool because you got to be a detective and find clues.”
- Charley May: “It was amazing, and guess why? Because I found the last clue that my brother couldn’t find. I saw it straight away. It’s an interesting game.”
- Zoë: “I liked all the clues. It was really fun. I like when the monster chased us and caught on fire.”
- Mirabelle: “It was really fun. I like how they hid all the clues, and how the body parts were hidden and turned into a monster when we connected them.”
Bonus Playthrough Video!
Check out this video that Charlotte City Council member Tariq Bokhari made of his kids (Roblox player names: 0v3rl0rd, ChaseMeBr0, and SassMay) playing four Roblox games developed by Charlotteans, including Skirmish by Radstar1:
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