By FRANZlSKA 9 Comments
An Unexpected Trip Down Memory Lane
When I was a child, I had the tendency to see every browser-based game as the most exciting thing in the world. I did so partially just because I was an excitable child who hadn't grown particularly picky about games yet, and in part because browser games tended to promise tons of playtime for free, an enticing proposition for a child who had already exhausted the rest of her limited game library. So when I heard about Roblox in 2008, with its promise of infinite possibility and unlimited games to play, any room for doubt left my developing brain and I became convinced it must be the most amazing game ever.
While nowadays I view that excitement as having been hasty, I don't think that it was misplaced. Considering I was a sandbox-fond, attention-deficit-addled child with nothing but time, Roblox was a perfect fit in hindsight. It's probably that reason why I stuck with it for quite a while, a lot longer than any game I had ever played before it even, quickly becoming my most-played game at the time (even if it's strange to call Roblox a single game, rather than an engine for game creation, but I digress.) It wasn't just that Roblox was another sandbox game, it was that there was always something new just around the corner, all in a readily approachable format. I spent countless evenings of my youth, gleefully playing any and every game that caught my eye, slowly getting more and more familiar with the internet as a whole, from the small glimpses of it that made their way into the game.
Eventually, as with all things, I began to drift away from Roblox. After I discovered Minecraft and Steam, it didn't take long for the familiar world of Roblox to lose its luster. I don't remember exactly when the last time I played Roblox was, but I know they had begun introducing the first less-blocky player models, which means my time with the game lasted from mid-2008 to somewhere around late-2011. After that, Roblox exited my mind almost entirely. Not in the sense that I intentionally pushed it out of mind or in some way began to dislike it, it just got so thoroughly pushed out of frame by other things that I never stopped to think about it again. On the rare occasion I did remember Roblox in the years following my gradual departure, it was always confined to mild surprise it was still around. The Xbox One port it got a few years ago was conceptually amusing, and I sometimes saw ads for it (on fairly sketchy sites, mind), but I was never remotely enticed to give it another try. That was, until the other day when I saw a Twitter thread by Terry Cavanagh, a developer known for games like VVVVVV and Dicey Dungeons.
The thread itself is a pleasant trip down memory lane, from the all-too-familiar process of making custom shirts to talk of obby games (short for obstacle course, 3D platformers essentially), one of the most common types of game back in the day. However, at one point in the thread, Cavanagh mentions that many community-made items are packed with malicious LUA scripts. Malicious scripts are nothing new to Roblox, but the kinds discussed in the thread and its comments seemed way beyond anything I ever encountered years ago, going beyond lagging a player's world or spamming them with messages to subtler, more advanced attacks like teleporting players to competing games, or even trying to spend a player's Robux (in-game currency) without them knowing. While the thread as a whole is a showcase to all the ways Roblox has advanced over the years, seeing how much LUA scripting had advanced was what made those changes truly sink in. After reading the thread, I found myself thinking back on that part of it the most, and I started to get curious about revisiting Roblox, if only to get a firsthand look at what it's like nowadays.
Back on the Block
Eventually, in a fit of boredom, I decided to proceed with my plan. As it turned out, my old account was hacked a few years ago and I can't recover it, so I guess I get to see how the registration process has changed too. It's surprisingly painless, in fact it might be the least demanding registration page I've seen in a long time, lacking standard conventions like e-mail requirements, complex password requirements, or any sort of account verification system. If I weren't making a simple throwaway account, it would honestly raise a few security concerns, but I am making a simple throwaway account, so I'll count it as a blessing.
Right away, I notice two things: avatars look extremely different, and the website itself isn't much different at all. The website has been tweaked a bit in the interim, nowadays it has a more modern minimalist look, but navigating the site is still mostly the same. Adjusting to the new avatar system, however, takes a bit more time. Nowadays, they've leaned into the less-blocky avatar designs they had been experimenting with in the early 2010s, with modern models featuring roughly human anatomy (a design they call "Rthro".) They look much better than the old avatars, but there's still something uncanny about them that I'll never get used to.
The next thing I notice is that they've done away with Tix (a free currency), apparently having removed them some time in 2016. It isn't too much of a shock, ever since I played there had been two currencies, and the market now operates solely on the premium one, Robux ($1 USD = ~90 Robux.) However, they've clearly leaned harder into monetizing Robux since my time with the game, as not only are Tix gone, the majority of items require Robux, some even costing the equivalent of hundreds in real-world cash. It's... a more than concerning first impression, certainly, especially with how monetized some games are nowadays, but ultimately it doesn't affect me too much, since I knew going in I wasn't about to spend any money on this. So, I grab some free cosmetics from the market and try my best to make an avatar with what I have available to me.
