Category Archives: Blog

Kahoots™ Intro Cut-Scene

In case you missed the sneak preview on Twitter, here’s the Kahoots™ intro cut-scene in all its stop-motiony glory:



We auditioned a half-dozen actors for the role of the Chief Inspector. As soon as we heard Gray Gleason’s read, we knew we’d found The One. His voice was an exact match for the voice in my head (one of the voices in my head, anyway :) Give Gray a shot if you need v/o work. He’s quick, professional, and his low range “trailer guy” voice can lend a lot of gravity to your next high fantasy epic.

The intro was built over a series of very late nights leading up to Casual Connect. We had run into some opposition from the portals claiming that the game wasn’t high quality enough, and i had to explain that the big blank gaps on the title screen and intro scene (you beta testers know what i’m talking about) were not actually final. Sheesh. i figured that having a completed title screen and intro would go a long way towards convincing a portal to sell my game and claim 65% of the proceeds.

Anyway, the strategy worked out, and now a number of outlets are excited about the game. i actually got the chance to meet a few people on submissions duty who had seen the first playable, and dismissed it as Yet Another Match-3 Game. Those of you who have played Kahoots™ know that although you are selecting groups of three, the game has as much to do with Bejewelled as chevre has to do with Cheez Whiz.

Either way, the game is still pretty cheesy.

Untold Entertainment Turns Two!


Untold Entertainment Turns Two!

We’ve reached a milestone. This past Saturday, with little paper party hats and a room full of imaginary monsters, Untold Entertainment celebrated its two-year anniversary as a Toronto game studio start-up. Let me tell you, running your first start-up in the midst of a global economic collapse is like …. well, it’s like running your first start-up in the midst of a global economic collapse. It hasn’t been easy, but we’ve survived. i thought it might be nice, for posterity, to look back at how our last fiscal year played out:

Stuff We Did

2008

  • July – July was our busiest month evar. Still a one-man shop, we were spinning out three game projects simultaneously, through a complex process of outsourcing and human cloning.
  • August – We expanded from 1 to 2 people, and secured office space in Yorkville, one of Toronto’s most expensive neighbourhoods. (Read: The Unboxing of Untold Entertainment) We went with a serviced office space provider, who nickel-and-dimed us for a year. This proved to be a bad business decision, but with a packed July, a second baby on the way, and no time to look at property (AND with brokers hanging up the phone because we were looking for a small space), getting an office close to home and on the subway line made a lot of sense. But if i could go back in time and assassinate myself, i would.
  • September – We redesigned our site to make it teh awesome

    Untold Entertainment Site Redesign

    untoldentertainment.com versions 1 and 2

  • November – The Ontario Media Development Corporation rejected our funding application for the Screen-Based Content Initiative
  • December – Business was booming! We expanded from 2 to 3 people. Our office space provider was full of money-gouging shenanigans, so we had to cram all three of our hot, writhing bodies into our 110 sq foot closet of an office.

    Untold Entertainment Office

    i hope my coffin is more spacious than this

2009

  • January – The economy went down the toilet. Uncertainty surrounding Canada’s Telefilm fund spooked many of our clients. Service projects took a nosedive. With nothing left to do but twiddle our thumbs, we started work on our first significant original property.
  • March – We downsized from 3 to 2 people. :(
  • April – Disheartened, i clung to satire for warmth and comfort (read: Embattled Game Developer Makes Impassioned Plea for Government Assistance)
  • May – Some folks don’t appreciate satire.
  • June – The Ontario Media Development Corporation rejected our application for the Interactive Digital Media Fund
  • July – Still hanging in there, we began to expand our client base. We signed a new lease for an office space in Toronto’s downtown core. New office is five times the size of our current joint, and costs less per month. And it offers us a lovely, panoramic view of the corner of Dodgy and McStabs-a-lot.

Stuff We Made for Other People

Our service workload was lighter in year two, but we still managed to complete a variety of great fee-for-service projects:

  • A selection of games for a kids’ travel show, Are We There Yet? World Adventure : Flag Tag, Train Track, Viking Ship, Eye in the Sky. These were tricky because we had to work within the show site’s established look. As you can see, we departed from the look considerably with Eye in the Sky. (Great work, Mark!)

