Cash Cow Part 1

i was reading Dan Cook’s second Flash Love Letter, a rant-itribe (<- WORD I TOTALLY INVENTED - ROYALTIES, PLEASE) about the current state of Flash gaming and how devs might change their behaviour to turn the tide of lotsa work for notsa money. He advocates creating longer-form experiences. i realized, digging through these archives for links, that i said something similar a while back in The Case Against Free, but have a memory like a sieve, and my article wasn’t half as useful as Dan’s. i mentioned Interrupting Cow Trivia on Dan’s comments thread. ICT is a game we released in beta a little over a month ago now in alpha – which means no graphics, an incomplete feature set, and absolutely no cows.

Sad cow

Why have moo forsaken me?

i promised i would write an article about the strategy we’re employing with this game, because the folks who read this blog are ever-so-smart, and i’d love to get some buy-in or opinions about how you all think we’re doing. Your opinion counts. (Except that guy’s opinion – that guy over there in the corner with the red hat. That guy is a douchebag.)

Wherein Ryan Becomes a Bit of a D-B Himself

Tangentally: Can i express to you enough how happy i am that the pejorative term “douchebag” has made such a stellar comeback? They say comedy is tragedy plus time, and “douchebag” has enjoyed a resurgance in a time when few people remember what a douchebag actually is, and what a tragedy it represents. It’s, in fact, an actual bag used for douching, or showering, the erm … the area that … well, as long as we’re all mature about it, i’m going to come right out and employ the scientific terminology.

It’s for hosing out a stanky cooter.

As a kid, i couldn’t watch a full episode of The Incredible Hulk in my Return of the Jedi pyjamas and remembering the fun day i had playing on the Wet Banana and listening to David Lee Roth’s Just a Gigolo without encountering a commercial containing the boner-shrinking line “Mom, sometimes i get that ‘not-so-fresh’ feeling … even after i shower.” And i, the seven-year-old, would clutch my favourite Go-Bot and think “MAN! Even after she showers?? That’s rough. Wait – what are we talking about?”

Historical accuracy note: these commercials actually exist.



Here’s how i kinda wanted to see that one end up:

Daughter: Mom?
Mom: Hmm?
Daughter: I’ve gotta ask you something reeeal personal.
Mom: Hmm?
Daughter: Do you douche?
Mom: (hands slowly tightening into fists of rage) Nrrrgh …. MAMA DIDN’T RAISE NO HOOOR!!! (slap!)

Two things continue to startle and confuse me to this day: 1. Why don’t i see those commercials any more? Was not-so-fresh-feeling-itis cured in the 1980’s? And did the person who cured it win some kind of medal? 2. Why do we use the term “douche bag” to apply almost exclusively to males? *Shrug*

Ad- “Supported” Games

Now that i’ve sunk the corporate blog to tasteless new lows, how ’bout a discussion about monetizing our Flash game?

If you’ve read even the summary of our feature Pimp My Game, you’ll see that our experiment to make money on a sub-par game was a dismal, $100-a-year failure. That was the outcome i was expecting, and i put Two By Two through its paces almost to prove that point. So what’s the solution? i know: create an actually decent game and release it to a bunch of game portals for free, and watch the cash roll in, right?

Another reader suggested that the best way to reap the dough was to rely heavily on pounding out sequels. This same reader had created a game based on, and using images from, the Clone Wars animated series by Lucasfilm. i’m somewhat sure he didn’t own the rights.

i didn’t like either of these options. Untold Entertainment being a shop that earns its cash creating Flash games and apps for money, i can’t bring myself to release a decent game for free for the potential to earn a slave’s wage skrimping fractions of pennies from a service like MochiAds.

No -there’s gotta be a better way.

A Better Way

i’ve long been wary of “services” like Mochi’s leaderboards system. That’s the thing that you implement in your game at their enthusiastic urging, because it really gets people playing across their system, you know? Really gets them involved. The trouble is that it’s a Mochi-branded widget, not a You-branded widget. The players are getting acclimatised to the Mochi experience. If building your own high scores system seems daunting, please know that you are one book away from unlocking the secrets of Flash communication with databases. This is one i can personally recommend:

Foundation PHP 5 for Flash by David Powers

Foundation PHP 5 for Flash by David Powers will give you WIZARD skillz

A few months ago, Jeff tooled up the Untold Entertainment global high scores system. To my shame and dismay, i realized that none of our existing games really have scores. So i asked long-suffering Jeff to build a game to showcase the new system. That game is not out yet, but it’s going to knock you on your happy-pants. This i guarantee.

