The Flash Gaming Summit, a (now) annual event sponsored by the usual suspects in the Flash gaming world, has come and gone. Scheduled strategically a day before the Game Developers Conference begins, the mini-con fills an auditorium with everyone who’s anyone in the Flash gaming scene, from solo hobbyist developers to extremely successful yet Satanic Facebook game developers.
Zynga actually killed this dog, because no one would gift it to any of their Facebook friends.
i spent the past month tweeting rotten poetry to the FGS Twitter account. The entry fee for the conference wasn’t very expensive, and the OMDC (Ontario Mosquito Death Camp) is footing the bill for half of our activities in San Francisco this week through the Export Fund. But if i see a chance to get something for free, whether it’s a conference pass or a Scientological stress test, i jump at the chance. And lo and behold, at the eleventh hour, @FGS comped me a pass … but not before GamerSafe/Flash Game License comped me another one. i felt like the one girl in grade eight who had breasts … so much unwarranted attention! Thanks, everyone. i was very happy to be there and to meet everyone in person.
If you couldn’t make it, you missed a pretty solid show. i almost wish that GDC was one day only, and FGS dragged on for a month or more. Here’s a run-down of who i saw and what i learned.
The show was split into two tracks: business on the upper floor, and creative on the lower floor. It was the conference equivalent of a mullet.
Flash Gaming Summit: Business on the main floor, party in the basement.
i stayed upstairs the entire time. Adam did a great job with Canabalt, but i’d much rather learn how to make myself money than to hear about how he built a walk-in freezer made of money to store all his money, or whatever.
Opening Keynote – Jameson Hsu
Jameson’s a good guy, but a somewhat nervous presenter. He announced a few new initiatives from his company, MochiMedia: the Mochi Social Platform, and the Mochi GAME Developer Fund. i have NO IDEA why they capitalized “game” … maybe to differentiate it from their Mochi ACCOUNTING SOFTWARE Developer Fund? Not sure. The idea is that Mochi’s new supreme Chinese overlords, Shanda Games, who recently bought Mochi for $80 million, would put up $10 million to help developers make games. i didn’t quite find out what the catch was … obviously, Mochi wants any games it funds to tie into as many of its own initiatives as possible – microtransactions, ads, and the new Mochi Social Platform.
The Platform didn’t really seem like a new or Earth-shattering announcement – you could see them building up to this at least two years out. Mochi is creating an easy-to-implement solution where you can leverage social media – Facebook, MySpace, YourPants, etc – with a single, simple API. It’s nice, but like many of the other services Mochi offers, you can roll your own and have a lot more control, but at a longer development time and greater financial risk. With Mochi’s solution, you gain ease of use but forfeit control.
i was pretty happy to see the developer fund, because it was a little tiring to keep hearing Mochi and pals chanting the mantra “Make multiplayer games! They rake in a lot more dough!” They also cost a big wad more to develop. Our first foray into a multiplayer game, Interrupting Cow Trivia, means that my daughters won’t be able to get braces and will look like snaggle-toothed freaks the rest of their lives. The game was expensive to build, in other words. Mochi’s fund, they say, aims to mitigate the risk of that more expensive development, and i think it’s a step in the right direction.
Sorry, sweety – daddy had to build a multiplayer game.
They’re still, however, giving away MochiCoins to players, which the players then use to buy virtual items in your microtransaction-enabled games, which is kind of like the government approving citizens to walk out of your shop with a free television or whatever, so Mochi remains on my handle-with-care list.
Mochi’s Ada Chen said she was afraid to open her mouth around me because she never knew whether i’d write something negative about the company. Roll with the punches, Ada! If you didn’t have critics, you’d go mad with power. i’m just here to keep you honest.
4 Keys to a Successful Social Game that All Game Developers Should Know
On the panel:
- Dan Fiden – Playfish
- David Stewart – Playdom
- Gavin Barrett – Crowdstar
- Mark Skaggs – Zynga
This panel was stacked with Zynga, Playdom, Playfish and Crowdstar, the companies who – God love em – have actually turned a buck on Flash … and a BIG buck at that. When the same companies spoke at Casual Connect in Seattle last year and dropped the bomb about how much they were raking in on Facebook, i could tell the whole conference was freaking out and trying to figure out how to get some of that action. i also knew that by then, it was too late – these guys had sewn it up, a fact that they repeated often throughout this panel.
This panel, and nearly every other at the conference, was plagued with some uniformly terrible moderation. Moderator Sana Choudary, and every panel moderator at the show, pulled the same rookie error of asking very broad questions, tiptoeing around controversy, and ending on the same ridiculously vague question “Where do you think the future of _____ is going?” Oh maaaaaaan … if i have to hear that question one more time, i’m positively going to bite my pillow.
