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Bedroom Tycoon

The last couple of IT Matters have been a bit depressing - one on the poor take-up and disappointing results in ICT at GCSE level in the island’s schools, and another about the unconscious discrimination of many software and media distribution companies in not making online content available to customers with Isle of Man IP addresses. So; this edition focuses on the success of an Isle of Man schoolboy in authoring online computer games which are played globally.



Cameron Scott started playing interactive games on the Roblox online gaming platform when he was 9 or 10 years old, and soon became interested in creating his own games - a not unreasonable ambition given that all games on the Roblox platform are created by Roblox users. Along with a couple of friends from school he started to teach himself - learning from the Roblox online documentation and forums, video tutorials on Youtube, examination of examples of code shared by other Roblox game developers etc. - a pretty typical learning pathway for many self-taught developers. With the result that as a 13 year schoolboy Cameron had already developed sufficient skill to be authoring his own modest projects - not full games but small segments of code which functioned to control the actions of Roblox characters and objects.


Allow me to just step back a moment and put this into context. 


Cameron was / is not a techie. He has not studied Computer Science / Programming at school. His parents are not IT professionals. He’s another ordinary bright schoolboy whose curiosity, before he reached his teens, took his young enquiring mind down a path of exploration which some learning theorists describe as “constructionism”. 


The programming language used to develop games in Roblox is a derivative of “Lua” - it is a very high level formally defined procedural scripting language for object-oriented programming. Basically Lua is a “proper” programming language which encompasses all the fundamental concepts necessary for the creation of sophisticated computer programs - it’s not a child’s toy, not an introductory learning tool (such as the old BASIC programming language or Scratch), and is commonly used professionally in game development. Lua is comparable to Python and Go which are a couple of the most popular modern computer languages for development of large scale Internet services. 


What Cameron has learned, for and by himself, is a transportable skill-set which may be used in almost any software development environment, and adapted to most programming languages. From being able to create programs in Lua it is a small step to programming in Python, Go, C++ and the other programming languages commonly used in commercial software development. It is a skill-set with which Cameron could earn a decent living - when he leaves school.


OK, back to our story. Having learned the essentials of programming in the Lua language to create projects in Roblox, Cameron set about creating his own complete game. From a teenage boy’s bedroom in Braddan (is this the Manx equivalent of the Silicon Valley garage?) emerged, in 2015, the Roblox game “Clone Tycoon” - which has to date been “liked” by over 62,000 Roblox users around the world and played over 43,000,000 times. Not bad for a first attempt. Clone Tycoon was a simple (but obviously addictive) game, rapidly followed in 2016 by Pizza Factory Tycoon and Clone Tycoon 2 (a more sophisticated evolution of the original, now with over 263,000 “likes” and has been played over 147,000,000 times). In 2017 Cameron released Skyblock Tycoon and Restaurant Tycoon, for which he collaborated with other Roblox developers - Cameron developed the main game and logic but others contributed with development of the 3D graphics for locations / buildings etc. Restaurant Tycoon has, in less than a year, clocked up over 348,000 likes from Roblox users and been played 115,000,000 times. His next project, Gym Island, is in development at the moment. I guess having spent all that time in his restaurants his customers probably feel in need of a bit of body-toning.


Later this year Cameron will do his A-levels (Maths, Physics, Business Studies) and then intends take up one of the university places he has been offered - to (finally) study Computer Science. You might wonder how he has had time for schoolwork over the past four years, but he tells me his game development effort is largely fitted in to an hour a day after school. Use of a high-level programming language on a game construction platform has enabled him to produce functional, monetizable, games from home. Cameron estimates that the original Clone Tycoon took an hour or so a day for around two months to create, whilst he’s put four to five months of similar intensity into the much more sophisticated Restaurant Tycoon - which has been supplemented with the inputs of his collaborators who have produced the graphics for buildings and other artefacts used in the game. A lot of effort for a teenager who is taking his school-work seriously, but in the scheme of paid work not so much - Restaurant Tycoon sounds like around a man-month of his effort, which seems a small outlay given the huge popularity of the game.  Shortly after it was launched Cameron was seeing peaks of over 30,000 simultaneous players online - a remarkable achievement for a self-taught schoolboy IT developer.


The upshot is that when Cameron goes to university later this year he’s probably not going to have the money worries of most students. Players in the Roblox gaming environment may use a virtual currency, “Robux”, which they may buy or earn, to buy upgrades within Roblox games or access to premium games and features. Players buy Robux in exchange for real money from Roblox Corporation. Roblox developers, such as Cameron who have accumulated sufficient Robux from the players of their games, may “cash out” and exchange their accumulated Robux back into real money. The amounts are tiny, a Robux is worth US$0.0035 - but clearly if a game is popular and played by hundreds of thousands of youngsters around the world who each pay tiny amounts to buy extra features within a game then it can mount up rapidly. Roblox impose a monthly limit on how many Robux a developer may cash out each month - this is 40,000,000 Robux (US$140,000), and the company claims that a very few Roblox game developer teams are cashing out the maximum each month - serious money.


Whilst Cameron is not in the top flight of Roblox developers (yet), he’s certainly doing well enough that he probably won’t be one of those university students desperately fitting in their studies around a part-time job - as long as his games maintain their current popularity he will be earning enough to live on. Therein however lies the rub. The peak popularity of a Roblox game lasts only for a couple of months - fickle youngsters crave novelty and the primary demographic playing Cameron’s Tycoon games is probably aged around 9 - 10 years. Roblox is a platform where developers cannot sit back on their laurels; innovations, enhancements and new games are constantly necessary in order to sustain the high volume of players needed to generate worthwhile cash. Cameron will have to keep on developing new game ideas whilst he’s away at Uni. 


In the meantime, Cameron’s example highlights a number of reasons why IT Matters to the Isle of Man economy:

Working from home on the Isle of Man he can realistically and practically earn a decent income by first-world standards without an employer by developing relatively low-cost product that is consumed globally via the Internet.


He hasn’t needed specialist higher-education qualifications in IT or Computer Science to get to this level - he’s a bright young man who has taught himself, much like the majority of older workers who have pursued successful careers in IT without first having formal education in Computer Science.


Theoretically, “anyone can do it” - if they have a logically / mathematically inclined brain, a computer and Internet connection, and most crucially the imagination to create products which engage / entertain others - the barriers to entry are low. 


The Isle of Man may be an isolated little rock poking up in the middle of the wet and windy Irish Sea, but when it comes to software-based exports we can match pretty much anywhere in the world, if we try. I have long preached that equipping the island with better IT skills and more ICT businesses is crucial to our economy - and Cameron exemplifies that - at least for the next few months until he goes across to do his University studies. I hope he’ll return to the island once he’s graduated. 


In the meantime, alongside his A-level studies and developing games, Cameron is also a regular tutor at the Isle of Man CodeClub, where he is training another generation of youngsters in his Roblox development classes. Who knows, perhaps they too will be able to fund their way through University without working five nights a week as cheap labour waiting on tables for some UK restaurant tycoon.

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