So here's an interesting tweet and its accompanying article
That's from Jon Lai, a partner at a16z, also known as Andreesen Horowitz, a major Venture Capital firm that invests in tech. This isn't the first investor I've seen who thinks "instant games" are the Next Big Thing, so I dug into the thread to see what piqued his interest. And sure enough, among his reasons was the sudden success of a little game called Friday Night Funkin, or "FNF" as the kids call it (not to be confused with "FNAF").
Everybody seems to be talking about this game lately.
WTF is FNF
Here are some facts about Friday Night Funkin:
- It's a web game you play in your browser.
- It's a very simple, but very stylish, take on Dance Dance Revolution
- It's played entirely with a keyboard/mouse (or touch on your phone)
- It's entirely free
- It's open source (Apache license)
- It has no microtransactions or other in-app payment whatsoever
- The official version is available ONLY on Newgrounds and Itch.io
- It has 4.4 BILLION views on TikTok
- Its music cracked the top 10 charts on Spotify and made a bunch of money from it
- It recently raised over $2M on kickstarter
None of this makes sense under the traditional models of the game industry. Nobody pays money to buy this game or unlock content for it. Further, there's no (official) version on the mobile App Stores, Steam, or home consoles. It's not remote streaming through Stadia or Luna, it's not hooked into VR, and it's not part of anything trying to be "the metaverse," the other supposed Next Big Thing. Most perplexingly to the traditional mindset, the game is not just free but open source, so nothing stops people from cloning it and making weird remixes and mods (which is exactly what they do).
In short, Friday Night Funkin is a weird little open source web browser game incubated on one of the first and now one of the very last "Flash portals", Newgrounds.com.
Plenty of people in the games industry are only becoming familiar with this game now even though its meteoric rise has been going on since last year. I myself only caught on to the trend a few months ago, and I have absolutely no excuse given multiple surprising personal connections to this game:
- It was made by an acquaintance of mine who I was in regular contact with (he'd poke me on discord asking for technical help now and then)
- I'm one of the (lesser) maintainers of the open source game engine FNF uses (HaxeFlixel)
- FNF has become the standard bearer for a "web game revival", something I've been hoping and praying for nearly a decade
- I'm a Newgrounds alum myself and saw NG founder Tom Fulp tweeting about it a bunch:
So for someone like me who was sitting 2 feet away from ground zero all along to totally miss this phenomenon until embarrassingly late in the cycle just shows you how powerful the effect of being an elder Millennial in a games industry social media bubble really is. My 15-year old nephew who isn't part of the game development scene almost certainly noticed this game before I did. Just think of all the other trends you and I are likely missing no matter how close we think we're paying attention.
What is going on?
You might say: "This isn't an easily replicable phenomenon – the FNF kids caught lightning in a bottle." And I agree – there's got to be some very specific reasons this particular web game took off like it did at exactly this particular moment that will become clear only in hindsight.
But let's return to the question FNF's success prompted:
Are "Instant Games" the future?
They could be. Partly because they're already the past and the present.
The concept, supporting technology, and execution of "instant games" are all as old as dirt. Browser games of all shapes and sizes are easily two decades old. Today we have HTML5, before that we had Flash, before that we had Shockwave and Java applets. So why all this buzz now? What's changed?
Let's talk briefly about the history of web games, then let's talk about the future.
Today, Flash is dead.
Well, sorta. The in-browser Flash player is officially end-of-life, but there's a Flash emulator called Ruffle which runs in the browser and has decent compatibility. It has a long way to go for full coverage, but is advanced enough to support full-featured games like Bullet Heaven 3, Drop Cannon, and many others – "Flash games" you can play right now, with no browser plugin! At some point every surviving Flash game may return to life once more.
On the proprietary side the two big dogs are Unreal Engine and Unity, which feature a web export option that's considerably heavier and clunkier than most open source offerings, but is presumably worth the tradeoff for more complex 3D games. These have been around for years as well.
None of the fundamental tech is particularly new, it's not like all of this was invented last year or something.
(There is a technical deficit in the lack of a unified default single-file distribution format like Flash had with SWF, but that's not a fatal flaw for HTML5 in my opinion).