So far, at least, this experience has been mostly painless, but I haven't even gotten into a game yet. I thought about it for a second, and decided that the first game I play during this return trip should be an obby, since it would be a good opportunity to re-familiarize with the controls of the game, as well as familiar territory to compare to. Conveniently, there's one already waiting among the trending games list, which I figure is as good a starting place as any. To my moderate surprise, the game still requires a separate client to be installed. That's how its always been, but part of me had just assumed that browsers were capable enough nowadays that they could move the game in-browser. Maybe they simply choose not to. Either way, I install the client, load into the game... and am almost immediately overwhelmed by the UI alone.
I've played a few games with some pretty overburdened UIs, in fact I play nearly daily rounds of Space Station 13, a game with one of the least user-friendly interfaces I've seen. However, familiarity with one bloated UI does not make encounters with other bloated UIs any easier. It especially doesn't make it any easier when 75% of the UI was added on top of a preexisting UI to sell you things. From the outset, this simple obstacle course game is already trying to get me to spend Robux on gems that only work in their game, so I can then buy pets, level skips, an "easy mode" which makes obstacles not actually kill you, additional stages, cosmetic effects, and as many other trinkets they could think to fit in there. As well, there's a box at the bottom of the UI that just reads "Trial ends in 20 Stages." with no further explanation, which I would only later find out referred to the game's easy mode, and (luckily) not the game as a whole.
In the interest of fairness, I should clarify a bit. Monetization in Roblox has existed for a long time. Even as far back as I can recall, there were games which featured monetization. However, the monetization schemes of old tended to be a lot more simplistic. Back in the day, games which wanted to monetize would have "VIP doors", doors players could only walk through if they were "VIPs", behind which would be random gear to play with and/or boosts which gave VIPs a head start over normal players. Usually, becoming a VIP meant spending about two dollars in Robux for a shirt made by the game's creator (assuming the shirt wasn't also being sold for Tix.) VIP rooms were still typically put front and center in a game's map, but certainly never as a whole UI element. Comparatively, this game offers jetpacks (presumably allowing the player to bypass certain stages, I don't know since I didn't buy one and nobody I saw online had one either) for just above five dollars' worth of Robux, before accounting for pets, cosmetic effects, and any other items the game advertises every fifth stage or so. It's fully possible this game is simply an outlier and my first choice of game was a poor one, but I can't help but get the suspicion that I should have seen this coming, given my interest was peaked by Robux-stealing LUA viruses in the first place, not to mention the official store's increased monetization.
Regardless, I searched for more obby games and picked a few that caught my eye, wanting to give this an honest chance. The three additional obby games I checked out were better about monetization, absolutely, but the bar had already been set incredibly low. At the very least, none of them tried to monetize every possible aspect of their own games, however two of the three still had UI buttons which take the player directly to an in-game Robux shop, as well as displays every few stages for gear the player could buy. In fact, one of them (which I actually liked at first, due to its haunted house theming) would pop up a notification every time the player died, asking them if they would like to buy some random something-or-other from the shop. At this point I felt like I had done my due diligence in making sure the first game wasn't simply a fluke, and was also losing my already thin patience for such simple games desperately trying to get me to spend money, and decided I should probably move on to the other type of game I played too much of as a kid: tycoon games.
Hitting the Brick Wall
Tycoon games are pretty hard to mess up, considering they're almost identical to modern day idle games. You get something that gives you a steady flow of cash with which to buy more upgrades to make more cash, eventually amassing a giant fortune to gloat about. Not the world's most exciting or unique formula, but there are worse ways to spend an evening, and most of them (at least from what I remember), tend to pay decent attention to visuals and coding, so surely, I thought, a tycoon game would be a good showcase of how Roblox has grown over the years.
