You Should Be Making A Premium Flash Game

Published on 7th October 2009 by Colm | Post a comment

Are you trying to make flash games for a living, but having a hard time making ends meet? Have you made an engaging & fun game, then spent months polishing and tweaking it to perfection before releasing it onto the world? Maybe you got it right and it's a hit – it's been played and enjoyed by literally millions of people! Well time to sit back and watch the pennies roll in, my friend, because that's all you're going to be getting. This may sound alarming, but it's what most flash game developers have experienced using what I call the 'Ad Model' of monetisation.

pennies-could-be-yours2

All this could be yours!

The Ad Model

Over the last few years Flash gaming has enjoyed a massive rise in both the quality and quantity of games on the market. What caused this? The online ad market boomed. It suddenly became (marginally) profitable to build a flash game, throw in some easily-included ads and set it free on the internet. A few well-documented hits made a relatively large amount of money, yet were often made by a single developer working in his spare time over the course of a few months (as previously flash simply couldn't fund an actual team of developers), and this caused a 'gold rush' effect of developers piling into the flash games space. Over time the ad model for flash games has matured into a market where developers can make money from various sources:

  • In-Game Ads: in-game ads such as MochiAds, usually shown once while the game is loading
  • Around-Game Ads: site ads like Google AdSense shown around the flash game either on the developer's own site, or on a site like Kongregate or Newgrounds which offers revenue share to developers
  • Sponsorship: this is where a portal pays the developer to 'tag' their game with the portal's branding (and usually a 'more games' link), effectively paying for traffic delivered to the portal as the game is distributed around the internet. FlashGameLicense was set up to help developers find sponsors for their games, and it has proven to be very effective.
  • Licensing: this is where a portal or site pays a developer for a one-off license to use their game; generally they pay a fixed fee to be able to use the game without the sponsor logo, in-game ads, links to the developer's site, etc on their own site; multiple licenses can be sold alongside a sponsorship

Generally speaking you can, and should, use all these options at once as Ada Chen advised in a talk she gave at Casual Connect in 2008. This model is working for some developers, the ones who can efficiently make engaging, short flash games and keep churning them out, but it's really only been a success for very few. Most flash game developers are still relying on other sources than ad-funded games to keep going full-time (for example, making games on contract for third parties).

Not Enough To Go Around

The problem with the ad model is that all the money is coming from one limited pool: advertising. You might find that sponsorship and licensing get you significantly more than in-game ads, but the money from those things comes from that same pool. Portals buy traffic from you (via sponsorship/licensing) with the money they earn from .. advertising! The amount of money in the advertising pool is limited, plus needs to be shared out amongst a whole load of middlemen before it trickles through to developers. No one has explained this better than Dan Cook in his recent Flash Love Letter, Part 1:

ad-funded-revenue-chart

Image by Dan Cook, used with permission

The guys making the big bucks here are the ones aggregating lots of games and leveraging massive visitor traffic (like the big games portals), or else delivering a solution used by all developers and getting an aggregated margin that way (like the ad companies). Individual developers simply cannot get the high levels of traffic necessary for ad-funded solutions to bring in the (serious) cash.

A Better Model

Luckily there's a better way to fund game development than scrounging for ad-pennies. It's been proven in almost every form of consumer entertainment ever made, from theatre to music to cinema and yes, even games: ask the consumer of the entertainment to pay you for providing it. That's it. Asking the players to fund game development takes away the dilution effect of trying to get ads to pay everyone's cut, and directly rewards the developer regardless of the size of their 'aggregated traffic-power'. It works for all those other kinds of entertainment, and it certainly works for the rest of the gaming industry.