    Are We There Yet: World Adventure Games

  • Various on-camera digital props, mock-ups, storyboards and proposals for kids’ teevee production companies (those are seeeecret! Shhh!)
  • Game design and development for a kids’ online collecting/trading game called The Nara Tree for eco-site Earth Rangers, which unfortunately had its plug pulled. (i think they were just trying to save energy :) Don’t worry – the Earth Rangers have a lot of exciting stuff in the queue.

    Earth Rangers: The Nara Tree

  • Two great games for Best Ed, a great new kids’ cartoon show by 9 Story (Peep and the Big Wide World) in the spirit of Eek! The Cat. We’ve been dying to show these games off, but the broadcasters haven’t launched them yet. Stay tuned!

    Best Ed by 9 Story

  • Ok, this one’s weird: a comedy script for a corporate West 49 awards show, hosted by reknowned skateboarder and troublemaker Bam Marghera, host of his own reality show Viva La Bam. Honestly.

    Bam Marghera

    i’m really not joking. i’ll post video of the event once i get my mitts on it.

  • A Flash video-intensive project for BMO Bank of Montreal extolling the virtues of retirement planning – Take Charge of Your Retirement
  • A SUPER COOL movie creation tool for pre-schoolers which, due to contractual obligations, we can’t actually show on the website. Bummer. (Anyway – great work, Jeff!)

Stuff We Made for Us

  • Bloat., a testament to what you can do in twenty-two hours with only a dream in your heart, a dabble of child-like optimism, and a film canister full of uppers
  • a global high scores system for all our games, none of which use high scores … a realization i made AFTER the system was completed. Ha!
  • Message boards, where you can talk about our stuff or your stuff, or just stuff in general. Participation is dismal at the moment, but we expect it to pick up once we start launching more games
  • a neat-o Twitter Flash widget (the blue bird in our global nav bar – look up!). Learn how to build your own with our tutorials (Read: Pull Twitter Updates into Flash Part 1 and Part 2)

Stuff We Started

  • Kahoots™, a fun crime-themed puzzle game modeled entirely in clay
  • Interrupting Cow Trivia, a real-time multiplayer game that hMOOOO!!
  • Balloon Shooter (working title), a simple but fun shooting gallery game to showcase our global high scores system
  • Sp… Oops! Almost spilled the beans on that one.

As you can see, we pack a lot into a year. Consider Untold Entertainment Inc. for your next rich media application, advergame, show support site, or Bar Mitzvah!

Flash Microtransactions: This Changes Everything

i don’t often peer into my crystal ball to predict trends, for fear of looking like a complete nerd. Remember that time i said Jesus was coming at 4PM on a Tuesday, and we all hung out at that bus stop for, like, five hours, until Pete got the munchies and did a Taco Bell run, and the rest of us went to help him carry the drinks and we totally missed Jesus cuz my prediction was off by half a day? i’m more careful now.

Jesus

Jesus: sorry he missed us. (Way to go, Pete)

But i’ve been to Casual Connect, and i have seen the future of online gaming, and it’s microtransactions. Go ahead and close the browser now, if you like. You haven’t seen what i’ve seen, man. i was there. And although many of you are probably skeptical about a system that’ll have you paying twenty-five cents to a preteen for a badly-drawn sword jpeg, i’m here to posit that there’s a side of this you may not have considered. And if you’re a casual downloadable portal owner, i’ll tell you why you should be shaking in your hitherto cash-stuffed boots.

A Quick Primer

First, some terms and definitions.

