Nitpicking Flash Gaming Summit

The first-ever Flash Gaming Summit featured a lot of prominent members of the Flash community, but it ultimately left the audience with information that was incomplete and often downright misleading.
I commend Mochi for hosting the first of what I hope will become the annual Flash Gaming Summit. It clearly took a ton of work to put together, and I lost track of the number of developers I spoke with who traveled all the way out to California for the single-day event without even bothering to attend GDC.

But ultimately, much of it felt like a missed opportunity. While a good portion of the speakers shared some really useful and important information, others, well, not so much. But I can understand a few bad panelists. What bothers me more is the amount of crucial information that was completely skipped over, or summarized in such an oversimplified manner that it’s no longer accurate.

Here are a few important points about the Flash industry that someone likely never would have figured out purely from a visit to the Flash Gaming Summit:

1. Distribution is not all that important. There was a whole panel on Flash game distribution. John Cooney of Armor Games hit the nail on the head early on, then several people throughout the whole event spent far more time directly contradicting his word of truth. When asked how distribution is handled, John said, “Viral, viral, viral.”

I recalled Warlords: Call to Arms, Kongregate’s most successful sponsorship to date, with over 40 million views across the web. It hit 100,000 click referrals (not views) within days of being uploaded onto Kongregate — technically during its weeklong “exclusivity period” (usually I don’t bother with site-locks, instead requesting that developers wait a week before actively spreading a game). Ben Olding had a similar experience with Achilles.

Time and time again throughout the summit, emphasis was placed on how hard you need to work to distribute your game. But that’s overlooking a huge point: If you need to work hard to distribute your game, then it is likely not successful. Your time is better spent working on another one. Spend a couple of hours submitting your game to the top portals — Kongregate, Newgrounds, Addicting Games, Armor Games, etc. Encourage other portals to host the game, either in the game description or within the game itself (“add this game to your site”). If the smaller sites don’t start picking it up on their own and hosting it without any work from you, then it’s likely time to move on. It is not time to spend 2 weeks uploading it to every site you can imagine, then ranting about how much work distribution is.

For example, working your ass off to distribute a game might get you 300k total views instead of 100k. Sure, that’s three times as many, but it’s still not going to pay the rent, and you’re not creating any viral spread here. Most Flash games have an initial spike, a drop, then a long tail, but the spike and drop is accentuated with games that are heavily distributed by the developer, and the tail is usually unaffected.

It is not terribly uncommon for a game to hit a million views across the web within a week after simply being uploaded onto Kongregate and Newgrounds, as it’s grabbed by hundreds of smaller sites and rehosted. And that is where the real traffic lies. That’s the traffic that doesn’t go away when you stop working on distribution.

2. For successful games, in-game advertisements are your #3 source of revenue. Why did the summit spend so much time talking about in-game advertising? For games that cross the sponsorship-worthy barrier, sponsorships and site-locked, non-exclusive licenses pay magnitudes more than in-game advertising networks. (Contract work pays more than all 3, but in this case you’re building a game for someone else rather than creating your own — plus, you actually have to land those jobs first.)

I could probably count on one hand the number of times the words “sponsorship” and “licensing” were used during the entire summit. If you want to make significant money from your game, you need to understand how these work before you release your game to the public. is an excellent cure for the misguided belief that making a game and simply releasing it with in-game advertising is the path to becoming a full-time indie Flash developer who can afford to eat (though there’s certainly nothing wrong with taking advantage of this additional revenue stream, assuming your sponsorship terms allow it).

Chris Hughes of Flash Game License briefly raised the point that your game isn’t worth as much to a sponsor after it is released, due to the standard traffic pattern (big spike at the beginning, followed by a long tail). He is correct, but his point deserves further emphasis — your game is actually worthless to a sponsor after it is released to the public. This is one of the most common points of confusion among Flash developers, and it needs to be explicitly explained: You will lose out on your #1 source of revenue if your game is released prematurely. Even if sponsorship branding is added to your game before the bulk of its traffic has occurred, it is nearly impossible for a version with sponsorship advertising to compete against an older version of the same game with no outside links that’s also floating around the web. It would be like baking a batch of delicious chocolate chip cookies, setting it on a table, then baking a second batch of the same cookies with raisins, setting it next to the original batch, and hoping that everyone suddenly has a craving for dried grapes rather than delicious chocolate.

