Though it's been around for over a decade, there's a healthy chance that you've never heard of "Roblox" — an online video game, immensely popular among pre-teens, available for smartphones, PCs, and game consoles.
And yet, Roblox is a huge economy unto itself.
Every in-game level, every item, and every character is designed and marketed by Roblox's own players, in a "free market" that nets its most popular developers a solid $50,000 per month, after the company takes its cut of each sale. Hit player-made Roblox games like "I Work In A Pizza Place" or "Roblox High School" are mini-phenomenons in their own right.
Back in 2015, Business Insider spoke to a 17 year old who had made $100,000 in two years from Roblox. Even younger kids are getting in on it, with a 13-year-old player recently using his Roblox creations to fund a family trip ... to the annual Roblox convention, naturally. There are currently 1.7 million developers building with Roblox, total.
In March 2017, Roblox made a big move to keep developers happily building on its platform: The Roblox Developer Exchange (DevEx) monthly payout maximum to developers went from $50,000 a month to $140,000 a month. That means that for anyone with the skills and hustle, Roblox is theoretically now a $1.68 million a year opportunity.
Some Roblox games are action-packed, like this jet-fighter game... roblox
Not long after, in April 2017, Roblox hired on Grace Francisco, a veteran of both Microsoft and Atlassian, to serve as its first-ever VP of Developer Relations, acting as liaison with existing developers and working to attract new ones. If Roblox can make its most dedicated players into millionaires, it's going to be her job to help get them there.
"I don't really think this kind of tangible opportunity exists anywhere else," says Francisco.
Curb your enthusiasm
Also back in March, Roblox announced that it had taken a $92 million venture capital investment. At the time, Roblox CEO David Baszucki told Business Insider that the master plan is to take the popular games that players are already making, and springboard them into full-fledged "Minecraft"-style cross-media brands that stand on their own.
Baszucki has been known to call Roblox the "American Idol" of video games, since anybody can be discovered and become a star.
Now, says Roblox VP of Marketing Tami Bhaumik, this is something of a time of transition for the game. The hiring of Francisco reflects a broader push for the 12-year-old game to mature and really form lasting relationships with the developers who literally make the game happen.
...or more sports-like, like this frenetic take on soccer. Roblox
"Roblox is growing up, in all respects," Bhaumik says. "We need a much more focused way of reaching out."
Francisco has some experience in this department. At Microsoft, she handled much of the company's outreach to open source projects WordPress and Drupal; at Atlassian, she headed developer relations for popular business software like Jira and HipChat. The big difference, she says, is that Roblox's "young and energetic" audience are super excited to be working with the game.
"That's actually really difficult to find in an adult group," says Francisco.
Bringing them in
That enthusiasm is actually something key to how Francisco is approaching the job. When she started talking to Roblox about the job, she says, she just thought, as many do, that it's similar to "Minecraft." But she says she was quickly impressed with how easy it is to make games with Roblox, and how powerful the Roblox Studio tools are.
Now, she says, she wants to communicate that to players of all ages and demographics. Francisco says that Roblox's huge appeal with young kids often sparks an early interest in programming — many players play the game for years before they ever write their first lines of code. It's Francisco's job to fan that spark into a flame.
"Now I'm dealing with young developers who haven't necessarily picked their career path yet," Francisco says.
Roblox CEO David Baszucki introduces one of the new Roblox games. Roblox
Importantly, Francisco says, those young developers also haven't succumbed to societal pressure: Programming has a reputation as being a career for white men, but kids don't know that, says Francisco. That means Roblox can act as a gateway into programming for girls, kids of color, or any other kind of underrepresented group in the tech industry, teaching them that they're capable of programming before disillusionment or discouragement might set in.
"In that age group, they don't see the difference the way that we do," Francisco says. "It's nice because there's no barrier."
And taking a step back, Francisco says, it plays back into her broader ambitions for the platform. A more diverse group of Roblox players, making a more diverse set of games for Roblox, will draw even more kids into the Roblox fold. That means more programmers making more games for a wider audience — and a chance to get closer to that $1.68 million.
"That's a win-win for everyone involved," says Francisco.