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Flash Gaming Summit liveblog from the following panel:

Monetizing Your Game Outside of Sponsorship

  • Moderator: Andy Moore, Andy Moore Games
  • Colin Northway, Fantastic Contraption
  • Daniel James, Three Rings
  • Sian Yue Tan, Rocketbirds
  • William Stallwood, Cipher Prime

Daniel (when introducing himself): Whirled is at $300K revenue, $5M invested. Abject failure.

Andy: How do you define success?

William: Everyone says money. But for us, it was to shift from doing rich media apps to doing games, something we love. It had to be financially feasible. Philly cost of living is lower, so it was a bit easier. Success is to be able to do what we’re doing with a year’s worth of income in the bank, at least.

Sian: Getting this game out on a platform. That’s our end goal. We like Flash and its ease of distribution. Helps out for pitching it to various parties who might be interested. We are fairly new and the game only came out recently, so we are still experimenting with different distribution and selling systems.

Daniel: It’s a Maslow’s Hierarchy question. Base level is food in our bellies. Beyond that, we would have all made different career choices if we were all motivated by money – aside from those working for Zynga (ooh zinger! as I sit beside a Zynga Studio GM). Farmville has tremendous culture meaning, 70M ppl playing 4 or 5 times a day – that’s a tremendous success. For us, our aspirations are not that high. We are not chasing Zynga. We are making FB games and success both economically and opportunity cost wise, if we can get 1M to try a game, that’s amazing. If we can get 100-200K of those ppl to stick with it, then that’s a level of success we can justify moving forward on. We can be sure that some of those ppl had an enriching experience. I got an email from a girl who had met her boyfriend on Puzzle Pirates and was tickled about that. More and more we’ll see life-changing interactions via games.

Colin: I want to do something I like and I don’t want a boss. That ties into monetizing on a portal or without a portal, because in some degree the portal sets the rule. They decide what success means, they want a specific game, you lose a lot of control if you start making games to someone else’s tune. One of the advantages of going off the beaten path is that you can do what you want without worrying about what others think.

William: We took a different approach. We had some good deals we could have taken from portals. But having our own destination site allowed us to make the experience we wanted to make. But not we can tailor our environment to exactly what we want. We can see everything about our game. We can better gauge the fun level. We wouldn’t be able to do that if we were on a portal due to the saving of the information (i.e. who owns the customer data). We got viral very early on – we went down on Thanksgiving with 80K hits, we had no donation or pre-order button – this was a first time experience for us. We missed the train – they loved it, but they found something new and interesting. We put a mailing list sign up there and got 17K addresses, but we missed the monetization window. It’s important that when success happens, you’re set up to handle it. If you’re really going to take a big risk to make a longer title, then make sure you’ve got the ability to monetize it when it releases. We missed that and I’d hate for others to miss it.

Andy: Attaining critical mass is the key challenge to selling a game. Did you do anything specific to create that?

William: Our first press release went to and that was huge traffic. Getting to know all these people and establishing these press contacts was really important. I still write individual emails to our press list rather than blasting our releases. They follow us and evangelize us.

Colin: Press is a good thing when you have your own site vs being on a portal. There’s not mixup between you and portal – you get all the benefit. The press says the game is by you, those customers know who you are and of value to you later.

William: Big advantage to having a small company. When our game first came out, we really sold ourselves, not the game. All about our backgrounds and driving people to us because of our personal story. Press people want those personal stories.

Sian: When we rolled out, we had a major deadline, we wanted to hit the IGF deadline and go live that day. We put the final touches on that game and made sure it worked up to that day. In hindsight, we should have press released and made it known as soon as our game was out. But we didn’t because we wanted to soft launch and debug. So we took a low key approach so we had time to fix problems. But then the press got a hold of it and we were overwhelmed by the response. It helped a lot once the nominations came out that we were on that list. Now we’re discussing getting it onto the distribution networks and selling it as a downloadable.

Andy: Fantastic Contraption had no press releases…

Colin: This is the big difference between going with the portal and doing it yourself. When doing it yourself, your biggest challenge is getting people to your game. Internet is the best… iPhone is more challenging. Content is solved on the internet so you can be found in a myriad of ways. Jayisgames and Stumbleupon sent me a ton of traffic. Fantastic Contraption’s main mode of spreading is by making things… so when they save a creation, they can send it to their friends via a simple URL. So they can send that item to all their friends, which drives people back to your site. It’s a genuine notion of people sharing what they’re creating. Now people are thinking about more creative ways to drive traffic back to their site. When you’re doing game design, if you are prototyping something that people want to share, then make sure you expand on that.

Andy: How did you get that early success with Puzzle Pirates?