We need to remember that browser games never really "went away", they just entered a period of relative decline as most of the attention (and money) shifted to mobile, Steam, and consoles. Although nearly all of Kongregate's core talent (including their CEO) have long since left the platform, somebody is still running that site and presumably eking out a profit from it. ArmorGames pivoted to becoming a publisher, but they still run their web game portal, and Newgrounds remains stubbornly independent, asking their players to support them directly, Wikipedia or NPR-style.
Let's also not forget all of the weird and crazy "dot io" games that have been around for ages. For those of you unfamiliar with the "genre", these are free, simple, web-based games that are multiplayer-flavored. I say flavored because a lot of these are "fauxltiplayer" games that are indisputably singleplayer, which simply mimic the visible affordances of multiplayer games – accounts, lobbies, game sessions, opponents with usernames floating over their heads, etc, even though it's all fake. I have to admit though, the idea of multiplayer can be a lot more fun than the harsh reality of being repeatedly defeated by vulgarity-spewing 12 year olds.
Given that all these modern web games exist, and that all these non-Flash game engines have been around for years with increasingly mature communities and toolsets built up around them, I think it's safe to say that technology alone hasn't been a significant limiting factor for why we're only just now seeing a supposed revival in "instant games."
Well, there is one thing that's helped hold back the tech side of things – an annoying old dead guy.
Screw you, Steve Jobs
If you had to conveniently blame one single person for holding up the resurgence of browser games, it would be Steve Jobs. Most of us are familiar with his infamous letter, "Thoughts on Flash" that signaled the complete shutting out of Flash on the iOS platform.
I don't want to overstate my case here, because the closure of iOS still left Android open to Flash, and we have no one but Adobe themselves to thank for Flash's failure to thrive on that platform. As beautiful as the Flash ecosystem and workflow was for many of us, the player itself was buggy, inefficient, battery-draining, and insecure. If Adobe wanted to succeed on mobile they had two choices: invest in improving the Flash player, or open source it and let the community take a hand. They did neither, retreated into the Adobe AIR platform, and put Flash on the slow road to obsolescence.
Nevertheless, Steve Jobs and his continuing legacy at Apple were full of it. Here's Steve:
"Flash bad, open web standards good," – thanks for your principled stand, Steve!
As Molleindustria expertly points out, the App store everyone is pushed towards is highly censorious, arbitrary, and self-serving. The App store guidelines themselves famously once said:
We view apps different than books or songs, which we do not curate. If you want to criticize a religion, write a book. If you want to describe sex, write a book or a song, or create a medical app.
Apparently Apple itself is one of those religions you can't criticize in an app. And should you write a book instead, you're only allowed to sell it through iBooks. Appstorification doesn't just passively influence the forms games take through business models and funding incentives, it actively dictates what people are and aren't allowed to express.
I think it's fair to say that Apple pushing people's focus away from browsers and towards App stores for the past 10 years, along with erecting technical barriers by monopolizing browser standards on the most profitable mobile handset market, is a major (but not sole) contributor to why we haven't seen more "instant games" in the past.
In any case, Steve has been dead for years now, Flash is out of the picture as a scapegoat, antitrust scrutiny looms over Apple, and HTML5 has slowly trudged forward despite Cupertino's paternalism. Meanwhile, all sorts of web games have been chugging along, mostly outside of the mainstream game press' attention. Web-capable game engines are better than they've ever been. Sites like Newgrounds are somehow still around. The time for a web game renaissance seems ripe.
Now let's talk about business dynamics and distribution.
You know why there were more flash portals in the early 2000's than you could shake a stick at? Because they were making money. And so were the people creating games for them. If you want artists to make art, let them earn money.
There were two lynchpins to this system:
- Everything was frictionless
- Everything was free
Before smartphones, Flash came pre-installed on approximately every single consumer computing device except for home consoles. No matter what kind of computer, operating system, or browser your cousin was running, you could just send her a link to a funny cartoon or game and it would Just Work™. There was no plugin to install, no executable to download, and usually not even a login prompt. And since everything was free, as soon as you clicked you were suddenly playing the game (give or take the size of the game relative to your download speeds).
The majority of these games were ultimately making money from ads, but in a pretty indirect way. Back then us game creators would sell "licenses" and "sponsorships" for our Flash games. For a fee, you'd let one of several bidders put their logo and a link to their site on your game. Then when you'd upload your game to one flash portal, all the others would "steal" your SWF file and put it up on their own sites. I say "steal" because basically everyone – developers and portals alike – actively encouraged this behavior. A few days after uploading your game to a few big sites, it would propagate to hundreds or even thousands of smaller sites to be played by a potential audience of millions.