  • Flash game A video game created with a tool called Adobe Flash. These games are playable in the browser using the ubiquitous Flash Player plugin, the second-to-latest iteration of which has a >90% install base.
  • Casual game A piece of interactive entertainment marketed outside the “core” video game demographic. Casual games typically have smaller development budgets, and break up the gameplay experience into more easily digestible chunks, setting them apart from more demanding “enthusiast” game titles
  • Casual downloadable game These titles can be created with any tool, but are typically written in the C++ language by “real” programmers. File sizes are usually much larger than Flash game file sizes, and the games are often not playable in the browser. “Casual downloadable” can also describe the monetization method for these games.
  • Portal A website that hosts games from a number of different developers. Some portals deal exclusively in casual downloadable games, while others solely have collections of Flash games. One of the most successful portals (at present) is Big Fish Games, which hosts both.
  • Demo A handicapped version of a game for the purpose of convincing the player to purchase the full version. Demos can be time-limited (play for up to an hour free), or feature-limited (play with only Character X, or play only the first five levels). Demos can either exist within the larger game file, or they can be entirely separate files.
  • Try and Buy (or Try-Before-You-Buy) A monetization model where the player samples the demo version of a game, and is enticed to pay a one-time fee to purchase the full version. Demos or trial versions can be downloadable, but more and more, developers are creating Flash demos that can be played in the browser.
  • Subscription A monetization model where the player pays a regular (often monthly) fee for the privilege of playing the game, or to have access to features that free players cannot experience
  • Free-to-play A game model where a significant selection of gameplay – even the entire game – does not cost the player any money. Some Free-to-play games are ad-supported, while others use subscriptions and microtransactions to fund further development. Still others are completely free to play with no strings attached for the player.
  • Microtransactions A monetization model where the player buys incremental upgrades to the game experience that can cost as low as pennies, or even fractions of pennies.

Penny

Give it a year and we’ll be splitting atoms.

Thanks But No Thanks

Before i went to Casual Connect 09, i had it in for Flash microtransactions. i had heard the announcement that Mochi Media was in closed beta on a microtransaction system for Flash games, and i just rolled my eyes, imagining the horrendous state of affairs that would erupt when the army of basement-dwelling Flash teens, fat from their $1000 sponsorship deals on games like Set Your Grandma on Fire and Zombie Asskicker 4: the Killening, started charging five and ten cents a pop for in-game items like “cartoonish weapon of implausible proportions” and “extra health”. No thanks.

And i knew that the microtransaction press was going to be packed with success stories about how Joe Coder made fifty million dollars in two weeks selling special in-game hats for his game, Ninja Kittens. But as soon as i give it a try, i’ll net thirty cents in a year’s worth of schlepping. No thanks.

And i knew that associating games with one-cent transactions would eventually drive down the value of absolutely everything, to the point where a developer charging five cents instead of one cent for a virtual crocheted tank cozy would be tarred and feathered by the broke-ass (but entitled) players rallying around these games. No thanks.

No Way Jose

Roughly translated from the original Spanish, this sign reads “I do not wish to comply, Joseph.”

But let me put a more optimistic spin on things. Let’s take a look at where we are now, and where we could be very, very soon.

The Story So Far

Right now, i very much doubt i can make money on my original Flash games. i took an admittedly mediocre game from our library and ran it through the ad injection model in the Pulitzer prize-winning series Pimp My Game (which did not actually win a Pulitzer prize, so i’m thinking of withdrawing that press release). The game’s made about $90 in a year.

Two By Two

Ninety dollars? Pfft. This gem’s worth at LEAST $117.53 + tx.

So i looked across the fence where the grass is clearly greener, and i saw the casual downloadable market. These people were charging actual, real-live dollars for their games. The developers were getting a share of actual cash money that numbered in the more-than-90′s, and i wanted a piece. But i recognized that the development times were longer, the budgets were bigger, and the risk was greater. That’s when we started work on Kahoots™, our fun crime-themed puzzle game.

Kahoots™

i can’t wait for this game to come out!

Kahoots is a further (longer, riskier, more expensive) step in our quest to establish a baseline for development. i’ve been hunting this mythical baseline for two years now: it’s the average amount of money that i can make from an online game. Establishing a baseline will enable us to work within a reasonable budget, and then, hopefully, we can turn a reasonable profit.

i wasn’t one to leave my free-to-play Flash roots buried, so we got cracking on Interrupting Cow Trivia a few months ago. ICT is yet another experiment in game monetization. The development costs are still large, but the model is different. ICT will show an ad to the player before he jumps into a game room. The free player can answer X questions before being booted back out to the lobby, where he’ll have to watch another ad to re-join. Free players will also be limited to certain trivia content packs, which will be unlocked in regular rotation. For example, the Music Trivia pack will be free to play on Mondays and Saturdays. (That’s a little trick i borrowed from Three Rings of Puzzle Pirates fame. Thanks, OOO!)

