Free Flash Fallacy

Actually, the titlte should be “Flash Payment Fallacy” but I couldn’t resist the triple alteration. I’m sorry.

Again, just a quick post. Danc from LostGarden wrote a Flash Love Letter. It’s a polished Article and you should read it so I’m going to put it into a dwarf nutshel: Flash is awesome and may be tremendously important for game development in the future. But there are no awesome games yet and Flash game designers should move from an Ad-Based model to direct payments from customers.

I’m going to assume you read the article. Here it goes: While I agree with many things (especially the “Flash is awesome and important” part) I’m not so convinced of his approach on payment. Yes, his observations are generally true. Flash games don’t do too much money and their amateurish character is the result of that that. However, I believe his suggestions of establishing direct payment for Flash games are conservative, not practical and would actually undermine what he praises about Flash in the first place.

More specifically, he displays a list of 14 different “offers” you could apply to get money from the Flash games. That sound awesome but the skeptic in me would point out that many of them are only variations of the same 4 ideas:

  • Demo/Full Game System: Offer a castrated demo and charge for the full version. People would get hooked on the demo and pay for the full game. Danc lists two scenarios on how to castrate a game but the idea is the same. He calls them: “Time gates” and “Content gates”.
  • In Game Items/Upgrades: This is actually the source of most of his “offers”. The idea is that the game is fully playable but you would sell some additional features, improvements or in-game advantages. The variation he lists are very subtle. Some of them aren’t even whole models but superfluous things like variation of ideas for special offers. He call them: “Aesthetic items”, “Abilities”, “Bundles”, “Consumables”, “Rare items”, “Time limited items”, “Sale items”, “Gifts” and “Accelerators”.
  • Subscriptions: This is the well-known MMO Model. Danc makes two “offers” out of it by pointing out that you can sell several subscriptions to the same customer. Gee, thanks! So we have: “Subscriptions” and “Stackable subscriptions”. ;-)
  • Physical goods: Finally, physical goods. This is actually only one of his “offers”, which is quite surprising. It is also treated by Danc very laconically, unrightfully so.

So what’s my problem? Well, first of all, it is evident that Danc favors the in-game item idea, as many of his “offers” are variations and add-ons to that model. The big, fat naysayer I am, I’d like to poke some obvious holes in all four models:

  • Demo/Full Game System: What little people consider is that demos aren’t actually attractive by themselves. Not the way free Flash games are. Put yourself in the shoes of a customer. Before you play, you don’t know the game yet and you can live without playing it (otherwise, there is no need for the demo anyway). If you play a demo, two things will happen. On the one hand, the demo might turn out to be bad. This is bad because you waste time but at least it was for free. On the other hand, the demo might turn out to be awesome. In this case, you know already that you will have to pay money. You will loose something in each case for something which isn’t valuable BEFORE you played the demo. The smart solution is never get hooked and not to play the demo at all. Or to put it other terms: the Demo is unattractive because it’s an obvious hook. It’s not the real deal. It’s just a tease. Of course, if you have a positive attitude towards the game, you will give in. But then, you would probably also pay for the game without the demo. Demos won’t win over skeptical customers. A free version will. That’s one of the reasons why Flash games are so damn popular.
  • In Game Items/Upgrades: That’s Danc’s favorite. I generally agree. It’s a cool model. But the implementation has one obvious flaw. It requires a hefty technical and strategic setup. You have to design the game with that in-game payments in mind. You have to balance out various scenarios – where players buy something or don’t buy something. Some things, like in-game gifts, would require whole social networks with player interaction and whatnot. This isn’t going to happen in an environment dominated by mouse-avoiders and Sokoban clones. Or rather it already happened, but you don’t call such games “Flash Games”. The effort to establish such systems is so high that the system actually takes over the concept. When you put so much effort into it, you start using totally different distribution channel. You aren’t a “Flash Game” anymore.
  • Subscriptions: Ok, this is like the item system only worse, implementation-wise. Having a Subscription model implies that players come back regularly. This also means that there is enough content for players to come back. Many developers are struggling with getting even the simplest game out. Again, won’t happen. And if it does, the Behemoth won’t be what you call a “Flash Game”.
  • Physical goods: It’s funny how Danc just drops “Branded Items” and leaves it at it. As a designer, it’s here where I see a lot of potential. For example: why not selling a CD version of your game? Which is actually the same game on CD. There are plenty of reasons to have a flash game on CD! People might not have constant internet connection, or maybe the would like to give it to somebody as a gift, or maybe they just enjoy the game so much they would like an actual, physical copy. But the problem is that on order for physical items to be attractive and actually reasonable, the game must have a certain level polish and unique character. So it’s cool for Samorost, not so cool for Christmas Couples, even though millions have played it.

