Erin Sowerby's nine-year-old daughter, Catherine, would typically spend two hours a day at swim practice and the rest of her day at school and with friends.
Now, with social distancing in order, there's no school or swimming, and Catherine only gets to spend time with her family in Fort Myers, Florida.
To stay in touch with friends, she's using the gaming platform Roblox. Launched 14 years ago to create immersive experiences for kids, Roblox has become the second-highest grossing iOS app, according to the latest data from AppAnnie, by putting out millions of games that let kids build digital houses, adopt pets and run around theme parks together.
The technology wasn't designed with a pandemic in mind, but usage has spiked since COVID-19 forced kids like Catherine to stay indoors.
"It's not just mindless entertainment, which makes me feel a little better about it," said Erin Sowerby, a consultant, who's now working from her home in southwest Florida. "It's replacing a lot of the socializing that she doesn't get in person because she's here with me or with her grandparents."
Millions of parents across the country are suddenly being force to juggle full-time work, parenting and homeschooling, all while keeping their kids inside, away from their friends and hopefully sane. Extensive screen time is inevitable in many households, but Roblox has emerged as an alternative to the undesirable experience of letting kids watch endless YouTube videos and cartoons.
Roblox Chief Business Officer Craig Donato said usage surged 40% in March from February, and the app trails only YouTube in terms of the biggest money makers on iOS, according to AppAnnie. It's the opposite story from what's facing most of corporate America, including once high-flying start-ups like Airbnb, Toast, ClassPass and Bird, which are slashing costs and, in many cases, cutting jobs.
Roblox expects $1 billion in billings this year, largely from in-app purchases. The company, based in San Mateo, California, sends 25% of that money to developers, who use software called Roblox Studio to make games for the app. Roblox doesn't disclose revenue, but data site SensorTower estimated in November that sales in 2019, up to that point, had climbed 30% from all of 2018 to $435 million. Developers earned more than $110 million last year.
The games are free to play and gamers can purchase digital currency called Robux to buy premium features. For example, at a theme park, players can pay to build a customized jukebox or make taller rides, and in a ninja game, they can pay to improve their speed. There are also subscriptions for a certain amount of Robux a month.
Some parents are hosting their kids' birthday parties on the site, establishing virtual rooms that their friends and relatives can enter with their avatars. Sowerby said her daughter uses Roblox to adopt pets and construct buildings, adding that she's "goaded me into buying some Robux a couple of times."
In addition to highlighting the social functions of its games, Roblox has been rolling out features to help educators incorporate the gaming tools into their remote learning plans.
"It's a space where kids can do unstructured play, which is super valuable," said Donato, who joined the company in 2016 from Nextdoor. "Now everyone is locked at home, and this thing we've been focused on is even in more demand."
Parents still want to know that their kids are safe and not being approached by creeps on the chat boards. Roblox includes numerous parental controls that adults can use to turn off socializing features or manage communications. Donato said the company also uses a combination of human moderators and software to monitor what people are saying and filter what's appropriate based on the player's age.
Donato said the coronavirus wasn't a topic of conversation when Andreessen Horowitz led a $150 million funding round in late February at a valuation of about $4 billion. Marc Andreessen and David George, a partner at the firm, wrote in a blog post at the time that over 2 million developers are building on Roblox "without the up-front costs, risks, and failures of the traditional top-down game publisher model."
The developer platform is an important part of Roblox's surging popularity. Roblox Studio, where kids can learn how to make games without having to know how to code, includes templates and instructional videos so kids can build their own worlds and even learn how to publish games.
Ricky Bennett, a vice president at iD Tech, said the class on designing Roblox games is the top-selling virtual course. College students, who would normally teach at the summer camps, are eager for the work, Bennett said, and parents are looking for ways to keep their kids productively occupied while they're trying to get work done.
"One of the things that makes it attractive for parents is that the kids can be entertained," said Bennett, who lives in the Phoenix area and has four kids age 11 and under. During the class, "I know my kid is being supervised by an adult, having a social experience that's contained in one place and won't be running around in the background of my calls," he said.
Buildbox, another game development platform that caters to non-coders, is seeing a similar trend. The company offers a free developer kit and charges monthly subscriptions for more advanced creators. Ad-tech start-up AppOnBoard acquired BuildBox in mid-2019, and it's rapidly become the company's core business.
Jonathan Zweig, AppOnBoard's CEO, said Buildbox subscriber growth has climbed 2,850% since Feb. 26. Zweig says that BuildBox is particularly attractive to developers who have advanced beyond Roblox and want a broader set of tools. The 16 to 26 age range is its sweet spot, he said, which includes high school and college students who are now stuck indoors. Many of the games they make are for younger kids.
Ben Scriven, who lives just outside of London, is building for that audience. He's 39 and has been working as a TV editor. But his passion is game development, which allows him to combine his skills in music, graphic design and filmmaking. He started making games using Buildbox several years ago on his hour-long commute to and from work.
Now that he's home, Scriven has decided to concentrate on making his next game, a sequel to his previous title, Nite Fighter, which involves operating a fighter pilot and appeals to the Call of Duty crowd, he says. With the new game, Scriven has to not only make it fun but also focus on the monetization, working with a publisher and selling ads.
Scriven has two young kids to support, and he's counting on the game to pay the bills, though he's still a couple months from being ready to publish it. In the meantime, his family is living off savings.
"It's always been a dream for me to make arcade games — ever since I was a kid I wanted to do it," Scriven said. "Now I've got an opportunity to do this full-time, to buckle down and really make a go of it. I can't go into London anymore."
Back in the U.S., Lesley Stordahl is adjusting to a work-from-home schedule while her two kids, 12 and 9, adapt to remote learning. Jasper, who's in sixth grade, has a group of friends that text and play Roblox together. Odessa, a fourth grader, isn't as much of a gamer, but has recently gotten into Roblox and enjoys roaming around the digital amusement park.
While their parents take Zoom calls and deal with their full slate of assignments, they're looking for as many kid-friendly activities as possible. At the same time, they're trying to be frugal, uncertain of what the future has in store.
"We're doing our best not to spend a lot of money, and Roblox is great because there's a variety without the cost," Lesley Stordahl said, in a video call with her kids from their home in Brooklyn, New York. "I want to make sure they're still having social experiences and not losing touch with friends."