Paid Interruping Cow Trivia players won’t see any ads, and they can play from any trivia pack any day of the week. They’ll also have advance access to new trivia packs. As we build more features into the game, we’ll cook up further carrots-on-sticks to incent free players. So be sure to give the game a shot while it’s in alpha and completely free!

Interrupting Cow Trivia Title Screen

ICT is going to get a whole lot more awesomazing in the coming months!

PLEASE Make Money from my Efforts! PLEEEEEASE!!!

Going into the Casual Connect conference, i knew i needed a way to charge people money to play Interrupting Cow Trivia, and to purchase Kahoots on our own site. i knew that this was a good idea, because we would get a larger cut of the profits than if we sent Kahoots to a casual downloadable portal. i haven’t partnered with one of these guys yet, but rumour has it that the split is around 65/35 in favour of the portal. This is somewhat upsetting. The portals haven’t spent a single dime on the development of Kahoots™, and offering a completed, quality game for sale on their site is a zero risk proposition, yet somehow i still have do do a song and dance for them to convince them the game is great, all for the privilege of giving them the lion’s share of the proceeds.

But they have the lion’s share of the traffic, right? Big Fish Games is essentially Wal Mart, and if you don’t sell there, you don’t sell anywhere. (Or so i thought – more on that in a bit.) One big problem these days is that a few months ago, Amazon got into the casual games business and started charging $9.99 for its wares, down from the status quo of $20. This sparked a price war that saw Big Fish reduce its prices to $7.99, with a $2.99 price point for their special toolbar promotion.

Big Fish Games 2.99 deal

Who gave that f*cking fish a paintbrush?? He’ll ruin us all!

So who knows where prices will end up? My prediction is that they’ll sink down to the App Store dumps, where everything will be at 99 cents, and a number of casual downloadable devs will go bankrupt because they’ll be a month from releasing their latest big-budget opus. That, or they won’t be able to adjust quickly enough to the Flash way of doing things, where we can bang out a complete game in under a week (see our game Bloat., and fear us.)

The Transaction Faction

So knowing i’d need to charge people on my site, i started meeting with the droves of online transaction companies at the show. These are the companies who have already done the legwork to enable credit card, debit card, pay-by-phone, SMS, cheque, money order, secret password, cost-per-action and wooden nickel transactions to your visitors seemlessly, in exchange for a cut and a few cents on the dollar. The VISA bill says “You were charged $x by Untold Entertainment for Kahoots”. Nice.

But i quickly learned that it would be very difficult, as a small developer, to have a relationship with these guys. GlobalCollect, for example, charges a monthly user fee of around $700. Plimus charges a big set-up fee, and takes a sizable chunk of the proceeds based on the volume of cash you move through their system. The price comes down according to volume. They asked me how many sales i intended to make. i shrugged and said “Dunno. Million … ish.” i have no idea. i’ve never done it before. If Kahoots sells five copies, i’ll be pleased with putting smiles on the faces of five people. (while my homeless family shivers in a makeshift cave made from egg crates and refrigerator boxes in a forgotten alleyway somewhere in Toronto)

It was whispered to me at the conference that if i had engineering chops, i could get an authorize.net account with an SSL certificate and roll my own payment solution. i don’t have engineering chops, unfortunately. And anyway, it’s the kind of thing where i’d like to see how it works out before i sit down and figure out exactly what to build to save myself some money.

And all the while, i saw companies like HeyZap, MochiMedia and GamerSafe, all offering Flash-integrated online wallets for virtual cash, glad-handing the conference delegates and preaching the gospel of Flash game microtransactions. (i’m not actually sure GamerSafe was there phyiscally, but they were there in spirit)

And that’s when i had a brainwave.

Pinky and the Brain

This is gonna be good.

