Industry-leading virtual tabletop suite Roll20 is under new management. Polygon can reveal that, as of Tuesday, Google veteran Ankit Lal has taken the reins as CEO. In an exclusive interview, he talked about the challenges his organization has experienced over the last two years of the ongoing global pandemic, and how he intends to move the company forward in 2022 and beyond.
Roll20 began in 2012 as a crowdfunding campaign with a novel goal — to enable tabletop role-playing games (TTRPGs) such as Dungeons & Dragons to be played online. Today it’s a full-featured set of tools, one that allows game masters to spool up a homebrew campaign or a professionally designed module in minutes. Players can join just by clicking a web link. Since launch, the platform has been home to more than 250,000 campaigns, each with a week or more of cumulative online playtime.
In March 2020 the platform became a lifeboat for groups who wanted to continue playing safely during the pandemic. But that influx of new users — more than 5 million of them, according to Lal — put major upgrades to the suite’s core functionality on hold. The company has since tripled in size, growing from just 20 or 25 employees to nearly 60. Lal says that he now has two different groups of employees, one dedicated to users and another to publishers. That flexibility will help him to be more nimble in 2022.
“While I can’t speak to the details of the past,” Lal told Polygon in an interview earlier this month, “I have worked with and run product teams before, and what I think you’re going to see out of me is a very deep focus on our users and publishers.”
As far as users go, Lal said that his primary goal is to help onboard two new kinds of users that Roll20 has attracted over the last two years. “The pandemic brought across two key personas that we haven’t seen historically, and in a much faster velocity than I think anyone predicted,” Lal said.
The first persona is a cohort of users who are already familiar with TTRPGs, but whom have never played them online before. For this group video tutorials and in-app tools are key.
“The second group is what I call the TTRPG curious,” Lal said. “[They’d say] ‘I’ve heard of Dungeons & Dragons. I’ve heard it’s cool. But I haven’t literally played before.’ [...] You can’t just drop them into a blank canvas anymore. You need more onboarding, you need more tools, you need more intuitive tooling, and you need better tutorials and how-to guides.”
Roll20 has been cranking out those tutorials on YouTube at a decent pace for the last few months, and will continue to do so. Other elements of his team will be spending time improving the core usability of the suite itself. First up on the roadmap for 2022, Lal said, is the addition of “image placement logic tools,” which will allow game masters to more easily drag and drop images or maps onto the virtual tabletop.
An additional focus will be continuing to add more and varied rulesets to the platform.
“We’re not just building for Dungeons & Dragons,” Lal said, “but we’re trying to build out for the entire tabletop RPG industry. We have hundreds of games on our platform that people are playing. I think we have 800 character sheets now. We have over 10,000 SKUs on our marketplace. And so while Dungeon & Dragons is the biggest, there is more to it than just D&D.”
Roll20 regularly publishes The Orr Group Industry Report, which details what kinds of games users are playing on the Roll20 platform. Since 2019, 5th edition D&D has continued to dominate, rising from 51.87% of ongoing campaigns to 53.7% of ongoing campaigns in 2022. While Pathfinder has continued to decline (from 6.46% to just 3.2%), Call of Cthulhu has increased from 9.48% to 11.9% of all campaigns. That setting is extremely popular in countries like Japan, and represents a new and growing international cohort of Roll20 users.
It’s the “all others” and “uncategorized” games, Lal says, that continue to be an important sector for the continued growth of the Roll20 platform.
“Nine years ago, eight years ago, we used to onboard one title a quarter to Roll20,” Lal said. “This past year, in order to support publishers, we onboarded more than 100 titles. And if you can imagine how much we scaled just in the last two years in terms of our ability to support onboarding, it’s been tremendous — multitudes bigger. But unfortunately, part of that was brute force, and part of that was automation. [With] our roadmap for 2022, there’s a lot of exciting stuff that’s going to help publishers onboard a lot faster, with a lot more [and] slicker features.”