Goodbye FlashGameLicense

Selling flash games isn’t the easiest thing in the world, as you may have noticed from my grumblings every time I try to find a sponsor. There’s a lot of developers, a lot of games, and negotiating via email isn’t the most straightforward thing ever. So it would make sense for there to be a website to provide an interface for such dealings. That, it would appear, was the original purpose of FlashGameLicense.

My first experience was a positive one, though in retrospect that might have been luck. You see, games at FGL get reviewed by one of its editors and receive a rating. The Infinite Ocean got a very positive rating – a 9, I think. That got it some attention from sponsors, and it received a bid from a fairly big website for a nice chunk of money. That got it even more attention, since it was now also included in a list of high-bid games. Ultimately this led to its ArmorGames sponsorship.

I was happy to pay FGL its 10% share, even though it was quite a bit of money. Even after PayPal ate a lot of the money and the conversion to Euros turned it into even less, I thought I’d gotten a pretty good deal. I could live making games like that. We’d never get rich off it, but it would be enough to pay the rent and keep making games.

Next came You Shall Know The Truth. It got a pretty good rating, too. And in retrospect, I’m not too surprised it only got one extremely low offer, which I decided to reject. I still think it could’ve been big – people have strong reactions to it if nothing else – but I fully understand that a darkly satirical Wikileaks game that parodies hidden object games and then goes crazily surreal is… potentially a little frightening for sponsors, especially at a time when the media were doing their best to demonize the organization the game supported.

Then there was Alphaland. The first version got a bad rating, but I was pretty certain that was only because the reviewer was having technical problems due to an issue with the game’s platforming code. But Terry Cavanagh came to the rescue and turned the game into what it is now. I put it back up on FGL. The rating didn’t significantly improve, and mostly the game just sat there. With its mediocre rating, it had next to no way of getting any exposure, and FGL didn’t do much to help it. After ages had passed it got some ridiculously low offers.

I was pretty conflicted. Part of me said “Hey, maybe the game is actually crap. Maybe Terry’s just humouring me.” It’s very easy to get discouraged in this business, and deep down I’m always afraid that other developers think I’m a complete amateur. Another part of me kept thinking that I’d shown this game to a lot of really talented developers, and all of them had really liked it, so it couldn’t really be that bad, could it? And yet another part of me (my psyche is more fragmented than a postmodernist’s brain) was insisting “This is a game made by the guy who made The Infinite Ocean and the guy who made VVVVVV. The Infinite Ocean still generates a ton of fanmail, and VVVVVV is practically a cultural phenomenon. Shouldn’t this game get at least a little bit of respect?”

That latter part of me is rather arrogant, but I must admit that it does raise its head every now and then, usually to demand more popcorn.

Eventually, frustrated, I took the game down from FGL – and got a sponsorship at Newgrounds for six times what I was being offered on FGL. Still less than The Infinite Ocean, but this was a small game, and it was still enough money to keep us going for a while.

Now we are arrive at the present, and The Book of Living Magic. A game that a lot of other developers have greatly enjoyed, that various reviewers thought was fantastic, that even got us the chance to write a children’s book for a small Greek publisher. I’d gotten some offers for it, but for various reasons (quite unrelated to the quality of the game) they weren’t quite as high as I’d like. I hadn’t used FGL, because I didn’t want to end up paying 10% of my sponsorship without having found the sponsor through FGL, but I ultimately decided to give it a shot, thinking that there were probably a few sponsors that I wasn’t reaching otherwise.

It got a rating of 6.5. The reviewer complained that there was too much reading to do, and that the hand-drawn graphics (which made a publisher go “we want Verena to illustrate a book!”) weren’t “polished” enough. And I thought “Really? Well, fuck you.”

This time it wasn’t the voice of arrogance speaking. These comments were sheer absurdity – especially in the face of the rating The Infinite Ocean got, given that it consists almost entirely of the incredibly difficult challenge of reading (next they’ll expect us to think!). I have enough experience as a designer, and enough feedback from players and designers, to know that The Book of Living Magic is a good game. It might not be to everyone’s tastes, but it’s polished and accessible and pretty and funny, and it tells a good story.

By giving the game such a low rating, FGL actually made it harder for me to sell it. A bunch of sponsors now associate the game with low quality, boring text and a lack of fun, motivating them to either ignore it or to offer very little for it. That major websites like Jay is Games love it, that I’ve got a decade of experience, that my previous Flash games were successful, that my games are featured on major websites – all these things actually carry a lot less weight than a rating from some illiterate slob who doesn’t like adventure games, because a rating from an editor carries the implication of authority. Oh, FGL claims that “sponsors will make up their own minds, don’t worry about the rating,” but we all know that is bullshit. In fact, if that were the case, why have ratings in the first place?

