Kongregate: “Don’t Expect to be Paid By the Hour”

Angry Kid

Buckle up – it’s GRR time!

Few things get my back up more in this industry than the state of the free-to-play Flash games market. Here’s a very brief run-down in case you haven’t been following it:

  1. Adobe Flash is an inexpensive tool that lowers the barrier to entry for new game developers
  2. The install base for the second-to-latest Flash player plugin is over 90% (i’ve been told that the Flash player is the most installed piece of software in history)
  3. As a result, the Internatz are flooded with game products, and people capable of playing them
  4. Some of these games are good, and some are not
  5. Very few Flash developers are charging money for their games, choosing instead to self-publish them either for free on various game portals (collections of Flash games), or by injecting ads into them through a third party service for a very nominal split of the already modest ad revenue (think pennies, not dollars)
  6. Many Flash developers are young hobbyists with little to no professional experience, who are motivated by honour and noteriety within their online communities, rather than money
  7. Those Flash developers who are motivated by money find themselves pitted against an army of amateur game developers with theoretically unlimited development budgets who release their work for free
  8. Numerous third parties are constantly inventing methods to profit from these game developers, from ad-injection services like MochiAds, to sponsorships (usually portals advertising themselves on start-up screens before the game plays) to microtransaction payment systems (HeyZap, MochiCoins, Gamersafe) – virtual wallets where players pay real money for virtual currency, which unlocks in-game goodies

So it was in this climate, and during an economic slump to boot, that Jim Greer and Greg McClanahan from Kongregate took the stage at Casual Connect Seattle 09 this past week. Kongregate is a site that strives to be the “Youtube of Flash games”, where the afore-mentioned Flash development army uploads its games – for FREE – to the site. Kongregate has built a number of goodies around the games, including a pervasive chat window, trophies, ratings and high scores. Kongregate is a VC-funded operation. The initial business model is obvious: build a gigantic user base and profit from ad revenues. There’s an expensive-looking big box video ad on the right side of the site, with various other inventory scattered around.

Their topic was “Fatal Flaws in Flash Game Design and Development.” i missed the talk, but i read the transcript that night and nearly had kittens. GameZebo reports that in and amongst helpful tips like “focus on the fun” and “don’t forget to add polish”, Greg opened his festering maw and spat out this unsavoury gem:

Don’t Expect to be Paid by the Hour

Developers are shocked when they produce a game that they’ve been working on for four months and they only get a $1,000 or $2,000 sponsorship offer on it. The thing is, no one really asked them to make this game. It’s something they did on their own, and reverse logic doesn’t really work when you try to break it down by the hour. It doesn’t matter how long you spent on the game, it’s the final product that matters.

i can hardly express to you the rage that this moment of unbridled douchebaggery has invoked in me. i … i just … i can’t scream my indignation vehemently enough. Let me catch my breath, here. Clutching … heart … waiting for rampaging pulse to subside … hNNggh! There, now. Let’s begin.

Kongregate Does Not Solicit Game Submissions (??)

i can’t fathom how the woodland sprites of utter idiocy possessed Greg to say what he said, but let’s start with his most shockingly ignorant statement:

“No one really asked [the developer] to make this game.”

Here are a few pieces of copy from Kongregate’s site:

To upload your game onto Kongregate, simply go to the upload page and follow the instructions.

Upload your game to share with the world!

In his presentation prep notes, Greg clarifies the point by saying that creating a game isn’t like completing a homework assignment. There isn’t a series of well-defined steps you need to take to succeed – no list of requirements. Here’s some copy from Kongregate’s contest page:

Each week, we’ll be giving away $250 to the top-rated game and $150 to the second- and third- place games uploaded on Kongregate. These weekly contests run Saturday to Friday and must have a minimum of 10 votes to qualify.
Any game first published during this month is eligible for our monthly contest. Voting will last through the deadline, and we’ll be awarding $1500 to the highest-rated game, $1000 to the second-highest, $700 for the third, $500 for fourth, and $250 for 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th and 9th. Games must have a minimum of 30 votes to qualify.
To be eligible for our monthly prizes, games must also implement our statistics API. Instructions can be found here.

So actually, someone did ask the developer to make this game, and it was YOU, Greg. YOU asked people to make games and upload them to your site. Your business wouldn’t exist without people making games and uploading them to your site. Until now, all of the PR coming out of companies like Kongregate, Newgrounds and MochiMedia has been positive and encouraging, because companies who operate parasitically are careful not to bite the hand that feeds them. They just have to keep things moving along, keep encouraging game uploads, keep throwing out shiny trinkets like multiplayer APIs and microtransaction systems, all the while muttering “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain”. Just keep smiling and dancing, and maybe the developers won’t notice that the vast majority of profits are going straight into other companies’ pockets.

But to say something as obtuse as this, Greg … i mean, just give your head a shake, will you? For all your spin about offering a service to the Flash game development community, you need to remember which side your bread is buttered on. Flash developers butter it. And those knives, while dull, might some day soon be used for stabbing when the community finally wises up.

Time Spent Does Not Equate to Game Value

“It doesn’t matter how long you spent on the game, it’s the final product that matters.”

This statement is echoed by ReverendAnthony (likely not a real Reverend) in his rant, “Donate”:



In the rant, ReverendAnthony (who is probably not legally licensed by the state to perform marriage or funereal rites) implores gamers to donate money to indie games after they play them, if they enjoyed the games.

i’m not sure what galaxy ReverendAnthony (who is, again, not holy by any means) or Greg McClanahan inhabit, but in the good old U-S-of Milky-Way, goods and services cost MONEY. You can’t walk into a restaurant and order a meal, and then scarf that meal and donate to the cost of the food in the event that you enjoyed eating it. In certain rare cases, most of which involve either rat poop or severed fingers, you’re within your moral rights to skip out on a bill. But apart from those circumstances, you’re on the hook for that money. Certain restaurants even make you pay the money up-front, before you eat. ReverendAnthony’s assertion that big development shops like UbiSoft “trick” players into buying big-budget games using big-budget trailers is silly. It’s called “advertising”, which is a polite synonym for “lying”, and we’ve been doing it for a very long time.

Ad

i’ll buy THAT for a dollar.

