Like so many Roblox players, digital artist Everest Pipkin has their own abandoned birthday world.
Last year, when the pandemic made in-person gatherings impossible, Pipkin downloaded Roblox Studio, the platform’s game creation software, to construct a digital space to host their own party. It’s still publicly accessible, a giant mountainous landscape packed full of hang-out spots and, befitting the celebratory occasion, a balloon dispenser. Friends rolled through virtually over the course of six hours, an event Pipkin describes as “goofy,” “strange,” and, above all, “lovely.” In fact, Pipkin was so taken with the platform that they decided to use it to build a new project entirely within it. The so-called Dream Diary is a little different from the birthday zone; it allows players to peek into the most intimate recesses of its creator’s nocturnal mind.
Log on to any of the worlds in Dream Diary, and you might first notice the ways it differs from others in Roblox. The harsh, bright lines that have come to define the platform’s blocky aesthetic make way for softer gradations of light; colors, too, are muted in tone. This gentler visual approach extends to the audio; in “Herons,” one of the diaries accessible from the hub, you’ll hear the quiet chirruping of birds amid bright dawn sun. Be warned, though: the floor eventually disappears sending the player into infinite freefall — the stuff of classic nightmares.
Pipkin, whose work includes everything from DIY board games and delicate interactive art to anti-capitalist software licenses, is part of a crop of game makers and digital artists whose heads have turned toward Roblox throughout the pandemic. Pipkin started exploring the platform alongside game maker and curator V Buckenham, which is precisely what Ricky Haggett, maker of the recent heartfelt puzzler I Am Dead, did with an international group of pals, including Australian game designer Marigold Bartlett. Digital artist Max Bittker has started his own recent experiments, and then there’s the Roblox works by Terry Cavanagh, whose past commercial games include the critically lauded Super Hexagon and Dicey Dungeons. His Roblox game, Climb the Giant Man Obby, is a fiendishly difficult platformer brimming with his signature sense of humor and charm. (If you’re wondering, the obby in its title is Roblox parlance for “obstacle course.”)
One of the most notable things about Roblox is how instantaneous it is. Rather than booting it up like you would a regular video game, its worlds are accessed from a webpage on your internet browser. You search a term or, more likely, scroll through what’s popular at any given moment, pick a world depending on its thumbnail, and, whoosh, you’re in. It feels closer to navigating a social media app, which, of course, is also kind of what Roblox is — every creator and player has a profile and friend lists. Because avatars and controls remain the same across nearly every game (newly labeled “experiences” following the Epic v. Apple trial), there’s nothing new to learn besides rules. “You’re just in this new space fending for yourself,” says Pipkin, “and the immediacy of these micro-games is a delight.”
Immediacy extends to Roblox Studio itself, which is like a refined version of 3D game engines Unreal and Unity. However, there are two big differences, according to Pipkin. The first is the tool’s multiplayer component, which means numerous people can jump into the same project remotely. One person can be terraforming the landscape, sculpting vast mountains and deep river beds, while another imports 3D objects — a third could be scripting events. It is, says Pipkin, “remarkable… possibly more fun than actually playing Roblox games.” The second is the Toolbox, an online repository of 3D objects reminiscent of asset stores that exist for other game engines. However, the models, meshes, and sky boxes available to download are often half-finished or long out of date and likely given strange, random names by the under-16s who primarily create and upload them. For Pipkin, this “chaotic nature” is all part of the charm.
Having been updated incrementally over the years, Roblox Studio has become a robust piece of software in its own right, stacked with enough features for Pipkin to render these whimsical nighttime visions. They’re explicitly poetic, a tonal far cry from Cavanagh’s Climb the Giant Man Obby, which leans into the silliness found on much of the platform. Pipkin’s “It’s Time” is about conversing with a hand-drawn mythological creature in a garden overgrown with pink cherry blossoms. It turns out that you and this creature are in a relationship and that your partner doesn’t have much longer to live; the game involves spending a final few minutes together. Pipkin explains that achieving the pencil aesthetic wasn’t all that difficult — illustrations can be imported straightforwardly enough — but creating a dialogue tree to fit the aesthetic was more challenging. The dialogue UI Roblox comes with is locked so the artist had to hardcode their own. Pipkin describes this as one of Roblox Studio’s “weird edges.”
What’s lovely about “It’s Time,” as well as the rest of Dream Diary, is how it makes no demands on you, unlike the platform more generally, which is sustained by microtransactions. It’s certainly not unique in this respect; one can look to many other uncommercialized worlds, such as the similarly beautiful Toyokawa Inari Shrine. Maybe it’s the scope, or perhaps it’s Pipkin’s own ideological convictions, but this sensibility feels central to Dream Diary. You explore Dream Diary’s connected, haiku-like worlds for a few minutes — an industrial labyrinth, a humid forest, a grand spherical palace — before moving on with your day.
The upcoming Breezy Bay sits at what could be considered the opposite end of the creative spectrum. Its developer, Tailwind, one of the growing number of professional Roblox studios, describes the game as “Animal Crossing meets Runescape for the TikTok generation,” which sounds exactly like a meta-tag written by someone in pursuit of the platform’s next big hit. In reality, this means it’s a social sandbox RPG centered on gathering resources and decorating an island (so far, so Animal Crossing) with a plethora of in-app purchases. However, the UK-based Tailwind, backed by £800,000 in venture capital money, has a few trip tricks up its sleeve, which co-founder Mike Allender says could help Breezy Bay stand out not just in Roblox but the wider world of video games when it’s released this summer.