“Micro” is a Possibility, Not a Requirement

A microtransaction system is great because it allows for tiny transactions. The player is more likely to spend tiny amounts of money, but tiny amounts of money add up to significant amounts of money. If you’ve ever bought more than seven vials of heroin in a single afternoon to drown out the pain of your failed existence, you’ll know how those singular transactions start to really add up. And then developers can pull all kinds of nonsense like in Tencent QQ in Korea, where they went hog-wild pioneering this stuff. In Korea’s Cyworld, you can dress up your room, or buy things to send to your friend, but those things – those VIRTUAL ITEMS – expire. You give your friend some wallpaper that has a two-week time limit on it. Insane.

But here’s (finally) my point: a microtransaction system enables you to charge tiny amounts of money, but it doesn’t require you to. There’s no reason why i can’t decide on, say, a $7.99 price point for Kahoots (as Big Fish Games would), and then charge that to my players as a one-time fee at the end of the demo. Correct me if i’m wrong, providers, but i can do that – right?

Right?

And if i can do THAT, let’s look at how a Flash system stacks up against the casual downloadable market:

Casual Downloadable Games

  • (Potentially) large exe download
  • Play on desktop
  • Trial type is limited (for example, i believe Big Fish forces your game into a 1-hour trial. What if that’s not the best trial type for my game?)
  • Deal must be negotiated separately with individual portals/publishers via dog-and-pony show convincing them the game will sell well

Flash Games

  • (Potentially) much smaller download, with opportunity for progressive download (files are pulled into the game as needed, and can be loaded in the background while player does other stuff)
  • Play in the browser with a plugin that >90% of people are running
  • Trial type is whatever the heck i want it to be
  • No deals to negotiate – just use a service like Flash Game Distribution to fire that sucker out the Internet cannon

And i’d love to have someone chip in some data on this, but my hunch is that the amount of traffic going to the oodles of Flash game portals trumps the traffic going to the casual downloadable portals. i could be wrong there. Who’s got numbers for daddy?

Fear the Coming Flood, Fish

So if you’re Big Fish Games right now, you oughta see this coming. And if you didn’t, you do now. And you might re-consider your current strategy of offering $400 to Flash developers for unlimited licenses of their games.

But … if you’re Big Fish, you also offer a distinct advantage over the oodles of portals (say that with a strange British accent and it almost rhymes). The whole reason why Big Fish Games built up that audience in the first place is that it built a brand. Building a brand was one of the cornerstone take-aways at the Casual Connect conference. Big Fish Games built a great site with an excellent customer experience. They were consistent, like McDonald’s. They defined their target hockey mom demographic, and tailored the Big Fish experience to that type of customer. They only stocked games that they knew would sell well to that customer. And then, they raked in mountains of dough and jumped in them like piles of fall leaves, giggling wildly.

Steam did the same thing. They built from an established brand, so the going was a little easier from a customer loyalty point-of-view. But they try to stock games that appeal to their audience, first-person shooter fans. Everything on Steam is dark and gritty and shooty, and they’re doing very well. Lately, some colleagues and i have thought that Steam would be very well-served to create a parallel girly portal on their service, plastered with pink unicorns and fairies and vaginas and stuff.

Vagina Diagram

Man, that site is sooooo girly

Start Building

So if you’re still reading this, and you haven’t already picked an under-served audience and drawn up a sitemap for your new Flash game portal, you need to get on that pronto. GamerSafe is already pledging a 10% cut of microtransaction proceeds to portals, and MochiMedia has hinted that they’ll do something similar. And if enough Flash devs figure out that in addition to nickel-and-diming people for hats n’ guns, you can also sell your games for a one-off price just like the big boys do on casual downloadable portals, there could be a lot of cash floating around the Internatz by this time next year.

i’d just like to grab a little of that cash to tuck away for a rainy day. The rest, i’ll shred up and use to wallpaper my private jet like a supersonic piñata. ¡Olé!

Scrooge McDuck

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.

Trendspotting at Casual Connect 09

I’m back from Casual Connect in Seattle. It’s a smallish gaming conference for folks in the casual games space , which encompasses basically any game that isn’t a disc- or cartridge-based console (Xbox 360/Wii/PS3/DS/PSP) title. There’s a little bit of cross-over on the two leading handheld consoles, but most of the folks at the conference were either in the casual downloadable space, or inventing ways to take money from those people.

It was my first time at the conference. With a tight economy, i hadn’t planned to go, until my colleague Kala from Alien Concepts here in Toronto clued me in to the fact that the Canadian feds were comping $550 passes to the show. Can’t beat that.