Movies use trailers to dupe people into buying tickets all the time. i can’t TELL you how disappointed i was after watching xXx, only to find that it starred Vin Diesel, and he keeps his pants on. But could i have watched the whole movie, and then marched down to the ticket booth demanding my money back? Nay. Media consumed. i paid for it to be inside my brain, and if there’s one thing i know about Vin Diesel movies, it’s that his stuff stays in your brain. You can’t get those two hours back no matter how hard you try.

i agree with Greg on his point that not every game developer should expect to break even on his game. Of course not. To use another parallel from the film world, the Kevin Costner-with-gills saga Waterworld cost $175 million dollars, and it earned $88 million back – just over half. And that was gross. The Blair Witch Project cost $750k at the high end, and pulled in $249 million. i haven’t adjusted for inflation, but you get the idea.

Posters

Maybe if the view was straight up Costner’s nose, the movie would have made more money?

Did movie-goers ascribe more value to The Blair Witch Project than to Waterworld? Perhaps. Is one movie better than the other? It’s hard to say … movie awesomeness is subjective. But here’s the most important thing, and the thing that should make all of us – Flash game developers, portal owners, payment providers – search our souls and give this all a really deep think: the ticket to see The Blair Witch Project and the ticket to see Waterworld cost the same amount of money. There was a baseline cost to consume the media.

Movies and Ad Support

Moviegoers paid $x dollars to see both movies. Were the movies ad-supported? Yes, of course. The portals (read: theatres) showed ads for Coca-Cola and Skittles and Tampax before the movies started. Then they showed trailers for other movies. And they put out free copies of magazines in the foyer with movie ads thinly disguised as editorials and interviews, which were sandwiched between more ads for automobiles and perfume and hamburgers. And those people who purchased concession stand items may have had their combos subsidized by other movies – “Buy the Deliverance combo – it’s a buttload of popcorn!” More ads. And while they may not have purchased any candy, they may have noticed little stickers on the concession stand selling them bags of Sour Patch Kids. More ads. And on their way in and out of the theatre, the hallway was lined with movie posters promoting upcoming movies. More ads. And sprinkled in between those posters were posters about beef jerky and Bleach for Unbleachables and smartphones. More ads.

i’m not sure how much of this considerable ad revenue the developers of The Blair Witch Project and Waterworld saw. That might be up to the portals. But i know that the portal did share a cut of the ticket sales with them, and that tickets were required of anyone wishing to enter the theatre and watch those movies.

How do i know this? Because i just up on the box office receipts on Wikipedia. Did Waterworld break even? No. Did The Blair Witch Project break even? Yes, and then some. Was the customer charged money in both cases to consume the entertainment? Yes.

Media is Worth Money

What about teevee? Are the shows ad-supported? Yes. Do the portals (channels) pay teevee producers to air their shows? Yes. Do all of those shows break even? No. Do some? Yes. Does anyone, ever, in the history of Lord-loving All Time, spend hours, effort and money producing a teevee show that they then give to the channels? No. Not ever. Ever.

Andromeda

Yes, even THIS show is worth money.

So if we look at teevee and movies, two entertainment industries closely related to gaming, we see that:

  1. The content has value. It is not free.
  2. Subjective viewpoints aside, “good” content (Battlestar Galactica) is equally as not free as “bad” content (Andromeda)
  3. Every content producer gets paid. The profit margin depends on a number of factors, including development time (as Greg points out), but the rule sticks: every content producer gets paid

So the strategy is, was, and has always been, to structure your development costs around what you project you can reasonably earn. The producers of low-budget Kevin Sorbo vehicles like Andromeda know they’ll never sell their shows onto network prime time, and they’d never blow CSI’s per-episode budget on one of their half-hour steamers. But they also know that there are a lot of Sunday afternoon hours to fill on a lot of stations. So they tailor their development budgets according to what they can reasonably expect to earn in off-peak, low-viewership hours.

But Games are Different! Because … ?

So developers can do the same thing with Flash games, right? Wrong. Thanks to rock-bottom CPM rates and fluctuating ad rev splits based on volume (and the whim of the ad providers), there is no established baseline for Flash games in the free-to-play model. i tried to determine one by distributing a mediocre game from our library (read Pimp My Game), with no luck. i don’t know if Two By Two‘s annual ninety dollar earnings are above or below average, but i DO know that i can’t safely develop anything for the free-to-play market if i want to continue living in swank downtown Toronto luxury with my two pet leopards, diamond-encrusted toothbrush and robot wife.

Boardwalk

An actual Google Maps aerial view of my neighbourhood.

Are you a Flash game developer? Do you live in your mom’s basement? Do you desperately want to earn the “‘spect” of your “peeps” on Newgrounds or AddictingGames? In flagrant opposition to Greg’s inane assertions, i say this to you:

Worry about your hourly rate.

In the real world, you ARE paid by the hour. Physiologically, you NEED to be. Your body is a furnace that requires fuel in the form of food in order to function properly and to keep you from becoming dead. This is an hourly requirement that you have, regardless of your industry. If no Sugar Mommy is giving you food for free, you need to ensure that the amount of energy you expend getting either food or money for food is less than the amount of energy that the act of chewing the food puts back into your body.

Cow digestion

If you are a cow, you actually have a four-chambered stomach to worry about, so get programming.

Greg McClanahan worries about his hourly rate, because like you, his body eats food. Greg doesn’t go home, look at his paycheck, and think “gee … i’m not getting paid much to work at Kongregate. But then again, no one asked me to work there. It’s something i did on my own. It’s not the number of hours i worked at Kongregate – it’s the quality of the final product. So my paycheck should reflect the quality of the Kongregate site, not how many hours i spent working on it.”

Mom’s not going to foot the bill forever. You need to know that you can spend an appropriate amount of time on an appropriate result. This will be useful to you whether you work for yourself or for someone else. If you land a job at a company, no one is going to pay you to work weeks and weeks polishing the left big toe of your giant robot avatar. Learn where to spend your efforts in the right places so that you can get in, get out, and take home the right amount of money proportional to your effort.

Charge for your work.