Each island has elemental deities (earth, water, fire, etc.), and depending on your behavior, you’ll either please or anger them. As this happens, the island transforms topographically. Some will end up as Mordor-like archipelagos filled with lava and smitheries; others will become lush waterfall-filled spaces. There’s a planned social element, too. If players on a server work together and decide to venerate one deity, this could trigger server-wide bonuses; groups loyal to the water god could enjoy the company of a giant oceanic monster.
Formed in January this year, Tailwind currently has eight full-time employees and is pursuing what Allender calls a “hybrid” studio approach, incorporating traditional game developers and “Roblox-native talent.” Their latest hire is an 18-year-old Roblox developer who Allender says is “running circles around” older members of the team. However, Tailwind is still primarily made up of traditional developers, and Allender, who cut his teeth on Runescape before moving to Jagex, is all too aware of the risks involved in approaching Roblox as an outsider. “You can’t come in thinking you’re better than anyone else on the platform because you’ve made games for 15 years,” he says. “You’ve got to stay humble and respect what’s working.”
Of course, Roblox isn’t just being pushed to its limits by newcomers to the platformer; it has its own thriving scene of cutting-edge games. Some of my recent favorites belong to the burgeoning genre of “vibe” games where players simply hang out in aesthetically striking spaces. (Many are reminiscent of Pipkin’s work, but more socially oriented and with a greater fondness for vaporwave.) There are even experiences that resemble the art video games of the 2010s. One of these is Cone, a surreal platform-puzzle game that puts you in the role of a sentient traffic cone who embarks on a journey across a series of beautifully rendered spaces. It’s slow, meditative, and strikingly different to anything else I’ve played on the platform.
Cone’s maker, Josh Sheldon, known on Roblox as Defaultio, has been developing games for the platform since 2007 when he was 12 years old. He describes the game as a strange project, and not just because of the bizarre premise. It’s both the most conventional video game he could have made — a narrative-driven, single-player title — and a distinctly unconventional experience for the always-online Roblox. Cone actually represents something of a break from Sheldon’s usual work, which tends toward the more established Roblox genres. His biggest hit, Lumber Tycoon 2, has racked up 802 million visits from players keen to deforest their virtual surroundings. However, it’s Sheldon’s latest game, secretly referred to as “Test2’’ and “Projoot” on the internet, that’s most tantalizing — essentially an entire MMO built within Roblox that operates at a scale to match the genre’s big hitters, in Roblox or otherwise. Oh, and it’s got a boating mechanic that seems to capture the spirit of the Nintendo classic, The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker.
Sheldon says he’s attempting something many have thought about with Roblox but no one’s yet achieved (to the best of his knowledge). His “large-scale, cross-server game” allows players to simultaneously “teleport into servers” as they traverse the vast in-game space. What this means is that players sailing across the ocean load into new, persistent servers naturally. The meat of the game is open-ended but focuses on players gathering resources and building abodes, either on their own or communally. Entire towns have sprouted up organically, each with fluctuating property dynamics. (Sheldon says one has been “gentrified.”) Some have even organized their own political election. These are all outcomes of Sheldon’s design philosophy that hinges on simply giving players enough tools to engage with the game in a rich way.
When I ask Sheldon how he feels about outsiders migrating to the platform, he describes it as “awesome” and “absolutely inevitable” because of both the strength of the platform’s tools and the opportunities that increasingly exist on it. But for those game makers looking to professionalize their work, there’s one big caveat: Roblox remunerates developers at the inverse rate of how video game stores tend to operate. Rather than taking home 70 percent of each transaction as they might on Steam, content creators actually see just 27 percent. There’s also the fact that Roblox, despite being publicly listed on the stock exchange with a valuation of $41 billion in March this year, isn’t yet profitable. It reported a net loss of $253 million in 2020 alongside further losses of $97.2 million and $86 million in 2018 and 2019, respectively.
While outsider game makers migrating to the platform won’t likely impact the fortunes of the company in the long run (unless, say, Hideo Kojima joins the party), such curiosity could yet spark interesting results that reverberate beyond it. One only need listen to Ricky Haggett, whose credits include cult video game hits Wilmot’s Warehouse and Hohokum in addition to I Am Dead, for one possible peek at the ways Roblox’s seamless multiplayer components might impact video games more broadly. “Our new game has definitely been influenced by playing a lot of Roblox,” he says. “It’s been such a good expression of faff-free hanging out with friends in a pandemic. There’s almost no barriers to entry — Roblox feels frictionless.”
This is perhaps Roblox’s most enticing offer to game makers: online infrastructure that can accommodate either many players or just a handful, in games that encompass everything from gigantic commercial projects to small, meditative titles. For Pipkin, it’s precisely these social elements that make the platform special. “Regardless of the fact that Roblox itself is a company whose goals sit somewhere between laudable and questionable, people find a way to make meaningful spaces and interactions with one another inside of it, and they do so with vigor and abundance,” says Pipkin. “It’s compelling to be a part of it.”