And it can work for flash games too. Several developers have been successfully charging players for full versions of their free flash games, by integrating a payment processor such as PayPal. This method (often called a "demo", write that down) is so proven that almost no console or PC game doesn't use it. Others have tried splitting out the purchase into smaller bundles using a microtransaction/virtual currency provider, and are charging for decorative things like a fancy hat or small upgrades like level packs and new weapons instead of selling the whole game in one go. In fact recently launched providers such as MochiCoins, GamerSafe and Heyzap have made it easier than ever for flash developers to take payments from players. One advantage of the idea of using virtual items, temporary powerups, or other small purchases is that you aren't putting a cap on how much your biggest fans are able to spend on your game. Generally speaking selling virtual items works best in a persistant-world / MMO style of game, where you can put all kinds of social and economic effects into play to really leverage the idea – just look at this breakdown.

Regardless of how you are charging players, or what they are paying for, the fact that you are charging at all means you are using what I call the 'Premium Flash Game' revenue model.

Premium Games Need To Be Frickin' Sweet

One downside to charging money upfront is that you need to make players fall in love with your game before they will pull out the credit card, and that means spending a lot more time polishing the gameplay and expanding the content before release. The quality level of today's (and yesterday's!) flash games is definitely high enough to convince players to pay – developers just need to focus on expanding the experience; make "long form games" instead of focusing on quick, throw-away games. Again no one's explained this better than Dan Cook, so make sure to read his Flash Love Letter, Part 2 – you can do it right now if you like, we'll pause this part of the internet until you come back.

And Now For Some Examples

Lets have a look at some real-world examples of revenue made by flash developers using the Ad Model, and compare them to ones using the Premium Model. I'm going to use 'Gross eCPM', a term I just made up, as the baseline stat to compare these ad-based apples versus premium oranges. If you aren't familiar with it, eCPM is an advertiser's term and stands for effective cost-per-mille – or how much an advertiser has to pay out per 1,000 impressions of their ad on average. As the payee, you can think of it as how much revenue you made per thousand plays of your ad-enabled game. What I call Gross eCPM is calculated by taking the total amount of plays of a game, and dividing it by the total revenue made from them (whether it be from ads, sponsorship, microtransactions or full game purchases). This handily lets us compare two very different ways of monetising with a single comparative number.

First up let's look at the numbers for some flash games using the traditional Ad Model to generate revenue:

Desktop Tower Defense (play)
One of the original 'break out hits' of modern free flash games, created by a single developer, and supported by ads inside & around the game.

Total Plays: 15 million in the first few months
Gross Revenue:
~$12,000 in that same time frame
Gross eCPM:
~$0.80
[source]

Mytheria (play)
A fairly typical successful flash game, though not a massive hit in terms of plays

Total Plays: 3.7 million plays to date
Gross Revenue:
~$8,200 to date
Gross eCPM:
~$2.22
[source: email interview]

Armor Wars (play)
Another game by the same developer as Mytheria (Diffusion Games), released afterwards to stronger interest from sponsors

Total Plays: 2.2 million plays to date
Gross Revenue:
~$9,300 to date
Gross eCPM:
~$4.23
[source: email interview]

Chronotron (play)
Another game created by a single developer, and supported largely by revenue share on ads on Kongregate.

Total Plays: 7 million at time of this article
Gross Revenue: ~$15,000 in that same time frame
Gross eCPM:
~$2.14
[source]

Now let's have a look at some games using the Premium Model by selling full games:

Fantastic Contraption (play)
A free-to-play flash game, hosted on it's own site plus some portals, with a premium unlock for $10 that let you make your own levels and play other people's custom levels. Included solution-sharing via unique URL that helped it spread virally.