Now that your game was everywhere, the business worked like this: your primary sponsor would have their branding by default on your game everywhere it spread, and they'd pay you for that privilege. Smaller sites might offer you a smaller amount to get a "sitelocked" version of your game with their logo – this means you'd insert code into your game to check it if was running on their site, and if so, you would show their logo, and if not, you would show the default logo – either the primary sponsor's or your own, depending on the terms you negotiated. So you'd get a big payday from your primary sponsor and potentially a lot of small paydays from smaller sponsors. What did the sponsors get out of this? Audience growth. That big "Kongregate" or "Armor Games" logo from your primary sponsor would drive traffic back to their sites from every corner of the internet and build up their audience, and the sitelocked versions for the smaller sponsors would help maintain audiences on their smaller sites. The Flash portals in turn would run ads to monetize the audiences they'd built up.
Former Kongregate CEO Emily Greer points out some important bits I've glossed over:
There's two eras of Flash sponsorships (and therefore dev revenue): before FlashGameLicense.com debuted and after.
Before FGL individual devs had to email the various portals to solicit bids, and try to negotiate things up. It was a manual, time-consuming process with very little pressure on the portals, and overall prices were low: a few hundred, maybe a few thousand per game.
Once FGL debuted it made it easy for devs to put their games out for bid and really force competition amongst the portals, and prices skyrocketed. I'd guess 10x on average? That's when devs really started to make money, especially adding ad revenue from Kong & Mochi. ["Kong" is Kongregate, "Mochi" refers to the Mochi ads platform which allowed Flash developers to insert ads into flash games]
There was a huge information imbalance between portals and dev on how much sponsorships were worth, and the benefit went to the portals until FGL. By the end sponsorships were barely breakeven for portals, and the market deflated again.
At Kong we weren't intentionally exploiting the dev, but outcomes were so binary that it made sponsorships a bit like venture capital. Either it wasn't worth anything or you made 100,000x, though it was hard to track value very precisely.
We had one early sponsorship, pre-FGL, that we paid $10k for, top end money at the time. But it was still referring hundreds of thousands of people a year to us more than 5 years later, and sent us millions at the peak.
The dev benefitted on his follow-up games which we paid much more for and they did less well, and at least on Kong he was getting good ad revenue all the way through, but he definitely missed out on upside.
Anyway tl;dr: without FGL I think the amount that Flash devs ever earned would have been drastically lower, and I think that's an important element to the story.
This wasn't a perfect system by any means, but it made some interesting and special things possible.
The Minor League of Game Development
I often call the old flash game scene the "minor league" of game development, and it's tragic that we lost it. For a brief period, there was an easy on-ramp for game development where you could make a mediocre game and make a mediocre amount of money while you built up your skills and make friends who would become collaborators. You'd be surprised how many of today's indie superstars started out slinging Flash games – Edmund McMillen and the folks behind The Behemoth being two obvious examples. Add in the fact that Flash itself allowed artists and other non-coders to throw something together quickly, and sites like Newgrounds fostering a deep culture of collaboration, and you had an explosion of creativity and innovation.
I fear that the "professional" game industry doesn't know or doesn't care that we've lost this minor league. Just making a bunch of cool weird stuff on your own and putting it out there is a lot less viable now than it used to be, and it's not because there's "too many developers" now, because the Flash scene was plenty crowded.
Now, I don't want to over-romanticize the Flash days. The sponsorship model of a flat up-front payment imposed a ceiling – if you spent too long on a game, even if it was a record-breaking hit you might end up earning less than minimum wage on an hourly basis. You saw developers like Nerdook who became experts at pumping out games with just the right amount of work to be super interesting and fun without wasting any time.
The main limitation of the sponsorship model was that it was a speculative up-front payment based on how much your game was expected to earn before it came out, rather than being tied to its actual performance. This meant that underwhelming-looking games that went on to be breakout hits lost their opportunity for a big payday, and impressive-looking duds got overpriced.
On the other hand, it encouraged developers to release a lot of stuff and iterate quickly, with the developers' own reputations becoming the outsized factor driving sponsorship prices.
The non-gatekept, distributed nature of the Flash scene promoted a lot of diversity in who was making the games, including a lot of participation from a group I like to call "people not from Europe or North America." This little-known category of humans comprises more than 80% of the Earth's population and yet consistently gets left out of most mainstream conversations about "diversity."
