Adopt Me, a game about raising a virtual pet, recently saw more than million concurrent players. In May, it had a collaboration with Scoob!, the new Scooby-Doo movie. Players went wild baking bread that looked like characters from the game, just for a chance at a rare item. It regularly sees over 700,000 concurrent players, making it as popular as the most popular games on Steam, but you've probably haven't heard about it until this very moment.
Part of the reason is that Adopt Me is not just another game you can buy from Steam, the Epic Games Store, or other digital storefronts where you can find the latest big budget video games. Instead, it is just one part of the complex and massively popular Roblox platform, where users can create, sell, and play user-made games.
The Adopt Me concept is simple—it's Tamagotchi in a shared universe. When you load up the game for the first time, you adopt a pet, and you also get your own house. By taking care of your pet, you gain currency to buy clothing for your avatar or your pets, buy new furniture for your house, and also spend on luxury goods like cars. Players can teach their pets tricks, ride them or even use them as mounts to fly, and eventually you can unlock rare pets like a fennec fox or a meerkat. Adopt Me had been around for two years prior to adding pets—players can also adopt babies—but Ling said that the addition of pets was the secret sauce that made the game a smash hit.
Josh Ling, director of business development and growth at Adopt Me Studio, said that other developers don't really understand Roblox. Most of them assume that it's along the same lines as Fortnite Creative Mode, where players can build structures without combat, or Minecraft, which is generally focused on building things, but is a game in and of itself.
"Roblox is a platform that combines a game development engine—like a less feature-filled version of Unity—with a website that acts as a storefront and community hub for players to discover and play games—kind of like Steam," Ling said. "So Roblox is more like Unity + Steam combined. In Roblox there's no default gameplay or mechanics, developers have to create their own by using either built-in tools or a fairly full-featured scripting language (Roblox Lua)."
When you download Roblox, you're not downloading a game like Minecraft or Fortnite. You're downloading a launcher that then takes you to other games you can play within the platform. The other games aren't being made by huge studios, though. They're being made by hobbyists, sometimes very young ones, who use the basic engine that Roblox gives them to make their own work.
"My assumption is that most devs think Roblox is for kids and so don't bother playing it unless they have children in their lives, it's an easy assumption to make," Ling said. "Like many things made 'for kids' it's not taken seriously by adults—even though games like Adopt Me have more players than many AAA tentpole online game releases."
To say Adopt Me is successful would be a massive understatement. Ling said this summer, the game peaked at 1.6 million players online at once. It's enormous, and given that children this summer are mostly stuck inside, switching off between classes on Zoom and more internet, Adopt Me's players are absolutely obsessed with it. At the time of writing, it had 635,000 concurrent players. For comparison, that's more players than Dota 2, Playerunknown's' Battlegrounds, and Fall Guys had on Steam.
Playing Adopt Me is a pretty loud experience. The global chat is always firing off with requests for trades, players asking if anyone wants or has a certain pet of a certain color, and I was constantly bombarded with invitations to parties at players' houses. One of them was a "blackout party" in support of Black Lives Matter, where I took my puppy and drank some free water before bouncing, lest I would have to awkwardly talk to a child in a game they absolutely knew more about than I did. Another invitation I accepted was to someone's home where they had built a pizza parlor. They had bought a pizza oven for their home, and were role playing as a restaurant, though they gave out all their food for free. Players would sit down at tables and then use the chat functions to make their order, waiting patiently for their pies to arrive.
You can spend money in Adopt Me, though most things are accessible without doing so. The only way to spend money in Adopt Me is to buy more of the virtual currency in the game. Rare pet eggs, that may grant you the snow cat you've always wanted, cost more money. Some of them cost up to $1,000 of the virtual currency. You will earn money over time, just by raising your pet and fulfilling its whims, but you don't earn all that much. You'll also passively earn $20 of virtual currency every 20 minutes. You can absolutely earn your way to whatever reward you want without spending a cent of real money. That said, once you've watched another player ride across town on the back of a flying panda, it's hard not to want to just plunk down the cash that will take you there without the somewhat tedious process of raising a pet.
Ling is also surprised that Adopt Me is as popular as it is, but he and the other leads of the studio hope they can spin this success into a studio that side steps some of the issues of traditional big budget game development, like crunch and burnout and issues with diversity in the workplace. Adopt Me is currently scaling up its studio, which now has over 30 employees, as a result of its success on Roblox.
"Most Roblox games are developed by solo developers or micro-teams. They're also typically developed by young people—teenagers or people in their early twenties," Ling said, noting that studios like his are the exception rather than the rule.
"There are already plenty of stories on young Roblox developers crunching and burning out—if anything I'm worried that outside of studios like ours that are staffed by people with wider experience lots of Roblox devs are naive and will end up repeating the same mistakes," Ling continued. "I'm hoping Adopt Me and our studio can be one example of how to do your best to avoid those issues at least—though we are certainly not perfect."
That isn't to say that Roblox is completely without issues. Because you're stuck using the infrastructure that Roblox provides for making games, you don't have much control over the game's visuals. Roblox default to a Lego-esque aesthetic, where player characters look like the meeples that you use for board games, and if you aren't a fan of that as a developer you'll just have to get used to it. The revenue sharing model with Roblox also leaves something to be desired for Ling.
"Through the Developer Exchange program, Roblox takes around 78 percent cut of the revenue players spend in your games compared to 30 percent on Steam and the App store, or 18 percent on the Epic Games Store," Ling said. "When I tell my more traditional dev friends this number they are shocked. We have a great relationship with Roblox and are thankful to be working alongside them to continue growing the platform, but I'd be lying if I said I didn't cringe a little when I look at the numbers and see that we only get ~23 percent of the money our players are spending in our game."
It's undeniable, though, that Adopt Me is as popular as the biggest games that we've deemed cultural phenomena, and far outpaces the concurrent player figures for other games on Steam, like Fall Guys and Counter-Strike. We should be talking about it in the same breath as Fortnite. Or at the very least, taking a closer look at what's popular on Roblox.
"It was a struggle to convince more traditionally-minded industry people that we were 'serious' despite having better numbers than many well-known studios," Ling said. "It's still a struggle now with all these big numbers."