MMO Family: Roblox CEO David Baszucki talks blocks, building, and learning through play

Robots and blocks are always lots of fun, both for kids and grown-ups who like to channel their inner-kid. So the combination of the two, in a sandbox, user-generated environment, makes perfect sense, and it's the concept behind Roblox. In short, it's a physics-based MMO that gives users the opportunity to be an armchair developer and push the bounds of creativity in building their own worlds. But the game goes beyond simple block-stacking, and offers enormous potential for learning in such disciplines as computer science, architecture, and even marketing.

In this week's MMO Family, Roblox CEO David Baszucki took the time to speak with Massively about the past, present and future plans for the game. He's taken a physics-based simulation and built up a successful and engaging game. Read on for highlights from the interview!

David Baszucki explained that Roblox actually sprung from his work at Knowledge Revolution, a software company that allowed you to make up physics simulations to see how they worked. They saw that schools were using it not just for physics, but also for imaginative play, such as Rube Goldberg contraptions. He was interested in creating a physics-based building world that lets players create things and then allow other players to see and explore them.

Roblox was the result, and he describes it as the "destination for user-generated games, coupled with the development studio for creating them, coupled with the cloud infrastructure to host them." Almost six billion games were created with Roblox studio for play on the site. Both kids as well as young adults are almost competing to see what they can make and how creative they can get.

Massively: With user generated content, there's always a potential for people to do it in unexpected ways. What surprised you the most?

CEO David Baszucki: The biggest surprise is the quality and ingenuity of the users. When we launched, the team literally put up one prototype game that they made. The second they allowed the users to make games, the quality surpassed what they had done almost immediately. Any kind of thing you can imagine was there -- obstacle courses, easy simulations, or medieval role-playing games are there for players to experience. The passion of the players and the quality of their creations is very surprising.

How do you handle the potential for griefing in a user-generated environment?

That's a lot of elbow grease. It's difficult to incorporate the two. Behind the scenes, people don't see it but there is a large number of moderators who are watching things. There are ways to signal that a user is being abusive, such as the report abuse button, and they also filter all the text in the game. It's like broken windows in a neighborhood. When you keep things in good shape, there's less reason for other people to start acting out. In addition, the team has a measured response that seems to work in curbing bad behavior.

There's a lot of interesting data about the players that's regularly posted on the Roblox blog. How does that affect design decisions, and what stats are most surprising?

One surprising piece of data is that the amount of time that users spend building and playing, they're far more engaged than in other sites like Nickelodeon or Club Penguin. They're pushing over 25 million hours per month of playtime among the 2.5 million players. The other stat that is really interesting is the range of the ages of the players. It's something we think about a lot. We have a surprising number of 15-year-olds, 18-year-olds, and even parents playing on the site as the same time as the younger players. Figuring out how to keep our site safe and accessible for young people, and at the same time make it interesting, challenging, and age appropriate for older people is something that we're working heavily on.

What can kids potentially learn from a game like Roblox?

I love building things like robots, toys, and all of that. As people tend to spend more of their time online, we want to be part of that engaged constructivist activity that you do online, where building and creation is a big part of it. We believe as you start to get into Roblox, you'll find in Roblox Studio the modeling and level design aspects of game creation, as well as the scripting aspect, in that you can program smart objects using Lua script. The whole idea of how people will learn computer science, I believe will be through game development. We have thousands and millions of users who are learning how to write software, not because they're being told to learn it, but because they want to build a great game, or a great booby trap. They're learning as a natural by-product of wanting to build something interesting.

Besides the programming part of it, we have it happening in other areas as well. Artistically, all of the clothing is user-created. The artists involved with the site are being driven to create more imaginative clothing. We also have a currency exchange where users can trade Robux. We have currency traders, and players who are learning social skills through group dynamics. There are lots of meta opportunities for learning.

Even a little marketing...

That's consistent with the theme that we're all professional game developers. Part of building your game is marketing it, or digital asset that you're creating and then selling. The whole idea of advertising on the site is another cool creative way to learn.

What about the potential for classroom learning?