The moderator asked the audience to tweet questions. The first one i came up with was “Are you making games or slot machines??” Not very original, i know, but i have a hunch i wasn’t the only one thinking it. i could only hear these companies talk about the fun, original and interesting games they were making for so long before i really had to give my head a shake. At least one other person in the peanut gallery had tweeted the same question. Unfortunately, the moderator censored the questions, and it was as if she’d been coached to do so – like when you interview a celebrity and you’re not allowed to ask about her recent divorce or that thing on her neck. Zynga was here, and they were rich, and they were only going to deign to visit us from Mount Olympus if we were all on our best behaviour.
Um … are any of you guys actually going to say anything?
The end result was that the questions were vague, the answers were more vague, and at least two of the panelists were ignorant enough to clam up about numbers and say “it’s all on the Internet – go do some research and look it up.” No, fellas – i didn’t fly from Toronto to California and haiku my way to a free pass to be told to go Google my questions about your companies. You’re on the panel for a reason, and i’m in the audience for the same reason. Me: questions. You: answers. Telling people to “just Google it” is ignorant.
The conclusion the panel came to was that yes, you can make lots of money on Facebook … if you’re Zynga or Playdom or Playfish or Crowdstar.. A few other points of interest:
- Games need to be designed with social hooks from the ground-up. Retrofitting doesn’t work.
- Mark – if your numbers are going down, it’s time for a sale!
- Mark – “Zynga collects 5 terabytes of data a day. (Ryan – holy SH*T!) Don’t underestimate the data side of this business.’
- Gavin – “The support of your community and your interaction with them is the most important thing you can do.”
- Mark – (answering “what’s a minimum bar for success?”) “5 million daily active users.” (Ryan – DOUBLE holy sh*t!)
In conclusion: if you can collect and parse 5 terabytes of data a day, pull in and retain 5 million daily active users, and hook grandmas to your virtual slot machine like they’ve got a crack habit, you too could be the next Zynga. It’s that easy.
Money in Flash: Next Gen Monetization of Flash Games
On the panel:
- Chris Hughes – flashgamelicense.com
- Jim Greer – Kongregate
- Justin Wong – Mochi Media
- Vikas Gupta – Social Gold
Initially, i was a bit annoyed during this panel. The fellas weren’t talking about some space-aged monetization techniques from the future that i’d never heard of. They were talking about microtransactions, mostly – current gen stuff, not next-gen stuff like the topic promised. Still, it’s not fair for me to demand new monetization ideas when i (and many, many others i know) haven’t even made good on the current techniques.
Here were a few nuggets from this panel:
- Jim says Kongregate’s best multiplayer game is raking in 5x more cash than their best single-player game
- Justin reiterated the thing that most successfully drives microtransactions: “Getting the player to the point of need.” That’s where, for example, the next level is going to SLAUGHTER the player, and he knows it, but hey! He can buy a bigger gun for two bucks. It’s a lot like putting a condom machine in the bathroom of a cougar bar. The point of need drives more sales. (That’s my analogy, not Justin’s.)
- Jim says Kongregate is making about 1/3 of its revenue from virtual goods, and 2/3 from advertising. He expects that to level out to about 50/50 in the next year.
- Jim added that Kongregate makes about half of its ad revenue in the 4th quarter, when its advertisers need to sell video games to people for Christmas
- Justin says Mochi makes about 15%-ish of its revenue from virtual goods sales
- Echoing the sentiments of the previous panel, the lads emphasized that games need to be built with microtransactions in mind from square one. Retro-fitting an older game with new microtransactions is not as effective.
- Jim says analytics are important, and adds that you should “watch what [players] do, not what they say.” i’ve heard this before – believe it or not, the two can be completely different.
- Jim says “The vast vast majority of revenue comes from credit cards and Pay Pal.” “$100 at a time is the most common.” (Surprising! Higher than i expected.)
- Chris and Vikas agreed that once you get a player over the initial hurdle of paying the first time, it’s much easier to get that player to continue paying. Chris added “If you can sell a dollar to a user, you can sell fifty dollars to a user.”
- Vikas offers that the best way to use subscriptions is in conjunction with virtual goods payments. You offer virtual goods deals or bundles with subscriptions that end up saving the player money. He says the two are a fantastic combination.
- Justin says games that used Facebook Connect saw a 30% jump in gameplays.
