Image courtesy of Uplift Games
Recently, nearly two million people were playing the game Adopt Me at the same time, and 60 million play it every month. Those numbers would be enough to make Adopt Me one of the top played games on Steam. But you can't play Adopt Me on Steam. This popular online social game about raising families and pets is one of many experiences available inside Roblox, a platform for play and creation that's become huge amongst younger audiences, in which many are playing using fuzzy touch controls on a hand-me-down iPad from a parent.
Most people have probably heard of Roblox, or its recent blockbuster public stock offering. Through Roblox, Adopt Me is now big enough—and importantly, sustainable enough—that its developers have grown in ambition and want to be a multi-game studio within Roblox. The studio's new name is Uplift Games, a place aiming to offer health insurance but without crunch, moving from its two-person origins to more than 100 developers by the end of 2022."One of our goals is to be sustainable," said Uplift Games director of business operations Josh Ling in a recent interview. "A lot of Roblox games will go up and down. It's very trend-oriented. But Adopt Me has managed to stay quite high up for years."Ling has been with Uplift, which has gone by a handful of names before landing on its new identity, since 2019. At the time, Uplift was barely more than its two secretive two founders, known online as NewFissy and Bethink. The two designers met one another while playing Roblox, and actively decline to speak in public because "they don't want to be the story," and "they want the game and the studio to be the story," according to a company representative.
One reason for the ups and downs of Roblox games, Ling argued, is because many games are made by young teams whose one-off idea quickly takes off and develops a community that wants more. The people on Roblox are the same drivers of YouTube, a generation who expects more at the pace of weeky, if not daily. YouTube and Roblox are intertwined, with YouTube creators driving the engagement that leads to these temporary bouts of popularity.
"Roblox is particularly bad for it because there's this demand for that weekly content drive and these young people don't necessarily have the experience to deal with that," said Ling. "They just work themselves to the point of burnout and then they stop updating the game for a few months and then it falls off the charts. And you see this cycle repeat again and again."Adopt Me staying popular for years, allowing the studio to hire 40 people and shift through several names before landing on Uplift, is reflective of the professionalization of Roblox."Roblox" is not a game but a platform. It's better to think of Roblox like Unity or Unreal—a set of tools for people, especially beginners, to make games out of and easily share with one another. But whereas developers license the use of Unity or Unreal and publish their games elsewhere, everything made with Roblox stays within Roblox, and developers make money through how much players spend in-game ("engagement time") and paying for various microtransactions. Roblox expects to pay out $250 million to developers in 2021 alone, but the exclusivity comes with a steep cost: Roblox takes 78 percent of your total revenue, compared to 30 percent on Steam, Xbox, or PlayStation. That's a massive difference.
"When I tell my more traditional dev friends this number they are shocked," said Ling to Motherboard in 2020. "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."Knowing that, it's even more remarkable that Uplift believes it can hire 100 employees.At first blush, Roblox is chaos to outsiders. Its Second Life-adjacent aesthetic is deeply off-putting, and even a project with the resources of Adopt Me rejects the ultra-slick polish visual often associated with mainstream games. It's a world that has developed its own distinct visual and design language, where developers eschew fancy visual effects, because they need games to run on ancient iPhones.
In the first few minutes of playing Adopt Me, I'd inherited a giant egg as my child that I promptly fed a few cups of coffee before it cracked open and a dog was now my pet. There are tens of millions of people who are doing this every day, and it is considered very normal."You look at these [Roblox] games and they maybe don't look very visually interesting or they use a lot of the same assets and stuff," said Ling. "But under the hood, it's a fully fledged game engine developed by Roblox, half of the way to Unreal or a Unity."
There's a reason a designer like Terry Cavanagh, known for an iconic platformer like VVVVVV and roguelike deck builder Dicey Dungeons, recently made a game in Roblox. Eventually, the size of the audience is too big to ignore, and are underserved by creative minds from the "traditional" games industry not giving the Roblox players their attention.
