Tag Archives: Pimp My Game

Flew the Coop: Playing Chicken with Indie Game Marketing

Toronto is developing quite the reputation for being a hub of indie game development, and for good reason: the city is packed with small teams and individual devs making games, some to great acclaim. But for all our creative strength, i worry that a number of our devs are doomed to failure because we, as a community, lack the business sense required to get our games noticed … and sold.

We’re running a lot of game jams in the city. In addition to TOJam, we’ve had Clam Jam, library jam, and the ongoing Game Prototype Challenge led by Jason P. Kaplan, which runs almost monthly. So a lot of small games and prototypes are getting made, but how are they selling? Are they even being sold? Who knows about them, or their creators? If you’re living outside of Toronto, how many Toronto game devs can you name?

Jason P. Kaplan

Here’s one:Kaptain Kaplan himself. (Photo by Brendan Lynch)

Stop Building, Start Selling

i can’t remember who to credit this idea to, but recently someone suggested that instead of running game jams, Toronto should have a marketing jam. The need for us to get better at business was never more clear to me than when Jason announced the release of his first indie game, Flew the Coop, on iOS. i asked him “what’s your marketing plan?”, and he just kind of shrugged sheepishly.

i can haz farm puns?

i know where he’s coming from. The rule of thumb i’ve heard is that for every dollar you spend on game development, you need to spend a dollar on marketing. To begin with, very few indie devs actually bother putting a dollar value to their time. “What was your budget on that game?” “Nothing! It was all sweat equity!” Well, fine … but it costs you a certain amount of money to LIVE and EAT, Mr. Clever. From there, you can find out your annual cost of living. Factor in the number of hours you work in a week, on average, and you can determine your hourly rate. Multiply that by the number of hours you sunk into your game, and that’s the game’s budget.

Let’s say your game took $5000 to make. That’s $5k in sweat equity – “free” money – because you didn’t actually have to produce cold hard cash for development. But if the marketing rule of thumb is to be believed, you now have to cook up five thousand real, actual dollars to market the game … Facebook and iAds don’t accept a service barter. Cooking up that marketing cash is often beyond the ability or appetite of small indie devs. The result is that they release their games, hoping they will somehow magically catch like wildfire through word of mouth because they’re so good, and they’ll be the talk of the town. If you’ve spent even an hour reading articles on the success rates of iOS developers, you’ll know that there are thousands of devs out there still waiting for their ships to come in.

The Holy Grail of 3-Figure Sales

The challenge, then, is to come up with marketing plans that don’t cost any money. You’ve already seen what i’ve done to promote my game portals with The World’s Most Meager Marketing Budget – a miniscule $100 pot and a LOT of sweat equity. My pal Matt Rix, the successful developer of Trainyard for the iPhone, set up a great David vs. Goliath battle when he asked the Reddit community to help him dethrone Angry Birds in the App Store. Zero marketing money paired with a good story (and a GREAT game) rocketed him to the top of the charts.

(and it doesn’t hurt that his beard is dead sexy)

i took a look at Jason’s Flew the Coop and thought “if this was my game, how would i market it with zero dollars?” The game is a Canabalt clone that pits you as a baby chicken running away from a farm, bouncing on the backs of animals and avoiding the inappropriate grasping of farmers. The first thing that came to mind is the involvement PETA had with Super Meat Boy, where they created a parody game called Super Tofu Boy. So i tweeted PETA about Flew the Coop:

i don’t think they noticed.

Make a Suggestion, Win a Free Game!

So! Maybe i’m not the free marketing master i thought i was. Or maybe i’m just not trying hard enough because it’s not my game. But have a promo code for a FREE COPY OF FLEW THE COOP for the reader who can cook up the best free marketing idea for the game by next Wednesday June 22 2011.

Can you really market a game with no money? Or are those who have done it just incredibly, incredibly lucky? Post your best idea in the comments section below, and let’s see what Jason can do for Flew the Coop on a … ahem … wing and a prayer.

Further Reading:

Just in Time for Easter: Zombunny Cookies

Jesus knows a thing or two about rising from the dead, so it’s not a huge stretch to envision re-animated rabbits crawling out of their pastoral resting places during the Easter holiday. A simple sugar cookie recipe, some cookie cutters, and creative icing skillz are all you need to bring these ferocious zombunnies to life in your own kitchen:

Zombunny Easter Cookies from ZombieGameWorld.com

Mmm … sacrilicious.