Now, anyone could have predicted the rise of China in the game industry, but what about say, Malaysia and Indonesia? Nerdook is from the former, TOGE productions from the latter, two places you never used to associate with game development, that now have budding gamedev scenes, thanks in no small part to Flash games.
As for business models, in the latter days of the Flash era developers started evolving beyond sponsorships and ads; the original Fantastic Contraption was a Flash game that earned six figures from a demo-upsell model, which inspired me to try the same thing with Defender's Quest: Valley of the Forgotten, launching my own career.(Yes, Defender's Quest 2 will ship before I die, check this blog for monthly updates).
Asian-style web MMO's and idle games followed, along with microtransactions and more sophisticated ad-based monetization schemes. Not all of the new business models were benign, but my point is there was a lost future where mobile and PC gaming took the web itself for granted as the default distribution method, with a base culture of amateur development and collaboration providing a smooth on ramp to more professionalized studios.
Instead, the independent web gave way to enclosed proprietary platforms. Let's leave aside for the moment all the very important and worthy discussions about the high revenue share taken by platforms, the arbitrary rule of discovery algorithms, and all the rest of it, and just look at some fundamental outlines. Even with a hypothetically omnibenevolent altruistic distribution platform, the shape of it alone filters what kinds of games even get made in the first place.
Price is one such filter. I know from my experience running GameDataCrunch that the $5 and $10 price points on Steam are sticky, so anyone trying to sell their game for money has to convince players it's worth at least that much, and the difference in expectations that comes from going from $0 to $1, let alone $5, is enormous. Flash games really thrived on low barriers to entry and low expectations – with the minimum expectation being "$5 worth of game" on platforms like Steam, there are entire categories and genres that are no longer worth making in the first place. Sure, there are free and free-to-play games on platforms like Steam, but it's a far cry from an ecosystem where every game is free and the platforms themselves are effectively commissioning the content.
Promotion is another filter. On modern platforms smaller games have to compete directly with professional AAA games for attention and promotion. You could always decamp to a smaller space explicitly built around smaller weirder games like Itch.io, but until recently, nobody's made much of a living that way because it hasn't traditionally had the customer base to support it (FNF is the first breakout hit that signals this might be changing).
The third filter is expectations. Have you noticed how aggressively and intentionally crappy the production value is for most TikTok videos? Some guy will just do a skit with two characters, playing both parts himself and holding a mop on his head as a makeshift wig to signify when he's playing the second character. The Flash scene cultivated a similar aesthetic of low expectations. This made players more than willing to try all kinds of things – it only costs a click, after all – and they were constantly surprised and delighted by what they found.
I'm not saying I'm pining for the days when we supported ourselves by selling logos on our title screens. I'm just emphasizing how available business and distribution models constrain the very shape of the creations that working artists make.
Distribution and Platform Power
Let's talk about the affordances of distribution. What do home consoles, app stores, and PC download stores like Steam and Epic Games have in common? Generally, these four steps to download and play any game:
- Follow a link to the game
- Register/login to a user account
- Add a credit card number (at least the first time)
- Wait for the game to download & install
(Readers of Piracy and the Four Currencies will recognize the "money-dollar", "time-dollar", and "pain-in-the-butt-dollar" costs here)
In theory you can still buy physical games on consoles, but you often still have to connect to the internet, login, and download a bunch of patches (not to mention driving to a store to buy a disc in the first place).
Okay, but what about "cloud native" streaming services like Stadia, Luna, etc? Here's what that entails:
- Follow a link to the game
- Register/login to a user account
- Add a credit card number (at least the first time)
You don't have to wait for the game to download, because it's just streaming from a remote server. You do, however, have to login to an account, even if they offer free tiers of play, because these businesses must limit access to registered users or else choke under bandwidth costs. I don't think people fully appreciate this – there's a hard 1:1 relationship between peak players and the number of remote gaming machines in the data center, all behind a mandatory login wall to keep them from getting DDOS'ed. And that's without considering other persistent drawbacks like input latency, thanks to those pesky laws of physics.
Finally, here's the distribution affordances of "instant games":
- Follow a link to the game
With an optional "2. Wait for the game to download" depending on how big the payload is. Adding a credit card number could come at some point, but it's not a foregone conclusion depending on the business model.