3. Seriously, you can make a living off of your own Flash games. It’s really hard; make no mistake about that. But it’s not impossible, and dozens of people and small studios around the world are doing it without having to sacrifice their IP (or work with someone else’s) to a giant corporation. One panelist actually said that it is impossible. I was sitting next to John Cooney at the time, and I asked him if this meant that he didn’t exist. I was wondering if he might start fading away, Back to the Future-style. (While he is an employee of Armor Games, think for a moment about why hiring him on full-time made any business sense.)

So no, it is not impossible. It’s just impossible if you rely on the only revenue stream actually discussed in the panel about monetization. If you take full advantage of the resources available to you by aggressively pursuing sponsorships and non-exclusive, site-locked licenses (be sure that these are allowed under your sponsorship terms!), then the revenue from in-game advertising will most likely become an afterthought (in the case of performance-based sponsorship models, it may even be a detriment). It is only with games that end up making just a few hundred dollars that in-game advertising will be the primary source of revenue.

4. So what does make a game successful, anyway? And what is successful? The panel about what makes a successful game was by far the most entertaining, and also the most informative (I must confess that I missed most of the very first panel, but I heard that that one was also pretty good). If only we had actual developers on the monetization panel as well!

The whole idea of top-down vs. bottom-up game design was alluded to quite a bit, but never explicitly explained. Brad Borne did a great job of explaining why Fancy Pants is so successful. He took a simple, fun mechanic and built on it. This is the definition of bottom-up game development, and it’s a common theme throughout the best casual game developers out there, from Popcap to Paul Preece. Edmund McMillen spent a bit of time riling up the panel with the debate of games for art vs. games for profit, but it’s worth noting that his most successful game, Meat Boy, has really fun basic mechanics. The same is true for Aether, a game he cites as his personal favorite. Art and fun/success need not conflict.

Top-down design (starting with the overall idea, then fleshing out the basic mechanics later) is tremendously difficult for Flash games because it means you’re basically forfeiting your greatest asset and trying to compete with consoles, which your players likely already have sitting in their living room. It is demeaning and inaccurate to say that Flash games are merely the poor man’s console games; many players actually prefer Flash games because they can get a new and interesting experience as often as they want. Plus, graphics and production values don’t automatically equate to fun. (Even if players don’t prefer Flash games over consoles, they’ll still often play both.) But don’t pretend that your players don’t have Mario Galaxy and Halo 3 sitting 10 feet away. You can entertain and addict them, but you will probably not impress them.

Tyler Glaiel is an incredibly talented Flash developer with a lot of industry experience, and he took the opportunity to ask a panel why it was that the games he spent the least amount of time on did really well, while the games he spent the most amount of time on were a little more disappointing. He never got a straight answer, but I believe it all ties back to the bottom-up vs. top-down game design philosophies. Tyler started developing successful games at a relatively young age, back when most of us were struggling with basic algebra. His early games are definitely not nearly as impressive as his newer ones, but a lot of them have fun little mechanics at their core. I still remember my college roommate ignoring our collection of console games to play Magnetism for hours on end.

By contrast, Blockside 2 clearly took a ton of time to develop, and a lot of talent and thought went into it, but its problem is that it’s all top-down design. There’s no fun little hook at its core like there is with many of his quicker games, including Aether.

Another question from another developer that never got a direct answer was whether 1.4 million gameplays in a month was good. The answer is yes, it’s pretty good, but it’s not quite the big hit that sponsors are usually chasing after. There seemed to be avoidance of giving actual numbers on the monetization panel (unless they were talking about in-game advertising CPMs), but I’ll take the plunge and estimate that the game was probably worth roughly $4k or so from a sponsorship. Revenue from licensing is much more difficult to predict, but there would likely be several buyers in the $500-$1k range (note that licensing revenue is more difficult to acquire for smaller games than in-game advertising or sponsorship revenue, but for more successful games, its value scales much faster).

Oh, and the finger puppets in the gift bags were really, really awesome.

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