No-Fail Sugar Cookies

  • 6 cups flour
  • 3 tsp. baking powder
  • 2 cups butter
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 tsp. vanilla or almond extract
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • fresh brains, to taste

Cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add eggs and vanilla, and mix well. Mix dry ingredients and add gradually to butter mixture. Mix until flour is completely integrated and the dough comes together.

Chill for 1 to 2 hours, or press dough between parchment paper and place in the fridge. By the time you’re finished doing this, the initial batch of rolled dough will be chilled enough to work with. Fry brains and strain them of excess juices. Dry brains on a plate, and crumble over cookies immediately after removing them from the oven. Leftover brain juices may be used in unwholesome ritual ceremonies.

Roll dough to desired thickness and cut into bunny shapes. Bake on an ungreased baking sheet at 350 degrees for 8-10 minutes. Yields one small army of zombunnies.

Zombunny Easter Cookies from ZombieGameWorld.com

Poured Fondant Cookie Icing

  • 1 – 1 1/2 cups icing sugar, as needed
  • 1 tbsp corn syrup
  • 1 1/2 tbsp water

Mix ingredients as needed until the icing is runny enough to pour, but thick enough to set. Apply to cooled cookies with an icing bag or jam knife. Plastic baggies with holes snipped out of their corners make inexpensive icing bags, and allow for easy clean-up*.

Zombunny Easter Cookies from ZombieGameWorld.com

*Rampaging zombunnies may make clean-up more difficult.

Visit ZombieGameWorld.com for more fun stuff!

Pimp My Portal: Introduction

Pimp My Portal

One of the most popular series of articles i’ve ever written was called Pimp My Game. It was an experiment in game monetization, back before i’d ever released a game of my own. i wanted to know how much money i could earn distributing a game, so that i’d know the amount of money i could invest in development in order to break even, at the very least.

Pimp My Game

The results were … abysmal. The Pimp My Game feature predates a number of tools and tricks that have made it far more possible for Flash game developers to earn money on their creations – most notably Flash Game License and microtransactions (GamerSafe/HeyZap/Mochi Coins).

Even with those services, it struck me that the amount of money required to develop a game of significant scope and scale to catch the attention of the average portal-goer, versus the relative risk of not landing a large enough sponsorship or earning cash back through scant ad rev share, was not a racket i really wanted to be in. Untold Entertainment makes custom games as a service for a number of clients, and i feel we’re paid appropriately for our efforts. i’ve never developed a game for a client on the off chance that they’d pay money for it.

Pimp My Game

“Hopefully, we’ll land a great sponsorship once we’re finished paving this road.”

i’ve been told numerous times, not least of all by the Flash Game License operators themselves, that game sponsorships can get up into five figures, with $20 000 being thrown around most often by people trying to impress me. Who’s paying these sponsorships? The buyers are mostly game portal owners.

The Cake is a Lie

What’s a game portal? It’s a websites that aggregate games and sandbags them with assloads of ads.

Pimp My Game

Jacksmack.com is a typical free-to-play Flash games portal.

So a portal can pay out $20k to sponsor a game. What’s in it for the portal? Usually, portals require the game developers to incorporate the hyperlinked portal logo in the game pre-roll, and possibly other promotional hooks – a “more games” button on the title screen leading back to the portal, portal-specific high scores – that sort of thing. The idea is that players play these free Flash games, which are distributed far and wide to tens of thousands of sites, and the players may purposely (or inadvertently) click somewhere in the game to be brought to the sponsoring portal. Sponsors will often pay extra cash for exclusivity rights.

Gimme5Games

Gimme5Games is known as a high-rolling sponsor in the Flash game developer community.

And how does the portal make enough money to pay a sponsorship? Unless i’m missing something, the most significant source of revenue for a game portal is advertising. There are some smaller, secondary streams – for example, Mochimedia kicks 10% of Mochi Coins sales to the portal when players spend Mochi Coins in games hosted on those portals, and Mochi also cuts the portal in for a small percentage of Mochiads revenue, but there we’re talking about fractions of fractions of pennies. The bread and butter of any games portal is advertising.

If You Can’t Beat ‘Em …

At this point i began eyeing the portals themselves with keen interest. $20 000 for a sponsorship? Again, unless i’m missing something, that must mean that at some point, a portal earns more than $20k in advertising. And game portal advertising revenue is passive income, that elusive majestic money creature that i’m constantly persuing. You just have to throw up a portal, stick some games on there, surround the games with ads, and kick back while waves of money roll over you like a stinky cash tsunami. “Beautiful”, i thought. “Let’s do this thing.”

