The Holy Grail of Digital Distribution
Cross-posted on Gamasutra. Twitter handle: @larsiusprime
The challenge of being an independent developer is that so much of your game's success is out of your control. There's no Department of Internet Money where you can present your neatly wrapped Cool New Thing and be justly rewarded with crisp thousand-dollar bills.
Instead, you can either self-publish or work with one of the many third party stores. Either way, you're still going to have to do a lot of marketing work yourself - and even if you get onto a major platform like Steam, success isn't guaranteed.
Perhaps one glorious day, an online store will descend from the Heavens that lets anyone submit a game, immediately approves it, presents it to an enormous audience, and lets the game succeed or fail on its merits alone. Brother will no longer fight against and brother, the lion will lay down with the lamb, and a bright new age of meritocracy will shine down upon us all. Also chocolate ponies. Amen.
Until that magical day comes (if it ever does), marketing, networking and all those other "businessy" skills will be just as important to a developer's success as the quality of her game. Furthermore, the perception that you have to sit at the same lunch table as the Indie "in-crowd" to succeed will persist (regardless of whether that perception is true).
Will this glorious day ever arrive? I wouldn't count on it. My advice to any would-be developers is to stop asking for permission to succeed. Don't wait for someone to come along and fulfill your dreams or make you the next Cinderella stories - make games, share them with the world, learn some business stuff, and do your best to make it work.
But you know what? It's nice to dream. What if this magical store really is possible after all? I'll give you a hint: there's already something out there that's not too far from the dream, and chances are you've already used it.
What We Want
First, let's talk about what we're looking for. This magical dream store must:
- Have a low barrier to entry
- Reward merit with financial success
- Connect developers to a large audience
Sounds great! However, these goals might not be compatible. Let's look at today's landscape.
Curated stores like Steam have a small number of hand-picked, high quality titles that are lavished with individual attention and promotion. This is beneficial for both developer and customer - customers get great games, affordable prices, and excellent service, while developers get a huge audience both ready and willing to pay for their games.
The downside, of course, is that everyone wants to get onto Steam and there's simply not room for them all. Even if Steam could reliably sift through their mountain of submissions, separating the undiscovered gems from the thousands of Minesweeper clones, there still wouldn't be room for all the great games that want to get in. Steam is pretty close to our magic dream store in many aspects, except for the fact that you have a snowball's chance in hell of actually getting on there.
The App Store
On the other end of the spectrum, you have services like the App Store, which accept just about anyone who applies. Not surprisingly, the App Store is flooded with games. Even worse, Apple shows no interest in fixing the store's fundamentally broken discovery channels. This forces developers to compete for slots on the "top app" charts, and leaves customers poking around in the dark, passing over countless games they would have loved.
Among other problems, the store is plagued by "race to the bottom" pricing. The only reliable path to success is to get on the charts, the most important of which are "most downloaded" and "most sold." Your game can't be "most downloaded" unless it's free, and your game can't be "most sold" unless it's 99 cents.
This design pushes developers towards the free-to-play business model. Free-to-play is fine and good, but it stinks that the store intentionally excludes a wider range of pricing models (The situation is somewhat better on the iPad, which can actually support games at various different price points).
There's also no way to sort the games by user rating, and search functionality is awful. Given Apple's obsessive attention to design, there's every reason to believe these decisions are intentional. Apple treats games like commodities, which drives developers to compete for visibility, which in turn drives down prices, which provides customers with a pile of affordable, disposable apps. Every once in a while, Apple hand-picks a new "featured App" to be the next Cinderella Story, keeping hope alive for the next wave of developers.
The App Store falls far short of our magical ideal - it's easy to get onto the store, but success has a lot more to do with chance than merit, and game design choices are limited by Apple's preferred business models. Those that succeed despite these challenges usually have a focused marketing effort outside of the App Store itself.
A Different Way
It seems like there's some fundamental trade-offs at work here. A strongly curated store like Steam or Xbox Live Arcade can be good for both customers or developers, but the bigger the store's audience, the harder it is to get accepted. On the other hand, open stores like the App Store or Android Market will take just about anybody, but it's up to the developer (or the winds of fate) to actually reach that store's audience.
Couldn't there be some store that lets pretty much anyone submit a game, without drowning customers in a river of shovelware, or leaving developers up a creek without a paddle?
I think there is.
It's called Kongregate.
Full disclosure: The lead designer of Defender's Quest, Anthony Pecorella, also works for Kongregate. We started working together when he was looking for a programmer, and found a popular game on Kong that I had written.
Now, as I said before, the magical store from the heavens doesn't exist yet. Kongregate falls a bit short of the ideal, but it's leading the way.
What is Kongregate?
Kongregate is one of many free flash game portals on the internet. Flash developers (like me) make games, and then distribute them to the public through these portals - the biggest ones being Kongregate, Newgrounds, and Armor Games.
Most portals run ads to make money, some of which they share with developers. A few portals support games with microtransactions, which lets developers sell virtual goods with a small cut going to the portal. Developers can also make money from sponsorship deals, where a portal pays a flat fee to brand a game with their logo. Kongregate has the best developer support in the business - they were the first site that I know of to share ad revenue, they have the best microtransaction system, and their support staff is both friendly and helpful.