The first thing I see upon launching a tycoon game is a daily log-in rewards screen. Oh boy. Okay, I'll admit, it could be a lot worse... such as when I turn to my right and immediately step onto an "Infinite Cash" button, essentially offering to bypass the idle game aspect of this idle game in exchange for about twelve dollars in Robux first. I'll admit, picking "Among Us Tycoon" as my first look at modern Roblox tycoons may have been a mistake, but in my defense I wanted to see how the dumb trend-riding games of modern Roblox stacked up to those of yore, and I guess now I know. Shockingly, the second tycoon I try offers the same "Buy Unlimited Cash" button, but this time they're willing to give it away for as little as two dollars. I had to stop and wonder what the value of an idle game was if one were willing to bypass idling as a whole. Is it a bragging rights thing? Is it to turn these games into glorified chat rooms? I don't know, but I'm really not about to spend the money to find out. And so, I left the second tycoon game of the evening, feeling increasingly sullen about my prospects for the third one, and about Roblox itself.
Tentatively, I went into the third tycoon I had picked from the bunch, "Tropical Resort Tycoon". To my surprise, there weren't any daily log-in rewards, nor was there a big button offering infinite cash. There was a shop button, but all it had were small quality-of-life/gag items, like a slightly faster walk speed and a low gravity mode. Expecting the floor to give way any second and reveal a monetization nightmare, I hesitantly began the game's progression of buying a few income sources and decorations to dress the place up. After I had bought a few income generators, a golden button popped up... offering an extra one for about 80 cents. A bit disappointing, but not nearly as bad as I was expecting. After that minor bump in the road, I found myself absentmindedly playing Tropical Resort Tycoon for quite a while. Every so often a premium-only item would show up, but it was always minor increases to production rather than completely game-breaking bonuses, which I was willing to overlook at this point. For a little while, it honestly felt like I was back playing regular old Roblox again, sitting around half-playing an obby, half-listening to music... it wasn't particularly exciting, but there was a pleasantness to it that I could appreciate.
At some point while playing this third tycoon, I looked down and realized that nearly four hours had passed since I had begun playing, and most of it had been spent in this one tycoon game. In that moment, I realized the other reason I quit playing Roblox all those years ago: I just can't feel content spending an entire evening doing almost nothing. Sure, I had been having an alright time up until that point, but once I realized I had sunk three hours into waiting around, the time spent began to overshadow the moderate enjoyment on offer.
It's Not You... It's Both of Us
I genuinely expected this experiment to be a lesson in how sometimes, the past isn't as precious as you remember it and sometimes you can go home again, if not to home then to a place better than you remember home being. I was so certain of it that I was convinced this blog was going to be about that, before I began writing it. Deep down, I think there's still some part of that sentiment that rings true.
Reminiscing about my time with Roblox as a child, none of the games I played were actually all that special. A lot of the time, they were the same or comparable concepts to what's on offer now, albeit with less complex scripting and a less advanced engine powering it all. What really made that time special wasn't the games themselves so much as the excitement I felt for them as a kid, the excitement I felt for... well, everything, as a kid. Those childhood hours gleefully washed away playing games on Roblox were worth it, simply because I was young, excitable, and more than fine with spending all of my free time playing ultimately mindless games. In a way, the fact that I no longer feel right spending my free time in such a way makes those childhood evenings more special, and those childhood evenings help me appreciate the core that Roblox still has deep down, even if I can no longer connect with it.
But at the same time, part of me feels so thoroughly disgusted by how heavy the monetization running through Roblox is nowadays. Certainly, these games take lots of time and effort to create (some of them, at least), and that is effort that should be allowed to recoup some cost. But at the same time, if all of this had been there when I was a child, I don't know how I would've reacted. Would I have felt the same disgust towards it all that I feel nowadays? I would like to say maybe, but at the same time I bought my fair share of VIP shirts, and I actively subscribed to Builder's Club (Roblox's premium subscription at the time), so... I don't think I would have, and that concerns me. I think a younger, more impressionable version of myself would have fallen for these tactics without fail, and would have ended up wasting far too much money on ultimately worthless trinkets, simply because they were inescapable.
That said, I feel like I understand just a little bit more about why these types of monetization work, after having only encountered them from a distance in mobile games and custom Minecraft servers. It's easy to deride cheap monetization schemes when you're new to an environment, or not even a part of that environment at all, but when it's an environment you spend all day immersed in, that draw is invariably going to be a lot more enticing, and when it's an environment you spent your childhood in, do you try and cling to that memory? Or do you allow those memories to be retroactively cheapened by knowledge of what it would become?
I will say, there were two games I wanted to try that I couldn't manage to play: "Dust: Wasteland Survival" and "Rogue Lineage." I say I "couldn't manage to play" those two because as it turns out, you had to pay Robux upfront to get into either one.