Here are the steps i followed to set up my first portal, WordGameWorld.com:

  1. Register the domain name – $10
  2. Pay for hosting. i’m paying $33/mo to a company called 1&1 to host a VPS (Virtual Private Server), which is essentially like having my own (underpowered) web server computer. i originally started renting the VPS so that we could power Interruping Cow Trivia using the multiplayer ElectroServer software. You can probably get away with paying a regular web host less than $10/mo to host a portal.
  3. Install WordPress, which is very popular free blog software. The Untold Entertainment blog you’re reading now runs on WordPress.
  4. Purchase a WPArcade theme and plugin. These guys license a WordPress theme (skin) that makes your site look like a game portal. The plugin they provide enables you to enter the game distribution rss feed address from MochiMedia and, with the click of a button, inject ten thousand free Flash games into your portal site.
  5. Set up a Google Adsense account. This was the trickiest step – at first, Google denied my registration because WordGameWorld.com had zero traffic. WordGameWorld.com was live for a long time with no advertising, until i got a hot tip from a Twitter friend that once Adsense approved one of my sites, i could use Adsense ads on other sites that i owned. i leveraged the traffic on UntoldEntertainment.com to get my account approved, and then placed the ads around the WPArcade WordPress theme using their tool.

Step 4: Proft?

At this point, i had contractors come in to widen my front door in anticipation of the deluge of cash that would no doubt come blasting into my living room from men with money guns, all owing to this most brilliant idea of mine. It wasn’t long before i figured out that setting up a game portal is easy … driving traffic to it ain’t.

For the remainder of this series, i’ll document my madcap methods i used to try to drive traffic to my game portals. My journey takes me from dating services for gay nerds, to bikini-clad women in Brazil, to the very bowels of The Internatz itself … all in the name of making money off the backs of the free Flash game developers that i never want to become. i promise it will be lurid, sleazy, and informative. But mostly lurid.

Pimp My Portal

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.

Flash MicroPayment Exclusivity: Bad Idea, or Terrible Idea?

If you were there during the early days of the telephone, wouldn’t you have loved to have provided input? Maybe suggest to Alexander Graham Bell that telephones should issue low-grade electric shocks to teenage girls who talk on the device for more than half an hour? Or suggest a magnetic socket to Edison so that we could avoid all those inane “screw in a lightbulb” jokes for the rest of our lives?

Slot Cars

Wouldn’t cars be better if they were on giant slots with computer guidance systems? You could punch in your destination and fall asleep at the wheel, with no whammies.

If you’re a Flash game developer, you’re in at the ground floor of a new service: payment systems for Flash games. These systems make it easier for game developers to charge money both for their games, and for things within their games. Here’s how it works:

  1. Player pays real money to buy fake money through one of these systems.
  2. Player spends fake money on virtual stuff. As a game dev, you can technically charge for whatever you like: level packs, hats, extended versions/director’s cuts, etc etc. The sky’s the limit.

It’s So Workable, It Just Might Work

i’ve been following the microtransaction model for a number of years. It’s been crazy popular in places like Korea for a good long time, and it was amusing to see the initial resistance and resentment in North America to the idea. Panels at the Game Developers Conference were filled with folks nibbling their fingernails and asking “Will it really work over here?” and “Won’t players be angry with us?”, with at least a few devs boldly insisting that micropayments are strictly a Southeast Asian cultural anomaly, and the system won’t work here. Meanwhile, in the other room at the Worlds in Motion (virtual worlds) summit, early North American pioneers of those systems were running panels titled “Can You Believe We’re Making All This Money?” and “Who Wants a House? Cuz I’ve Got a Bunch of Em”.

Gold Toilet

No – for real, guys. i’m, like, SO rich.

Of course, virtual currency systems do work here, as evidenced by Microsoft’s successes with its GamerPoints (AKA “BillyBucks”), enabling the creators of Rock Band and others to pocket obscene amounts of cash in dribs and drabs for virtual whatsits. Microsoft’s new fall Xbox 360 seems to exist only to take more money from people in the form of digital doodads for their avatars. Proprietary systems have been rolled out in numerous other games and portals, including Three Rings (OOO) Puzzle Pirates with its dual-currency system, and the WildTangent game portal, where players can spend virtual coins to “rent” games. But no one has thought to capitalize on the literal kerfillions of players in the Flash casual games space. Until now.