One of the most interesting insights i got out of this panel came about when one of the guys from Yummy Interactive took the Q&A mic for the first of two somewhat obnoxious self-promoting speeches. He pointed out that you could also sell games for a flat fee (which conveniently ties into Yummy’s model of selling a Flash wrapper for downloadables). What ensued was a tense, almost exasperated exchange that gave me an Aha! moment.
Casual downloadable titles from sites like Big Fish Games started out at $20. The price has dropped over the year, thanks to market interference by folks like Amazon, to the point where it’s now at about $7. Flash games started at zero dollars, and have been struggling to increase. So you have this race to the bottom in the casual downloadable space, and a race to the top in the Flash games space. Is the point at which the two segments meet the perfect price to charge for an online video game? Or will Flash games prove that microtransactions in multiplayer games suck way more money out of people’s pockets than a $20 price point ever did?
Adobe Tools and Services for Flash Games
It was more than a little embarrassing that Adobe, the people who make the software that all the conference attendees were meeting and speaking about, had such an inept presentation. Technically, it was like giving a camcorder to a spider monkey and expecting it to take coherent pictures. The presenters tried to show off Flash Player 10.1 running on a number of smartphones with a very dim presentation camera, and one monitor cable that they constantly had to pull out of the camera and plug into the laptop when switching between demos and slides. The demos of games like Bloons on the various handheld devices ran disappointingly slowly. One of the presenters swallowed her mic or something by the end of the talk, and had to lean into her fellow presenter’s chest and talk into his lavalier. Just awful.
The whole time, i felt very bad for them, struggling like they did with bad tech, bad demos and no new information to share, like the release date for Flash CS5. It was the Flash Gaming Summit, Adobe. Throw us a frickin’ bone.
One demo that did pique my curiosity showed a Flash game online where the player could log in using Facebook, MySpace or YourPants, and then another player could log into the same game on the iPhone, and the two could play the game on the same network. This was a demonstration of a new initiative called Adobe Services. i need to ask them about it at GDC, but i can’t imagine what they’d charge for that setup. My guess is $lots.
The Mochis Award Show, Sponsored by Kongregate
This was a chance to see the usually serious-faced Jim Greer from Kongregate have fun and lampoon himself a bit, which was nice. The award winners all look like they deserved their hardware, but i was dismayed to discover i hadn’t heard of most of the games in the running. i knew Canabalt Machinarium, and had only heard of Time Fcuk because of a podcast i did with the developer, Edward McMullen. It underscored the fact that this past year has been non-stop work for me, and that i need to lighten up and start playing more games. i shouldn’t be such a Jim Greer all the time.
(i keed, Jim! i keed! Don’t hate.)
Monetizing Your Game Outside of Sponsorship
This panel consisted of:
- Colin Northway, Fantastic Contraption
- Daniel James, Three Rings
- Sian Yue Tan, Rocketbirds
- William Stallwood, Cipher Prime
This was a GREAT panel. i absolutely loved that it inadvertently pitted three young bucks, whose recent successes had not yet been proven as deliberate business savvy or lucky strikes, against Daniel James, who’s had a chance to very publicly succeed and fail over the years he’s helmed Three Rings.
When asked how they chose a price point for their games, the answers were naive:
Colin – “Well, World of Goo cost $20, and i figured my game was half as good as World of Goo, so i charged $10.”
Sian Yue – “We looked at $10 and $20, and went with $15 cuz it was about halfway.”
i could see Daniel biting his tongue, but knowing him, it wasn’t going to last long. Finally, he said in his refined British accent “So … you guys basically pulled your numbers out of your butts?”
Soon after, Sian Yue sagely added “We chose a price and we stuck with it. Moving your price point around is never a good idea.”
i could see Daniel facepalm using only his face. Having been to his monetization roundtables at GDC for the past few years, and knowing how much they monkey with their payment systems and pricing strategies, i knew he was about to assplode. Finally, he couldn’t resist speaking up: “Actually, there’s a lot of scientific research that proves you should move your price point around.”
Oh snappeth! Thou didst not!
Daniel James surreptitiously checks the walls for “Exit” signs.
The old dog had schooled the young pup. Here’s where Daniel’s wisdom and experience shone through. He said it was alright to make that initial guess, but that you should “be diligent about testing your hypotheses.” He went on to explain that his company had spent 5 million dollars on Whirled, only to see a $300k return. He said they could have done the same learning in far less time with far less money by testing their hypothesis early and often.
i had read Daniel’s blog where he explained the lesson learned from Whirled. He said that Three Rings was now testing Facebook games in small doses to see what would take off. i had no idea what this meant. Were they building portions of the games? How could you know if a game would do well if you only built a fraction of it?
