GameCamp 2011 (#gc4)
Posted at 14:39 on 15th May 2011 - permalink

Yesterday I attended the fourth GameCamp event, held at London South Bank University’s Keyworth Centre.

As with the previous GameCamps I attended (2008, 2010), the event was organised following the ‘unconference’ model. Attendees were free to book any one of fifteen rooms throughout the day in 30 minute slots, to talk about (or play) anything they wanted.

As there were around 300 attendees – twice that of any previous GameCamp – some logistical issues arose with the venue. Most of the rooms could only accommodate 20-30 people tops, and signposting, movement between rooms, access to refreshments, ventilation, etc. were sources of frustration.

In spite of these problems, the event was able to deliver the expected mix of highly informative and varied sessions, although the continued attrition of ‘big name’ attendees since the first GameCamp resulted in there being fewer true stand-outs.

I won’t write up blow-by-blow accounts of each talk I attended here – as my notes weren’t very thorough, and this wouldn’t take into account conversations I had (and games I played) between sessions and after. You can see the whiteboards of the even schedules here: Morning, Afternoon (courtesy of Dr. Mike Reddy).

I attended the Game Literacy/Facebook, Sex!, Structure vs. Freeplay, Narrative Debate, Flash Game Design & Business, Dialogue Trees, Fail States, Awesome Flash Games (my session), and Post Mortem sessions, and poked my head into a few others. Board and card games again had a strong presence, and I got to play The Resistance and Once Upon a Time in the bar afterwards.

The central info-hub of photos, notes and impressions is here:

Below are some additional notes on my talk, as promised.

Flash Games: A Sponsor’s Perspective

The purpose of my talk was to discuss ways in which developers who are interested in indie Flash game development (as a hobby or source of income) could best break into that market, based on my experiences commissioning and sponsoring games for a fairly large portal network. I also sought to encourage more developers to do so.

The barrier to entry to make and sell a Flash game is significantly lower than any other platform. The factors that sponsors value do not necessarily require a lot of expensive work – if a game has a strong compulsion loop, self-explanatory interface, or is part of a proven genre, it can get away with being little more than a ‘sketch’ in level design and production value terms. If a game design is popular in the Flash arena, it may also be viable on other platforms (e.g. smartphones, XBLA, PC download).

Most of my talk focused on marketing games to sponsors via the website (FGL).

Virtually all major sponsors use this site, and many have a mandate to sponsor several games per month. FGL gets a huge number of new submissions every week, but the vast majority of these are very poor. A competent developer should be able to make their game stand out from the dross, by presenting it well, and reaching out (courteously and professionally) to sponsors that show an interest.

Even if you have a specific sponsor in mind, and your game was unusually large/expensive/time consuming to develop, it’s still worth listing it on FGL to gauge the level of interest and the kind of offers that different sponsors are prepared to make. A good case study (albeit one that’s heavily skewed on account of being attached to a ‘celebrity’ developer) is Steambirds. (Looking at these numbers, it could be argued with hindsight that Steambirds was a terrible deal for ArmorGames, but that’s a topic for another time.)

A good model to use is to sell the Primary (non-exclusive) License to distribute your game to one sponsor, then sell secondary (“site-locked”) licenses to other major sponsors. Sometimes a sponsor will be able to offer a price over the odds for an exclusive license, which is a good option if you don’t want to spend time preparing the game to different specifications to each licensee. YMMV.

With a few high-profile exceptions (e.g. ArmorGames, MochiGames), most sponsors do not have very sophisticated or data-driven preferences guiding their actions on FGL. (i.e. they’re not very game-literate.) Some are purely interested in traffic or advertising and lack the time or expertise to support developers to improve their games. By browsing portals and seeing what they promote on their front pages and allow to carry their branding, it’s possible to get a clear idea of which are interested in associating themselves with quality versus those that are just looking for bulk, generic product to stack their virtual shelves with.

Specific genres that sponsors and players LOVE

  • Physics Puzzles (using Box2D)
  • Launching Games (e.g. Toss the Turtle)
  • Stunt Bikes (or other haphazard Box2D vehicles)
  • Platformers (typically with a gimmick e.g. Time Fcuk, Karoshi Suicide Salaryman)
  • Top-down, Zelda-esque adventure/puzzlers
  • Tower Defense / siege / simple RTS
  • Free Running (i.e. Canabalt clones, but gradually growing into a distinct genre)
  • Any kind of racing games
  • Any kind of shooting games (‘sniping’ games particularly popular, shmups can do well too)
  • “Explosion porn” (games where you’re controlling some massive destructive entity, minimal skill required, e.g. Sydney Shark)

Things that Flash audiences hate

  • Word puzzles, walls of English-only text and excessive typing. Weird controls.
  • Very harsh pixel art graphics – if it would look crude by NES standards, it will sink rapidly.
  • Anything that’s too hard (“unfair”), too esey/short, too repetitive.

Other tips

If at all possible, use Mochimedia’s “Live Updates” feature (part of the MochiAds wrapper). This will let you host your game on their servers, and will automatically use the latest version of the game you submit to them, regardless of where it’s hosted. You do not need to sell your game to Mochi or even use their ads (iirc) to use this technology. It’s a lifesaver if you need to update your game once it’s in the wild.

Keep your file sizes manageable. (Under 10mb is expected in many cases, under 5mb is ideal.)

Consider using metrics to see who is playing your game and the kind of experience they’re having. Mochibot is worth always using in addition to anything else (it only provides very basic data, but that data is very easy to query and share), Playtomic, SWFstats and Google Analytics offer more advanced features.

The more inclusive the theme/style of your game, the wider its viral spread. Abstract and iconic graphics are much more effective than realistic, excessively cutesy, or horror-themed trappings.

Pay attention to comments and feedback on the big portals. A lot of them will be noise, but if you see the same points brought up repeatedly, there may be an addressable issue.

Molehill: it’s the future, I’ve tasted it

My final point was to urge everyone to investigate Adobe’s Flash Player 11 technology, which includes hardware accelerated 3D (“Molehill”). If you’re feeling adventurous, instructions for installing a preview build are here.

And there’s a growing list of demos here.

I strongly believe that Molehill is going to change everything. As in, it’s as big a deal as DirectX, or the iPhone, to the future direction of the games industry. Yes, it won’t be as easy (or cheap) to develop good 3D games as 2D ones, and yes, most of the games will be utterly terrible for a long time (much like on the original Playstation 1). But savvy developers that embrace this technology early should in the long run be richly rewarded. It’s also worth noting that it massively improves Flash’s 2D capabilities as well.

Finally, a selected list of awesome Flash games:

Burrito Bison (The absolute, state-of-the-art, ruthlessly addictive compulsion loop. Make sure you have a few hours spare.)
Sugar, Sugar
Cat Astro Phi
Elephant Quest
Steamlands (Nitrome are unusual as they have long-term deals with publishing partners, plus their own portal/community)
Radical Fishing
Sushi Cat 2
Soul Brother
Mining Truck 2
Osada (Not a game, but a lovely animated music toy from the makers of Machinarium and Samarost)
Sydney Shark
Haunt the House
American Dream
Solipskier (Unusual, as the developers self-sponsored and released an iPhone version simultaneously)
Garden Gnome Carnage
Isoball 3 (This series was far and away the most popular thing we sponsored.)
zOMGies (An example of a game that does something cool in the first 30 seconds.)

These games use different business models to one described above, but are good comparative examples:

High Tea (commissioned by a client)
VVVVVV (shareware)
Machinarium (downloadable premium game)
SAS Zombie Assault (microtransactions)

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