As Roblox eyes what could be a historic debut on public markets in the coming months, investors who have valued the company at $29.5 billion are certainly eyeing the gaming company’s dedicated and youthful user base — but it’s the 7 million active creators and developers on the Roblox platform that they are likely most impressed by.
Since 2015, Roblox has been running an accelerator program focused on enabling the next generation of game developers to be successful on its platform. Over the years, the program has expanded from one annual class to now three, each with around 40 developers participating. That means more than 100 developers per year are working directly with Roblox to gain mentorship, education and funding opportunities to get their games off the ground.
As the company’s efforts on this front have grown more formalized, Roblox in 2018 hired former Accelerator alumni Christian Hunter, a Roblox gamer since age 10 and game developer since 13, to run the program full time. Having been through the experience himself, Hunter brought to the program an understanding of how the Accelerator could improve, based on a developer’s own perspective.
However, the COVID-19 pandemic threw into disarray the company’s plans to run the program. Instead of being able to invite developers to spend three months participating in classes hosted at Roblox’s San Mateo office, the company had to revamp the program for remote participation.
As it turned out, developers who were used to playing and building games taking place in virtual worlds quickly adjusted to the new online experience.
“Before COVID, everyone was together. It was easier to talk to people. [Developers] could just walk up to someone that was on our product or engineering team if they were running into issues,” explains Roblox Senior Product Manager Rebecca Crose. “But obviously, with COVID-19, we had to switch and think differently.”
The remote program, though differently structured, offered several benefits. Developers could join the program’s Discord server to talk to both current participants and previous classes, and reach out and ask questions. They could also participate in the Roblox company Slack to ask the team questions, and there were more playtests being scheduled to gain reactions and feedback from Roblox employees.
Meanwhile, to get to know one another when they couldn’t meet in person, developers would have game nights where they’d play each other’s games or others that were popular on Roblox, and bond within the virtual environment instead of in face-to-face meetings and classes.
The actual Accelerator content, however, remained fairly consistent during the remote experience. Participants had weekly standups, talks on topics like game design and production, and weekly feedback sessions where they asked Roblox engineers questions.
But by its nature, a remote Accelerator broadened who could attend. Instead of limiting the program to only those who could travel to San Mateo and stay for three months, the program was opened up to a more global and diverse audience. This drove increased demand, too.
The 2020 program saw Roblox receiving the largest number of applications ever — five times the usual number.
As a result, the class included participants from five countries: The Philippines, South Korea, Sweden, Canada and the U.S.
The developers at IndieBox Studios saw the program as a chance to double down on their game development side hustles. The young friends spread across the U.K. and Kentucky spent their time during the accelerator scaling up their photorealistic title called Tank Warfare.
“We’ve actually never once met in real life, like, we’ve been friends for going on, what, nine years now,” Michael Southern tells TechCrunch. “We met on Roblox.”
IndieBox is representative of many of Roblox’s early developer teams — younger gamers that have spent more than a decade learning the ins and outs of the evolving Roblox gaming platform.
“We all joined Roblox way back in 2008,” IndieBox’s Frank Garrison says. “But we only started developing on the platform in 2019. And for us, the decision to choose Roblox was more down to like, well it’s what we know, why not give it a bash?”
The demographics of the accelerator have been shifting in other ways as the developer base grows more diverse.
“I would say, in the beginning, it was mostly young males. But as we’ve watched the program evolve, we’ve been getting so many new interesting teams,” notes Program Manager Christian Hunter.
The 2020 program had more women participants than ever, for example, with 12 in a class of 50. And one team was all women.
The age of participants, who are typically in the 18 to 22-year-old range, also evolved.
“We’ve seen a lot more older folks,” Hunter says. “With [the COVID-19 pandemic], we actually saw our first 50-year-old in the program. We’ve never had anyone older than, I’d say, 24. And in 2020, we had 12 individuals over the age of 30,” he notes.
Two of the teams were also a combination of a kid and a parent.
Shannon Clemens learned about the Roblox platform from her son Nathan, learning to code and bringing her husband Jeff in to form a studio called Simple Games. Nathan’s two sisters help the studio part time, as well as his friend Adrian Holgate.
“Seeing [my son’s] experience on Roblox getting involved with the platform, I thought it would be neat to learn how to make our own games,” Shannon Clemens told TechCrunch.
Their title Gods of Glory has received more than 13.5 million visits from Roblox players since launching in September.
“Our whole family is kind of creatively bent towards having fun with games and coming up with things like that,” Jeff Clemens tells us. “Why would we not try this? So, that’s when we applied to the program and said, ‘well, we’ll try and see if we get accepted,’ and we did and it’s been awesome.”
In addition to the changes facilitated by a remote environment, Roblox notes there were other perks enabled by remote learning. For one thing, the developers didn’t have to wake up so early to benefit from the experience.
“With it being remote, the developers were working their hours,” says Crose. “As a developer, we tend to work later and stay up at night. Having them come in at 9 AM sharp was very difficult. It was hard for them because they’re just like…a zombie. So we definitely saw that by letting them work their own hours, [there is] less burnout and they increase their productivity,” she says.
Though the COVID-19 crisis may eventually end as the world gets vaccinated, the learnings from the Accelerator and the remote advantages it offers will continue. Developers from the program hope that the growth seen on gaming platforms like Roblox continues as well.
“The pandemic has been great for most game studios,” developer Gustav Linde tells TechCrunch. “Obviously, it’s a very weird time, but the timing was good for us.”
The Gang Stockholm, a Swedish game development studio co-founded by Linde, has been building experiences — largely branded ones for clients, exclusively on the Roblox platform. The team of 12 has used the accelerator to slow down development deadlines and dig into some unique areas of the platform as well as focus wholly on their upcoming title, Bloxymon, which they plan to release this year.
“If you look at Steam and the App Store and Google Play, those markets are extremely crowded, and Roblox is a very exciting platform for developers right now,” said Linde. “Roblox is also getting a lot of attention and a lot of big brands are interested in entering the platform.”
Roblox says that going forward, future Accelerator programs will feature a remote element inspired by the COVID experience. The company plans to continue to make its program globally available, with the limitation for now, of English-speaking participants. But it’s looking to expand to reach non-English speakers with future programs.
The fall 2020 Accelerator class graduated in December 2020, and the next spring class will start in February 2021. Roblox says they are already in the process of recruiting for their summer 2021 class, which will again have some 40 participants. Roblox will again aim to continue diversifying the group of creators.