Total Plays: "over 3.5M unique users in the first 3 or so months"
Gross Revenue:
"for every unique site visitor, he converts 0.5% to a paid version [at $10]" = ~$175,000
Gross eCPM:
~$50.00
[source]

Now Boarding (play)
A free-to-play flash game hosted on various portals that had an upsell to a downloadable for-sale version (at ~$15)

Total Plays: 4.2M – 6.2M plays (some portals made it impossible to track this, hence the range) over the last year
Gross Revenue:
10,500 sales so far x $15 = ~$155,000
Gross eCPM:
~$25.00-36.90, depending on above
[source: phone interview]

And some games using the Premium Model by using microtransactions:

Twin Shot (play)
A free-to-play flash game by Nitrome with various virtual currency unlocks, including a level pack and cheats

Total Plays: "over 10 million plays"
Gross Revenue: unspecified (but calculations from the eCPM they gave says it would be about $25,000 at the time of the Q&A)
Gross eCPM:
~$2.50 but up to around $5.00 in english speaking territories (based on 60% developer cut of Mochi Coins revenue alone)
[source]

SAS: Zombie Assault 2 (play)
A free-to-play flash game by Ninja Kiwi with various virtual currency unlocks

Total Plays: "about 5.7M plays and 700k plays from the expansion pack" = 6.4M plays
Gross Revenue:
~$22,400
Gross eCPM:
~$3.50 but up to over $11.00 in english speaking territories (based on 60% developer cut of Mochi Coin revenue alone)
[source]

Minions On Ice (play)
A free-to-play multiplayer flash game by the Casual Collective where you could pay to get bonuses and access to extra vehicles quicker than normal

Total Plays: n/a
Gross Revenue:
n/a
Gross eCPM:
an ARPU of $0.40 was mentioned by the developer, which means $0.40 revenue per unique player. My Gross eCPM counts total plays rather than unique plays, but if we ignore that we would get a Gross eCPM of $400; if we had the 'total plays' number this would be lower – but not all that much lower.
[source]

That's a massive, orders-of-magnitude difference between the revenue rate for ad-funded flash games and premium flash games. And once you start charging the players instead of hoping for ad money, the sky's the limit. Puzzle Pirates, a casual MMO run by Three Rings revealed last year that they make make an ARPU of ~$1.50 per player, per month – which would give a comparative Gross eCPM of ~$1,500. Yep.

Edit: Daniel James (Three Rings CEO) left a comment giving me a much better way to calculate a comparable 'Gross eCPM' for Puzzle Pirates. He says for every 1,000 new visitors to the site they get about 100 who actually download & play, leading to a lifetime value of about $200-$500; so a better 'Gross eCPM' for Puzzle Pirates (over many months) is ~$200-500.

Set Phasers To Premium

I hope this has convinced you, the flash game developer, to seriously consider moving away from the Ad Model and moving into Premium Flash Games. It's the future – embrace it.

PS- Many thanks to all the flash developers who have shared their revenue numbers with the rest of the industry. We too will be doing this as we work on our first game.

This post has also been published on the Mochi Land blog. Thanks Mochi!

Posted in: Game Development, Money |

19 Comments

  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Phil Peron. Phil Peron said: RT @gambrinous: You Should Be Making A Premium Flash Game: http://bit.ly/4nl3HB [...]

    Posted by Tweets that mention You Should Be Making A Premium Flash Game on October 7th, 2009 at 5:32 pm
  2. Wow, that's a pretty staggering difference. I don't make flash games for a living, but maybe I should ;) Thanks for putting the effort into gathering that data.

    Posted by HB on October 7th, 2009 at 6:26 pm
  3. [...] as $100 for exclusive rights including source code, and we also know there have been sponsorship deals in excess of $10,000. The total volume of the short form game market is probably larger than it was in the '80s. [...]

    Posted by NightFlyer Games » What is a short form game worth? on October 7th, 2009 at 7:55 pm
  4. The Puzzle Pirates numbers you have are not really comparable; only ~10% of landings get to playing PP (download, funnel) and the $1.50 number is representative of an ongoing player population not a cohort of new players. At a guess the lifetime value of 1,000 new players (10,000 landings) is around $2-5,000 lifetime (over many months) so a ~$200-500 eCPM is perhaps a decent-ish comparable.

