Pimp My Portal Part 1: Gay Nerds in the Windy City

This series documents my adventures in ultra low-budget, grass roots marketing attempts to drive traffic to my game portal sites, with the hopes of breaking even at $33 a month. For other articles in the series, visit the Pimp My Portal special feature page.


Word Game World

A going concern.

If no one knows about your website, how do you change that? i knew that blog technologies like WordPress are beloved of Google and other search engines, and that blog content gets indexed hungrily by search spiders. i also knew that people like playing games. i thought that just by virtue of the fact that i had a game portal containing tons of free word games, people who were searching for free word games would naturally come across my portal.

Erroneous assumption #1: people are searching for free word games.

Erroneous assumption #2: people who like word games play them online.

Erroneous assumption #3: my free word games site, WordGameWorld.com, would somehow magically float to the top of Google’s search results, ahead of all the other web sites that offered free word games.

Word Game World on Google

Reality check: searching “word games” in Google doesn’t turn up WordGameWorld.com within the first TEN pages, let alone the main page. It’s effectively invisible.

i originally built WordGameWorld.com because i was working on a revolutionary word game called Spellirium. i thought that by building a site packed with other people’s word games, i’d see a number of brilliant benefits:

  1. i’d find and capture the audience appropriate to my game
  2. i’d own the portal’s advertising inventory, so i could drive that audience to my game for free (without having to pay advertising costs on another site)
  3. in adding word games to the site in a curated fashion, i’d become very well-apprised of the best and worst that word games have to offer, which would inform my design decisions on Spellirium

The fatal flaw in my plan was this: i had a developing product (Spellirium) that i wanted to drive quality traffic to. To do that, i began developing a second product that i needed to drive quality traffic to, in order to forward that quality traffic to my first developing product.

Chicken and egg

Chicken, meet egg.

So what’s the solution? Develop a third product and repeat the mistake? No. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, and i must be some sort of friggin’ idiot or something.

Um …

ZombieGameWorld logo

It appears that i must be some sort of friggin’ idiot or something, because that’s exactly what i did. Around Hallowe’en in 2010, we launched ZombieGameWorld.com to zero fanfare. … what was i thinking? Misguided as i may have been, this was my thought process:

  1. Word games are not the most popular genre on the Internatz, and the people who play them may not play them in the browser.
  2. The people who DO play free games in the browser are young and male, and may well be active or aspiring game developers themselves.
  3. Young males like games that are violent or have tits in them, so i should choose content that matches their tastes.
  4. i can’t stand the results when amateur Flash game artists draw tits, so it had to be violence.
  5. Snag: Untold Entertainment has a company policy against violent video games.
  6. Fortunatly, the company’s third tenet provides a loophole:

Untold Entertainment stands on these principles:

3. Non-violence in gaming (barring the presence of zombies)

Aha! We have a winner.

Flash game tits

Badly drawn Flash tits: driving nice companies to violence since 1997.

Schlock and Awe

Whereas WordGameWorld.com was a curated site, meaning we hand-picked only the best word games to include, i figured that zombie audiences were a different breed. Zombie fans have learned to live with low-budget b-movie schlock for decades, and if there’s one arm of the game industry ecosystem that screamed “low budget b-movie schlock”, it was free-to-play web-based Flash games. So i decided that ZombieGameWorld.com would not be curated – we’d just throw any old piece of crap on there.

Gnome N Zombies

Case in point: play Gnome N Zombies at ZombieGameWorld.com (or better yet, don’t)

i derived the whole concept of having multiple niche game portals from some interesting market behaviour i’d observed in the Flash game scene: Developer “JimmyJo” created a game called “AwesomeForce”. It came and went, as most Flash games do. And then JimmyJo developed “AwesomeForce 2”, which was a slight improvement over its predecessor. Curious players went back and played AwesomeForce 1 just to compare. No skin off their noses – the game is free to play. JimmyJo kept developing sequels. By the time he developed AwesomeForce 7, he found that the collective gameplays on his entire AwesomeForce series were boosted each time he released a sequel.

Look Who's Talking Now

Who doesn’t love a sequel?

i wondered if it was possible to get the sequel/franchise boost from game portals? Maybe players who came across WordGameWorld.com wouldn’t dig it, but we’d have a series of badges pointing him to ZombieGameWorld.com, TowerDefenseGameWorld.com, and a number of others. And if there’s one thing i know about improving site rankings, its that sites get more search love they more they link to other quality sites, and are linked to by other quality sites.