Even so, there's not much to see here. Flash portals have been around a long time and most of the scene's developers aren't rolling in dough. Here's what makes Kongregate different.
Kongregate has, hands down, some of the best discovery in the business. If you create a game that Kong's audience will enjoy, it will succeed, because the players that love it will find it almost as soon as it's uploaded. This is not the case on the App Store - there are lots of iOS games that the audience would love, but will never find.
Kongregate's excellent discovery consists of a simple and powerful user rating system, excellent search functionality, lots of categories, and an easy-to-navigate website. In stark contrast to the app store, the user rating is the primary way in which games are sorted and displayed to the player. These ratings come directly from players, who can only vote once each, but can change their vote at any time. By tying visibility chiefly to "how much players like this game" rather than any other metric, Kongregate gives each game the best possible chance of succeeding on its own merits.
This makes many undiscovered gems rise to the surface that any curated platform would dismiss. A good example is Shopping Cart Hero, which can only be described as "ugly as sin," but has nevertheless earned a loyal fan base and over five million plays on Kongregate alone.
(To be perfectly fair, Newgrounds created an excellent discovery engine first. Kongregate built on the idea and laser-focused it on games.)
Sifting out the Crap
Since Kongregate will accept pretty much anything, a whole lot of crap gets uploaded to the system. This includes outright broken games, plagiarized games, and semi-interactive slideshows of pornography or disturbing images. The worst of these are pre-screened by site admins, and anything that doesn't violate the terms of service goes into a holding pen with minor visibility. These games are held off of the main site while they are "under judgment" until they get enough user ratings for an initial score. In this way, Kongregate itself imposes as little value judgment on submissions as possible.
As of this writing, Kongregate boasts "57,941 free games!" About 1% of those have a score greater than 4.0 stars, and only 14% have a score above 3.0. All of the games on the front page are among these high-scorers, and the site keeps things fresh by with weekly and monthly categories for top-rated new material.
The most important part of this procedure is that it is not arbitrary. Subjective taste is still involved, to be sure, and it doesn't mean some "good" game won't get passed over - it just means that the audience itself is the final arbiter of what's good or bad, not an accident of the platform's design, or the whim of a curator individually picking the winners and losers.
That said, Kongregate does give personal, curated attention to select titles by featuring them on the front page, and giving them "badges" for players to earn (when a game gets badges, it's swarmed with players). Unlike the "featured" games on Steam or iOS, however, there's a degree of objectivity to these selections - featured games must meet a minimum rating score to qualify, and there's usually few enough of these that Kongregate can just pick the top three or four out of the latest batch of games.
Finally, Kongregate has started experimenting with a Netflix-style recommendation engine, where it uses your rating information to show you other games you might like, offsetting the mass-appeal bias of the global user rating.
Kongregate has a huge audience, provides a great service to their players, and a top-notch discovery system. What more could you want?
Well, the one thing holding Kongregate back from being the store to end all stores is that... it isn't a store :)
Most of the games are free, and they've only recently begun experimenting with microtransactions. Furthermore, their focus is browser-based games, rather than downloadable titles or stand-alone apps. They have, however, expanded well beyond flash games, and now support Unity, Java, and HTML5.
Kongregate has been particularly successful with free-to-play flash MMO's, such as Spiral Knights and Realm of the Mad God. The more traditional format that we see on Steam, giving away a free demo to sell a premium game - has only been used in a few Kongregate games so far. Successful examples include our own game, Defender's Quest, as well as the strategy fan-favorite Creeper World. While Defender's Quest did well with this model, we took a hit to our review score because some players didn't like the fact that it was a demo. Creeper World, on the other hand, managed to drives sales and avoid any backlash to their business model.
As these experiences attest, there's potential here, regardless of whether your business model is traditional or free-to-play. Given that Kongregate's parent company, GameStop, also owns the more traditional digital distribution platform Impulse (a Steam Competitor), I can see some potential synergy.
My magical meritocratic game store hasn't arrived yet, and it might not ever, but I think there's hope.
Today's stores each have their pros and cons - Steam is awesome but inaccessible, whereas iOS is open, but crowded and arbitrary. Kongregate comes the closest by accepting everyone, and then dutifully sorting the wheat from the chaff and directing players to the games they'll love. The only missing piece - and it's a big piece - is turning it into an actual store.
Who knows what Kongregate will do - I have no idea if this business move would actually be good for them (although it would certainly be good for me!). Furthermore, there's no reason someone else couldn't build the magic dream store, building on Kongregate's model just as Kongregate built on Newgrounds'.
There are a few "indie" alternatives to Steam like Indievania that are taking steps in this direction, but are still relatively small. Kongregate's main advantage is that it already has a huge audience.
Regardless of who actually does it, however, the outlines of the blueprint have been drawn. There's still a lot of work to be done, but I don't think the dream is impossible anymore. Someday, someone might make an online game store that lets anyone succeed if their game is good enough.
A man can dream, right?
Kongregate: if you're reading this, feel free to use these ideas. In exchange, please send one (1) billion of your Earth Dollars to my orbital battle-station, c/o the Department of Internet Money.
Newgrounds: forget Kongregate! I always loved you best. Please send me a thousand squadrons of tanks, piloted by your witty and insightful Tank Men(TM). With them we will conquer the world and remake it in our glorious image.