A funny thing starts to happen when you use your own high scores system for your game. The customers using it are now YOUR customers. Not Mochi’s, not Kongregate’s, and not Newgrounds’s’s. Yours. This is what we’re doing with Interrupting Cow Trivia.

Get Your Own Customers

Step two: membership. We implemented our Boards feature a few months back. It’s been pretty dead ever since. There was a little traffic there at first, but eventually, with no exciting completed projects to talk about and no real hook, people stopped coming by. i’m going to boost the profile of the boards by adding a Boards widget to the Untold Entertainment site sidebar. The widget really features the member who posted the last comment. It displays his/her board avatar and member name, with a link to his profile picture. So you can basically put yourself on the front page of our site just by replying to a post on the boards. Sweet?

Untold Entertainment Board Avatars

Currently, you can upload your own avatar, or choose from 81 adorable Kahoots criminals

Our membership strategy is central to our Interrupting Cow Trivia strategy. We’re requiring players to sign up for a membership on OUR system (not Mochi’s, etc) and log in to Interrupting Cow Trivia for these benefits:

  1. Your board avatar appears next to your name during gameplay
  2. You get to lay claim to your preferred handle (Jeff wrote the copy for this – a brilliant idea)
  3. Anyone can get a score, but only logged-in members can post their scores to the leaderboards
  4. Members can easily challenge Friends and Foes in the game using people they’ve added to their Friends/Foes lists
  5. Members’ scores and stats persist. Non-members won’t be remembered when they return.

So already, there are BIG benefits to using your Untold Entertainment membership for this game. And we’ve definitely seen a positive effect: while activity on the boards has flatlined, membership sign-ups continue to climb. And we haven’t even implemented the leaderboards yet. (note: i’m just checking the Boards, and the last member to sign up was named “pornolab.tv”, so maybe it’s not all sunshine)

LOLCat

Why the hard push for membership sign-ups? Because now, it doesn’t matter that we’re giving the game away for free to a million different portals. As soon as the player clicks that “Sign up for a FREE membership’ link, where does he end up? untoldentertainment.com, baby. i think this is far more useful and compelling than the obligatory game team logo preceding the game. i never click on those, because i want to play the game. But this … this be good.

The Hook

But signing up for membership is a one-time thing. Sure, it brings ppl to the site … but what if the player finds our game on his favourite game portal, AwsumGames4j00? His brand loyalty might be strong enough that a single sign-up visit to our site might not bring him back ever again. Next time he wants to play Interrupting Cow Trivia, maybe he’ll just go to AwsumGames4j00.com again to find it?

Enter Challenge a Friend. We’ve spent over a month on this ambitious feature, and it’s critical to our strategy. Here’s how it works:

  1. Compile a list of people to challenge at Interrupting Cow Trivia. You can use your friends’ email addresses, or if you’re logged in, you can challenge people on your Friends/Foes list, or by their Untold Entertainment member names. Frequent reader and fellow dev (AND site member!) MichaelJW has also suggested we add Challenge By Twitter and Challenge By Facebook to the list, and now we’re keen to.
  2. Chose one or more categories, and answer ten random questions.
  3. Get a score.
  4. Your score is emailed to all of the people on your list.
  5. Those people (hopefully) click the link in the email.
  6. They answer the same ten questions that you answered.
  7. They get a score. The score is emailed back to you.
  8. They have the option of setting up a new Challenge.
  9. You have the option of demanding a re-match with any of the people you Challenged.

Hooky hooky hooky. So if players really dig this game on AwsumGames4j00, they’ll want to use the Challenge a Friend feature. And the email link goes where? Any guesses? That’s right. Right here. Right here to the blog where we flippantly discuss feminine hygiene products. Score.

Fished In!

i honestly don’t mean to be this crass about it.

I Repeat: Get Your Own Customers

Why is it so important to us to host and grow our own community? Let me ask: without a community of our own, the next time we release a game, who are we going to talk to about it? We’re just going to go through the same motions of putting it up on a million portals and waiting for the feedback. The players who enjoyed our first game may not know that we have a new game coming out. They won’t know when we make big feature upgrades to existing games. Those customers are not our customers. They belong to the portals.