Never release your work for free. Always, always inject ads or charge microtransactions, or add a Donate button, or sell T-shirts, or cook up some brilliant new method of earning money for your creations. Why? Because you’re screwing the rest of us. You’re using your own or your parents’ money – ARTIFICIAL money – to train gamers that games are invaluable – that they do not cost money to play. You are undermining the value of an entire industry. It’s you, Apple, Amazon, and Greg McClanahan, charging us so fast off the cliff that i’m positive in ten years’ time, we’ll be paying gamers to play our games. And that’s when i give it all up and become a mad scientist and develop a robot to laser-target you and evaporate your dumb ass. So straighten it out today, for a happier and robot-laser-evaporation-free tomorrow.

Killer Robot

For real, guys. Don’t make me bust this bad boy out.

To read Greg’s prep notes for his Casual Connect talk, which come off far less audaciously than what was said at his session, check out his Gamasutra blog:

Fatal Flaws in Flash Game Design and Development by Greg “Make Us Some Money, Monkeys” McClanahan

And to read a collection of GREAT articles on game monetization (new!), including our own experiment (and our sub-$2 revenue take on Kongregate), read Pimp My Game.

51 thoughts on “Kongregate: “Don’t Expect to be Paid By the Hour”

  1. Andy Smith

    I’m literally angry with rage. Seriously though, I’m with you Ryan, that is one of the most absurd, pigheaded, moronic things I’ve ever read. No one asked you to make the game… wow.

    Reply
  2. wazoo

    excellent piece..

    It’s funny you mention the Rev Rant movie clip about “donate”…he did another one which focused on not giving Indies a break because they’re Indies. Something along the lines of “treat them like every other AAA game company”.

    I don’t mind that, but then what AAA company would ever agree to a donation revenue model?

    (Somewhere in an EA office building a year or so ago..)
    “Hey Mr. Wright, you’ve been working on Spore now for like 8 years right?”
    “Yes sir Mr. EA boss.”
    “And you’re confident in the product and vision right?”
    “Yes sir Mr. EA boss.”
    “Then you don’t mind if we let players download it for free and donate what they think it’s worth.”
    “Go to hell Mr. EA boss.”

    Reply
    1. Ryan

      wazoo – that’s interesting. i’ve read a few things very recently about indie game devs competing or comparing with AAA companies (most recently in Greg McClanahan’s own presentation notes). Greg (and others) assert that you (as an indie) can’t compete with AAA, so don’t even try.

      At Casual Connect, there was a lot of squawk about building a brand. i think you *can* compete with the AAAs on brand, and i think some of the keys are polish, story, characters, and humour. Your game may only have three screens with graphics (keep your eye on Interrupting Cow Trivia), but if those three screens look as good or better than the hundreds of screens in a AAA title, i think you’re playing with the big boys at that point, as far as brand perception is concerned.

      “Build brands” was the best advice i heard at that conference, and it’s something we’re already trying to do. But you’re right – if we agree that indies CAN compete with AAA companies, we also have to agree that indies are entitled to some sort of compensation for providing so much value. Free just ain’t gonna cut it.

      Reply
  3. Scarybug

    I think Kongregate’s first point was that it doesn’t necessarily matter how much time you put into a game. If you ignored all the feedback saying this or that aspect was frustrating, it makes the game worth less money. Fun is the only thing that matters. Kongregate asks for games, but it never asked you, specifically, for a game. Looking at Greg’s post of this talk on Gamasutra makes this point clearer than what you’ve quoted above.

    http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/GregMcClanahan/20090723/2561/Fatal_Flaws_in_Flash_Game_Design_and_Development.php

    Reply
    1. Ryan

      Scarybug – agreed that he comes off better in his own version of the story, but that Gamasutra post lists his prep notes. He said something altogether different when he spoke, and that’s what was transcribed by GameZebo. Good intentions, road to Hell, etc …

      Reply
  4. ickydime

    I read Mr. McClanahan’s quote a little differently. In my opinion, he was saying that no one asked the developer to make THIS game. Insert whatever game you made. Sure, there is a demand for games in general. Sure there is a call to action to upload games in general. However, he is saying that the final product must be good in order to make money on it. You can’t just crap out something and expect someone to want it… The problem he is pointing out is that you are building something before you have a buyer so you are not guaranteed anything.

    To me, that makes sense. Advert games make a hell of a lot more guaranteed money than indie games. You are asked to make something specific for a brand experience and are paid a flat rate. Indie games, on the other hand, need to be sold after the fact (since no one asked them to make “THIS SPECIFIC” game) which makes them much harder to make money on.

    Reply
    1. Ryan

      ickydime- that’s a fair interpretation. i’m trying to reconcile this with other industries where, similarly, artists are not expressly asked to make THIS teevee show or THIS album – they just produce the content and hope that it hits. And yet there remains a production baseline. A teevee buyer will tell you that he can’t get a 1-hour drama series on his channel for less that $x. That’s the baseline. That’s what 1-hour dramatic series cost. There is no established baseline for these games (aside from zero dollars).

      Reply
  5. Michael

    But the same thing DOES happen with other industries. How many unsigned bands are recording their own music and sticking it on MySpace, or working free gigs at bars? TV and movies are slightly different because of the cost of the equipment and the fact that any given channel can only display 48 half-hour shows per day, but people do film skits and stick them on YouTube for free.

    Reply
  6. ickydime

    adding to Michael’s point, TV you have pilots that don’t make it and movies you have screenplays that don’t get sponsored. Books – not published.

    Reply
    1. Ryan

      Ugh … i knew i was in trouble as soon as i mentioned music. Forget i said anything. :)

      i’m could be out to lunch on how teevee works, but aren’t pilots commissioned? And unpublished books and screenplays aren’t a great example to use. With free Flash games, we’re talking about a filmmaker who writes a screenplay, and then foots the bill to cast, shoot, edit and score the movie, and then HANDS the finished movie over to a distributor (or multiple distributors) for free, and does not receive a cut of the ticket sales.

      Reply
  7. Bob Ippolito

    Awesome article! Charging more for stuff will definitely help everyone, and that’s one of the reasons we built MochiCoins – to give you guys a giant shared audience of people who really are willing to throw money at Flash games. The gamers don’t have a choice at that point really, once they have bought some MochiCoins they have to spend them in Flash games or let them rot :)

    The only thing I disagree with in your article is “the vast majority of profits are going straight into other companies’ pockets” — that is largely true of portals, but not of Mochi. We have never released any service where less than 50% goes to the game developer. Our services have either been entirely free, or 50%+ goes to the developer.

