No – seriously. Why don’t you?
One of the most-repeated tips i heard at the Casual Connect conference a few weeks ago was to develop a strong brand. Customers like strong brands. Strong branding unifies all your … your stuff under one label. Strong brands are about striking, professional-looking logos, consistent use of colours and fonts, and maybe even some sort of manifesto or feeling that you emit.
Our over-arching brand is called Untold Entertainment. The word “untold” means “lots”. Lots of entertainment.
Our Brand’s Origin Story
It bothers me a little when i go to a conference or a function, and i’ll meet a few new people in a huddle, and someone will say “who are you?” And i’ll say “i’m Ryan Creighton. i run a small game design studio in Toronto called Untold Entertainment.” And the person will say “Oh? What type of work do you do?” And this jackass over here – the one in the sweater vest – will say “It’s untold! He can’t tell you! RAH HA HA HA!” Then he’ll slap his knee and go out and kill someone while drunk driving.
But it doesn’t happen all that often. Most people know what the word means. And most people have heard someone use the wording “untold entertainment” in casual speech, usually to describe something outlandish. Example: “So i was at the fair today, and they had a duck balancing on a ball juggling chainsaws. Untold entertainment.”
In fact – and i’m not kidding – our original company logo was a duck balancing on a ball juggling chainsaws.
This was my Facebook avatar at the time (and still is, actually):
This pic of me was taken 20 years before i was born
i’m not a big comic book fan, but i had this idea of creating a corporate website that looked like one of those junk pages in a comic book, full of special offers for useless and exaggerated products like “moon shoes”, “secret decoder rings”, and “asthma inhalers”:
Mom! I’m gonna need seven dollars!
This is as far as i got before my friends and loved ones (thankfully) stopped me:
Needs more eyeball-piercing yellow!!
Thinking that the saturation was the problem, i kept the logo and moved to a completely black design, and continued to flounder:
This just … isn’t working.
In my former life working for a broadcaster, i illustrated a few games using a crude, sketchy style that a lot of people found enduring. (Like Dr. Seuss, i drew things all silly-looking because i’m not very skilled at drawing things for serious. UNlike Dr. Seuss, i toil in relative obscurity.) So the logo evolved into a hastily-scribbled monster gnawing on a cardboard sign, which tested very well with 18-35-year-old women who are married to me.
With our first published Untold Entertainment website, we tried to convey the outlandish “untold entertainment” theme. We had a cartoonish bomb that dropped sausages, and other strange things. Everything was in a doodly, sketchy style:
i miss it, but only a little.
The Brand You Know
When we hired our first (and to date, only) devoted artist, Mark Duiker. i asked that he stick to the established art style. He seemed a little dismayed. But he eventually pulled off the fantastic-looking ornate marginalia you see around the site today. These doodles are also found on our company letterhead and invoices.
An actual Untold Entertainment invoice.
The official company colours are red and browny yellow. These are also the colours i painted my bedroom, a few years before starting the company.
Through the carefully-drawn but careless-seeming visual branding, i hoped to convey a devil-may-care, mischievous, even dangerous attitude that was nevertheless playful and whimsical. The blog monster in our nav shouts too loudly. The gigantic tongue menu that appears when you roll over our About button is completely inappropriate for a professional site. The Twitter bird at the top of each page is just a little out of control. And if we ever get around to launching it, the monster that plucks letters from the project abstracts on our main page to spell naughty words will delight and outrage you. (i’m not making that up either. It exists.)
The Principle of the Thing
The company has five stated principles which, if you haven’t read them, i’ll repeat for you here:
- uncompromising honesty
- constant communication
- the sanctity of childhood
- non-violence in gaming (barring the presence of zombies)
- the use of entertainment to improve, rather than degrade, the human condition
“Constant communication” is in there to give us a competetive edge over game vendors who, i’ve heard, don’t return emails or phone calls to their clients.
We list “uncompromising honesty” because i don’t think many other studios can commit to that. i’ve also heard word that our competitors will pretend that everything’s going smoothly until deadline day, and the reason they weren’t answering phone calls or emails the whole time is that the project went to pot two months ago and they were too lilly-livered to fess up.
We’re courageous enough to fess up. If something’s not going to work, or we’re not going to deliver on time (whether through our own fault or otherwise), we’ll say so. Uncompromising honesty, constantly communicated.
And the other three points stem from my own worldview. i believe in the sanctity of childhood – in other words, you shouldn’t host games about setting people on fire with no content warning when you know damn well that children visit your site regularly, because you own a kids’ teevee channel. *cough* Viacom *cough*
Non-violence in gaming, because i think every other game developer on the planet has the whole violence thing pretty much covered. We’d like to tackle something a little more innovative. (The caveat, of course, is that zombies are pure unfettered evil, and they’re just gonna have to die. Uh … again.)