Free Stuff

w00t

If you weren’t able to attend, let’s save you five hundred bucks. Here are the things everyone couldn’t shaddup about.

Social Gaming

These are games tied to social networks like MySpace and Twitter – but mostly Facebook, with its oft-cited 250 million active member install base. That’s ACTIVE members. Facebook defines an active member as someone who’s logged in at least once in the past thirty days.

Tired of seeing endless messages in the stream like “So-and-so from your grade ten biology class who you friended just to be polite just gifted a virtual tchotchke to that girl you had a crush on from cadet camp who’s really let herself go since her skiing accident”? Expect to see a LOT more noise along those lines in the near future, as game developers harness the power of social media spam to get the word out about their (usually) microtransaction-based social games.

Facebook Stream

Think Facebook is spammy NOW? Wait a year.

Microtransactions

MochiMedia unveiled their new MochiCoins system to compete with a few others in the increasingly crowded payment provision space. MochiCoins uses a digital wallet that players can fill with fake cash (using their real cash, via credit cards and various other means). Then, players spend their coins on bonus content and digital bric-a-brac in any of the (soon-to-be) bajillions of Flash games that implement the system. A number of these types solutions have been released for Flash developers, (HeyZap, GamerSafe) and the whole thing is well worth a separate article.

Payment Providers Aplenty

i couldn’t walk a few feet through the conference hall without slamming into a payment provider booth. These are joints that set you up with online transaction pages so that you can charge real money for your digital crap, and there are SCADS of them. The companies take a cut of whatever sales you rack up. Their percentage depends on how much crap you sell. They don’t give you a lot of love if you’re a small studio like Untold Entertainment, because they don’t stand to make a lot of money on you in the very near future. Forget about treating people well when they’re small to foster a strong relationship when the company grows. Most of these companies are all about making money NOW, baby! Yeah! Oh, garçon! More cocaine, please.

Snake Oil

The sheer number of payment providers at Casual Connect left a strong scent of snake oil

The Long Tail

Please stop using this term. It makes my left eye twitch.

Building Strong Brands and Innovating

The call for innovation rings out loud and true at many conference, i’m sure – even gatherings of paperclip manufacturers and vacuum cleaner salesman. Innovation is a good thing, and no one can disagree with you if you stand on a stage and thump the podium, driving home your plea for differentiation. What most speakers don’t do, however, is tell the audience how to innovate. Why give away great ideas at a show when you can execute them yourself? So you wind up with a bunch of panels and lectures with everyone on stage stressing the need to innovate, everyone in the audience agreeing, and nothing getting accomplished. One only has to look at the throngs of hidden object or match-3 games on portals, or the flagrant farm game rip-offs on Facebook, to know that there are those who innovate, and there are those who clone. I know which side of that equation i’d like to be on.

Clones

Casual Gaming: Attack of the Clones

But a word about strong brands: i got a lot of strange looks when i told people the name of our newest game, Interrupting Cow Trivia. That’s because it’s a stupid name. But it’s stupid by design. We went through a pile of name ideas before settling on ICT that were even crazier – Welfare-Dependant Antelope Trivia and Obsessive-Compulsive Aardvark Trivia are two that come to mind before we settled on Interrupting Cow Trivia, which is a little more familiar to people because of the knock-knock joke.

Sideline! I’m amazed that some people aren’t familiar with the joke. Here it is:

- Knock, knock!
- Who’s there?
- Interrupting cow,
- Interrupting c…
- MOO!

Hilarity.

The whole strategy behind picking a nutzoid name for that game is (hopefully) obvious. If we named the thing Super IQ Trivia or Brain Buster Knowledge-O-Matic Trivia or Thinky-Pants Trivia, you’d probably forget the title pretty quickly, and the game would be lost amid piles of generically-named trivia products. We haven’t said much about the graphic style of the game, but it also doesn’t make a lot of sense. It’s a rather different look for a trivia game. Just one more way we’re hoping to create a jarring, disruptive presence online and stick out in people’s brainheads.