    In a past life Jameson and I used to get paid HOURLY RATES to work on advergames (or worse things), we thought that model sucked so we started Mochi to try and change things. Four years and change later we’re still rolling our Katmari around, but I’m pretty sure we’ve made a difference and it’s our evil plan to turn some of you Flash indie devs into millionaires. I don’t really think we’re that far away anymore.

    Reply
    1. Ryan

      Thanks, Bob. While still a pittance, Mochi is definitely the clear leader when you compare the methods i’ve investigated (see Pimp My Game).

      i am chomping at the bit to have my application approved for MochiCoins. i’ll be comparing your service and two competitors: HeyZap and GamerSafe. Here’s what i can offer so far: both Mochi and Gamersafe require applications and approvals. HeyZap does not. And the HeyZap integration is so easy, i’m not sure i even had to keep my eyes open during the process. Looking forward to comparing/contrasting the services in a future article. My plan is to incorporate all three systems into our game, terms of use permitting. (As i misstyped that, i noticed that “terms of use” is one finger-flub away from “terms of sue”. Coincidence?)

      Reply
  8. ickydime

    i dunno how pilots work. I remember reading how “Always Sunny in Philadelphia” started and they said they just got together and shot something that they thought was funny w/ their friends and then worked on getting it in front of the networks. That might be an odd case though… not sure how the majority work.

    i don’t see why books and screenplays wouldn’t match up w/ flash games. as long as we are talking about the indie games and comparing them to the hobbyist who decide they would like to write a book or movie in their free time. all three are done out of passion and without an initial buyer.

    I think you are looking at the large filmmakers who would be considered AAA developers in the gaming industry. We need to focus on what can be done w/ little to no budget. What can be seen as a hobby or night job. In those cases, anyone can make an indie game. Anyone can write a book. Anyone can make a screenplay. All 3 can take an incredible amount of time and yet all 3 have a good percent chance of not making money.

    Reply
    1. Ryan

      i just felt that it didn’t map properly. A finished game does not map to a screenplay or a manuscript. Finished game == finished movie, or published, bound book. The equivalent of a screenplay in the game world is a game design document. We don’t have a problem where tons of people aren’t getting paid for their game design documents – it’s that people aren’t getting paid for their completed, *published* final products. It doesn’t sit well with me.

      That’s why i wrote an article a few weeks back asking people to show me their Flash games that i could purchase. But i only had two recommendations. i think one issue (and perhaps Bob will agree) is that Flash developers don’t get paid for their work simply because they don’t ask for money.

      Reply
  9. Bob Ippolito

    Ryan – there is no approval process required to get the Mochi Coins API, create a test store, build the integration, etc. The only thing you need approval for is to be able to earn money from the store and get it in distribution.

    Once you’re ready for that just shoot us an email or use the feedback widget on the top-right of the site to get ahold of us and we’ll review the game and get it approved, although sometimes there’s a round or two of changes before approval if we see something implemented incorrectly. Our approval process does need some work, we’re still mostly in private beta mode with the developer experience for the product.

    Mochi’s primary reason for staying private beta during this phase is to gain the trust of gamers, so we can’t have open season on microtransactions. We have to make sure the games all work and are of a quality that they would want to pay for. We also do front-line support for all of these games, so for our own sanity we only approve games that work correctly. We did the same thing with MochiAds for nearly a year.

    If you need anything more real-time you can grab me on Google Talk “bob at mochimedia.com” with the obvious substitutions.

    I definitely agree that the reason people weren’t making money is because they weren’t asking the game players for it. Developers have traditionally tried to milk it out of the advertisers/portals/sponsors instead of just selling direct to the people actually playing the games.

    Reply
    1. Ryan

      Bob – perhaps it’s a problem with site design? Take a trip with me through MochiMedia.com with fresh eyes. From the front page, i click “MochiCoins API”. There are two “Apply Today!” links. i click, and they take me to a site feedback form, confusingly titled “MochiCoins API Signup”, but there’s a field that says “What’s on your mind? Give us your feedback and ideas here.” (What’s on my mind is MochiCoins, straight up.)

      Not sure i would have figured out that i can create a test store if you hadn’t clued me in, but i realize you just quasi-launched a week ago.

      So i can implement the whole MochiCoins system fakey-stylez, and then just request that you flip the switch to hook me into the money river? Is that how it works? (Pending approval, of course.)

      Reply
  10. Bob Ippolito

    Ryan – You got it, that’s exactly how it works. It’s not yet designed to be super discoverable, because we’re still working on the approval process. Just hit us up when you’ve got something ready for us to QA :)

    Reply
  11. Colin Northway

    While I think this is true:
    “Flash developers don’t get paid for their work simply because they don’t ask for money”
    and I’m not a fan of portals, I don’t agree that the great unwashed masses of high-school coders are killing us.

    When I made Fantastic Contraption one of the things that attracted me to Flash was how awful flash games are. High-school students hacking code in their parents basement are not making amazing games. In ten years they will, but for now they are not. So they are not the hardest group in the world to out-compete.

    And portals aren’t the only way to get traffic. The internet is way way less gate-keeper-driven than any other video game distribution channel. Including the awful, terrifying, iPhone market.

    Reply
    1. Ryan

      LOL – you’ve made my day with this. Though i’m VERY curious as to why you feel you can slaughter the competition with a solid Flash game, but iPhone has your knees knocking. Is it the fact that one gatekeeper (Apple) controls the distribution system?

      There’s one thing i’ve never understood about iPhone developers and the old refrain “iPhone is so competetive! There are hundreds of thousands of games in the store!” Someone like you comes along, suggesting the same sort of thing, and yet you compete on the INTERNET. Far more noise online, i imagine, than in the App Store. Far more games to compete against, including shareware that dates back to Win 3.1 days.

      You’re obviously very skilled at promoting your stuff online. Why not just do the same kind of marketing for an iPhone version of your game? (Promote online, exist on phone) What’s the diff?