So that’s where my head was at. Here’s how it played out:

WordGameWorld.com traffic

Abysmal traffic on WordGameWorld.com. Not zero, but abysmal. The site debuted in March 2010, nearly a year ago, and was promoted on this blog and through the Spellirium newsletters that i sent out detailing progress on the game. Here’s the kind of scratch i was making through my portals via Google Adsense:

Adsense Stats

The decimal means pennies, right?

i won’t pretend i know how to interpret all these stats … all i knew is that i wouldn’t be earning my $20k advertising revenue to start sponsoring games any time soon. i wasn’t even close to earning the $33 a month to cover hosting! My portal strategy was creating a net loss, and i had to DO something about it. What interested me was that it appeared that i was actually making respectable money from the scant players i did have, and that if i were to scale traffic up (even to the numbers i pull on UntoldEntertaiment.com), i could see a few hundred bucks of revenue a month – more than enough to cover hosting, and perhaps even enough to start sponsoring some games.

A Penny Saved is a Penny Wasted

Conventional marketing wisdom says the solution is this: scrape together a $10k marketing budget and start advertising. But if you were me, would you spend $10k on a few sites that are earning you 25 cents a day?

Just as i was very reluctant to spend a lot of time and money building a Flash game that may not break even on sponsorships and ads, i similarly didn’t want to blow a lot of cash promoting a site when my perceived risk of squandering that cash was so high. Instead, i decided to brainstorm some low-cost, grass roots marketing plans.

The first of these plans was hatched by my wife: advertising on Meetup.com.


Meetup.com: where chihuahuas gaze longingly skyward.

Meetup is a lot like the Events feature on Facebook, except that it costs its organizers money. For about $75 a year, you can host your own Meetup group to schedule real-life shindigs in your area. My wife belongs to a number of Mommy Meet-up groups, which women use to arrange playdates for their kids. She mentioned that Meetup groups are sometimes sponsored by companies, whose ads appear in the Meetup groups’ sidebars. Barrier to entry, she suggested, could be as low as $20, which goes a decent way towards paying for a Meetup group’s annual fee.

In order to maximize my WordGameWorld.com ad’s exposure, i started looking for large groups, where the participants may be interested in playing word games. i settled on an online dating service geared toward nerds of every stripe. The company runs groups for gay nerds, green/eco-nerds, and straight-up classic nerd nerds. Their customers are looking to meet people while playing board games and programming Arduino microcontrollers, so they can presumably go home with each other after the event and bump nerd uglies. (with the lights off, one would hope)

Kitty Sanchez

(Did we already try hair up/glasses on?)

This nerd dating company has many outfits across America. The one i targeted was the 700-member-strong Chicago group. i emailed the group’s organizers and made my bid: $20 toward the group’s annual fee in exchange for running a WordGameWorld.com badge on the group page sidebar.

Some weeks later, i received a phone call from the company head to work out some technical difficulties with the ad. During that call, she explained to me that her company was actually a very large organization, and that the Meetup groups represented a small fraction of their enterprise. She also alluded to the fact that she had many more opportunities for advertisers to get involved.

To my mind, all this translated to “your 20 bucks is paltry – can we gouge you for more?” i did my best, in business-to-business speak, to explain that i was running a tiny little shop, that i was just dipping my toe in the paid marketing waters for the very first time, and that i needed to keep costs low. i don’t think i went into detail about my quest to break even on a $33 monthly hosting charge … i wanted to appear lowly, but not pathetic. i left her with some non-committal responses on her request to take more of my money, and off we went.

Her email response was chipper, but disappointing (emphasis mine):

Hey Ryan,

So nice to talk with you earlier and hope we can find some ways to partner more in the future.

We’ll apply the $20 to a term of two months, beginning from the date we posted your logo on November 11 and ending January 11, 2011. Let us know if you’d like to continue after that or sponsor additional groups that we run in Chicago and Minneapolis.

Thanks and happy Friday!

Yeah … ssssssssuper. Happy Friday indeed.

Darth Nooooo

A Fool and His Money

Lessons learned:

  1. Make sure you know what you’re buying before you spend the money.
  2. You can’t afford to advertise on the front page of the New York Times, so scale down your ambitions.
  3. Once you scale down your ambitions small enough – say, to $20 – you apparently still can’t afford to advertise, because the world contains no shortage of people who will take your money: as much of it as they can, as often as they can.

i learned this same lesson when i tried to license a well-known song from a famous band for my Spellirium game trailer and couldn’t afford the $65000 license fee, and then scaled my ambitions down to license a song from a Victoria BC-based band that plays subways and Vancouver Island cultural festivals and i STILL couldn’t afford them.

The ad ran for a month on the nerd dating Meetup group, yielding these results:

Word Game World Traffic Sources

Sample: November 1 2010-January 1 2011 – 1119 visits

That’s right: only four nerds – gay, green, or otherwise – visited the site from the Meetup group. i could have seen a better result if i had paid five people four bucks apiece to play a single lousy game on the site. The group is around 700 nerds, so that means my ad is enticing 0.5% of them to click on my ad. Conversely, if i post a link in an article on this blog, i get about a 15% click-through rate (thank you, btw!).