    Otherwise good post and I agree. Flash devs should also check out Whirled.com!

    Posted by Daniel James on October 9th, 2009 at 12:56 am
  5. Cheers for the clarification Daniel. That's actually a much better way of getting a 'Gross eCPM' for persistant games, matching up more closely to the Ad Model games calculation. I'll update the article.

    Posted by Colm on October 9th, 2009 at 12:04 pm
  6. [...] you consider the super great article: "You should be making a premium flash game" and games like Fantastic Contraption, we are very keen to try selling our game at some [...]

    Posted by Zombie Outbreak Simulator Wrap Up | Binary Space on February 2nd, 2010 at 3:44 pm
  7. [...] but, as it turns out, it isn't.  They are plenty of articles about this exact subject (like here) so I don't need to get into [...]

    Posted by The New Ways To Sell Video Games Online « The Jr. Jellybeans Blog on February 11th, 2010 at 8:52 pm
  8. [...] You Should Be Making A Premium Flash Game | Gambrinous Blog – [...]

    Posted by Link Dump: 022510_0516 through 030510_1655 on March 5th, 2010 at 11:01 pm
  9. I agree Flash is a great tool, how about a generic service like this that exposes a generic leaderboard service to small game developers? Flash would be the perfect rendering tool for the idea.

    Posted by dave tribbett on March 17th, 2010 at 10:05 pm
  10. I'm glad you mentioned Mochi! Not only does it pay the developers, but for games site owners, it also pays them (sure it's not much, but if you get good traffic it's usually good enough to cover the costs for the hosting!) One of my friends made a simple 'shoot the stars' game where random stars appear on screen, and from the screen shots he's shown me, he's doing quite well (monetarily wise)

    Posted by Zimbu Games on July 26th, 2010 at 12:21 am
  11. Premium games did do amazingly well on Mochi when they first released the service. As is usually the case I suspect the first ones on the band waggon make the most money. I think after a while tho the market will become saturated and developers will see less and less of a cut. For the moment I will be sticking to sponsorships and ads. (I may be wrong of course)

    Posted by Games Up on August 11th, 2010 at 11:38 am
  12. [...] You Should Be Making A Premium Flash Game (Gambrinous Blog) [...]

    Posted by The Big List Of Indie Marketing And Business Tips on August 17th, 2010 at 9:01 pm
  13. Amazing post! I knew that making games was profitable (I have a friend who does that), but I didn't know it was that profitable! I'd love to know how much the bloon tower defence games have made (all 4 games earnings). Think i'll forget learning jQuery and move onto flash!

    Posted by Zimbu Games on August 21st, 2010 at 5:45 pm
  14. I'm pretty sure my game is 'premium'. Let's hope so, I plan to post it on FGL next month!

    Posted by Trent Sterling on November 16th, 2010 at 4:07 am
  15. Yeah, I heard fantastic contraption actually hit the million mark. But I think most flash games wouldn't be successful at all at this model.

    For it to work, the game must have at least some replaying value and potentially multiplayer mode. It's the same model those little games from facebook are using, actually.

    Nice post.

    Posted by Frank K., I play fast on November 19th, 2010 at 6:41 am
  16. I don't making premium game

    Posted by TerrEK on December 5th, 2010 at 9:14 am
  17. How much does it cost to make your own flash game?

    is there somewhere i can go to have a person make me one?

    Posted by Sell Video Games Online on December 27th, 2010 at 9:17 am
  18. Wow, they have come a really long way since Diamond Mine, which was one of the few games I had ever bought. I believe I have a copy of Bejeweled too

    Posted by kenichifc on December 28th, 2010 at 1:59 pm
  19. […] You Should Be Making A Premium Flash Game (Gambrinous Blog) Making Money From Your Game (Gambrinous Blog) […]

    Posted by BoxCat Games » Useful Links for Starting an Indie Game Business on October 27th, 2013 at 12:42 am

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