      Reply
  12. ickydime

    ran across this article on adage about an online TV network that allows anyone w/ a camera to make their own show. Some producers are making some decent money: http://adage.com/digital/article?article_id=138164

    I think this model reflects both of our views in that anyone can produce the product and the product is final… not just an idea or first step. With that in mind, how are they getting paid so much more? I would be interested in being able to compare the ad rates for each…

    Reply
    1. Ryan

      ickydime – yeah, i’d love to see those numbers. It’s funny … the first thing that came to mind when you mention a station where anyone can make their own shows is Stephen Colbert’s Mexican character. *snicker*

      Reply
  13. Colin Northway

    I’m happy to explain. It is a very supportable position.

    The iPhone’s problem is a problem of content discovery. People find games for the iPhone through around a dozen top-sellers lists. This is an incredibly unsophisticated way to search for games you might want to play or buy. So as a game producer it’s a toss-up if your game’s audience will find it. And god help you if your game doesn’t appeal to an extremely broad audience. Then you’re just dead (since you will never be a top-seller and you will never appear on a list).

    The internet has this content discovery problem solved ten times over. You know how much time I spent plying my obviously considerable marketing skills? Zero hours. I didn’t do a single day of marketing. A friend of mine wrote a blog post and it went from there. I have been succesful because of the many ways people discover games on the internet.

    StumbleUpon and JayIsGames are my biggest single referrers. But countless little blogs and review sites, people sending eachother emails, forums, posts on facebook and twitter, and, yes, portals all conspired to drive traffic to me.

    Yes, people can pass around iPhone games the same way. But for whatever reason they don’t make a dent in sales. I have heard that even the biggest iPhone game site TouchArcade doesn’t drive many sales.

    The great quote from Robert Stephens “Advertising is a Tax for being Unremarkable” has a ring of truth online. But it’s not true on the iPhone. Where Apple deciding to feature you is life and death.

    Reply
    1. Ryan

      Colin – a very interesting viewpoint! i haven’t heard the App Store spun quite that way. My impression is that the ecosystem is packed with former Mac devs complaining that Apple isn’t promoting their stuff enough. i didn’t realize that TouchArcade doesn’t impact sales in any appreciable way.

      Though i WILL say that until i started looking into iPhone games, i had never heard of TouchArcade before. i HAD heard of JayIsGames. i wonder if a more well-known site that wasn’t so iPhone- or Mac-focused would do some damage to flat sales charts?

      And by the way, kudos to you and your accomplishments on your game. i know it’s been said before, but i had to add my accolades. You’re an inspiration :)

      Reply
    1. Ryan

      Greg is in the house! Hooray! Fished in! (This entire article exists solely as Greg-bait. :)

      j/k. The thread is you reference is long, but worth a read. Greg, judging by your prep notes from Gamasutra and your clarifications in the thread, i think that what you *meant* to say during your session either came out poorly, or was transcribed poorly. (Like i said, i didn’t actually make your session – i read some articles after the fact.) When you said “no one asked you to make this game”, and later specified that you were talking about a fee-for-service relationship vs. an independent development project, you smooved it over like butter.

      i maintain, though, that there’s gotta be a way to get more cash in the pockets of more developers. While at Casual Connect, i asked the question i always ask: when will the millions of dollars in teevee ad spend finally pour over to Internatz advertising? i wondered what will happen when and if CPM rates climb to double- and triple-digits. Will the rev share split stay the same, or will portals and ad injectors try to grab a bigger piece of the pie at that point? It’s easy to be generous with the split when you’re giving up pennies on the dollar.

      Reply
  14. Anthony

    First off, in the interest of full disclosure, I do work at Kongregate and know Greg. I do QA on our web apps and I’m run the developer support emails. So, there’s the context for this response.

    I applaud the rant style (I always enjoy a good rant), but I think the target was misguided. You make a number of comparisons to television shows and movies, but these aren’t equivalent to indy Flash games. They’re much more comparable to major titles produced by established game companies (Epic, Maxis, Relic, etc.). What’s the difference? There’s a producer involved – someone who pays up front to make the game/show/movie happen (i.e. the person who “asks someone to make this [insert media]”). That’s why they can be paid by the hour regardless of how good the final product is. But that’s not the situation with indy games at all (with a few exceptions in which a major portal or company will commission or fund a game up front).

    As has been mentioned in above comments, indy game development is much more comparable to indy bands, street artists, freelance writers, student films, etc. These are all examples of risk taken by the individual in pursuit of a love or dream with the hope of making some money and fame along the way. Some are huge successes, most never see the light of day. It’s a simple example of supply and demand, with the supply side being very high. It’s hard to stand above the crowd, but if you pull it off (which happily is done through talent rather than who you know like in the acting and music industries) it can lead to a lot of success, and money well above a reasonable hourly rate. And as you point out, the barrier to entry for Flash game development is rather low, as is the baseline quality-level.

    There are many of us who aren’t willing or able to take that kind of risk, to live game to game hoping that you can continue to put out quality entertainment. I’ve made a small game myself and haven’t gotten a single bid on it on FlashGameLicense (granted, it’s nothing great, but it was a risk I knew going into the process that I wouldn’t get a dime for sponsorship). Note that Greg isn’t saying you shouldn’t try to make money off of it at all. He’s trying to establish realistic expectations of your endeavor in terms of sponsorship money.

    My question for you is: what do you expect Greg and the other people in charge of sponsorships at major portals to do? Yes, he’d love to throw money at every decent game that comes out, but that’s not an option. So he has to choose the best and most promising games to bid on, and then the open market determines the price of the game. Of course you should put ads in your game, of course you should enter contests and see if you can provide a compelling microtransaction system. But you also have to have realistic expectations going into the process when you know how many thousands of games are on the market and how incredibly fickle and short-attention-spanned the target audience can be. And I think that’s what Greg was saying. He is speaking from his experience with developers who don’t understand what their game is worth to the market but only look at what it is worth to them, and then either miss out on deals or think they’ve been robbed when they got a fair market value. Perhaps it came across wrong (obviously it did for some people), but I assure you Greg’s, and Kongregate’s, goal is never to screw over or lessen the value of our developers.