Now i’m as peaceful as the next guy, but DAMN – can a brother get a chainsaw up in here?
Entertainment to improve the human condition … when i wrote this, i may have been thinking specifically of Joe Cartoon putting rodents in blenders, or people developing rape games, or Happy Tree Friends, or any of the dreck that people fill their minds with these days. If you catch us creating “Britney Spears Must Die” games or “Close Range“-style games, by all means, please call us out on it.
So What’s On Your Mind?
i’ve been giving a lot of thought to developing a games portal. i’ve been considering Big Fish Games, the heavy-lifter in the casual downloadable space, and what they did right to haul in all that traffic (Kajillions of players a day, i’m told – but i think that might be an exaggeration.) Here are a few things i think they figured out:
- Define your audience. (Big Fish Games targets middle-aged women)
- Develop a strong brand. BFG’s official colours are blue and white, with a green accent. Their logo is professionally-designed, with a fish character that stays on-model (ie doesn’t look unsettling or retarded) in various poses.
A face only a mother could give her life’s savings to
- Cook up some kind of tag line. BFG’s is “A New Game Every Day!” Our is “We Make Flash Games”, which will have to change when we finally kick Flash to the curb and indulge our new mistress, Unity3D.
- Devote significant time and energy to customer service.
- Track every player action within an inch of its life, and act on the stats you collect.
- Take 70% of all shared revenues, then cackle evilly and return to your coffin before the sun scorches your ashen skin.
Surveying the Landscape
So with these points in mind, i gaze across the Flash game portal space. i think about branding, and what a strong brand looks and feels like, and then i look at the top ten games that bring traffic to our roving game Two By Two in the MochiMedia distribution network.
Let’s keep it simple and just look at the logos. Beneath each logo, i’ve noted the number of plays the game has enjoyed from each portal:
(For the record, i had not seen the Free Hobo site before writing my Cash Cow Part 2 post on Members, Owners, and Hobos. And here i thought i was so original :)
So please understand that i’m depicting these logos in the best possible light, apart from the rest of the portal structure, which goes a lot like this:
So at this point, i feel that creating a Flash game portal to compete with these guys is like entering Lance Armstrong in the Special Olympics. There are obviously a lot of folks out there who want a quick cash-in, who will pull a few SEO tricks and surround a mountain of free content with a fence of unscrupulous advertising and call it a day.
To the victor, the spoils. Big Fish has dominated the casual downloadable space because they’ve taken additional steps to make their service successful. So here are a few things i think we can learn by looking at the good (BigFish), and the bad/ugly (nearly every Flash portal):
- Pick an audience. Have the guts to go for a niche, and see if you can’t go after anyone but the hyper-critical (and stingy) teenaged boys that dominate the space at the moment
- Build a strong brand – think of a style bible, a tagline, and a brand personality. Make sure that brand appeals to your target audience.
- Listen to your audience. If you get complaints about your portal from teenaged boys, please ignore them. But if the black lesbian wheelchair-bound feminists you’ve identified as your target audience air their complaints or make suggestions, listen up! Do what they say. Then you’ll be treated to an ever-expanding audience of black lesbian wheelchair-bound feminists. And finally, you’ll have the black lesbian wheelchair-bound feminist market cornered.
- Once you corner your niche market, pick a new, related group and expand outward. It’s like playing Risk. But you won’t land that first group unless you listen carefully, and tailor your service to them.
Seriously – SCREW this kid. (Also, never type “screw teen boys” into Google Image Search.)
Let’s Fix This Mess
i hear a lot of talk about making people “fall in love” with your game. They can fall in love with your service, too. And once they open their hearts, they’ll open their wallets. i don’t know about you, but i don’t want to play on a portal that doesn’t respect me – that thrusts ads in my face and doesn’t carefully manicure its collection of games and tailor the library to my tastes and interests.
That’s why we don’t have other audiences playing Flash games. What self-respecting educated father of four adult children wants to wade through a site like Newgrounds looking for a game amidst porno Pokemon cartoons and Muslim terrorist dress-up games? That guy has a credit card, but i’m not getting anywhere near his money if i make him endure bad branding, inappropriate content, and an assload of ads.
The creator of Fantastic Contraption popped in here recently and said that the poor quality of most Flash games made it easy to compete – to totally snooker everyone out there and stand apart. i see the same opportunity with Flash portals. So why don’t you create your own? The industry could stand a little sprucing up.