Daniel: Puzzle Pirates was 2003, 2004, 2005 – so ancient history. Tough to draw current lessons from. Penny Arcade gave us a big bump and we still have paying subs from that, 5 years later. We are systemically crap at marketing our stuff. We are good at making them, bad at marketing them. We have done some rev share agreements with PopCap and Shockwave and Miniclip. Miniclip continues to promote us. Those deals were hard to do and have become harder to do. You’d think it would be easy, but most portals have a lot of sensitivity about the strategic value of keeping their users on their websites. We would happily use someone else’s billing platform, but most of them don’t have a billing platform that would support Puzzle Pirates subs or microtrans. Even Steam doesn’t support free to play.

Andy: Is there anything looking back that you wish went differently? Mistakes?

William: We really didn’t have a lot of thoughts about monetization. Looking back, would we have done better if we had wrapped the game and sold the exe? Hard to know. We will be doing our next game through Steam. Problem is when talking to peers about strategies is that they’re all different games – tough to draw conclusions. Another thing about a destination site is that you’re taking their money and they have no idea who you are. There is a lot you have to do there in terms of customer support. You can go another route and not do the destination site thing. More value in it though.. just a lot more work. Not as simple as just making a game.

Colin: You have to wear an incredible number of hats.

Andy: Choosing between subscription and flat fee can make or break your game. Fantastic Contraption was one of the first games to ask for money. How did you set the price?

Colin: Price point is tough. I don’t have an answer for that. I should have probably fiddled more with price points and pay walls. You should definitely take advantage of that when you have control over it. If things don’t go perfectly at launch, you can still change things. I should have done more of that on FC, but didn’t. I figured it was half as good as World of Goo so I charged half as much.

Sian: Rocketbirds sold for $10. It’s somewhere between $5-$15 and that seemed sort of right. We thought it was a good price to pay for our game. We didn’t count on the game selling worldwide. $10 US may not work in other territories. Perhaps we are pricing it too cheap? $15 might work better – it’s a full blown game, just happens to be in Flash. Once you choose a price you shouldn’t mess with it, is my belief.

Daniel: Tons of research on changing prices. People will complain, but it’s a very good idea to change prices. Steam drops some prices to $2 over Christmas – they make lots of money. Definitely the evidence is that you should experiment with price. The subtext of what Colin said about pricing is that we pull the number out of our butts. With microtrans in Puzzle Pirates we made up the initial prices due to lack of reference points at the time. Making it up is a reasonable approach, but not testing them is not reasonable. Be diligent about testing your hypotheses. As someone who is inclined to take a product-led approach – execute your genius idea and get rich – but if you are not of this approach, if you would prefer to reach a large audience, make money, have commercial success, then you really want to find out as soon as possible. So test your hypotheses as soon as you can. We didn’t do this with Whirled. We had all these hypotheses re: UGC and rev sharing that didn’t come true. We could have tested these for an order of magnitude less money than we wound up spending developing it. Lots of ways we could have found out if users would use our tools, but we didn’t. Recently we shifted our entire product development to lean development – Eric Ries, minimum viable product (ed note: definitely check this out – amazed how many people still don’t know about this). Execute, iterate, and change based on customer feedback.

William: We did come up with an answer to pricing. We took donations a week after launch and made about $10K – but don’t get false hope because that’s an abnormally high number. We found our price point by looking at the average donation. The way you bracket donations dictates the average donation. We played around with this and raised our average donation ($3) and eventually got people who would on occasion donate $100. At this point, there still was no game. We were discovering what people would pay. Tim Ferriss recommends the pre-order fake sales page to capture user purchase intent before the product is ever developed (ed note: this is another form of MVP – minimum viable product).

Daniel: You can even have a form that lets people state what they would donate, but then cut them off before they give you money and say it’s not available just yet.

Andy: SIan, did you do any testing on pricing?

Sian: Um, no I didn’t. I pulled it out of my ass.

Andy: What about advertising?

Colin: I’ve had no luck either selling ads or advertising the game itself. Not really sure why… well I sort of know. It’s hard for you if you own your own site to get the dollars… you don’t have enough traffic to get decent CPMs and can’t attract attention. If you go your own way and don’t use a portal, it’s a lot more work. It sure is, but there are a lot more advantages. Also sometimes your game may not work on a portal. Some people have tried to make their own portal, but most have failed. Hopefully you are making a game you love. Some people feel like the game they’re making chose them, rather than the other way around. If that’s the case, you should explore all your options and do testing before you spend a year in development. Be really creative in what you’re doing and don’t be afraid to try things that others are too afraid to try.

Daniel: I like eating (in reference to needing to earn money). Returning to ads… we’ve spent lots of ads over the years. The rev share deals are tough to get done but work well. We have not had success with Google but I know people who have. IMVU is the most obvious VW with ubiquitous ads. We’ve been doing a lot with FB ads lately. We’ve driven some Puzzle Pirates traffic that way. You can buy by CPC and target demographics… certain age, town, interest, etc. Very powerful ad platform. All done online – no calls to greasy salespeople. We actually tested 6 concepts by doing FB ads and landing pages and looking at click through rates and landing page conversions (pages said “coming soon”). Winning concept from all that blew away all the others by five-fold – so now we are making that game with the confidence that it is the right concept. Start by driving a small amount of traffic to your site each day – say $50 – vary your offering and measure stickiness. You don’t need to have a launch event. There’s usually an initial spike then a quick trailoff – that’s not a sustainable system for a product like ours. It’s all about long-term sustainability.

