A place for indie developers

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As George Carlin used to say, everybody needs a place for their stuff.

But finding a place for game developers' "stuff" -- somewhere where they can show off their wares, get a little exposure and perhaps some cash to boot -- hasn't always been so easy.

In general, the Web portals that are in business to sell casual games aren't interested in fledgling developers. And, until recently, there's been no equivalent of YouTube for games -- a site where anybody can upload a game they have built, have it scrutinized by the gaming public and perhaps make a name for themselves.

Then along came Kongregate.com.

At the moment, gamers can find approximately 960 browser-based casual games on the site, the majority posted by amateur game developers.

"Many of them tend to be teams of two college kids -- one a programmer in, say, a dorm on the East Coast and the other perhaps an artist on the West Coast," explains Jim Greer. "Some of them are older but, if they are older, most aren't making games full-time."

Greer is the company's CEO and co-founder, along with his sister, Emily. This is his 16th year in the games industry, having been at Electronic Arts' Pogo.com Web site for the last 4 and a half, most recently as technical director.

Last year, Greer set out to create a site that not only attracts gamers but gives them plenty of reasons to stick around. Kongregate.com, he says, has been designed to be a social networking site that provides the same sort of accoutrements that make similar Web destinations so enticing.

In addition to playing games and voting for their favorites, visitors can create profiles, hook up with friends, engage in text chat and participate in challenges that earn them points and virtual collectibles.

"There are lots of sites where you can play games and then leave," says Greer, "which, if you can imagine, is sort of like playing 'World of Warcraft' and then having to start from scratch the next time you log on. On those sites, there's no persistence of any kind. On Kongregate.com, however, you get involved in the games and can then show off to all your friends how well you did. Everything you do on our site earns you points which contribute to your leveling up. Other sites may be fun, but they don't take advantage of gamers' desires to show off and be able to revel in their most glorious moments. Xbox Live lets you do that and that's why it's been so successful."

Kongregate.com formally entered its beta testing phase at the end of March and, while no date has been set for its official launch, it has already attracted half a million monthly unique visitors. The average time they spend on the site is 40 minutes, for which they pay nothing to play.

"We're one heck of a great deal," says Greer, "especially when you consider that if you go to a site like Pogo.com -- where there are also games and buddy lists and badges to collect -- you pay $40 a year to subscribe."

Which brings up the question of how Kongregate.com intends to make money, especially since Greer is proud of the fact that he is sharing revenue with the developers who provide him content and still retain their own intellectual property.

Currently Greer has about 400 developers who, on the average, have each posted two to three games. Each month, he divvies up his revenue; each developer's share is based on how many times his game was played and how tightly he integrates his game with the site. In addition, bonuses are doled out to those whose games receive the most votes from visitors to the site.

"The bonuses total about $8,000 a month, and the top game gets $1,500," he says. "It's difficult to say what the average developer receives. I mean, they're not all equally talented; some are really, really good, and some of them are, well, 12-year-olds."

At the moment Kongregate.com is entirely advertising supported, although Greer is mulling over the idea of charging for micro-transactions.

"We're considering working with our best developers to create exclusive games for us," he reveals, "which may include a few free maps and then we'd charge $2 or $3 to unlock an additional 10 maps. Our intention is to be primarily a free site, but we may decide to charge for a few things that visitors will see as being a good value. We're still sorting all that out."

He admits that no developer is yet making a killing from the check he gets from Kongregate.com.

"We're still a relatively small site," he says, "but we're growing. And when we get to two million to three million monthly unique visitors, then we'll start to be interesting to brands that want to target their ads to a young male market."

But while observers such as Simon Carless are impressed with what Kongregate.com has achieved so far, he has some doubts as to how successful the site will be, especially since Kongregate.com focuses specifically on Flash and Shockwave games which can all be played in a Web browser with no downloading necessary. Carless is editorial director of "Game Developer" magazine and its sister Web site, Gamasutra.com.

"There are some really big advantages to browser-based games," Carless says, "and some disadvantages. On the plus side, the games are incredibly easy to access and that makes the site very immediate and user-driven. Developers can just upload any games they've made and people can start playing them and commenting on them right away."

However, he says, because all of its games are free, it's not an easy site to monetize.

"I don't know how much Kongregate.com is making from ads," he comments, "but, for the developers who supply the content, I'm pretty certain that revenue is pretty incremental compared to what one might make selling individual games at $20 a pop. From an independent game advocate's point of view, I do wonder whether giving away games for free will ever make people enough money to live on."

Nevertheless, Carless describes Kongregate.com as well-executed, and he says there's always room for another site that showcases the work of indie game developers who otherwise might not get their games played.

In addition, because Kongregate.com allows developers to post links to their own Web sites, there is the opportunity for the more enterprising developers to sell some of their other games.

"I know one professional, Sean Cooper, who has a game on Kongregate.com called 'Boxhead' that has you shooting at zombies," says Carless. "Not only is it one of the site's top games, but it links to Sean's own site, where he sells game upgrades. So there are indeed some developers who are making money -- but I'd be willing to bet that he's one of only a few."

However, says Carless, that doesn't deter developers, many of whom are hobbyists who build games not for the money but "because they think it's a cool thing to do. Given those circumstances, Kongregate.com works. But, as a business proposition, I think it's still to be proven."

Greg Costikyan agrees. He is the CEO of Manhattan-based Manifesto Games, a two-year-old site that also shares its revenue with developers.

Manifesto appeals to a more hardcore gaming audience and relies not on advertising but on the sale of its downloadable indie titles.

"What Kongregate.com is doing makes a certain degree of sense in terms of potentially giving exposure to games that otherwise might not get that exposure," he says. "But I don't think that is a viable business model for developers. The kind of per-user revenue resulting from an advertising-supported model is pretty slim."

Costikyan's site, on the other hand, has an inventory of 170-plus games -- with an additional two to three added each week -- built by 80 developers who are under contract, who retain all the rights to their IP, and who provide them to Manifesto on a non-exclusive basis. When one of their games is sold, they get 60% of the revenue.

"We're hoping to become the first place gamers turn to when they're looking for something they can't find at GameStop," says Costikyan.

One of Manifesto's bestsellers is "PeaceMaker," a turn-based strategy game developed by an American-Israeli-Palestinian team that simulates the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Another topseller is "The Shivah," a graphic adventure about a rabbi having a crisis of faith.

"I'm sure you'll agree that these are not your usual video games," Costikyan adds. "But they are games that merit some exposure. And getting exposure for an indie game can be an awfully hard road to hoe."

Essentially, he concludes, Manifesto is trying to create for games what the indie music and film markets provide for their industry.

"We hope to create a viable ecosystem so that these talented developers can not necessarily get rich, but at least make a living," Costikyan says. "All they want to do is pursue their kind of individual creative vision within the field instead of spending extended hours in some big publisher's sweatshop working on better road textures or something. That's not why most of us got into the games industry to begin with."

Paul "The Game Master" Hyman was the editor-in-chief of CMP Media's GamePower. He's covered the games industry for over a dozen years. His columns for The Reporter run exclusively on the Web site.
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