One of the most crucial affordances of "instant games" is that you don't need to register an account or login just to play. You just click and play it in your local browser.
The dilemma for hosting platforms with "instant games" is that they really want players to sign up for accounts because otherwise you have no way to monetize them other than low-grade ads. Back in the golden era of Flash, portals would pay cash incentives to developers like me to make site-specific versions of our games with an exclusive goodie or two that was only available for logged-in players.
Incumbent platforms like Facebook, Amazon, Steam, etc, start with an advantage because they already have users' credit card information on file and many of those users are perpetually logged in. The developers who supply these platforms with content, on the other hand, have no idea who their own customers are, no way to contact them, and certainly don't have their billing information. The only leverage the developer has is to threaten to take their games elsewhere – but the customers aren't loyal to them, they're loyal to the platform. And even for those customers that would follow the developer, there's no way to contact them en masse without the platform's say-so. If the developer owned the customer relationship, they could move to another distributor with uninterrupted service to their customers.
This is how Substack and Ghost work for newsletters/blogs, and Supercast for podcasts. These services give creators control over their subscribers' contact info and billing. In Substack's case, it integrates with Stripe, so if you decide to leave you can keep billing your customers through Stripe (I'm not sure if you're permanently locked into Stripe itself though, or if you have direct access to credit card numbers, which could be its own thorny issue).
Platforms jealously guard control of the customer relationship because why wouldn't they? Power is money. For more on this see Dan Cook's excellent The Game of Platform Power.
Giving developers explicit "Exit rights" to a platform is contrary to the dominant business models of the last 10 years, but it's one of the only ways an upstart platform can compete against the entrenched behemoths and their well-dug moats. Platforms like Substack seem vulnerable to a creator exodus, but it is precisely this projection of vulnerability that makes it compelling for writers to sign up in the first place – what have you got to lose? If you don't like the deal, just leave, and take your audience with you. Substack is betting on providing a compelling enough service that all their content creators will stay of their own free will. What a concept!
Joel Spolsky wrote about this phenomenon in Strategy Letter III where he pointed out that what helped Microsoft beat Lotus 123 was not Excel's ability to read Lotus spreadsheets, but to write them as well. You see, people who wanted to use Excel still had colleagues that used Lotus 123, and being able to save out documents their colleagues could read on their own machines lowered the cost of switching to Excel. Of course, as soon as Microsoft got established they were more than happy to embrace, extend, and extinguish.
Look – I know a lot of people love Apple in particular precisely because of how vertically integrated and gate-keepery their platforms are. And as a customer I definitely find a lot of value in platforms like Nintendo Switch and Steam. You are more than welcome to continue liking specific platforms for whatever reason you want as a consumer. But this is how platform economics works. Once a platform becomes sufficiently entrenched in a space you simply cannot compete with them on features alone – your only options are to boil the ocean with money (see So You Want to Compete with Steam and part 2), or hope you can flip the table and change the rules of the game, what the tech folks call "disruption." Substack, Ghost, and Supercast are trying that in their spaces, and "instant games" might – might – be an opportunity to do it in games.
What Happens Next?
What happens next depends a lot on how the resurgence is funded and supported and it can take one of two main paths – creator-led, or big-platform-led. I sincerely hope for the former, I cynically fear the latter.
Here's some potential business models for "instant games":
- Microtransactions / F2P
- Free demo w/ premium upsell
- Subscriptions & direct support
- Crypto bullshit
- Something weird and novel
I think we're going to see all of the above until something sticks. Ads, microtransactions, F2P, free demo + premium upsell are all things we've seen before and I expect to see again, so rather than retreading those, let's talk a bit about things that might be different this time:
Subscriptions & Direct Support
Those of you who follow me on twitter know I've been saying "The Subscriptionularity is Near" for years now, which is just my way of observing that Subscriptions seem to have gone from an interesting trend to a dominant business model not just in the tech industry but throughout the economy.
Substack, Ghost, and Supercast as I've mentioned earlier are subscription based services. All of which brand themselves as ways to "directly support" their creators through what we've now come to call the "patronage" model. Patreon famously popularized this model, as their name implies. Patreon has a little bit of extra lock-in, however – although you can take your customer email list with you, Patreon directly processes their subscriptions, so you can't seamlessly move them over to a new provider the way you can with Substack without mass-notifying them all and asking them to unsubscribe from Patreon and re-subscribe somewhere else.