    I do understand your frustration with users thinking Flash gaming should be free, but that’s why both games and portals and starting to introduce micro-transactions and subscriptions. There’s a different revenue model here than in other traditional games, and I think you may do better by embracing and running with it rather than fighting it and trying to turn Flash gaming into retail gaming (the success of free-to-play MMOs shows the power of microtransactions and subscriptions). Of course, some games do break that mold (Colin Northway’s Fantastic Contraption, as he mentioned above, did manage to have success charging to play), and if you wish to follow that route and can make a compelling-enough game, then more power to you. Keep in mind the portal is 100% behind you in trying to train gamers that it’s okay to spend money on Flash games – we’re very much united in that goal for obvious reasons. But from the portal’s perspective there is a finite amount of money to go around for sponsorships, and this money can either be clumped up in large amounts for very few people or spread out among more people, and at the moment it favors us, and favors all but the creme de la creme of developers, to spread it out a bit. Whether that’s ideal in your mind really depends on your talent as a developer I suppose. :)

    Reply
    1. Ryan

      Thanks, Anthony. Point taken re: producer involvement being the differentiating line between indie and mainstream commercial pursuits.

      You ask what i expect Greg/Kongregate to do with their sponsorship dollars. i have no opinion – although perhaps one good investment would be in psych and behavioural studies, the results of which you can share with your devs so that they can start making better games. Or save your money, and compile that sort of research that’s floating around out there to build a really kickass resource. i spoke with one company at the conference who plans to do this in the coming months.

      But in the end, i don’t think the burden is on the portals. The more i read and fret and meditate, the closer i come to the conclusion that the burden of funding game development should be on the consumer. Like i say, i’ve paid for games all my life. i won’t likely buy The Secret of Monkey Island on the iPhone for $7.99, only because i bought it for $69.99 for my Amiga 500 back in 1990 when it was released, and i’ll be damned if that Ron Gilbert character is going to bilk another red cent from me.

      But there’s a lot of other stuff i WILL pay for, and i hope it’s not just a generational thing. i hope i’m not the last of a dying breed of gamers who know the value of a good piece of entertainment. My theory – my hope – is that microtransactions will save the hobbyist industry. More on that in tomorrow’s post. Come on back!

      Reply
  15. James

    That was a phenomenal read.

    You truly speak for my frustrations within the flash gaming industry. It’s unbelievable how those who DON’T MAKE FLASH GAMES are making disturbingly more money than those who do. What I would really like to see is people asking for royalties on all revenue generated from their work. It’s standard practice for the music and film industry, so why not for us? Sponsorships are nice, but they could potentially be a fraction of what the title actually earns, given the quality and popularity of the game.

    My only comment is that those who submit to Newgrounds mostly do so under the idea that they won’t get paid. It’s more of a community than a distribution zone. Oddly enough, in my opinion Newgrounds has done the most of all the flash portals I’ve seen to help kick some more cash back to the developer. Like giving the developers a cut of the ad revenue generated by their user pages, and being the first to allow in-game ads.

    Reply
  16. Colm Larkin

    Excellent rant and comments!

    I really agree that consumers need to be the main revenue source for developers/portals/et al; advertising should just be an extra. This is Dan Cook’s main point in his Flash Love Letter (pt 1): http://lostgarden.com/2009/07/flash-love-letter-2009-part-1.html

    Microtransactions is one way to allow this consumer spend to trickle through and it’s definitely going to work for some games, but I’m certain that compelling enough games should charge consumers directly: therefore avoiding the 30-40% cut of current microtransaction enablers. Examples of this working are Colin’s Fantastic Contraption and Rock Solid Arcade’s Robokill

    Reply
    1. Ryan

      Colm – i read Dan’s post a few weeks back. It’s one of the very best reads on this subject, anywhere. i can’t imagine what he has planned for part 2!

      i just posted an article about Flash microtransactions being a game-changer. But in my experience at the Casual Connect conference, it looked like partnering with a payment provider to sell direct was a non-starter due to prohibitive setup and monthly fees. How did Rock Solid and Colin do it? Did they roll their own? i’d love to find someone who could build this kind of solution for us at Untold Entertainment. i have no idea what kind of timing and price are involved.

      Reply
  17. Ben Olding

    I feel that this article misses the point. Greg isnt saying that you shouldnt get paid for your efforts (or by the hour) he is mearly stating how it is, and he is right. Portals will not sponsor a game based on its scale, they will base it on how well it will perform. I have been sponsored by Kongregate a few times and have found them to be very generous and fair

    Reply
    1. Ryan

      Ben – when i sift through the aftermath, it looks like you’re right. i think that what Greg intended to say came out sounding a little more antagonistic than he wanted. His prep notes and his thread comments on Kongregate have made his point clearer.

      i remember when my wife took up stained glass as a hobby. Like all hobbyists, there was this glimmer of “hey, this is fun. i wonder if i can make money from this?” Stained glass is, of course, a ridiculously labour-intensive craft. There were very, very few people we could find who were doing it professionally. The one pro stained glass team we did run into offered only three designs. Same three designs. Customer could pick colours, but designs stayed the same. i asked them why, and they said that those three designs were the very fastest to bang out, and anything more involved would lose them money. People didn’t want to pay for what stained glass actually cost. They needed to be efficient: get in, get out, get paid.

      i reflected that this seemed a little soulless for a craft that’s all about precision and beauty, light and sparkle. But that seems to be the way of things when you’re talking about making money from a hobby.

      Reply
  18. Iain

    We only have our selves to blame for the current situation. Developers need to build a fun product that players are prepared to pay for, and market that product. Instead of selling advertising for a pittance, they could be buying it for a pittance, and turning those visitors in to paying customers. How do AdventureQuest and Evony and Zwinkis have the money to advertise on EVERY flash game? They have the money because they are selling a product.

    Give nothing away. Build you own portal, buy advertising a sell products.

    Thanks for a very enjoyable thread Ryan and Greg!

    Reply
  19. Squize

    Mate, I love every fucking word you type.

    It’s so refreshing to read a “Actually, we’re not all smoking gold cigars, and this is why” post, rather than the usual “Ads are great! With my 40 games + sponsorship I’ve made $300 this year alone! PS I’m 13”.

    Reply
    1. Ryan

      Squize – you fill me with warm fuzzies.