Each of the monetizing schemes requires a tremendously higher up-front investment from the side of the developer. Of course it also increases the pay-off but the important effect is that the scope of the project becomes entirely different. In the case of the Demo (and Subscriptions), it also diminishes the viral potential of the game. I’m actually listening to Chris Andersons Audiobook “Free” right now. He points out that there is a huge gap between giving something away for free and actually charging even one cent for it. That first cent where you loose most of potential customers. He even goes so far as to call them two separate markets. I do agree with him.

The bottom line is that many of the awesome qualities of Flash Games actually stem from the fact that they are easy to make and free to play. That’s why the advertisement model is so popular. It takes just a few minutes to set up, can be applied to any game and the game fully retains it’s viral potential. Danc suggestions are great ideas but they are ways on how to make Flash Games actually LESS like Flash Games and more like traditional games. But then we would only arrive where we already are, wouldn’t we?

And this is a general critique of the article. It seems to me like Danc wants Flash Games to be what they aren’t and can’t be. This explains why he thinks there are no great Flash games out there yet. Well, I disagree.

But I would give him a benefit of a doubt if not for one thing: He actually didn’t back up his ideas with actual experience. It’s easy to poke holes in how other people try to make Flash monetizing work. It’s something different trying it on your own. So while his article is good food for thought and quite inspirational, I rather take Emanuele Feronato’s and Dan Hoelck’s insights on this matter.

Krystian Majewski

Krystian Majewski was born in Warsaw and studied design at Köln International School of Design. Before, he was working on a mid-size console project for NEON Studios in Frankfurt. He helped establish a Master course in Game Design and Research at the Cologne Game Lab. Today he teaches Game Design at various institutions and develops independent games.

7 responses to “Free Flash Fallacy”

  1. Danc

    "…back up his ideas with actual experience."

    Best idea I've heard in a long while. :-)

    Your post is very correct about the direction I'm suggesting. I'm not interested in free Flash games. It is cool that people are and they will keep making them whether or not premium games succeed in the market or not. It is a big market with plenty of room for all.

    I am interested in using the Flash platform and the existing portal network to make smaller, independent developers a living wage. These are slightly bigger games with much bigger payoffs. It has worked for some like Colin with Fantastic Contraption so I suspect it will work for others. There's a repeatable new business model out there that is going to grow quickly over the next few years.

    Not all developers are capable of making a living using these techniques. You need to rethink your game design, you business and invest in some new technology. Middlemen can help, but it is real change and it certainly doesn't involve doing the same old short form thing as before. Still it is healthy to strive to building business models where *more* developers can thrive. I figure…why not try to improve the world even if it takes a bit of effort?

    As always, I enjoy your posts,

  2. Krystian Majewski

    Hey Danc,

    wow, that's internet for you, the author you critisize tends to be the one reading your critique and actually answering. So now I feel bad because I might have come off a bit too negative here, as I often do. I apologize. :-(

    Because in reality, we are on the same side. I'm actually working on a bigger Flash game which I would like to use to try out alternative revenue streams. I'm going to use a slightly more risky approach, one you haven't quite mentioned in your article:

    Give the game for free AND charge for it at the same time. Like the demo/full version but with no gate at all. There would be 3 versions:

    1. A free full-version of the game for the viral effect and to undermine piracy.

    2. A downloadable version with the same content for a small charge. Easily scalable as DLC is.

    3. A premium hardcopy version for a relatively high price with additional print content.

    I'm curious how that will work out. That's actually why I emphasizes important experience. Where I think your article hit a homerun was where you actually commented on Dan Hoelck's mistakes about the implementation ("buy" button, calling it "cheating", etc…). Setting up the offer is a very delicate thing. The general revenue model you use may less important than how the customer actually experiences it. I guess that's why you mentioned small things like bundles as a separate offer. In a way, the appearance of your buttons may be more important than your business model.

