Tag Archives: Business

Content is Peasant

i’m a simple man. i have only two beefs in this world: 1) subtitles that cover up the nudity in foreign films, and 2) the onerous phrase “content is king”.

Penelope Cruz in Abres los Ojos

An American tragedy.

i mentioned last week that we launched a free games portal called WordGameWorld.com. Here’s how that whole process works. i spend a few bucks buying a domain name, a hosting account, and a WordPress theme. Then i go to MochiMedia.com and started cherry-picking games from their list of thousands, at no cost. If i see a game that i like, i can just take it and put it on the site. Then i put ads on the site. Step 4: profit.

i didn’t have to pay for the content. The content is, theoretically, paid for by advertisers whose ads are injected into the games via the MochiMedia service. But as we’ve seen before, in a hit-driven business like Flash games, a non-hit is also a non-earner.

If you’re producing content essentially for free, with the hope of possibly earning fractions of pennies on advertising rev share, and perhaps a sponsorship or two for a few thousands bucks (when perhaps you sunk more than a few thousand bucks in labour into the content), i have a startling revelation for you: content is NOT king. Content is peasant. Content is plebian. Content is serf. The exploiters of content are closer to the crown than you’ll ever be.

Look Who’s Talking

There’s a lyric from a John Lennon song that frequently comes to mind whenever i hear someone chant the “content is king” mantra:

Keep ’em doped with religion and sex and teevee
And they think they’re so clever and classless and free
But they’re still f*cking peasants as far’s I can see

i’ve been paying more and more attention to who is saying “content is king” and how they are saying it. The people pulling the strings, who are actually in a position to monetize content, say it more often and in a much different tone of voice than the content producers:

Content monetizers: (knowing that their livelihood depends on people constantly producing content that they can exploit) Content is king!

Content producers: (wondering why the hell they’re not gaining any ground, despite being told on a daily basis by the content monetizers that content is king) … Content is king?

The Content Food Chain

i’ve developed a hierarchical chart to illustrate who’s actually in control here, and how the money flows.

Chart

Content Consumers

i hope we can all agree that consumers are at the bottom of the chart. Yes, technically they should be at the top, because they make the decisions and vote with their money and rah rah consumers blah blah blah, but who are you kidding? When i got into the ad-supported web world, working in the interactive department of a teevee broadcaster, we talked a lot about eyeballs – how many unique sets of ocular orbs were looking at our web pages. Not people, not consumers, but their actual eyeballs. We had reduced consumers as a commodity to their component parts! It wasn’t “how many human beings visited our pages”, but “how many eyeballs did we get”? “How do we get more eyeballs on this?” It’s a tiny bit ghastly. Consumers, you’re at the bottom of my chart.



Content Creators

Next up are the content creators. We content creators subjugate consumers. If we’re business-minded, we want to build games that get a lot of those eyeballs, so that we can command higher sponsorship deals and earn more fractions of pennies on advertising revenue share. Some of us want millions of eyeballs on our content just so that we can feel good about ourselves. As i’ve mentioned before, that drive tends to go away when you become a more advanced life-form with a mortgage and kids to feed.

Pickaxe Salesmen

In an offshoot segment of the chart are the pickaxe salesmen. In any Yukon gold rush, there are the people doing all the work and panning for the gold (game developers), and there are the shop owners selling ropes and pickaxes and whiskey. They are the tool providers. FDT, SmartFox Server, ElectroServer, and to an extent ActiveDen (who are, themselves, content aggregators) all make their money selling content producers the promise of becoming rich and famous through their gold-panning content creation efforts.

Prospector

Does this guy look like a king to you?

Content Aggregators

One step above content creators are the content aggregators. In the Flash games industry, these are the portals that pull all the games together in one place – Kongregate, NewGrounds, Big Fish, AddictingGames, King, Gimme5, WordGameWorld, etc etc. In publishing, they are the magazines that assemble and bind the individual articles. In the teevee world, they are the broadcasters who fill their programming hours with shows. Content aggregators treat content as a commodity to be shoveled into their wrappers, especially in the Flash games world, where you can set up an RSS interavenous drip to have free Flash games automatically pumped into your site with zero effort or cost. These people have a vested interest in repeating the “content is king” mantra – their livelihood depends on content producers believing it. Their goal is to get the best content possible for the lowest price imaginable, always.

Advertisers

Advertisers hold us all in thrall. They foot the bill for all of this stuff. Magazines and teevee shows are merely vehicles to sell advertising. That’s what games portals are as well: extended banner and video ads punctuated by the occasional match-3 game. Without advertising money, this whole ecosystem dies … which is why new monetization methods like microtransactions are given so much gravity. Like the United States weaning themselves off oil dependency, it’s in the best interests of content producers and aggregators to develop new sources of energy (money).

Diaper Cream

This whole operation depends entirely on the 10-second spot for Nature’s Baby Organics Diaper Cream. i for one welcome our tiny assrash-reducing overlords.

Aggregator Aggregators

Above the advertisers are the aggregator aggregators: those who aggregate the aggregators. i can’t think of any examples in the Flash games world, but i’m talking about cable providers in the teevee world. These are the people who pull together the aggregators – the teevee channels – into one big package of aggregators, and charge a fee for access. i don’t *think* one of these has emerged in our industry quite yet, but correct me if i’m wrong.