But if the customers play in our space, in our community, they are our customers. We have their email addresses, and can send them regular newsletters (with opt-out options, naturally – we’re not monsters). We can engage them on our soon-to-be-more-popular message boards. We can float messaging around our game wrappers alerting them to new features and products. And if they spend money on our first game, we can offer them incentives and discounts on our second.

Used Car Salesman

What’s it gonna take to putchoo in a Flash game today? Henh?

So i encourage you: follow our lead. Go get your own customers. We developers will never reap the benefits of our own successful products if we continually forfeit power and control to the aggregators. So, i’ll throw a few questions to you: do you think this is a solid strategy, or are we putting too much value on growing your own customer base? Is our strategy missing anything? Will portals drop our game from their service when they figure out what we’re doing, or are they unlikely to even notice?

Moar to Come

So that’s an exhaustive look at how we’re planning to wrest players from portals and into our own brand experience. (Shh … don’t tell the portals!) As for how we’re planning to make money from Interrupting Cow Trivia … your eyeballs are tired. Let’s save that for another article.

Moo.


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13 thoughts on “Cash Cow Part 1

    1. Ryan

      Gabriel – you can see the progress here:

      http://www.untoldentertainment.com/blog/2009/06/19/interrupting-cow-trivia-alpha/

      The game is fully playable but key features like leaderboards have not been implemented. Since we’re a service shop, original content takes a backseat to paid work. We’re on a contract right now that will take us to October. Development will have to wait until then. But we’ve outsourced some screens to an excellent artist in the meantime – i’ll be able to share those in the coming weeks.

      – Ryan

      Reply
  1. Ryan

    Nice article. Good strategy with ICT. You’re building up a userbase first, then when you (hopefully) have legions of fans, you can implement your own microtransactions system, donation system, or whatever monetization method you choose and all proceeds will go to you instead of some of it being lost from a percentage. Plus, I like the idea of building a brand as a developer that people can trust.

    Although MochiCoins did mention something about letting you track the people that buy stuff in your game. It sounded like a mailing list sort of thing. Anyway, it’s better than nothing for a MT system, so it’s good to see that they’re doing that for developers. But, if you’re in it for the long haul, I’d say your method is better. When players trust you, they’ll be more willing to buy stuff from your games and help you do things like beta-testing, level design, and more.

    A good example is the Armor Games blog. They’ve built up their brand, thus they can get their community to bug test and build levels for them free of charge.

    Reply
    1. Ryan

      Thanks, Ryan. Nothing against Mochi. But it’s always been that way. It’s easier to sell your crafts on Etsy than it is to set up a merchant account and your own site, but you get a bigger cut when you do it all yourself. Etsy, Mochi and the rest provide a valuable service. And when you go it alone, you have to handle the chargebacks and customer service complaints, and possibly even fraud cases. But greater risk equals greater reward – it’s not just a game design cliché.

      Armour Games has obviously done a great job building its brand. Are they VC-funded? Where did they get all the cash to sponsor those Flash games? What’s their business model? And do the ads on their site really cover off their sponsorship costs?

      – Also Ryan

      Reply
  2. Ryan

    I’m not sure if they’re VC funded. If I had to guess I’d say no, since they’ve been around for awhile. Their alexa ranking is extremely high (704) so I think the cash comes from ads on their site. Then, they have developers who work for them making games to promote their site. I don’t know how many of the developers are full time, but from their about page it looks like they’ve got at least one.

    I would think the ads do cover the sponsorships and developer prices. They always seem to have the best games featured on their site, either as non-exclusives or primary/exclusive sponsorships.

    Reply
  3. Bob Ippolito

    The hard part about leaderboards is doing it in a reasonably secure way, making it easy for developers to use, and doing it to scale. As an indie dev supporting a small number of games, people are a lot less likely to try and hack it, it would be hard to make something that you don’t know how to use, and you only have to worry about scale if you’re really successful. Make sure to try and hack it and come up with clever ways to make it harder to post fake scores.

    “when players trust you” is a good point but do you really think they’d trust you less if you were using a third party service? If they were using that third party service for all of the MT-enabled games they play and they trust the third party they’d be more likely to trust you as an extension of that.