    So even if it may not sound like it, thanks for your article. It resonated with some things out I've been brooding on for a while. I'm looking forward to your experiments! :)

  3. axcho

    Haha! I wouldn't mind if I were the author, at least it's nice to know that someone cares enough to respond. ;)

    But what Danc didn't tell you is that he's actually been working on a project to test out all his theories. With any luck we'll see it out soon, with numbers and and a detailed postmortem.

    There are also a few more articles coming up that should hopefully address your concerns with item-based monetization and such.

    The main thing is that you seem to have an expectation with the word "Flash game" that goes beyond the definition of "game made in Flash and delivered in a web browser" that does not fit with the vision of "Flash game" that Danc seems to be proposing.

    When Danc tallies the blessings of Flash, notice that he does not include "easy for amateurs and hobbyists to make". He may be talking about Flash as a platform for large game studios! And I think that would be perfectly valid.

    "Cheap and effective distribution"
    "Robust technology"
    "World class creative tools"
    "Thousands of developers making stuff just for you"
    "Immense creative opportunities"

    "Easy for amateurs to make"

    By the way, did you see my article on Ten Ways to Monetize Your Flash Game? I'm curious what you think of some of the other models, like Patronage and Ransom. Also, what do you think about the technical difficulties of Micropayment (item-based) games changing now that so many Flash payment providers are popping up?

  4. james john malcolm


    A riskier model?
    Your model seems to maximise players, while Danc's interest is to maximise revenue.

    Both have a chance to maximise profits (for the dev) but I get the feeling Danc's model(s) have the better chance.

  5. Krystian Majewski

    @axcho Thanks for the excellent response. You are right, Danc's list of advantages of flash doesn't fit too neatly to "easy for amateurs to make". Let me try to flesh out the relationship some more:

    "Cheap and effective distribution"
    "A poor college student can release a half decent game and within a month, a million people will play it."

    A poor college student can release a game that is played my so many people if it is free to play. There is a huge crowd of people keen on seeking out free flash games on portals and forwarding the best ones to their friends on Twitter and Facebook. If the same poor college student would charge for a game, for example in gate-model, his exposure would drop significantly, being somewhere along where downloadable Indie Games are. So suddenly that poor college student has to think about Marketing. Of course, this is all speculation but my point is that we got to where we are with Flash Games because they were free all along. Also, I believe that the community might treat the rise of payment models as a damage and route the traffic away from games that use them. This is generally what we observe in the Web. I'm not saying your game won't be popular when you charge money from players, it will just be significantly LESS popular because you are in a different category then.

    "You can make whatever you want."
    "Unlike developers of other platforms, there is minimal interference from traditional gate keepers such as big company politics, retailers or publishers."

    Adopting some of the more advanced revenue models introduces the gate keepers right into your head. As I wrote, the payment system is so difficult to set up, it takes over your entire game design. Sure, you can make whatever you want, as long it has something to do with sellable items, subscriptions, item rentals or a social network systems. This kinds of limits can be a great source of inspiration but also can shoehorn you into a fixed category of games. Using an Advertisement model gives you certainly more freedom. Do whatever the hell you want and care about the revenue later. The attractiveness of Flash games today is often exactly that – the fact that they can be so charmingly free-style.

    @james john malcolm: Hm, haven't thought about it this way, but it sounds right! Thanks!

    Of course, I prefer my model for the following reason: The limiting factor on making Money on the Internet today is anonymity. So dealing with this limit it should be a designer's main focus. Monetizing on traffic is simpler once you've got the traffic.

  6. Krystian Majewski

    Also, if the game itself is for free, you aren't really selling the game content. You are selling items and services peripheral to your content. This gives you more freedom on the price and the scope of the game content. You can actually go HIGHER with the price for payable items because they aren't vital to enjoy the game. And people who want them won't be affected by the price.

  7. axcho

    "Also, if the game itself is for free, you aren't really selling the game content. You are selling items and services peripheral to your content. This gives you more freedom on the price and the scope of the game content."

    I think this a good way to think about it. Good point.


The Game Design Scrapbook is a second blog of group of three game designers from Germany. On our first blog, Game Design Reviews we describe some games we played and point out various interesting details. Unfortunately, we found out that we also need some place to collect quick and dirty ideas that pop into our minds. Hence, welcome to Game Design Scrapbook. You will encounter wild, random rantings. Many of then incoherent. Some of them maybe even in German. If you don't like it, you might enjoy Game Design Reviews more.


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