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Roblox Goes Public — What's Roblox? Ask Anyone With Kids.

The world of Roblox has become a popular escape during the pandemic.
The world of Roblox has become a popular escape during the pandemic.

The online game platform Roblox plans to go public on Wednesday. During the pandemic, it's become a de facto playground, with more than 32.6 million people across 180 countries playing every day. Like them, my nine-year-old has been playing with her friends nonstop. They can't be with each other in person, but on Roblox, they enjoy online roller coasters and water slides together. They pretend to go to school, adopt pets and play dress up. Mostly, they follow each other around in different environments, meeting friends along the way.

Mandalit's daughter's avatar.
Screenshot by Mandalit del Barco / Roblox
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Mandalit's daughter's avatar.

"Roblox is a bit of a substitute babysitter when some parents need a break at home," says P.J. McNealy, CEO of Digital World Research who teaches at Boston College. He says Roblox has benefitted during COVID by having a captive audience. He describes the platform as, "Minecraft meets Nintendo, which meets Lego and mobile phones enable a whole bunch of it."

McNealy says the company started with a younger demographic and is growing. Going public, he says, will allow Roblox to build a digital empire, beyond gaming. "This money will either give them an opportunity to build more content for the for the platform or to go to adjacent platforms like music or partnering with Spotify or movie service," he says. "That's where this is going to go."

The company's CEO, David Baszucki, known as "Builder Man," co-founded Roblox in 2004 with Erik Cassel. Baszucki estimates three-quarters of American children age nine-through-12 hang out on Roblox every month.

This is ultimately the dream of so many of us for so many years, way back to the science fiction community. We have our own personal vision of the metaverse.

"We're crushing it right now. And in the midst of COVID, we've seen an explosion of older players on the platform," Baszucki said during a conference for Roblox developers last summer. "So how do we make it possible for Roblox to connect with everyone in the world?"

Baszucki laid out his dreams for the company, including making movies with Roblox content, and creating a "universal translator" for people around the globe to gather in a collective virtual space. "This is ultimately the dream of so many of us for so many years, way back to the science fiction community," he said. "We have our own personal vision of the metaverse."

Last year, Roblox presented an online experience tied to the recent Wonder Woman film, and the platform hosted several virtual concerts. For example, last November, players put their avatars in the audience as they sang and danced alongside Lil Nas X's avatar.

In early January, Roblox announced it had already raised $535 million dollars for what it calls its "human experience platform." It hosts games created by players themselves.

Alex Hicks was just 13 when he went from playing Roblox games to designing them. Now 24, he has his own nearly two-million dollar game development studio with 10 employees. They created the games "Robloxian High School" and "World Zero." "With other games, if you get bored, you'd stop playing it," he explains. "But with Roblox, there's just a constant stream of titles to play and you can just see what your friends are up to. You go hang out with them. It makes you realize that this is probably the future of social engagement."

In "Adopt Me," players can adopt cute animals.
/ Roblox
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In "Adopt Me," players can adopt cute animals.

When you're just like a 13-year-old making a game in your bedroom, you don't really have all these internalized rules and you kind of just make whatever you want.

Hicks says the key is watching games, concerts or films together at the same time online is key to that future. "And I think that's what Roblox really gets is the social aspect."

Twenty-year-old Zoe Basil lives with roommates she first met on Roblox. She's a computer programmer who works on the platform's popular game "Adopt Me." She likes that anyone can publish a game on Roblox. "When you're just like a 13-year -old making a game in your bedroom, you don't really have all these internalized rules and you kind of just make whatever you want and whatever comes to mind," she says. "It's kind of like outsider art. And I think that's awesome."

Megan Letter is a Roblox superstar, who famously plays "Adopt Me" with her virtual pet unicorn, Honey. She has more than three million subscribers for her daily YouTube channel "Megan Plays." The 25-year-old influencer from Dallas has other YouTube channels and a merchandise line. She and her husband Zach also run their own studio where they developed the game "Overlook Bay."

"My husband and I are really, really excited for Roblox to go public," she says. "Personally, we're planning to invest because Roblox is only getting bigger and bigger. We live and breathe Roblox, so to hear it's gonna go public, it's massive."

Letter and so many others are eager to see what's next for Roblox after it files a direct listing of its stock.

This story was edited for radio by Nina Gregory and adapted for the web by Mandalit del Barco and Petra Mayer.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: March 9, 2021 at 12:00 AM EST
A previous version of this story incorrectly said the Lil Nas X concert took place in December 2020. In fact, it took place in November. Also, a previous version implied that the game "Adopt Me" was developed by Roblox. While "Adopt Me" is playable on the Roblox platform, Roblox didn't develop it.