Roblox has been around since 2006, long enough for people to grow up in Roblox, and come out the other side with their philosophy of games (and game creation) bent through it. Some people on the Adopt Me team have Roblox to thank for setting themselves up for a career that now includes working on a Roblox game. But Ling is also discouraged by the players and developers who don't view Roblox—and by extension, Adopt Me—as legitimate. "No one knows about Roblox, really," said Ling. "They're just starting to discover it now. There's a lot of education. We've hired a few off platform people, you could say. We're a split between native Roblox people who have a ton of Roblox experience and more traditional industry people who have to be onboarded. We're trying to use the best of both worlds."Part of the process of further establishing Uplift, then, is to continue bridging that gap.Development on Adopt Me started before COVID-19 prompted an unexpected shift towards working from home for many people. All along, Uplift has been what Ling describes as a "remote first" company, meaning it hasn't prioritized hiring people based on their location. The difference now is that Uplift is making that part of its broader pitch to other creatives.
"Suddenly your hiring pool becomes anyone anywhere in any region that you're allowed to legally hire," said Ling. "You don't have to hire people who can commute to London or San Francisco."The goal is to have what Ling calls a "zero burnout studio." That's behind the desire to hire people where they already are. That's why Uplift makes avoiding crunch a top-down ideal. In the past, Adopt Me had a weekly update schedule that resulted in crunch, and the studio's response was to hire producers who split the team up and had them working on different content, giving one another breathing room. They also spent engineering time building new tools to produce pets and other content faster. Roblox, despite being exceedingly popular, does not have the same robust development community as Unity. They made their own."The platform improves over time, but there are these limits that you are up against," said Ling. "I'm also not sure that limits are necessarily a bad thing. Limitation breeds creativity in certain aspects."The setup, where some parts of development are in Uplift's control and others are at the whim of Roblox, leads to fascinating dynamics. There is a chat room in the corner of Roblox, no matter what you're playing around with, and that chat room isn't moderated by the game developer. At one point, I was playing Adopt Me and watched several people debate if one user was a liar because another user claimed to have seen them pull some shady business elsewhere. Whatever happens inside that chat room, for good or ill, isn't touched by Uplift.
Adopt Me does have its own internal support, where the studio parses feedback from older players and parents writing on behalf of their children. Once, an Adopt Me parent wrote in because their child was taking advantage of the game's daily reward system. The system was generous, offering rewards as soon as 15 hours and as late as 60 hours after a certain day, because "maybe you had homework or something," according to Lin. But this child was now setting their alarm clock for every 15 hours to have multiple pulls at the daily reward. "We were mortified," saig Ling. "That wasn't the purpose of it. We quickly fixed that. You can still claim it in 50 hours, but you have to wait the full period before claiming again."Other times, Uplift finds itself in the position of having to parse dramatic interpersonal conflicts between players. It's common for younger players to share their passwords with one another, ala adults sharing a Netflix subscription, but this leads to scenarios where a player might secretly log in to another person's account, trade away all of their valuable pets and other collectibles, and pretend nothing happened. Then, Uplift gets to play detective.
As humorously dramatic as that might sound, it's no dirtier than what older "gamers" regularly get up to online, and Ling's experience in spaces like Roblox has been positive.
"No one knows about Roblox, really. They're just starting to discover it now. There's a lot of education.”
"You think gamers online [and] anonymous—it's going to be a bunch of negative interactions, bullying or other hateful stuff," said Ling. "But what I actually found is that compared to the older gamer communities that I worked with in the past, the kids [on Roblox] are actually a thousand times better with regards to things like inclusion, especially with regards to LGBTQ+ issues."This inclusiveness in the community is meant to be part of the DNA of the studio, too."We have people of color and trans people in senior positions, in managerial positions," said Ling. "Compared to the places I worked in the past, I just thought it would be nice to work somewhere where you're not going to get misgendered at work or you're not going to have to explain to your boss why it's not OK to say a certain thing."Uplift is juggling a lot at once, between trying to legitimize and expand Roblox development to a wider and more skeptical community, building a sustainable business in an environment known for boom and bust trends, and managing a community growing in the tens of millions."We know that making games at this scale is possible," said Ling. "You can make successful popular games whilst being remote first, whilst offering good benefits, and whilst allowing the people who work for you to be themselves."Follow Patrick on Twitter. His email is email@example.com, and available privately on Signal (224-707-1561)