He clarified the strategy: they were putting together highly-target Facebook banner ads for games that didn’t exist yet. Each ad would lead to a landing page with a button where the potential player could sign up to be notified about the beta, which may not ever happen. Daniel said that one of the theoretical games out-performed the others 5 to 1 in terms of interest, so that’s the one they’re going to build.
They even did granular testing on THAT game. They did at least two ads with the same artwork and a different game name. One name tested better than the other, so that’s the name they’re gonna use.
Brillant, as any true Brit would say.
Everything About Sponsorship & Licensing
What a panel!
- Greg McClanahan, Kongregate
- Joel Breton, AddictingGames.com
- Lars Jornow, King.com
- Robin Yang, Candystand
Of all the panels, this was probably both the worst and the most delightful. Let me explain.
i’m told that AddictingGames.com were harangued by a developer last year for encouraging the Flash devs in the room to submit their games for free to that portal. It was really nice to see how, after one year, the tide had turned, thanks in no small part to the effort of Chris Hughes and the Flash Game License team. FGL clearly became the Great Equalizer in the war between the portals, who want as much content as possible for as little money as possible, and the developers, who deserve to be paid for their work.
You could tell that everyone on the panel, now matter how much they downplayed it, used FGL to find the developers they sponsored. Robin, the most intolerable panelist, along with Joel, continually made the appeal for developers to forge a relationship with the portals, ostensibly so that devs would skip FGL and continue to deal directly with Candystand. The advantage, of course, is that Candystand avoids a bidding war on FlashGameLicense.
Greg from Kongregate cottoned on to this real quick and said “what’s the advantage to the developer of going to you first?” Robin and Joel each tried to spin a yarn about how they know their audience best and can give developers suggestions about how to build their games (uh … great?), and how they’ll put all kinds of money and promotion into a sequel if the first game does really well. With a huge grin, Greg said “ANYONE will give the dev all kinds of money and promotion for a sequel to a successful game!” He put a fine point on it by saying that devs should go with the highest bidder, period. Robin’s angle was so transparent that i could hardly believe her audacity. The closest parallel that came to mind was when George Bush went on teevee right after the Shock and Awe bombing campaign in Iraq and said “Now, Iraqis, please stop setting your oil fields on fire. Those are precious, and they’re the inheritance of the Iraqi people.”
Really, Bush? You don’t want the Iraqis to set their fields on fire because it’s for THEIR own good? Aren’t you the least bit interested in maybe having a little bit of that oil for yourself? Not even the teensiest amount?
It was justice, to see the reps from those two big portals twist and squirm before an audience that, in the course of a year, had begun to turn the tables on them. The white masters were suddenly so concerned for the welfare of their newly-emancipated slaves.
Ok – i’m probably going overboard with these analogies. The Iraq War? Slavery? i’m a step away from Hitler.
Oh, what the Hell? Candystand and AddictingGames are Hitler. There. i’m officially a hack.
Turbulence Ahead: The Ups and Downs of Getting a Premium Flash Game to Success
The last session of the day was a solo flight by Tim Flowers of Gabob LLC, who made six figures on Now Boarding. i was initially worried that, like many developer talks, Tim’s would have a very narrow focus with very few take-homes and loads of inapplicable advice, like “then my auntie died and i got some money, so i was able to fund the next portion of my game.”
i found myself actually hanging on every word of what Tim said. His whole plan for his game had been the exact plan i’d had for Kahoots – push the game out to casual downloadable portals, who take an 80% cut. His art style, liberally borrowed from Catch Me If You Can, reminded me of the pop-art style we adopted for Interrupting Cow Trivia. i wrote down everything Tim said voraciously, and after asking him a few questions at the mic, returned to my seat and somehow lost my notebook in the process. He said some absolutely smart things that are now lost to time … or to the two video cameras that taped the session. Know this: daddy wants the video tape of Tim’s session. i suggest that if it’s available, you watch it too!
NICE TO MEEEET YOOOUUUU!!!!! (WHAAAAT???)
All in all, it was a fantastic day, and i didn’t want it to end … until the after-party started, and the organizers thought it would be a simply smashing idea to blast incredibly loud club music into everyone’s ears at a networking event. i DO NOT understand why companies do that. After i grew tired of yelling into people’s faces for hours, i left the party and started writing this postmortem back at my hotel.
You can almost hear how loud it was from looking at this picture.
GDC starts tomorrow, and i’ll do my level best to pussy out of Tuesday’s parties to write more for your enjoyment.