I think just as there are a lot of really great LEGO Mindstorm camps right now, I think the way to get kids interested in software development is through game development. They're working to something they can show to their friends, something that other people can play with. I feel pretty much the same way in schools. Our dream is to create this ultimate platform for user generated gaming, that ends up creating a platform in school that's not just for computer science. We have people building models in Roblox for their Mayan ruins history project, or we've had people build tornadoes for their weather project. Roblox can be used in a lot of different ways.

You've also succeeded in bringing Roblox to the Mac, PC, and are close to launching it on the iPad, correct?

Our vision, long term, is that we want the game that our users build on Roblox to be played anywhere. Right now we have an iPhone app that's more of a social app, just checking your character, friends, etc. We have started to show demos on our blog of Roblox running on an iPad, and the vision there is really we want the iPad users to be able to play in the exact same space as the people who are on a desktop. It'll be essentially the exact same style of play, just with user interface that's more appropriate for an iPad.

What's something that you've always wanted to see added to Roblox but has been difficult to implement so far?

I think it's safe to say, we've built our own physics engine, and it's somewhat unique in that it works over the network, and it handles things like vehicles and buildings collapsing. As we've gotten bigger, we've started to bring more and more people on board to help us out. One of our dreams is the number and amount of moving parts that we have in our world, and how complex they are, that our dream would be some Roblox places will feel like a giant movie with giant Roblox doing battle. They'll be tens of hundreds of them. We're starting to get the bandwidth to move in that direction, so I think more complex, accurate, mechanical devices, and the scale of those devices, is a huge dream of ours that we're digging more and more into.

How do you handle game changes that might spark controversy?

We have a really passionate community, and we like that passion. Any time we change or adjust characters we get massive outpourings of support or disagreement. I think long term, we just migrate to more user choice, without restraining ourselves. I think we have a philosophical vision on the characters that have these interchangeable blocky characters that can be put together, and we'll keep that aspect of it. but I do think for certain players, they may want a character that's a little more stylized that they're familiar with, while still having that blocky look. In those cases, it's a balance between what our users say and what we say, and we're always having to balance that. Our old characters weren't even able to wear clothing, they were just a single color. Even when we introduced clothing, we had a lot of people who protested that. But our intuition was right in that case, and we pushed forward, and those players who wanted the single color are still able to do that.

How do you answer the inevitable question, "Why play with virtual blocks when you can play with them in real life?"

In certain ways, I would agree. As a parent, I work with my kids on how much screen time they have. Within the envelope of how much screen time they have, I would say I'm much happier to have them play something creative or constructive, than something that's very passive or following along. I think our point is that we want to be a great choice within the parameters of what screen time has been set within the family for those kids.

Can you talk about the upcoming Roblox game conference?

The Roblox game conference is coming up in July. We really don't even use the word kids when we describe it because we're seeing people from 6-60 come to this event. We're really promoting it as jumpstarting your career in game development. We'll have younger users, older users, and some college users. It's consistent with what we're trying to do which is make Roblox the game development platform for everyone so that they can get a taste of building games and having a lot of other people play it.

We're going to have two tracks: a main stage track that's more informational about our product, vision, and will showcase some of our user creations, features, etc. A second track is more of a career track about the game industry. How do you break into the game industry, where to go to college, how to raise money, things like that. It's consistent with treating all of our users to the process of game development.

What are your plans going forward?

We have many things in the works, some that our users have been asking for for a long time, like trading assets, better ways to manage groups, and getting on to mobile. One big thing I'm pushing for is the raw underlying technology of our game. How many parts can you have? How quickly do our games run, how much movement is there in our game? What's the quality of the lighting? A big part of what we're working on is the technology that makes it easier to build cool and interesting types of games.

Thank you to Roblox CEO David Baszucki for taking the time to speak with Massively.

The MMO Family column is devoted to common issues with families and gaming. Every other week, Karen looks at current trends and ways to balance family life and play. She also shares her impressions of MMO titles to highlight which ones are child-friendly and which ones offer great gaming experiences for young and old alike. You are welcome to send feedback or Wonka Bars to
This article was originally published on Massively.