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If you have a child, know a child - maybe you are a child - you may be familiar with Roblox. The online gaming platform's popularity has exploded in the pandemic. With more than 32.6 million people playing daily, the company plans to go public tomorrow. So what is Roblox? NPR's Mandalit del Barco reports.
MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: During lockdown, my 9-year-old daughter Amaya has been playing Roblox with her friends nonstop.
AMAYA: Guys, look. There's a roller coaster.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: I want to go on the roller coaster.
DEL BARCO: They can't be with each other in person, but they can enjoy virtual amusement parks together. They can pretend to go to school together and play dress-up.
AMAYA: Do you want to be twins and freak the people out again?
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Oh, yes.
AMAYA: Oh, OK.
DEL BARCO: Mostly, they follow each other around different virtual environments.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Ooh, that was close.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Ah.
AMAYA: (Laughter) I almost squished you.
PJ MCNEALY: Roblox is a bit of a substitute babysitter when parents need a break at home.
DEL BARCO: P.J. McNealy is the CEO of Digital World Research. He says Roblox has benefited during COVID by having a captive audience. He describes the platform this way.
MCNEALY: Minecraft meets Nintendo, which meets Lego. And mobile phones enables a whole bunch of it. They're starting with certainly the younger demographic and building their way up.
DEL BARCO: McNealy says going public will allow Roblox to build a digital empire beyond gaming.
MCNEALY: This money will either give them an opportunity to build more content for the platform or to go to adjacent platforms, like music or partnering with Spotify or a movie service. That's where this is going to go.
DEL BARCO: The company's CEO David Baszucki, known as Builder Man, co-founded Roblox in 2004. He estimates three-quarters of American children age 9 through 12 hang out on Roblox every month.
DAVID BASZUCKI: We're crushing it right now. And in the midst of COVID, we've seen an explosion of older players on the platform. So how do we make it possible for Roblox to connect everyone in the world?
DEL BARCO: During a conference for its game developers last summer, Baszucki laid out his dreams for the company. That includes making movies with Roblox content and creating a universal translator for people around the globe to gather in a collective virtual space.
BASZUCKI: 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.
DEL BARCO: Last year, Roblox presented an online experience tied to the recent "Wonder Woman" film, and the platform hosted several virtual concerts.
DEL BARCO: In November, players put their avatars in the audience to sing and dance alongside Lil Nas X's avatar as he performed for them.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOLIDAY")
LIL NAS X: (Rapping) I can't even stay away from the game that I play. They gon' (ph) know us today.
DEL BARCO: In January, Roblox announced it had already raised $535 million for what it calls its human experience platform. It hosts games created by the players themselves. Alex Hicks was just 13 when he went from playing Roblox games to designing them. Now 24, he has his own nearly $2 million game development studio with 10 employees. They created the games Robloxian High School and World Zero.
ALEX HICKS: With other games, if you get bored of that game, you'd stop playing it. But with Roblox, there's just a constant stream of titles to play. And you can just see what your friends are up to, go hang out with them. It makes you realize that this is probably the future of social engagement. If you can watch it with other people at the same time, it's just that much more engaging. And I think that's what Roblox really gets - is the social aspect.
DEL BARCO: 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 the platform.
ZOE BASIL: 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. It's kind of like outsider art, and I think that's awesome.
DEL BARCO: Megan Letter is a Roblox superstar with her virtual pet unicorn, Honey. She has more than 3 million subscribers for her daily YouTube channel Megan Plays.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
MEGAN LETTER: Hey. What's up, you guys? It's Megan. Welcome back to my channel, peachy squad. Today I thought it would be really fun to dress up as a pet and see if we can catch any scammers in Roblox Adopt Me! Let's get into it.
DEL BARCO: 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 develop the game Overlook Bay.
LETTER: My husband and I are really, really excited for Roblox to go public. And I know personally we're planning to invest because Roblox is only getting bigger and bigger. We live and breathe Roblox, so to hear it's going to go public, it's going to be massive.
DEL BARCO: She and so many others are eager to see what's next for Roblox after it files a direct listing of its stock.
Mandalit del Barco, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF METRONOMY SONG, "THE LOOK")
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