Lord Jesus

Floating high above all of these and seated at the right hand of God is Jesus, who is awesome.

Jesus

Aww yeah – it’s good to be king.

Do You Feel Like a King?

And there it is. With so many strata of folks making money from the lowly piece of content you produce, it’s clear that just as players are a commodity to you as a game developer, your content is a commodity traded in bulk to a higher power skimming off the top. Those higher powers, in turn, are a commodity to someone higher up the food chain.

Clearly, “king” is not an appropriate word to describe the games you’re producing. i’ve never known anyone to trade in large sacks of kings. Perhaps “content is lynchpin” is more fitting: yank the content out from this structure, and the whole thing comes crashing down. But the same thing happens when you pull advertising: you’re removing the wealthy benefactor, the rich uncle, who fuels the whole operation.

i’ll stick to my original claim: content is peasant. Kings can’t be kings without someone farming their crops, cooking their meals, and buffing their toenails. Whose toenails are you buffing? Because if you’re creating Flash games, selling them for a song, and scraping fractions of pennies on advertising revenue share, news flash: you ain’t the king. You’re somebody else’s bucket of eyeballs. You’re responsible for producing a pinch of salt in a barrelful, and it’s the people shipping the salt who are really in bidness.

i’m not saying any of this to upset the applecart, or to suggest that Flash game developers storm the castle and steal the crown. i just want to put it out there, so that the next time someone who makes money off your back tells you “content is king”, you can sock him in the snoot.

To recap:

  1. Jesus is king.
  2. Rogers cable answers only to Jesus.
  3. You’re getting screwed.

FTC Embarks on Virtual Worlds Witch-hunt

Virtual Worlds News reports today that the a new Federal Trade Commission study finds “explicit sexual content” in virtual worlds for kids and teens. Like prudish moms scouring books in the elementary school library for cuss words so that they can kick up a book-burning bonfire, the FTC has gone searching for offensive content and lo, they’ve found some swears. The study drops a number of supposed bombshells, including this gem:

explicit sexual content exists “free of charge, in online virtual worlds that minors are able to access.”

i hate to break it to the FTC, but the Internet also happens to offer explicit sexual content that minors are able to access. And that content goes far beyond the mostly “low-level”, text-based content found in half of the kid-targeted virtual worlds that the FTC studied. i’ll dismiss out of hand the report’s revelation that there is “a greater amount of explicit content in worlds that were geared towards teens or adults.” Really? Pray tell, if the report is about protecting kids and youth, why did the FTC bother looking at worlds aimed at an older audience? It’s like saying “pornography was found to contain material that was unsuitable for minors.”

It’s For Kids

The implication must be that, like comic books and cartoons, some people associate virtual worlds primarily with children. When Ralph Bakshi released Fritz the Cat, an animated pornographic movie, in 1972 – or indeed, when Watership Down came out a few years later and the adorable bunnies drew blood from each other’s necks – parents raised a hue and cry because they did not expect the animated film medium to contain explicit material. After all, cartoons are for kids. Right? Ditto those parents who brought their kids to see Watchmen last summer because it was about superheroes, without bothering to check the rating to determine the intended audience.

Fritz the Cat

Stay classy, Bakshi.

It looks as though the virtual worlds medium is suffering from the same poorly-informed people holding it to a standard it was never meant to meet. There’s nothing inherent in the concept of a virtual world that suggests it is a strictly kids’ medium, or that it will appeal expressly to children. The trouble here is that the most successful virtual worlds to date, including Neopets and Club Penguin, have been kid- and teen-targeted. Does that mean that all virtual worlds will appeal to all young people? Of course not. And does it mean that virtual worlds that serve the needs of teens and adults should beef up their security to keep kids out? Emphatically, no.

Forget one or two virtual worlds members typing “i want to touch you on your nay-nays” in open chat – the amount of full-colour, HD titties n’ schlongs available at the click of a button to any child on the Internet is staggering, and it’s all without benefit of a membership wall and registration process. It’s actually far more difficult to sign up, create an avatar, learn the virtual world’s navigation and go hunting for text-only “sexually explicit” material than it is to type “mouth on bum” in Google Image Search to call up a gallery of pics that’ll turn your hair white. Whatever Google serves up will be far more psychologically damaging to a child’s psyche than the “shocking” content the FTC discovered in any virtual world.

Manhole

Pro Tip: never search “man hole” on Google Image Search.

An Unappealing Argument

The FTC’s excuse for profiling teen and adult virtual worlds is likely that these sites will appeal to younger players, perhaps due to their colourful graphics and similarity to Club Penguin, (the clueless adult might reason). You know what else appeals to young people? According to a survey by security firm Symantec, titties n’ schlongs. ReadWriteWeb reports that among the top ten most common search terms entered by children are “Sex” at number 4 and “Porn” at number 6, followed by “boobies” and an assortment of other interesting body parts in the ensuing slots.

i don’t buy the “appeal” excuse for a second. Children are sexual beings, and are just as entranced by All That Jiggles as we adults are. In its report, the FTC recommends more powerful age-screening mechanisms, enhanced age segragation techniques, stronger language filters and better training for moderators in virtual worlds. It all adds up to a completely imbalanced, unfair and unrealistic expectation of virtual worlds staff, an expectation that is not being levied against far worse “offendors” like Google. And sites like Google have far greater sex appeal than virtual worlds. Pictures speak louder than whatever naughty words the FTC uncovered.

