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The Future of Open Source

February 5, 2008

by John Shedletsky


On his blog Shaun Connolly ponders “Is ROBLOX the future of open source?”

Since I’m partial to brazen statements, I’m just going to go ahead and claim that it is.

I’ll lay out my evidence for this assertion in bullet points and then we’ll discuss whether you have just been presented with an impregnable fortress of crystalline logic or a house of cards.

1. Multiple Levels of Engagement

The ROBLOX experience is defined by multiple levels of user engagement.

We have a pyramid diagram in our conference room that outlines the level of engagement we expect populations of users to have with our product. Since we are all engineers, it looks slightly less professional than this:

The basic idea is that anyone can get in ROBLOX and start playing the game, consuming content and effecting a small amount of customization of the environment. More advanced users take on the role of content creators. Intermediate users of ROBLOX might open up their default starting place, change the colors of their house around and add some furniture. More advanced users will create their own games utilizing both existing and original content. The power users, the top 1 in every 1000 players, will create scripts and levels to showcase entirely new game types and concepts. This is where you get levels like Bloxopoly, that are completely unlike anything that has come before it.

This scheme really shines once you have enough players so that the top .1% is still a sizeable group of people; and they are constantly churning out new goodies for everybody.

The parallels to the open source community are obvious. At the bottom of the pyramid you have the people grabbing just the binaries are using them as intended. In the middle you have the people developing mashups and plugins. At the top you have the Linus Tovaldss of the world.

As you walk up the pyramid complexity increases, as does user power. There is a focus on the bottom level being drop-dead simple and the top level affording maximum flexibility. Open source should constantly strive towards this paragon.

2. Massive Peer to Peer Collaboration

ROBLOX is driven by community content. Better content is more difficult and time consuming to produce. There is intrinsic pressure in the system towards collaboration.

This actually works better in ROBLOX than in the real world. Integrating disparate software systems is not a fun job, and while having the source code may make an integration problem tractable, “enjoyable” is not ever an adjective that is applicable to the task. Anyone who says otherwise is a masochist.

The core interchangeable component in the ROBLOX world is the model. Users can publish models directly from ROBLOX Studio to the ROBLOX website. A model without active code is trivial to insert and re-purpose when you are constructing a place.

Let’s say I’m building a medieval castle level. As a typical user, this is my process:

  1. Start with an empty baseplate.
  2. Open the Insert menu.
  3. Search for “castle”.
  4. We get about a 1000 results. Pick two that look good.
  5. Click on them.
  6. Position them in the world.
  7. Search for “tree”
  8. Grab several kinds.
  9. Pepper our landscape with foilage.
  10. Publish.

We’ve got a working castle battle level. It took about 90 seconds to make.

To improve our level, we could insert some scripted content, like catapults that fire when your character pushes a lever. I happen to know SonOfSevenless has a good one. Click. Click. Now I have two in my map. Now we might decide players should be wizards in our level – we need some magic powers. I search the insert menu for user-created magical weapons. In short order, I find a script that lets users throw fireballs, fly, and teleport. As a finishing touch, I grab another piece of code that slowly changes the time in my map so that the sky progresses from day to night. Classy.

Most of the time, inserting scripts and scripted models like this will just work because they are entirely self-contained unless someone goes out of their way to write a component that is not. Poorly authored components are not reused by other players and are culled from the general resource pool in this way.

3. Economic Incentives

ROBLOX has intentionally structured our economic incentives to encourage the production of high-quality content. In a nutshell, each user is awarded 1 ticket everytime a player visits their place. Innovation and quality are rewarded. Garbage is cast aside.

There are signs that as the open source movement continues to develop the marketplace will become more efficient than it currently is. It will be more like ours.

4. Exposure to Engineering

Assumption: children are the future.

Assertion: children play ROBLOX.

Conclusion: ROBLOX is related to the future.

I learned to program when I was 7. I started with LOGOWriter and QBASIC. What did I make? Games. It should be obvious. All kids want to write games. If your kid wants to write insurance software at age 7, you should stop wandering around aimlessly on the internet and find a good psychiatrist. Do it. Do it now.

At its heart, ROBLOX is a game development platform. You can do a lot with it without writing a line of code. But if you really get into it, you’re going to want more power. You’re going to be very motivated to figure out how to program.

There’s been a lot of research about how to best teach kids to program, and it all boils down to learning by example. The collaborative nature of ROBLOX makes it easy to find existing scripts that can be used as learning material or repurposed with only minor edits.

This is good stuff.

I don’t care what fancy private school you send your kids to. The only place your 13 year old is going to encounter a PID-Controller is in ROBLOX’s Body(Position/Velocity/Thrust) objects, which can be used to script motion for parts and models. That’s just one example.


With points 1, 2, and 3 I have demonstrated how the creative process, community participation and incentive structure in ROBLOX is similar to that of the open source movement. With point 4, I have shown that ROBLOX influences the future by virtue of its engaging the youth of today.

Ultimately, though, I have to retract my brazen claim.

I have failed to demonstrate the ROBLOX is the future of open source (it was a ridiculous claim, I admit). But, it is a future that I’m sure many of us would like to see.

– John Shedletsky (aka Telamon)