      But i return to the same theme over and over again: i complain about not making money on games, but i do not ASK for money for my games. Let’s revisit this issue when i actually ask players to pay. If everyone clams up at that point, i’ll actually have something to gripe about. But i think (hope?) things won’t go that way.

      Reply
  20. TFernando

    Hey, back off the hobbyists! I think the games I’ve done are at least on par with the ’23-living-in-mom’s-basement’* crowd, and I seriously don’t understand why all of a sudden people I sort of look up to** think guys like me are the bad guy.

    Professional artists (painter type) don’t get upset by the baker who sells the watercolors he does on weekends for $2 at his garage sale.

    Across 5 games and just shy of a year I posted 42k paid impressions on mochiads. I have a game on Whirled which has had another 2k plays per mochibot. 10,000 guys like me would be… 44 million views globally? That’s ephemera against the number of global flash gameplays. It’s very hard for me to accept that I’m a valid target of your huge laser toting robot, when my games aren’t even the ones being played! :)

    With Mochiads, the primary benefit to me is leaderboards and distribution (and believe me, I’m aware those are huge benefits), but chances are none of my various monetization accounts will pay out this year or next. It is however, pretty cool (to me) that several thousand people have played my games compared to the 4 who played what I produced in 5 years or so of screwing around with DirectX.

    Anyway, what’s sparking this comment is your last section. In particular:

    “You’re using your own or your parents’ money – ARTIFICIAL money – to train gamers that games are invaluable – that they do not cost money to play. ”

    It’s my money, and I’ll do what I want with it, thanks. I don’t think my money is any more artificial than yours just because it comes from my paycheck. If anything, the artificial money I have is sitting in my Mochi account.

    I understand that in the past few weeks there have been some changes in the Flash gaming space which the pros need to sort out, and I’ve stayed on the sidelines. But the suggestion that professionals are unable to compete with amateurs (point 7 in the starting summary) is either silly or wrong, I’m not sure which.

    -TF

    *- For the record, I’m 31, have a good non-IT job, and don’t live with my parents. And because I enjoy my job, and it pays well enough for me to get by, I no longer harbor the aspiration of becomming a professional game developer in any sense of the word. Still, what you guys do is pretty cool.

    Reply
    1. Ryan

      TFernando – let’s add this to your painter/baker analogy: a tourist turns the corner on a cobblestone street in Quebec City, where artists sell their work, and he sees nothing but free hobbyist baker paintings (not $2 – FREE. There’s a world of difference!) The professional painter’s piece is in there somewhere, buried beneath hundreds of works the baker has churned out over the weekend on a bender. Let’s say the tourist finally digs down deep enough and discovers the painter’s professional work. But there’s a $250 price tag on it. Suddenly, the tourist is willing to forgive the flaws and lack of polish in the baker’s paintings. The tourist trucks home a wheelbarrow full of the free pieces, goes home, and hangs them on his wall. Now his house looks like junk, but hey – at least he didn’t spend any money, right?

      Then let’s say the tourist decides to make a ham sandwich. He goes into his fridge, and sees that there’s no mustard. So he looks through the phone book to find some kind of mustard delivery service, but all of the phone book real estate is taken up by mustache trimming services. So he walks out of the kitchen, but slips on a wad of cat yak that his tabby regurgitated the night before. Now he’s lying there, in pain, his spine is bent into a “G” shape, and … well, my analogy starts to fall apart a bit at that point. But you get the idea.

      Reply
    2. Ryan

      … sorry, TFernando. i got sidetracked.

      i agree that you’re well within your rights to blow your paycheck on hookers, blow, or making Flash games. Go nuts. When i called it “ARTIFICIAL” money, i wasn’t being clear enough. i was trying to call out all of those Flash developers who say things like “i totally made $6k on my Flash game! And i’m a hobbyist! The game cost me nothing to make – i just spent my evenings and weekends on it!” It’s that tendency of people to think of their hobby time as “free” time that leads me to call it “artificial” money. An hour is an hour is an hour, and time is money. Even if your time is worth minimum wage or sweatshop money, a game costs something more than blood/sweat/tears to build.

      Bruce Chia shared his numbers at Casual Connect (thanks, Bruce!) for his Dream-Build-Play winner Carneyvale: Showtime. His team netted $15k, which i thought was halfway decent. But i asked him if he broke even, and he said “not even close”. They won an extra $14k through the XNA contest, but they had EIGHT developers on the project. That’s $3625 per developer. Let’s be generous and pay them minumum wage, which in the USA is now $7.25. That gives each developer three and a half months to work on the game. Is that reasonable? Not sure.

      It’s a similar deal with Pixel Jam’s (Dino Run) “success” story. Check this post out for more assinine ranting:

      http://www.untoldentertainment.com/blog/2009/02/14/earn-money-making-flash-games/

      Reply
  21. Colm Larkin

    AFAIK it is not crazy difficult to set up a payment provider like PayPal to process paypal/credit card purchases for you. A little bit of server side scripting + their API and you’re away. They take about 3%. I imagine Colin/Rock Solid did it this way (perhaps with one of the many other processors rather than paypal).

    Reply
    1. Ryan

      Colm – both Rock Solid Arcade and Colin are using PayPal only. We’ve spent a lot of time building Kahoots to handle multiple languages … it would be nice to be able to take money from Europeans in a variety of ways. They’re apparently big on debit cards, and i’ve heard a crazy rumour that the French pay by cheque.

      Reply
  22. Greg McClanahan

    Ryan, you keep coming back to this defense that there’s a discrepancy between what I said/had transcribed and what I wrote, but the real discrepancy lies in what I said/wrote and how you interpreted it. Nowhere did I say, write, or have transcribed that developers should not be compensated fairly for their work or the value that this work provides, either to a portal or to the player. The entire premise of this article is built on twisted logic and faulty interpretations. The Gamezebo article specifically summaries my point with “it’s the final product that matters.” It is an accurate transcription of what I said and what I meant to say. Show me a fantastic final product and I don’t care if it was made in 10 minutes.

    If you want to be reliably paid by the hour with no potential upsides for creating an amazing game in a short amount of time, then independent development really isn’t for you. This mindset is far better suited for working at a larger company or *possibly* even taking on contract work, both of which are respectable options for a game developer reliant on steady income.

