On the evening of April 20, 2017, sophomore Alex Balfanz released his game Jailbreak on the creation platform Roblox. When he woke up in the morning, over 60,000 people were concurrently playing, making it one of the most popular games on the site.
“Overnight, it all changed,” Balfanz said. “All the things I had been dreaming were going to happen just happened.”
Jailbreak is an open-world, multiplayer cops and robbers game, where the players can choose whether to be on the team of the police or the prisoners. The prisoners must escape from jail, and once escaped, can wreak havoc on the city. The police attempt to catch the criminals and put them back in jail.
On Nov. 8, Jailbreak reached 2 billion total plays, and it recently hit over 170,000 concurrent players. The game often has more than 100,000 concurrents, and over 75,000 years worth of Jailbreak has been played. The game attracts hundreds of millions from all over the world, with only about 65 percent of the players being English speakers, and it is quickly expanding by adding new languages.
Balfanz said he never played many computer games as a kid, but he always thought about ways of improving them. He began programming when he was nine years old. His dad worked in programming, so he was surrounded by it as a kid. After being introduced to it, he said he was entirely self-taught.
“Programming is something I’ve always loved, never been told to do,” Balfanz said. “The big thing was wanting to create cool things, and then relentlessly researching until I could create those things, and I learned really quickly that way.”
Balfanz would learn how to program the main feature of a game, and after he finished, he would quickly move on to learning a new feature of a new game. Over 10 years, his programming skillset vastly grew. At that point, he wanted to build an original game to completion.
One year before Jailbreak, Balfanz released his first game on Roblox called Volt. The game was mildly successful and gained him a small following.
A few months later, someone introduced him to a basic cops and robbers tag game. Usually unable to play a game for more than 10 minutes, he surprisingly found himself enjoying this game. However, he wanted more out of it and decided to take on the task himself.
Balfanz then spent four months developing Jailbreak, working a few hours every day on the game. He and his coding partner, who managed the 3D modeling, decided it was finally time to release Jailbreak after months of hard work.
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Within two days, Jailbreak had over 80,000 concurrent players, making it the biggest game on Roblox at the time.
“I didn’t know what to do with myself,” Balfanz said. “I remember going to school the next week and coming home every day to all these messages from all these people, and it was so overwhelming.”
He felt that life was never going to calm down—the game had become such an instant and huge success, and everything was so new, he said.
But Balfanz did not stop there. He updated the game every week, which was something that creators did not often do at the time. He said players loved these changes because they felt more connected to the game, were more engaged and could see their feedback make an impact.
“I can’t even imagine Jailbreak as it was when I released it,” Balfanz said. “Right now, it must seem so simple and basic because, for so long, I was adding these huge updates.”
Not much changed on a day-to-day basis for Balfanz. He continued to program every day for hours, which he loved, but there were more people depending on him when a bug needed to be fixed.
Balfanz said the game logic is now about 60,000 lines of code, all written by him. Being in college, he now updates every month.
Jailbreak is free to play for everyone, but there are in-game purchases such as vehicle skins, game currency and rocket fuel tanks. The money from these purchases goes to Balfanz.
When asked how much money he has made from the game, Balfanz replied, “millions."
“It’s hard to even comprehend," Balfanz said. "It was not something I was looking for."
For a long time, he said he didn't realize that it was possible to make money from programming if you didn't work for a big corporation. Because money was never the driving force behind his work, Balfanz said that earning so much of it did not greatly affect him or his mindset.
“It is incredible and has opened up a lot of freedoms for me for the future,” Balfanz said. “For example, now I know I love entrepreneurship and would love to just continue that for the rest of my life. I would not work for anyone in a corporate job because I know I work so well when I’m doing things that I love.”
Balfanz said people often ask him why he is even in college. “Because it would feel weird not to be,” he said. College is a good experience to have—being able to make friends and build valuable connections—as well as a good plan B, should anything go wrong, he added.
Sophomore Charlie Todd, Balfanz's friend, joked that the money and success has not made him snobby, yet. He noted that Balfanz in most respects is normal—a great friend with a good sense of humor. Balfanz is not only an experienced and knowledgeable coder, but he is almost always willing to share that with his friends, Todd wrote in an email.
“I've probably learned just as much from him as I have from my professors at Duke, whether through working on assignments or just discussing careers and life in general, which is a lot of fun to do when he's in the room,” Todd wrote.
Balfanz said he was initially drawn to Duke because of its machine learning department, and he is now studying computer science and statistics. He said Jailbreak's success means he does not have to look for internships or work for a company.
“It changed me in the sense that I never had to do anything except what my dreams were,” Balfanz said. “I know if it hadn’t happened, I know my life would be very different here and in the next 10 years for sure.”
News about his success with Jailbreak spread instantly throughout his freshman dorm, though he is unsure how people found out. However, he said others’ knowledge of his success has not affected him at Duke, likely because people expect to meet interesting people.
Todd met Balfanz during orientation week and was in the same linear algebra class as him. Balfanz never mentioned his profession until Todd asked the right questions. Running into Balfanz in the Bryan Center after picking up a check, Todd finally learned of Balfanz’s game and success.
“It definitely changed the way I viewed him,” Todd wrote in an email. “By then, I was thinking, ‘Damn, I should stay in touch with this guy if nothing else.’”
‘So much has changed’
Balfanz said that his parents are his biggest fans. They watch the popular Jailbreak livestreams, read what people tweet him and send him what people are saying about the game. He appreciates that they never limited his time on the computer and raised him with good personal finance skills.
Balfanz later built analytics into the game, allowing him to see which languages the players speak, where they are from and what they tend to purchase. He said it is cool to see how people from different countries play differently, such as how they spend their money and whether they use their mobile device or computer.
Jailbreak is also starting to grow in the merchandise market. Jailbreak clothing, books, toys and large playsets are being launched soon.
“So much has changed,” Balfanz said. “I always knew I wanted to do programming for my career, and I can remember always thinking I wanted to work for myself. But it was just a dream. I never thought it would actually occur.”
Balfanz said he is currently working on a new game but cannot disclose any details about it yet.
He is also working on creating a financial suite, or a set of tools to help him manage stocks and investments. The suite would help him look at statistics about his portfolio that he has not seen through other portfolio management services. Although he is making the program for personal use, he said it would be cool to sell in the future.
Balfanz hopes to push this new product into the education market. Stock simulators are currently marketed toward teachers, who force their students to use them. Very few students use stock simulators for fun, so he wants to gamify a stock simulator that students would enjoy playing.
“I don’t have any strongly defined plans [for the future], I just want to keep doing what I love,” Balfanz said.
A few weeks ago, Balfanz predicted Jailbreak would hit 2 billion plays during his stats class. After considering whether he should go to class, he decided to skip. When the counter hit 2 billion, Balfanz released a new update causing a volcano to blow up, making the city sink to the ground. A new, rebuilt, better-looking city then rose from the ashes.
“It’s been a crazy ride, and it’s never slowed down,” Balfanz said.