How the Designer of 'VVVVVV' and 'Dicey Dungeons' Fell in Love with 'Roblox'

Tens of millions of people play 'Roblox,' but not many traditional game designers are playing in that space. But now, some are curious.
May 24, 2021, 1:00pm
A screen shot from the game Climb the Giant Man Obby
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Throughout COVID-19, game designer Terry Cavanagh was like most of us: home, bored, and lonely. Stuck inside, the designer of trippy platformers like VVVVVV and the recent roguelike delight Dicey Dungeons found socialization in spending time playing online multiplayer games with friends. Eventually, someone suggested they start poking at Roblox

"I knew it was a multiplayer game platform mostly aimed at kids," said Cavanagh, "and I'd heard that it was very heavily into microtransactions, and I think I had an overall negative perception about it because of that. But mostly I just didn't really have an opinion at all. I had no idea how big it was."

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Fast forward a few months, and the result was Cavanagh making a game inside Roblox, an "obby" called Climb the Giant Man Obby. (In Roblox, platformers are called an "obby," a term that initially broke my brain before finding it endlessly endearing.) Players are tasked with guiding their blocky avatar, one of the defining aspects of Roblox, as they navigate a goofy series of platform hijinks as part of an amusement park built on top of, well, a Giant Man.

The journey to getting there, however, was a journey in understanding Roblox itself.

Roblox isn't new—it's been around since 2006. But the social platform that's helped define "video games" for a generation of youngsters alongside things like Minecraft only recently went public earlier this year. Money talks. Crucially, despite its crude-looking aesthetic, it's continuing to get bigger and bigger, to the point that development studios can capably hire dozens of people and pay for their health insurance based on making games inside Roblox

It's also, generally speaking, looked at with condescension by outsiders, especially those most familiar with "traditional" video games. Roblox might be host to games played by tens of millions of people, but hey, they're not real video games. The interface is janky, the physics are wonky, and you're constantly being asked to buy these things called Robux. The last part is certainly true—Roblox is stuffed with aggressive microtransactions—but it's also the case that Roblux has its own language of design and aesthetic. A lot of people love it.  

The first time you boot up Roblox is perplexing. There's not much guidance, beyond being told what's popular with other people who are playing Roblox. You're kinda on your own.

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"It was sort of overwhelming," said Cavanagh. "There's this huge community of creative people doing weird and inspiring and beautiful work, and I didn't even know it existed."

When Cavanagh's regular games night pivoted to Roblox, they tried to follow what was in front of them, going through lists of top games recommended by Roblox, games friends and colleagues had pointed out as interesting and worthwhile, and simply picking at random. In general, they'd spend 20 minutes inside a game, pick it apart, and then move onto the next.

"Sometimes we'd find something really good and spend a few hours on it," said Cavanagh. "Something that happened a lot is that we'd randomly find a game that was really interesting, and that would lead to finding more games and more games that it turns out were part of a whole Roblox specific genre."

Cavanagh pointed to Jailbreak, where players are either police officers patrolling the area or prisoners looking to escape. It's popular enough that you can buy action figures on Amazon. You explore a massive map, drive vehicles on the air and ground, pilot a drone, rob banks. 

To an outside observer, it's someone using Roblox to imitate Grand Theft Auto, but a closer look reveals that it's Roblox in conversation with games like GTA and Roblox culture itself. The popularity of the obby genre, for example, is woven directly into Jailbreak because if you've spent any meaningful time playing Roblox you have spent time playing obby games.

"I'm really fascinated with the way that Roblox is its own totally isolated games culture," said Cavanagh, "like it's some ancient, deep lake that's been cut off from the rest of games for some reason." 

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It's around this time that Cavanagh started digging into the reason Roblox is so robust and dynamic: the deeply accessible creation tools. Engine technologies like Unity and Unreal Engine exist on their own, but Roblox is both the platform and the technology. You cannot publish a game made with Roblox somewhere else. It's closer to Sony's Dreams experiment.

Cavanagh's time figuring out the Roblox toolset reflects what I've seen from other designers coming from similar spaces. Initially, there's confusion over how things work in Roblox, especially its limitations, before being won over by how well it does so many other things.

"One of the big reasons Giant Man turned into such a big thing is that I was just really enjoying the process of working with these tools," said Cavanagh. "They're really easy and playful to use, and it's genuinely a lot of fun to mess about with them. I had no expectations about that going in at all, so it was a really nice surprise."

The premise behind Climb the Giant Man Obby was simple: "climb the giant man." This prompt came from Cavanagh's own experience in Roblox, discovering an obby trope of forcing players to climb a massive person, for no discernable reason except it's funny. In fact, while answering my questions, Cavanagh came across one such example of this:

"The first time I saw a big Roblox avatar as an obstacle in a front page obby," said Cavanagh, "I remember thinking: this is amazing—this guy should be like twenty times bigger, and the whole game should be about climbing him."

How long until Roblox has a massive Lady Dimitrescu?

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Climb the Giant Man Obby is filled with references to other obby tropes, too, like climbable stairs that disappear behind the player and jumping between spheres. Stuff that's WTF to anyone not well-versed in Roblox culture, but fits right in with anyone who's spent time there.

It took me about an hour to reach the top of ol' Obby. Is it VVVVVV? Nah. But it's very cute, frustrating to control in the way that's fitting for the rest of Roblox, and surprisingly funny. There's legitimate and amusing world building happening in the level, and it proved nearly as motivating as trying to solve the platforming gauntlet in front of me. It's not finished, either. 

"Roblox is kind of two very different things," said Cavanagh, reflecting on the experience. "It's a platform that hosts multiplayer games, many of which are cheap cash grabs or skinner boxes—but it's also this really good, accessible game making tool that kids are using to express themselves and make weird joke games for each other. I come from a background of making dumb freeware games, and I'm really interested in what's going on in freeware."

"I'm really fascinated with the way that Roblox is its own totally isolated games culture, like it's some ancient, deep lake that's been cut off from the rest of games for some reason."

Roblox doesn't require folks like Cavanagh for that creative space to feel validated or real. It's been doing that all along, and the rest of us, yours truly included, are only catching up. But what happens when developers and other creatives from the traditional game world start hopping into Roblox, lured either by curiosity or genuine interest, is going to be interesting. 

One only needs to look at what artist and designer Everst Pipkin has been up to in Roblox, which is basically the complete opposite of Cavanagh. Whereas Cavanagh got wrapped up in understanding the existing culture of Roblox, Pipkin pressed up the boundaries of what the technology is capable of, producing results that look like nothing you'll find inside Roblox.

Even if Cavanagh, Pipkin, and other get bored, Roblox will keep moving.

"I think it's important to keep up with the experimental side of what people are making, you know?" said Cavanagh.