    Reply
    1. Ryan

      Greg – wait. i’m reading your comment very very carefully (this time). Are you *actually* saying that you want all Flash game developers to die alone, and that you advocate the use of deadly force when a developer’s game fails to perform well? Are you also implying that Flash game portals regularly deal in the procurement and transport of black market organs?

      Audacious! Rise up, Flash developers! Construct a barricade! This shall not stand!

      Reply
  23. TFernando

    Ryan, re:comment 42, thank you that’s much more understandable from my end. :) I agree, any hour is an hour and has some value. (I also remember reading your other post which you linked)

    I do think there is a rift which is growing between professional flash game developers, the service providers and the hobbyist community. I’m not sure it’s a bad thing for either party either, but in some ways it’s a shame… It also doesn’t need to be discussed right now in this comment thread.

    Backing away real slowly before that tourist starts buying black market organs harvested from BABIES…
    -TF

    Reply
  24. 8bitjeff

    Ryan, I bow down to your majesty! You have covered this subject brilliantly! 100% WORD on all accounts. Too bad blogging doesn’t pay by the hour either…

    Reply
    1. Ryan

      8bitjeff – it doesn’t?? SONOFABITCH! More time wasted.

      (seriously, though, keeping up with this thread has been a full-time job for a day and a half now)

      Reply
  25. PsychoGoldfish

    Interesting article, although I feel in many ways you are comparing apples to oranges.

    In ANY industry where the author self publishes you NEVER get paid by the hour, you get paid based on the quality of the final product, or by pre-selling the product to someone who can back you financially.

    Using TV as an example, a lot of people get their start doing pro bono work for public broadcast programs. The front the costs to produce the work then sell the product to the local station management.

    With movies, people shell out their money to go to film school and build a portfolio. Writers submit short stories to magazines and possibly get a $5 check if they get published.

    All the independents start out at the bottom, investing their own time and money to produce works that one day will be regarded as high quality submissions to their respective industries. THEN they get hired to do hourly or contract work for the non-independent companies and finally achieve those reliable wages.

    My interpretation of Greg’s quote is in-line with what a lot of people seem to e saying. Nobody asked you to make any specific game for any specific amount of money. Sure they asked you to submit your work and test your mettle… see if you can produce something that will prove to have commercial value and ultimately open some doors for you to get consistent paydays just on your reputation alone.

    I don’t really want to point fingers or get into some waste-of-time flame war but I get the feeling you feel personally disrespected. Possibly in some bid for one of your games, something you invested a lot of time in, was gauged to be worth less than you expected?

    It really never hurts to question the status-quo, but at the end of the day, the current business model for most flash portals remains the same… as does the perceived value of any given work. If I could offer some friendly advice (from personal experience) it would be to just focus all your energy on positive growth so one day you can go from being an indy flash developer and become a household name that gets paid for their work no matter how bad it is *cough*Kevin Costner*cough*.

    Reply
    1. Ryan

      PsychoGoldfish – thanks for chiming in. i really do sound like a neophyte, don’t i? The awful truth is that i’m a professional Flash developer with nearly ten years of game experience under my belt. My career path has nearly followed a completely reverse trajectory to the one you talked about. i got my start at a kids’ teevee broadcaster creating original games, apps, and advergames on someone else’s dime. That’s likely how i got the sick idea into my head that Flash games are worth money.

      From there, i left the company and started my own shop, Untold Entertainment. Again, i took other people’s money to execute their concepts and develop games according to their marching orders. It’s only (comparitively) very recently that i’ve started to seriously look at how the rest of the Flash ecosystem functions. i’ll admit that i was appalled at the concept of giving my stuff away for free to a pile of portals so that they could collect ad revenue on my work. That’s why i deliberately chose a game from our library (Two By Two) that didn’t have a lot of value to me.

      And of course, since it didn’t have a lot of value to me, it didn’t have a lot of value to anyone else, so the ad share revenues were a pittance ($90 in a year). All of this wailing and crying is simply me anguishing over the nagging thought that there has to be a better way. And i’m getting a lot of valuable help from folks like you with every petty, vitriolic post i write.

      But i’m learning. The strategy i’m taking with Interrupting Cow Trivia is to add a membership system and all manner of hooks that drive players back to this site, where i can control the audience to some degree. i’m all too happy to give that game away for “free” to a million and one portals, because there’s an exchange of value. The portals get a free game, and i get a community. And hopefully, that community will pay some *real* dollars for the enchanced, ad-free game experience.

      Don’t worry. i won’t be a crybaby forever. Thanks for your patience.

      Reply
  26. Tokyo

    People are missing the point.
    Things mentioned by Greg are all true and correct.
    However, “in the real world” just because its true does not mean it is a smart idea to make it public.
    Greg made a careless mistake from a business perspective, evident from how many people he pissed off.
    If he were to write a private e-mail to devs kongregate sponsors all the time, it wont be a problem because kongregate is the customer in this case. However, in 99% of the cases, kongregate is not the customer. Developers basically donate games (considering most people don not get paid much). Therefore, Greg is not in the position to publicize something that could be taken as offensive (top-down) to people who “donate” to kongregate. You could argue that he did not intend to be offensive. My response to that is he should have thought harder as a businessman before making it public.

    Greg mentioned that time spent on creating a game does not matter, its the final product that matters.
    I do not understand how a person in Greg’s position would publish such a statement. Here is why.
    1.PEOPLE SPEND A LOT OF TIME TRYING TO CREATE A GREAT GAME, not many people wake up one day and say “I am going to spend a lot of time to produce a big pile of smelly crap”. The reality is, most attempts to produce something great fails.
    2. Kongregate should want as many developers as possible to spend a lot of time to create games. Why? because some people actually succeed in creating a great game after a few tries.
    3. Therefore, Kongregate should encourage people to spend a lot of time in “attempting” to create something great. Saying that its the final product that matters does the opposite, evident from how many people were upset.

    Correct Response
    Trying to defend yourself is another poor business decision, although some degree of defense maybe necessary. Greg and the kongregate team should have said something in this nature.
    “We did not intend to be offensive, we understand it is our duty to serve the flash game dev community for all that it has given us, we are sorry for how the statement turned out. We take it back.”
    Then maybe defend yourself a little -although its pretty hard to defend yourself if you follow my logic.

    Reply

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