It's not as easy as you might think to implement such a system because you need to bake it into the fundamental design of your service and also properly manage your customers' expectations and privacy concerns – do they think of themselves as having a relationship with the service or with the creator? The original version of the Epic Games Store included an opt-out checkbox on purchase of a game to share your email address with the game's developer, a developer-friendly move, but nonetheless one that likely ran afoul of Europe's GDPR law. The checkbox was quickly changed to opt-in, resulting in devs collecting only a fraction of the email addresses.
It's easy to foresee a subscription/direct-support model being applied to "Instant Games" in the model of Substack and whatnot. In fact, this is entirely possible already through services like Patreon and well... Substack! If you wanted to build up your own business as a purveyor of instant games and you want people to give you money directly and you notify them by email whenever you put out something new, all the tools are already there. Find a place to host your game, a way to notify people about them, and a way to collect payments and just build your own business model. However, given that even "instant" games take a lot longer to make than writing a newsletter, I don't expect this to be easy for anyone who doesn't already have a huge following.
But there's another way subscriptions could change the face of "instant games." The trick is whether subscriptions get applied at the platform level, in the oft touted "Netflix of Games" model, or at the creator level. We've seen with Stadia that developers and publishers were able to exercise enough leverage to keep Stadia from being able to offer a subscription that gave you access to all of the games for one flat monthly fee – instead, you still have to buy all the games individually on top of the subscription fee. Even worse (for the player), the games only live in Stadia, you can't play them anywhere else. XBox Game Pass, on the other hand, is steadily building an empire by offering payouts to developers left and right, getting anyone and everyone to provide games for their lucrative subscription service. In this way XBox Game Pass bears at least a passing resemblance to the old Flash game sponsorship system.
A true "Netflix of Games" subscription model is something developers speak of mostly in fear. This model unmoors the traditional performance metric – sales – from payment and basically lets the platform rationalize any payment scheme it wants. This includes intentionally obfuscating what % of total subscription fees go to the platform and what goes to developers in aggregate – if there's no concept of "sales" how are you supposed to know if you're getting your fair share? The platform isn't going to tell you how well everybody else is doing, so it'd be way easier for them to take a lot more than 30% of all the subscription fees without any of its developers being wise to it. The most "objective" metric a developer can hope for in this system is to be paid proportionately to time played, which would incentivize games to clock as much playtime as possible above all other design considerations.
I guarantee you we're going to see a bunch of "instant game" startups leveraging cryptocurrencies and blockchain. This essay is long enough already so I won't bore you with my takedowns of crypto, but I'll summarize it briefly: I read the original Bitcoin whitepaper the day it came out, and a lot of other technical material on cryptocurrency since. I can honestly say I understand the fundamental technology on a level well above that of the median crypto-booster, who often can't tell me the definition of fundamental terms like "nonce" or "Byzantine consensus."
I was excited when Bitcoin was first announced and I've spent the subsequent decade become more and more disappointed finding that the only things blockchain provably excels at are fraud, waste, and crime. Crypto is a shell game that tries to impress you with technical wizardry while leaving out how reality actually interfaces with the system. For one, it's not a currency and there's no indication it ever will be, "Stablecoins" or no. For two, it's two chief "features" – perpetual deflation and irreversibility – are the exact opposites of things I want in a digital currency. As for the blockchain itself, all anyone ever "owns" on a blockchain is a number in a database, and at best, that trustless decentralized database at some point has to communicate with a trusted, centralized system that embodies the valuable thing I actually care about. And that's without considering hard-forks to the ledger, 51% attacks, and naive "smart contracts" eternally vulnerable to overly literal genies (or as I like to call them, "computers").
Monetization alone isn't enough to determine what the shape of "instant games" will take. Distribution is the other half of the puzzle.
The web itself is a distribution platform. The advantage of "instant games" is all they need is a link and nearly anyone on nearly any device can play them.
But how will people find the game in the first place?
It's not hard to imagine that the next logical step for social media platforms is to build instant games directly into themselves. Of course this is nothing new and has already happened – Facebook games were an entire industry back in the Flash days, and as far back as 2016 the house of Zuckerberg was looking to copy the trend of "instant games" embedded directly in Chinese messenger apps. The natural move for dominant platforms is to stack the deck in their own favor and keep developers and players in-house, designing games entirely around proprietary API's that don't work anywhere else, and hoarding the customer relationship for themselves. It would just be Facebook Games 2.0. Expect to see this all over Discord, Twitch, Twitter, TikTok, etc, in the future.