I’d been warned by a number of developers to stop using FGL, but I foolishly didn’t listen to them. My first experience, in which I somehow got assigned an editor with an interest in unusual games, is not the standard. I got lucky. FGL may work well for hobbyists who want to make a tiny bit of money on the side, and for those who are interested in developing clone games of the Sexy Fun Crocodile Kissing Game 2 Expanded Edition type, but for those of us who want to do this professionally, and who want to make games that are a little more original, it is nothing but a waste of time.

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8 Comments

  1. I feel your pain, good man. Not because I lived it but mostly for how you write it. Will all this similar posts one day be compensated with an article of what actually does work for getting a good sponsorship?

  2. If I ever figure out a really good way of going about it, I’ll let you know. For now I can at least warn people about what doesn’t work.

  3. Sarah

     /  June 28, 2011

    Good games are hard to find. It doesn’t need to be harder!!

  4. James Patton

     /  June 29, 2011

    It sounds like this makes it hard for serious indie developers, who are developing more “difficult”, perhaps less eye-catching but more rewarding games, to survive. Which is, in my opinion, a real tragedy.

    Also, I hate this idea that you can sum up a game (or any form of art) with a 0-10 rating scale. Even if there were an unpolished game about, say, Lovecraftian monsters which no mainstream site would think of sponsoring, maybe there’s a site out there dedicated to niche pulp horror which would pick it up because it would appeal to the people who visit that site.

    Perhaps that’s a bad example, since it assumes the game is bad to begin with. But my point is that a rating can never be an objective indicator of how much a player will enjoy a game because all players are different. Maybe it would be better if FGL dropped the ratings system altogether. It would mean a level playing field, without what sounds like the arbitrary and almost tyrannical hand of a biased editor swaying all revenue streams.

  5. Wolfgang DelaSangre

     /  June 29, 2011

    Wow. I’m really sorry about FGL, Jonas. I’ve played most, if not all of your games, and all of them have been fantastic, with Desert Bridge right at the top (and The Infinite Ocean, new and old, taking a close second). It’s sad that one man with ridiculous standards (I don’t want to say “low” or “high” because whatever prevented this from getting the high rating I’m sure it deserves is more along the lines of “the game makes my brain work too much!” Perhaps it’s more to the right?) can ruin the reputation of something beautiful.

    I don’t think I’m as great a writer as you, and I doubt I could make games as great as yours. Heck, I can’t even understand any kind of code, and I’d be happy just to have THAT; then I could strive to make things at least half as good as what you do.

    I’m looking forward to playing The Book of Living Magic. I’m expecting it to be at LEAST as good as Desert Bridge, but I won’t be surprised if it’s even better. Don’t let this stop you- but I don’t have to say that because I know it won’t. You know you’re good, and everyone who has given honest reviews of your work knows that’s not arrogance.

  6. FGL can be a good market, but as with any market you need to be mindful of what buyers are looking for. The majority (but not all) of buyers on FGL have no games background. Indeed, some of the sites with the biggest sponsorship budgets don’t make or publish games at all.

    This can work in a developer’s favour. As it’s easy to see what is getting into bidding wars and gets picked by the editors, you can market your game to appeal to those trends. It also disciplines developers (well, those who care for it) to make their games accessible and approachable, which generally results in them performing better with the users, which cements your reputation, and so on…

    I was a buyer on FGL for several months. (Alphaland was on my watchlist before I quit btw.) I tried to spend as much of my budget as possible on games that I thought were worthwhile, rather than safe niches. Many of these games were overlooked by buyers, usually because of perceived lack of graphical polish or non-obvious controls*.

    In your case I think your past work has enough of a pedigree that you should be approaching sponsors directly anyway.

    But there are other developers (who work in a different style) who I would always suggest use FGL in parallel with the direct approach, because they usually don’t know (or don’t have a relationship with) every sponsor out there.

    As for ratings… I don’t know what would be the perfect system, but bear in mind that FGL is awash with cynical “Make A Hit Flash Game in 7 Days” crap and filtering out the noise is a serious problem for sponsors.

    *I actually kept lots of the stupid rejection emails games I sponsored got from other sponsors – they are full of advice 10x dumber than the most garbled Kongregate review.

  7. DuqueKarl

     /  November 27, 2012

    Then what can we do? I have just finished my first game and is now on FGL up for bids. One week in the wild and just received one low offer in the first hours.

    I have received a lot of great feedback but sometimes I also tell to myslelf: “maybe the game is mediocre or even bad, no matter what guys say about how fun and original and innovative the game is”

    PS: I would love to show you the game on FGL so you can be a bit more objective then me 😛

  8. I don’t know. The flash game market seems to have collapsed; it’s not really FGL’s fault, to be honest, though I was very dissatisfied with some of their editors.