This guest post is by Ola Rogula of Doll Divine Dress Up Games, who i met a few years back at the Casual Connect games conference. A lot has been written about the so-called “big” successes in the games industry; certain titles and developers get the lion’s share of the press, the fame, and the love. But meeting Ola and others like her has taught me an extremely valuable lesson: that even while flying under the radar with a product that many people have never heard of (or would even care about), you can still lock into a niche audience and provide a high quality, valuable product or service to them … and make bank.
Sit back, and let Ola showya how it’s done. (Text by Ola, pictures by Ryan)
There are, of course, multiple ways to grow a successful Flash games portal. However, I’m pretty proud to say that I grew mine with a $0 advertising budget and no link building. The site grew entirely from organic referrals. Links and ad campaigns are great too, but if you want to know how to give your portal the ability to grow itself organically, here are the things that worked for me:
1. Mind-Blowingly Good Content
I hate to say this, but if you can’t make games yourself and you don’t have thousands to play with, you face quite an uphill battle. Great games are hard to come by and they are going to be both the biggest source of free advertising for you, and the biggest reason for people to come back to your site.
If you have a lot of money, you can make aggressive bids on games. This is the most straight forward way to fill your site with quality content. Of course, you’re paying the developer to place your link and logo into the game, so that word of your site spreads with the game. Flash Game License is the logical place to start, although I personally have had more luck with seeking out amateur developers through deviantArt. The biggest downfall of this strategy is that you’re always at the mercy of other people. I could never operate my site fully this way because I haven’t been able to find enough good developers to hire for my needs.
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Alternately, you can be dirt poor as long as you know how to draw and program. Being able to create your own quality content is, in my opinion, the best way to make a splash. Of course, it’s also implied that you don’t just do these things; you’re good at them.
There is also an elegant middle road solution. If you have some money to work with, and are a good programmer, it is very cost effective to hire out for artwork. There is literally a world of amazing artists out there who would love to get paid for their drawings. If you are an artist who needs a programmer, the situation is a bit trickier, and usually more expensive. I recommend biting the bullet and learning to code in Flash yourself.
Do not heed words spoken with plastic lips. – Confucius
I must stress that this is the most important point by a long shot. I grew my site almost entirely on my in-game links and word-of-mouth; both products of quality content creation.
I have come to accept that it is impossible to predict what will be a “hit”. The only thing you can do is try, take notes, and try again. I can very much attest to what my friend, Andy Moore, calls the “1 in 10 rule”, asserting that about one in ten games is a hit. A lot of the rules he mentions for getting a game sponsored apply just as well for creating games for your own portal. Some will spread like wildfire across other sites, while others are left to rot.
Andy Moore: always a hit.
For example, I was very disappointed when my Vampire Maker was a total flop, despite having been successfully timed with Twilight! The Kitten Maker, however, took girl gaming sites by storm. Before these, I had attempted two adventure games which got an even worse reception. In these cases, the amount of time spent on development had no correlation to success. You have to be prepared to put out multiple projects, and you have to be prepared for most to flop. However, this is a beautiful time of self-discovery… It’s the time when you and the world flirt to figure out exactly how you best fit together and what type of projects you should be putting out.
(Vampire Maker may be missing the ability to chew the living foetus out of a labouring mother’s stomach with your fangs? You know – for Twilight fans. Just sayin’. – ed.)
3. Create a Brand
Once you complete #1 and #2 and create a game that has spread to other sites, people will click on your logo to get more of the same. What is “the same” in your case? What do you offer? Based on which of your games resonated best, you need to decide on an adjective and a noun. Are your games funny? Very polished? Imaginative? Accessible to the visually impaired? You have to pick an angle and promise to continually deliver it to users. What are you making? Political satires? Intriguing puzzles? Tower Defense games? Match your adjective with your skills and your noun with your interests. In my case it is: intricate, fantasy doll makers because I love fantasy and pay intense attention to detail. If your interests lie in an already expansive genre, you’d better have a good adjective to go along with it. Of course, you can span multiple genres and wield multiple adjectives, as long there’s a united theme.
Is “shitty” a viable descriptor?