Throw Mama from the Train

One of the distinct advantages of the casual games business is that it’s like Gigantipus, an enormous sea squid slowly converting non-gamers to gaming addicts with its terrifying robo-tentacles and face-melting eyeball beams. The portal owners and portal game developers have long boasted to the core console side of the business that they’ve landed the coveted female demographic, creating games and services that appeal to 35-year-old (and up) soccer moms. Their words, not mine. “Soccer moms.” i wondered how many non-North American audience members understood the term (in Canada, it’s usually “hockey moms”). These are usually high-strung, type-A personality women who drive their kids to soccer practice in SUVs, inhaling coffee and getting a little too involved in the competitive and social aspects of their kids’ lives.
This past week at Casual Connect, many of the speakers dreamed of reaching a demographic beyond soccer moms. It all had an air of world domination, but in a good way … in a way that makes everyone’s eyes bug out and go bloodshot as they try to match just three more gems.

Hockey Mom

Who wouldn’t want this lady in his target demo?

Untrends

Here are a few things that weren’t spoken of very often, which surprised me.

Augmented Reality

I expect this to be the buzzword at Casual Connect 2009. Augmented reality is bleeding edge visual technology where (generally) graphics are overlayed on a device’s video camera display, often using awareness of the user’s position and direction. The classic example is a user pointing his smartphone around a mall, and in the video camera image on the phone he sees little graphic fly-outs popping out of the stores saying “50% off fattening cinnamon buns here!” and “more crap you don’t need but are gonna purchase anyway over here!” It’s a lot like the shopping mall scene in Minority Report, except that the user actually requests this noise using a device he paid six hundred dollars for.
Here’s a very cool example of Augmented Reality in games:



The Futility of Ad-Supported Free-to-Play

Many of the panels were well-represented by companies like MochiMedia and AdMob protecting their interests and squawking about the amazing distribution potential, customer engagement and accessibility that ad support lends to their games. Of course, what they weren’t saying is that the eCMP rate is utter trash, and that precious few developers can ever hope to make an honest wage solely by injecting ads. It seems to do alright business for the likes of MochiMedia, though, who threw a swanky open-bar party at the Fairmont hotel.

Check out our Pimp My Game series if you haven’t already. It chaffs me that i’ve cooked up a cool eighty dollars in a YEAR by running one of my games through multiple monetization schemes, including MochiAds, Flash Game License and Kongregate. My new plan was to make up the difference by drinking a few thousand dollars worth of booze at the MochiMedia party. But since i don’t drink, it’d have to be Coca-Cola, and i’m not sure i could manage it. But i was tempted to give it a shot – that’s what matters. Watch yourselves, Mochi.

(i rag on the MochiMedia people a lot, but i finally had the chance to meet a few of them and they were lovely people. But even a shark has a gleaming smile before it chews your hip bones out of your body)

The Embarrassing Number of Rip-Offs in Casual Gaming

This was touched on a few times in the panels i attended, but nowhere did anyone apologize for the flagrant and downright embarrassing amount of copying going on in casual gaming. Dave Rorhl (a nice guy in his own right) with a straight face, and without apology, discussed the Facebook hit game Farm-Something, and his own company Playdom’s utter knock-off Farm-Something-Else, with a passing nod to Zynga’s Farm-Whatever. Dave just left Zynga a short time ago. He also discussed Playdom’s Also a Mafia Game, an “homage” to the inexplicably popular shopping list-inspired Facebook hit A Mafia Game. No batting of eyes. Not a single red-faced, navel-gazing mutter of explanation or justification.

Farm Games on Facebook

What are we – Hollywood?

Here at Untold Entertainment, our games are not completely unique either. Kahoots™ uses a fairly well-known math mechanic, and Interrupting Cow Trivia is inspired by Internet Relay Chat-style trivia bots. There’s nothing wrong with taking what works and spinning it in your own game. But these farm and hidden object games are the online equivalent to the toy section at the dollar store, where you can pick up a few “G.I. Jon” action figures, and something called a “Slunky”.

Dorth Vudder

The galaxy trembles before Dorth Vudder

Why farming, Dave? Why not take what works and set it somewhere else, like outer space or a toy factory or at a summer camp or at the mall? I think we can all aspire to something better.

P.S. … Moo.