Now, platforms exist for a reason. They provide an economy of scale. It's easier to login to one site and give them your credit card information just once and remember it than to do that for each individual creator. It's also easier to discover new content in one place, and aggregating multiple creators together keeps the flow of content steady regardless of each individual's pace of production. The problem is that without exit rights and open formats, the platform holder has all the power.
Have you heard of Roblox? It's the other Hot New Thing that's actually been around for over a decade and that your 15-year old nephew knows more about than you do.
Roblox is an integrated 3D game environment, toolkit, and platform. Anyone can make a game inside of the Roblox platform using a proprietary toolkit and share it with other Roblox players. Players can spend in-game money to customize avatars that are persistent between games, as well as on games themselves, so there's the promise of being able to "make a living" making Roblox games. And some people are apparently doing this.
The challenge to that narrative long term is that Roblox is not profitable despite its massive valuation ($45 billion!). Roblox used to take a 90% cut of developers' earnings if they had non-premium user accounts, but they've changed that to 30% across the board regardless of premium status. It should also be mentioned that despite their massive revenues, payment processing to platforms like Apple and Google account for 26% of Roblox's total bookings. I guess the investor narrative is that it's okay that they're not making any money because they're currently plowing everything into growth and once they reach a large enough scale they'll magically be able to turn on the profit spigot?
In any case, it doesn't matter. Someone's going to to make this model work if they aren't already, whether it's Roblox or Fortnite or Minecraft or Core or Atomontage or any number of other contenders.
EDIT: Former Kongregate CEO Emily Greer tells me that Roblox not being "profitable" is mostly an artifact of accounting structure:
One thing to clarify on Roblox is that it is actually profitable by any common sense accounting, but GAAP accounting rules required for public companies just make it look like it's not. They were designed for other industries and do some bizarre stuff on free to play. Basically GAAP require them to book their revenue not when a purchase is made, but to spread it out over the expected life of a customer, which on a platform with high retention is years. But the developer share payments have to be expensed immediately.
We had to deal with a less extreme version of the same problem at Kongregate, and when you're growing rapidly it makes your financials look terrible. If you look at their cash flow you can get a truer picture of their profitability, and they made something like $200M last year.
To be clear I've only looked at the high level of Roblox financials, I'm not an expert. I think the dev payments are being expensed immediately but I don't know for sure. But the revenue spread is 100% happening and has a huge impact.
Fans of Snow Crash and Ready Player One call this trend "The Metaverse" – a persistent "virtual shared space," a sort of super-MMO that isn't about any one particular kind of game or theme, and is envisioned as a successor to the comparatively flat and unembodied traditional web.
Another term for this trend is "Robloxification" – creating a compelling multimedia game or experience platform tied to a proprietary ecosystem as part of a digital platform strategy. Flash was of course a proprietary creator toolset relying on proprietary playback technology, but crucially Adobe was never able to enclose the rest of the ecosystem into a proprietary platform. Roblox on the other hand has all four pieces in place - creation tools, playback engine, content discovery platform, and marketplace, all in one.
Despite not being profitable, Roblox is unquestionably a force to be reckoned with. If it could run its games in a browser, it could be unstoppable. However, as of today if you try to play a Roblox game on a PC while not logged in you will see this:
And even after you've logged in, you'll have to download the Roblox application to proceed any further:
The situation is the same on mobile:
Roblox doesn't meet my definition of "instant games" for the time being because it has too much friction. Same goes for Fortnite. That said, Roblox and its ilk have a built in advantage by having so many users already using the app. I'm actually kind of surprised Roblox hasn't built out a web player yet. I wonder if that's due to the technical constraints of it being a surprisingly old technology not built with the web in mind, or because they know they'll fall out of favor with Apple if they try to route around the App store.
Robloxification continues apace on other major platforms like Fortnite and Minecraft. I don't know if you can play modern Minecraft in a browser, but I definitely remember playing the original version in a java applet, and you can play this extremely old version as a web game. I don't see any reason why Microsoft couldn't jump on the bandwagon with "instant Minecraft."
Okay, so some people are going to do cool things, some people are going to do bad things. But what do I want?