    Reply
    1. Ryan

      Bob – excellent point about high scores security. If he was more of a talker, Jeff would have lots to say about keeping cheaters off the leaderboards. He’s been fighting that war on a tower defense game for the better part of a year.

      i’d like to think that players will trust, by association, any dev team hooked in through a service like MochiCoins. But you guys have a real balance to strike: you want to leverage your reach and the multitudes of developers already using MochiAds, but you can’t grow so quickly that you let in troublemakers like me. For impatient devs, HeyZap has the most attractive thing going right now: you can implement microtransactions almost instantly, with no need to apply to Mochi’s or GamerSafe’s waiting lists to be vetted by those companies. Time will tell if HeyZap’s strategy will sting them (or indeed, the whole Flash microtransaction ecosystem) in the long run.

      – Ryan

      Reply
  4. Andy Smith

    Ryan, have you thought about implementing Facebook Connect to create an account in conjunction with creating a Facebook App version of ICT? I love the idea of getting your own customers, and I think it would help if you went to where they are.

    Of course, Facebook is flooded to the max with Apps and games, but the brilliant thing is, once you get them hooked (from the Newgrounds, or the Kongrewhatevers) you can say ‘Hey Bro, why don’t you play this sweet ass triv-ya on yo Fizzace-Book (that’s how kids speak btw* [*by the way])’. On top of playing the game on FB, you could use your challenge system between FB friends.

    You clearly have a great idea and an awesome Bovine-Themed game, and I think you’ll get many, many more registrations using FBConnect in tandem with Untold’s Board signup. And using FBConnect still makes them your customers as they create their Untold Board account using their FB login ID.

    P.s. OpenSocial/MySpaceID are great additions/alternatives to FBConnect.
    P.p.s I demand a re-match to the ITC beating I took all those days ago…

    Reply
    1. Ryan

      Andy – Ba-RING it (as the kids say). The Challenge a Friend feature is live RIGHT NOW, and ima whoop you. (Of course, i wrote many of the questions … )

      i wasn’t keen to reveal the FB part of our strategy, but oh well – what the Hellz? i don’t know if certain people are reading this blog, but essentially, the 13th most-popular app on FB is a quiz engine, and i’m gunning for it. i think that ICT could provide a better service – we just have to build a Create Your Own Quiz feature. It’s a very labour-intensive feature with lots and lots of awesome bells and whistles, including ranking and rating, but it would kick all kinds of ass. It would also drive membership, and take the pressure off us to write so much new content. It’s essentially a quiz game level editor.

      The big question i have about FBConnect is this: ARE they really my customers if i use the service? i thought they were Facebook’s customers? Can i email them about new offers, the same as i would the UE members? The most important thing about having your own customers is being able to open a dialogue – two-way communication. If i can do that and still leverage FB to get hordes of people playing, i’ll be pretty happy.

      Clearly, i’m a FBConnect n00b with a lot to learn about the system.

      Reply
  5. Rasmus Wriedt Larsen

    Well if you can build up that image as a trustworthy dev, I definitely think this is the right approach. But beware of the clown effect! (if people don’t understand, please go read DanC Love letter part 2) The FB strategy sounds reasonable, I’m sorry that I can’t help you out there. About ArmorGames I’m (99.9%) sure John is full time, and I actually don’t know about the others. But it seems like it was just Daniel mc. Neely who got lucky with games of gondor (their old site).

    Reply
  6. Pingback: untoldentertainment.com » Cash Cow Part 2

  7. Andy Smith

    What you can do is let users use FB Connect to create their Untold Accounts. They no longer need to go through the process of choosing a unique screen-name, password or an avatar they simply enter their FB info. From what I understand, the less steps involved with account creation, the more users will complete it.

    What you can do after the user signs in with FB is ask them for an email address. From a user point of view they aren’t actually making a new account, their just using the account they know and love (FB), but on your end you have a new registered user.

    As for leveraging the Facebook users, you can use the same method. Put the game on FB, when people log in for the first time, ask them for an email address (tastefully of course). By logging into the FB App, they are creating their Untold account, they don’t know, but they don’t necessarily need to know. You could then some how trick them into coming here and tell them to log in with their FB Accounts (that they played ICT on Facebook with) and you’d be able to have all of their stats etc. because you made an Untold account that is linked to their FB ID.

    Of course, by inviting Facebook into your bed you can use (with permission) your user’s walls and feeds for promotion to get the viral train running.

    Reply
    1. Ryan

      Andy – not half bad! i will definitely give this some deep thought, and more research. Thanks!

      PS Did you guys just get bought by Microsoft or something?

      Reply

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