Create your site around this theme. Choose the name and colours accordingly. Contrary to popular belief, the site doesn’t have to be fancy or complex. A lot of people lose money on site design early on which is silly. All you need is a banner, thumbnails, and pages for the games. Anyone can make this happen, especially with the amount of templates online. Orisinal.com is a great example of a simple yet effective layout. The #1 need of users is to find what they’re looking for quickly. Cater to that first.
Quite appalling, in my opinion, are the free scripts that abound which auto-fill your site with games from external sources. How exactly is using a script found all over the internet that fills your site with games that everyone else is posting supposed to give you an edge over the competition? After reading this article, are you itching to get back to playing games on that awesome auto-filled site you love? No? Think about that.
We’re using a purchased WordPress theme the includes one of those scripts, because website design and coding are not Untold’s strong suits. We’re not using that script to automatically siphon games, but have instead been selecting and inputting each game by hand. The problem is that the the theme we purchased was poorly built, and it opens multiple unnecessary connections to our database. The end result is that when a small handful of people visit our portals, our server traffic and memory usage go bananas. This fact alone (and my inability to fix it myself) is the reason why i haven’t worked more diligently to grow traffic on Untold’s games portals. Caveat emptor. -ed.
4. Be Nice to Your Search Engine
(At the time of writing, “search engine” is synonymous with “Google”) The main advice usually given for optimizing Flash websites is: stop using Flash. This, of course, is useless advice for running a Flash games portal, although you should certainly avoid using a Flash-based navigation system. Google can’t see or play your game so it is your job to translate its greatness to the bots. Yes, Google can now crawl the text inside files, but how are the words “Next”, “Play” and “Jump!” supposed to emulate your top-notch graphics?
As for any site, first complete all your basic SEO. Use descriptive text, not just images, when linking within the site. Use a descriptive, yet to-the-point, meta title that includes two good key phrases. Write a robust meta description. Name your pages with descriptive file names so the URL is people-friendly. And finally, find a way to include a large chunk of appropriate text on the page. Describe your game.. the creation process.. the inspiration. Include a set of instructions. You have to put into text what Google cannot see.
Allowing fans to leave comments is a double-edged sword. Users can be an SEO godsend, filling the site with golden keywords and extensive commentary. They can also be a source of unprofessionalism and negativity. You must analyze your demographic and decide if they’d hate or relish the babble of other users. I took the unique approach of only allowing paid members to leave comments. This hasn’t removed unprofessionalism nor negativity, but it has completely removed all external advertising. It seems even as little as $1 per month is enough to detract spammers. It has also kept the community much smaller and respectful of each other.
This moment of clarity courtesy of xkcd
5. Monetize That S***
Or rather, don’t over-monetize that s***. I know it can be tempting. Flash portals make very little money per user. Mine pulls in about one cent per user per month. When attempts to expand aren’t working, it’s tempting to shift to maximizing profits from the existing users. Over-monetizing the site can drive users away, further lowering revenues. I’m sure I don’t need to explain why increasing income through something that decreases traffic is the beginning of the end.
Flash portals make their money mainly through advertisements around the site and in-game ads. Flash developers can make a lot of short-term cash by putting their games up for bid, but you’d better kiss that avenue goodbye if you want to grow your own portal.
Website ads must be placed with taste. I recommend no more than one ad unit above the fold on the main page. The Google algorithm agrees. You care about the games first and the money is just a nice bonus, right? Hopefully this is true, but even if it’s not, it’s how you want your site to look. Placing an ad unit above or beside your logo exposes where your priorities lie. You want to make sure that all the things on your site that the user might find interesting are clearly visible, and the ad is just a last case scenario for their clicking pleasure.
But Ola – how am i going to earn a steady seventy-three cents a month without placing ads absolutely everywhere? -ed.
People have grown accustomed to one preloader ad and will generally sit through it. However, if you’re just starting out, you need every edge over the competition and sparing the users the annoyance of video ads is a commendable one. The big advantage of in-game ads is that they spread along with your game as/if it goes viral. But again, even on other sites, I recommend giving your games the ad-less advantage. A static, silent, in-game ad that is visible during the true duration of the loading is acceptable (many ads simulate a loading bar which makes the user wait even after the game has loaded). And don’t even think about layering multiple loader ads over each other. It’s a lovingly hand-crafted creation, not an onion.