We must Distribute the means of Distribution
Too much capitalism does not mean too many capitalists, but too few capitalists
The problem is not private ownership itself, but the concentration of private ownership. I want a future with lots of little owners rather than a few big owners who sit back and collect rent off everybody else.
I want us to own our tools, have the right to profit off our own creations, own our relationship with our own customers, and most importantly, own the means of distribution. That means platforms that creators have a direct stake in, or platforms that everybody has a stake in by belonging to no one but the commons.
You might be familiar with such a platform already, it's called the World Wide Web, and if the AOL's and Microsoft's of the world had had their way, it never would have happened.
The question is who owns the platforms, and how they're directed. Not every platform is destined to enter the "extract" phase. To return to Friday Night Funkin, the two platforms that incubated it, Itch.io, and Newgrounds, are not traditional profit-oriented businesses. To my knowledge, Itch is profitable, but also a lifestyle company whose goal is just to make enough to sustain its creator's personal and ideological goals. Itch.io lets you choose whatever percent you want of revenue share that goes to them, even 0%. Meanwhile, Newgrounds relies directly on its members to support the site.
What both of these sites have in common is that they are developer-oriented hubs with collaboration and the celebration of creation itself as a primary goal, with profit and business as secondary concerns.
I do not think it is a coincidence that Friday Night Funkin emerged on these platforms, and not on Steam, Xbox, or iPhone.
- The creators themselves were incubated and "trained" by Newgrounds' innately collaborative, developer-oriented culture
- The technology (HTML5, Haxe+OpenFL+HaxeFlixel) was provided by open source software whose gradual improvement is not fundamentally tied to for-profit company schedules or priorities
- Social media platforms like TikTok were happy to ride the wave alongside it, and have not yet enclosed the commons
- The game was able to do an end-run around gatekept platforms, reaching players directly in all sorts of strange ways
Some might quibble with #2, but my point is just that proprietary tech like Flash literally lives or dies at the whims of a company like Adobe. HaxeFlixel itself is a testament to this – before HaxeFlixel there was Flixel, a Flash-based open source game engine originally written by Adam "Atomic" Saltsman. When Flash died, Flixel became obsolete, but because the code was open source nothing stopped HaxeFlixel's fearless leader Alexander Hohlov from forking it, porting it to Haxe, and attracting a new community to carry it forward because he didn't need anyone's permission to do so.
As for point #3, we all remember what happened with Facebook, as the cartoon I posted earlier illustrates. As Dan Cook puts it in "The Game of Platform Power", sites like TikTok are in the "engage" phase where they still need developers' help to scale and have yet to move on to the overtly malevolent "extract" phase.
Point #4 is what I can't stop thinking about. For a real creator-driven economy to flourish with instant games, we must do our best to stay one step ahead of the platforms without becoming dependent on them. Ideally we would make them dependent on us. Now, I'm not anti-business, and I'm happy to work with anyone in good faith to advance shared goals. Sites like Substack, Ghost, and Supercast give me some hope that developers might be able to at least retain some leverage in this next iteration, as does the increasing Antitrust scrutiny bearing down on the consolidated platforms seeking to coast on network effects and vertical integration.
It's precisely on this last point that my dissatisfaction with Blockchain has its root – not in aggressive opposition, but profound disappointment. Believe me, I want to believe in the advent of a decentralized currency that does a complete end-run around banks and financial institutions, powering peer-to-peer trustless transactions and fostering a golden age of creator-led, platform-agnostic creativity. The problem is all the evidence strongly shows that blockchain is precisely none of these things, and in many ways actually empowers a lot of the very actors it was supposed to disrupt.
Returning to Friday Night Funkin, I think it's really important to realize that all of the natural tendencies of proprietary platforms work against all of the things that made it go massively viral. This game did not blow up despite being a free, open source, web game, it blew up precisely because of those things.
Being free and on the web reduced the friction and made it easy to distribute on any number of channels, including ones the developer didn't originally predict, while being open source meant anyone who wanted to make some weird remix didn't need permission to do so, and collaborative internet culture took it from there, producing endless fodder for fan content on Newgrounds, Itch, and TikTok.
The traditional big tech approach to this kind of thing is a vertically integrated stack with discovery, marketplace, creation tools, and playback all rolled into one proprietary system that they own and you don't. This tight-fisted grip wants to capture as much value from the ecosystem as possible, but by squeezing so firmly chokes out the very breath needed for it to thrive in the first place.
We've been here before. Let's learn from it.