At first glance Roblox may seem like it's kid's stuff. But CEO and Founder David Baszucki sees the potential behind the online maker culture and is using analytics and game mechanics to make this company a household name.
In business school, I developed a service for middle schoolers to create their own online curriculum and study materials. Back then, I had aspirations of competing against Prodigy and Compuserve.
I am always on the lookout for similarly conceived products (yes, I am still kicking myself for not taking on Scholastic Online or Lego.com). It wasn’t until 2011 that I found one in Roblox, a company that enables kids to design and build their own online activities.
Today, Roblox is a user-generated virtual playground and workshop designed for children ages seven and over. Players can create virtual worlds with blocks of various shapes, sizes and materials. It can be thought of as online Lego. Roblox has roughly three million devoted players from all over the world who visit the site and spend 40 million hours building, playing and sharing their creations.
Mission Impossible: “Allow Users To Build and Share Online”
According to Roblox CEO and Founder David Baszucki, the site’s mission is to allow users to have the same experience online that their parents had (offline) as children, playing with construction toys, model racecars or erector sets (from Lego to K’nex). David believes,
"People at Roblox will ultimately be able to create something that (is) not even possible in real life, such as visiting each others’ creations and ultimately making games out of these creations that are playable by thousands if not millions of users.”
How does his service go beyond what we or our parents got with our Lego sets? If, for example, you want to build a bulldozer, you would not only search and find a fully simulated bulldozer on the site, but also hundreds of models that could be taken apart.
As David says, “You would see engines and treads and you (would) be able and share and buy these different digital assets. We want everyone to share and use 3D digital assets!”
Does this executive sound like he’s having fun or what?
The Maker Culture
David wants Roblox to be part of the ever-growing maker culture, which represents a technology-based extension of the Do-It-Yourselfers, who are known for more traditional activities such as metalworking, woodworking and arts and crafts.
Typical interests of technology-based makers include engineering, electronics, robotics, 3-D printing as well as creating new and unique applications of technologies. They also encourage inventing and prototyping. For more information, read Chris Anderson’s new book, "Makers: The New Industrial Revolution."
David, however, hopes to move beyond the online maker subculture and eventually make Roblox into a household name. He envisions his brand being synonymous with online building, creating, inventing and playing:
We want to be known as a kind of cool digital erector set that attracts everything from younger users up through the Maker Faire Crowds," as well as “all those people (who) have a passion for creating cool stuff (like) Erector Sets, sharing (their creations) and experiencing it with others.”
His reference reminded me of Gilbert Toys’ Print Ads from “Boys Today. Men Tomorrow.” There’s a whole group of individuals who are finally getting to relive their childhood and be part of the DIY (Do-It-Yourself) / Maker culture.
[Note: 1949, an Erector Set was used to build the precursor to the modern artificial heart by Dr. William Sewell and Dr. William Glenn of the Yale School of Medicine. The external pump successfully bypassed the heart of a dog for more than an hour.]
It’s difficult to “genetically evolve a great game”
One reason for Roblox’s success is David’s keen attention to metrics. David believes analytics enable a company to “choose, tweak, and squeeze out that extra 5 to 10 percent of what you are trying to optimize.” His approach of focusing on continuous yet incremental improvements differs from most game companies in Silicon Valley, who have a tendency to use analytic methods, such as AB testing “to kind of genetically evolve a great game.”
This means they hope that a single, key insight will lead to dramatic improvement in their game. In layman terms: they focus on looking for a silver bullet. As David correctly points out, most great products don’t get created that way. Many slow, incremental improvements, rather than a single breakthrough, are the essentials of successful creation.
Roblox takes the same, calculated approach with its customer data by looking at the lifetime value of the different user classes in its user base, such as:
- Leaders of groups and clans on the site
- Battlers who compete to accumulate the most wins online
- Entrepreneurs, who are good at trading their Roblox bucks currency
- Artists, who want to be known as the great developer or designers of clothing in their virtual store.
Each of these clans gets parsed even further as Roblox collects data on every event that takes place on its service. The company then shares this information with its entire organization. This sort of democratic thinking fosters creativity and innovation and enables employees to react and respond more quickly to user behavior.
Game Mechanics and Improving Kids’ Lives
“Game Mechanics” is a term that unfortunately often gets defined by managers as "give me a leaderboard and some badges and we will have gamified."