William: Actually monetizing ads on your site is pretty impossible. Building a system to target someone demographically, etc is very tough. Portals have an advantage here. This is what portals do, so if you have an ad-supported game, portals are probably your best bet. You can put the Google ads on your site, but to give you an idea of what you can make we made $1000/month initially when we went viral, but then Google found out we were a game dev and they cut us off. They didn’t want that kind of traffic. It wasn’t a viable option for us. If you’re bigger than a five person company, then go for it.

Daniel: Lots of other ad networks like Mochi – I am surprised it’s not more viable.

William: You can get great targeting with Google ads and they actually improve your SEO score so it helps your pagerank. Worth doing – you can run different sets of ads to see if the next year of your life is worth spending on this game.

Andy: If everything works out how you want, what do you think the industry will look like?

Colin: I would love to see FB act like as a massive ramp to get more and more people playing games.

Daniel: FB is interesting, but the thing to compare and contrast is the situation with casual portals and any website that is curated and managed by ppl who believe they understand their audience is a walled garden. When an audience is walled it is a less vibrant and free market than it would be otherwise. What excites me is the trend toward transparent, open markets where players can discover games for themselves via genuine word of mouth. Sometimes on a good day I feel like we’re on a fast track toward greater transparency. But on down days I feel like things like some of FB’s recent moves make it feel more like a curated platform than a wild west, free market.

Sian: I hope cloud gaming becomes more prevalent. Rocketbirds uses cloud servers to stream the data as quickly as possible. I think it’s a great way to play anywhere. I hope people will continue to do that.

William: I want to see the day when Flash games don’t get called Flash games anymore. (applause from crowd) I want to see more time spent on the game and less time spent on A/B testing and marketing. I want it to be OK just to have a game and not have it need to be called a Flash game.

Question: Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs has self-actualization at its top… despite not having reliability of steady job, has it been worth it?

Colin: Hell yeah. Easily yes. I do think that having an incredibly boring day job is a fantastic way to make a great game.

Daniel: I didn’t get paid last year, but it’s still worth it.

Sian: Same here. The reward is sharing the game with people.

Question: What is it that you’re going to do on this next project that will make it that much more successful?

William: We have a new title coming out soon. We’re going with Steam. We’re wrapping it so it doesn’t look like Flash. We’re thinking of using portals as a marketing ploy. We will have a free Flash version of the game to draw people to our site. Premium version sold through our site and Steam.

Colin: I am full speed ahead on using Flash. I want to use social interaction to get people to tell others about the game.

Daniel: We continue to do a lot of things – probably too many things. We have an MMO that will launch this year, possibly on Steam. We are very focused on the distribution opportunities. We are also doing a lot of FB stuff – we are gung-ho on that as a platform, but there a big question marks on FB. Interesting the psychology of download – why will ppl gladly hand over money for something they install vs a browser game?

Sian: We’ve noticed that performance is always an issue. Our action game is of course reliant on performance. We’d like to lower the minspec and see how low we can go.

Question: Have you thought about taking the experience to mobile? Checking leaderboards while in line at Starbucks, etc? Then go home and play on browser?

Colin: I love the idea. Playing the game online as well as playing a component of it on your phone. We have these advantages that console devs don’t have… we have the net and can take full advantage of it. We can push it a lot farther.

Daniel: We’ve not done a lot of mobile stuff. I am a big iPhone fan, but I am not a fan of the discovery process in the App Store – it’s a bit of a crapshoot. If you have a large established web property then you can drive mobile adoption. But we’re not quite big enough to do that.

Sian: One of the other benefits from us driving down our minspec is being able to deploy on mobile, console, etc.

William: I think it’s awesome, so if someone is going to do it then great. Having one game that you access in different ways from different platorms.

Colin: How about a pirate game where you build ships and fight battles on your iPhone? (directed at Daniel)

Daniel: I’ll test that. (snickers)

Question: Which wrapper, William?

William: Nprojector.

Question: What about scalability issues – how did you overcome that?

Sian: We use Amazon’s cloud service. Easy to use. Within 2 days you have your game on their server. Our game is about 100mb as a full download and you don’t want to be hosting that yourself and have it shut down when you’re successful.

Daniel: We use Amazon for all our new stuff as well. Re: how to anticipate traffic volume, ppl usually guess too high. World of Goo was run off of one box for a long time. Puzzle Pirates gets 2000 concurrent players on a single piece of hardware. So you have some breathing room. Unless you’re doing some crazy big launch event (which I suggest you don’t), then you’ve got a chance to work out the kinks.

William: If your server goes down its almost a good PR event sometimes. But be prepared to get it back up quickly if you need to. Our server went down and we went to dinner for two hours before coming back to get it online.