(Notice that my advertising strategy is technically out-performing my “free” cross-promotional strategy from zombiegameworld.com, but when the numbers are this tiny, you can’t really hang your hat on them.)

Friends, if you want to do something on the cheap, you’ve got to be crafty about it.

Macrame Owl

The next entries in the Pimp My Portal feature are about getting crafty. They’re about how i tried to get away with spending the least money possible to get the biggest bang for my buck, all in the name of trying to break even at $33/month. Stick with me … it’s going to be fun!

Pimp My Portal

8 thoughts on “Pimp My Portal Part 1: Gay Nerds in the Windy City

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention untoldentertainment.com » Pimp My Portal Part 1: Gay Nerds in the Windy City -- Topsy.com

  2. Rasmus Wriedt Larsen

    It’s some great articles you make Ryan! They’re always fun to read.

    But I do think that you’re trying to do this the wrong way (without knowing what’s to come in the next 5 articles). I think this is a bit like your pimp-my-game series. First of all, you didn’t use all the monetization ways you could have! Most developers are making the largest part of their money from primary and non-exclusive licenses (at least ~75% I would think). Secondly, your game didn’t fit very well with the audience. It might have done nice on some site for (Christian) kids (if such a site exists), but simply sending this out through various game feeds (like Mochi) and hoping it will do good on some of the endless amount of portals, is in my opinion not a valid test of the market. (this is from what I recall from that series, I did not actually read through all of it again)

    Now, you mentioned Gimme5Games in your introduction, as one of the big portals. Sure, but they don’t really compare to something like ArmorGames or Kongregate. On FlashGameLicense, ArmorGames market level shows they have used at least $480,000 on sponsoring games (comparing to Gimme5Games $70,000). Anyway, my point is that sponsorships is probably the way you should go! If you really want to test if creating a portal can make you money, you should manage your portal the same way (in some degree) as the ones being successful in the market! I’d bet on that ArmorGames never bought advertisement on a dating site for nerds!

    I am really looking forward to reading the rest of this series, but I can’t help but think that this is probably not going to turn out profitable for you… and at least if you’re trying to test the market, you should sponsor some games instead!

    1. Ryan Henson Creighton

      Thanks, Rasmus! As always, you make some great points.

      i’d be very interested to know how many of today’s very successful portals were fueled by investor seed money. Cuz mine ain’t. They’re fueled by investor lunch money – specifically, mine.

      i have one distinct advantage over the portals you mentioned: i don’t need to sponsor games, because i have teh skillz to build games myself. And the series will definitely include some cheap-ass (and most likely cockamamie) sponsoring adventures.

      As misguided as Pimp My Game was, it wouldn’t have been nearly as entertaining if i had just made a great game and collected a large sponsorship amount. Leave that to the successful guys. You don’t read this blog because i’m successful – presumably, you read it because i’m entertainingly idiotic.

      Armor Games is what happens when clever people run a games portal. What happens when a moron runs one? You’re about to find out.

  3. Iain

    Ryan, Ryan, Ryan. You can’t buy advertising to take people to a site where you sell advertising, any more than you can create a perpetual motion machine. There are 2 scenarios for advertising online:

    1 – you have a product to sell, in which case you BUY online ads that send people to your site, where you SELL them a real product. You need to have high enough margins on the product to pay for the advertising and still make a profit.

    2 – You already have a load of traffic, for example because everyone wants to read your blog or play your free game, but you don’t have a product to sell. So, you put ads on your site and send people over to the site by guy #1 who will sell them something, and guy #1 gives you money.

    You, my friend, have neither traffic nor a product to sell, thus you are doomed to failure :)

    1. Ryan Henson Creighton

      Iain, Iain, Iain. i thought you lived in England, not La-LaLand? People buy advertising to take people places where they sell advertising ALL THE TIME. Here are a few examples:

      Gametrailers.com (where they run pre-roll ads before the game trailers which are, themselves, ads)
      YouTube.com (same deal – look up a music video or a movie trailer here. These are both ads for albums and movies, respectively, yet they often have ad pre-roll, pop-ups, and sidebars)

      i “sell” the exact same product that the BBC, NBC, CBC, or any teevee network sells: a way to spend your free time. NBC punctuates costly television programming with very expensive advertising, and makes a bundle. ZombieGameWorld.com sells the exact same thing in the exact same way, except with fewer ads and a lower-quality product, at much much lower dollar values. But whether you’re wasting an evening watching Cake Boss or shooting digital zombies, you’re still wasting an evening on “free”, ad-supported entertainment. There is absolutely no difference, and teevee’s been around sixty years to prove it can be profitable. The web as we know it has been around for fifteen years.

      i agree i’m doomed to failure, but not for the reasons you’ve outlined. Spellirium is still in development, but the product on these portals – free web games – exists.


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