There are three companies i’m aware of who are rolling out virtual payment systems for Flash games: MochiMedia, GamerSafe and HeyZap. Please let me know if there are others. They all work roughly the same way: pay real money for fake money, and spend fake money for fake things in fake games for real thrills. One of the key take-aways for me from GDC 07, by the folks running the “Seriously. My Pants Are Woven From Hundred Dollar Bills” panel, was this: do whatever it takes to enable your players to give you money.

What they meant was that you should provide as many payment methods as possible if you want to take as much money as possible from your players. This came up in the context of the myriad wild and wooly ways that Europeans pay for things online. (The French, for example, pay by cheque. True story.) The speakers advocated pay-by-phone, PayPal, credit cards, debit cards, SMS, and a number of crazy payment methods i’d never even heard of. (Pay with your own hair? What the heck is that about?)

i has a money

Untold Entertainment Enters the Fray

So here we are, poised to release a few games in the no-longer-free-to-play ecosystem. These are early days, and i have no idea which microtransaction system will take the biggest piece of the pie: MochiCoins, GamerSafe or HeyZap. And frankly, i don’t care. Why should i have to choose between them? Here’s what i want to do:

ME: Hey Player! Wouldn’t this game be more fun if your character was wearing SexyPants??

BUTTON: Hell yes!

ME: Great! A pair of SexyPants will cost you 95 cents.

BUTTON: Pay via HeyZap!
BUTTON: Pay with GamerGold!
BUTTON: Pay with MochiCoins!

Sounds good, right? i’m not shutting anyone out. i’m not preventing the GamerGold folks from buying SexyPants. i don’t particularly care which system the player supports – i just want to take his money.

However

The scenario i described above can’t happen at present, because MochiMedia has written into their terms of service that devs shall not hook multiple transaction systems into their games. GamerSafe and HeyZap have not made this stipulation. So i can have a game that either allows MochiCoin payments exclusively, or i can have a game that allows for GamerSafe and HeyZap payments. And that, in my professional opinion, stinks.

This type of exlusivity is NOT analgous to going into a restaurant and ordering a Coke, and the waitress says “Is Pepsi okay?” because the restaurant has an exclusive arrangement with PepsiCo. No – this is much more like eating your meal (Coke or Pepsi nothwithstanding), and trying to pay with your VISA card, but the restaurant only takes MasterCard and American Express. If i walk into a store and they don’t make it convenient for me to pay with a commonly accepted system, i walk out of that store and i don’t come back … but not before i punch someone right in the face, because that’s how angry it makes me.

Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!

(spoiler alert)

Three Facts About Payment System Exclusivity

MochiMedia’s exclusivity clause is not good for developers. We want to lower the barrier to entry for our players, especially since getting people to buy goods in the formerly-free-to-play space is already an uphill battle.

MochiMedia’s exclusivity clause is not good for players. It’s forcing players to wait until a clear winner emerges in the Flash virtual goods space. Why would i sink my money into GamerGold only to find that every single game supports HeyZap or MochiCoins? i’d better play it safe and let early adopters figure it out for me. When a leader emerges, i’ll start spending my money.

No, Mochi’s exclusivity clause is only good for Mochi. It’s a clear attempt to be the only game in town, and to monopolize this service in its infancy. And we all know what happens with monopolies, don’t we? You end up rolling a “3″ and landing on Park Place with a hotel, and then you get reamed up the pucker.

Thankfully, it’s still early enough in the make your voice heard about how this stuff will work. If you think Mochi should play nicely with others, why not toss them an email here?

team@mochimedia.com

Or, if you think they’re making the right decision, give them a call and let them know:

(415) 680-3740

Or, you can just voice your opinions in a comment on this blog and bathe me in sweet, delicious Internet traffic.

For my part, i believe they’re hurting players and devs right out of the gate in an early, unnecessary bid for domination. Given the choice, i’d rather support two systems than one – HeyZap and GamerSafe. Ideally, i want to support all three, along with any other system that enters the space. So i’m making a public appeal to you, Team Mochi, to rethink your policy. i’ll even use your first and last names here so that your Google vanity searches will bring you to this article.

On George Garrick! On Jameson Hsu! on Bob Ippolito! On Vixen!
On Comet! On Cupid! On Justin Wong! On Eric Boyd!
To the top of the porch! To the top of the stair!
Renounce this proviso, and please grow a pair!