Forget brains, this zombie game devours tuition bills

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Gus Dubetz and Ethan Witt are earning money for college from their ROBLOX game Apocalypse Rising. Photo: ROBLOX
Gus Dubetz and Ethan Witt are earning money for college from their ROBLOX game Apocalypse Rising. Photo: ROBLOX

A zombie survival game called Apocalypse Rising doesn’t sound like a story that should have a happy ending. For game developers Ethan Witt and Gus Dubetz, this doomsday is not about plagues, oceans of blood or even the walking dead.

This apocalypse pays for college.

A screenshot from the ROBLOX game Apocalypse Rising. Photo: ROBLOX
A screenshot from the ROBLOX game Apocalypse Rising. Photo: ROBLOX

Witt and Dubetz created one of the most successful games on multiplayer gaming platform ROBLOX. And since the company began sharing profits with its developers in late 2013, the pair has earned thousands of dollars.

Their game has been played more than 27 million times by ROBLOX members. Dubetz and Witt have averaged payouts of about $5,000 each month ($13,000 is their best month). Dubetz has his tuition covered at Dakota State University while Witt said he is well on his way to covering the cost of his freshman year at MIT.

In fact, Witt showcased the game in his application to MIT and believes it helped him gain admission.

“If you think in terms of ifs, I don’t know if I would’ve made it in without it,” Witt said. “We split the money 50-50. We are able to work on the game casually and we think we can get out of college debt-free.”

ROBLOX launched in 2006, taking its name from a combination of the words “robots” and “blocks.” Players aged 8 to 18 create virtual characters and worlds in which they socialize and build games. The ROBLOX site has more than 4.4 million monthly users. Many, like Dubetz and Witt, came to the site to play 3-D games created by other users. Members eventually find their way into the virtual toolbox to build their own playgrounds.

From the play experience, users get inspired to develop their own games. In creating a virtual world, users are also entering the world of learning how to code and script, the skills technology companies say they are clamoring for.

A screenshot showing the studio and toolbox young developers use on the gaming platform ROBLOX. Photo: ROBLOX
A screenshot showing the studio and toolbox young developers use on the gaming platform ROBLOX. Photo: ROBLOX

“Maybe ‘Trojan horse’ isn’t the right word, but there is a behind-the-scenes education component to ROBLOX that happens naturally,” said chief marketing and revenue officer Rick Silvestrini. “They come to the site to play the games they love and then they start to dabble.”

ROBLOX recently held its first developers conference and is learning how many in its community of creators credit the site with leading them to viable careers. In 2014 alone, users created more than 4 million games for the platform.

Since instituting its profit-sharing program, ROBLOX has issued nearly $1 million to some of its young developers, with payouts ranging from $250 to $20,000. One developer, a 17-year-old from Lithuania, has earned more than $100,000 from his games, which includes the popular Mad Paintball.

ROBLOX does not pay developers to build games. ROBLOX gives developers a cut of ad revenues and profits from in-game purchases. Players buy items like new avatars, armor, weapons or building materials, with a virtual currency that developers can exchange for real cash. Not all the developers get huge paydays.

Dubetz said their first check was for $350.

“I am completely paying my tuition,” said Dubetz, who is majoring in game development at Dakota State. “My mother got an MBA and paid off her loan in her 40s. I took a year off before school and my family was telling me to get a full-time job. When they saw the checks, they were pretty satisfied.”

For Dubetz and Witt, payments seem to rise when they update their game with a new course or map. They did not meet until the success of their game began to pick up.

They knew each other only from ROBLOX and began to discuss their vision for a “really cool” game. Then one morning, they each opened up the ROBLOX studio and went to work on models, character movements, weaponry, colors and the coding for an inventory system for the game.

The first version of Apocalypse Rising was up and running within 10 days and on day one, it rose in popularity to become the most-played game. Feedback from enthusiastic players has allowed the two to make successful updates.

They have only met in person twice, once during a 30-hour airport layover in Witt’s hometown of Chicago and the other during the recent developers conference.

“When we do meet, it’s never weird,” Witt said. “It’s incredibly normal. We just talk about the game.”