Catcher in the Wry

You have to believe that i am all for protecting children from explicit content. In fact, i often go a step farther to point out that adults shouldn’t be viewing a lot of this content. The reason we don’t want kids to see it is often the same reason why grown-ups shouldn’t be looking. But having worked on a number of virtual worlds projects for kids under 13, i’ve seen the heavy-handed amount of legal hoops to jump through and protections you need to add to your product, and i assure you it’s excessive. As a parent, i only take exception to sites that claim absolute safety for young players and can’t deliver on that promise. This is why we sent Mr. McBadTouch into Green.com to see if he could find some new underage playmates.

Free Candy Van

Mr. McBadTouch can be reached for comment here, in his “portable playground.”

Cracking the Safe

i’m far more comfortable with the ESRB’s blanket admission that “Game Experience May Change During Online Play”. This covers any number of sins, from someone asking my daughter if he can put his mouth on her bum over Xbox Live, to being called the N-word by some drunk Southerner (on Xbox Live), to someone simulating touching his scrotum to my corpse’s forehead in a death match (… again, on Xbox Live). Chris Rock said that a father’s most important duty is “keeping his daughter off the pole”. i’d like to add that a responsible dad also keeps his daughter off Xbox Live.

The world, in short, is a dangerous place (not least of all over Xbox Live). i appreciate the steps that some people voluntarily take to help me raise my children in a safer environment. i even appreciate some of the precautions the government mandates to improve that safety, because Lord knows not all parents are responsible. But the Federal Trade Commission’s recommendations to tighten up virtual world security are over-reaching and unfair. Virtual worlds are not the sole territory of children and youth, and parents should take the same precaution with them that they should take with any medium, including comic books, cartoons and animated films.

Why Don’t You Host Your Own Flash Game Portal?

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.

Original Untold Entertainment Logo

For serious.

This was my Facebook avatar at the time (and still is, actually):

Ryan Henson Creighton

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”:

Comic book ads

Mom! I’m gonna need seven dollars!

This is as far as i got before my friends and loved ones (thankfully) stopped me:

Untold Entertainment Original Site

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:

Untold Entertainment Second Site

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:

Comic book ads

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.

Untold Entertainment Invoice

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.

We have ways of making you meow

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.)

Zombie

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:

  1. Define your audience. (Big Fish Games targets middle-aged women)
  2. 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.

    Big Fish Games logo

    A face only a mother could give her life’s savings to

  3. 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.
  4. Devote significant time and energy to customer service.
  5. Track every player action within an inch of its life, and act on the stats you collect.
  6. 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:

MindJolt

24,450

Yoflaz

589

Fupa

359

Faith Playground

163

Cool Chaser

19

JackSmack

12

Smeshen

11

Flash Game Ninjas

9

Free Game Gallery

7

Basito Yunlar

7

Smartest Games

7

Puzzle Sea

7

Free Hobo

6

Your Fun Games

5

(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:

Your Fun Games

Kicking Midgets

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):

  1. 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
  2. Build a strong brand – think of a style bible, a tagline, and a brand personality. Make sure that brand appeals to your target audience.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

Teen boy

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.

Run Your Software Start-Up with Braaaains

One of my tweeples tweeted a twidbit of twinformation yesterday (i’m so ashamed) pointing to a blog post called The New Startups, a sort of manifesto rejecting the status quo approach to running a small software company. i wanted to pass it along, because it so succinctly sums up the kind of company i’m trying to run. Here are the points that had me punching the air and kicking over the lamps in my living room:

[The New Start Ups] have never seen a Gantt chart, and they never plan more than six weeks of their next release. A software application has a life of its own, a life that is only discovered when it starts to take its first steps.

Too true. Many times, a client or manager has asked me “how long will x take?” With nearly ten years of game development under my belt, i’m getting pretty handy at estimating, but software is a fickle beast. i always have to add a proviso, like “That should be about three weeks of work, barring the Zombie Apocalypse. The Zombie Apocalypse usually comes in the form of a client who didn’t know what he wanted to begin with, but knows as soon as he sees what you’ve produced that that ain’t it. In my experience, these people usually have soft heads that fly pretty far when hit with a shovel (zombieism notwithstanding).

The New Start Ups have replaced business plans with release plans.

Customer support is another form of the new marketing. And this is a great opportunity because the big fish have done such a terrible job at taking care of the people that guarantee their existence.

We want to be the guys that you can talk to, the guys who are quietly creating excellent software for the long tail, and doing it our own way.

Double-plus amen to that. Except, for your use of the obnoxiously over-played buzzphrase “long tail”, ima have to use this shovel on you.

zombie killa

It’s nothing personal.