Bark and Fester LLC in “A Primer on HTML5 Monetization” with added things about ROTOPO’s development.
Bark is solid good at web things. “The internet is the future”, “it’ll control us” by and by. This is part-way why BKNFR develops on web. Also important, “people, too, don’t move around with their consoles like they do with phones,” and “… sitting at work or at home or at school, at a friend’s poor house…,” of the internet being everywhere. “There’s platform security [, then,] and money all around,” Fester says.
Money is a tough topic for BKNFR. They know the least they need is enough to eat food and make a next game, on and on into the future this way. But Fester has some desire for success for bigger and bigger things, citing “big indie fatboys with games [BKNFR] could make in a week.” Bark says, “just enough is all is needed. No big successes, no popularity; that that would be bad.”
Bad because: Bark graduates into an extremely well-funded startup and watches the kids his age “turn dirtily” into capitalists. The transformation itself is “brutal, inconsistent, and all-of-a-sudden and it seems to be de facto of life.” Over the course of a few hedonistic, delusional years, most fall off as pioneers of a neat experiment that gave lots of money to children to see what would happen. “The enterprise is close to failure now. Investment capital, pure cash, made them through-and-through into morons.”
Bark and Fester’s mixed ambitions aren’t a problem, together. “It’s at least both pointed in the right direction,” says Bark. They’ll “measure ROTOPO’s success and then figure how much more effort goes into a next go-around with another game, if at all any.” Past that, “who knows. It [success] could poison the well, but, god, it better not, right?” says sweating Fester. Bark nods, impervious to it. “Let’s try to get out of our parents’ homes.”
For a long time, Fester searched hard for any right, established ways to monetize BKNFR’s web-game ROTOPO. These were things to do with Ad Networks and Publishers and Marketplaces and sometimes Payment Systems too, the whole of which were common enough, though circumlocuted in purpose or implementation.
“It was sort of fun,” Fester recalls, “to peek through other game companies’ legal words [when writing up BKNFR’s own], [and] to pretend to not be surprised at some casual evil legal wit [sic]”. There was no single simple set of words to describe that legal landscape, nor for that of monetizing browser games here, says Fester, where Publishers, Ad Networks, and Marketplaces compete with ambiguity in their taglines and with extravagant legalese in their terms and conditions of service.
Fester is conspiratorial about it, saying “If not a product of using big words to attract investment, then maybe a product of needing to stand out with language alone when in a veritable sea of the same kind of middlemen;” I.e. all are the same and do the same things, but flowery language is more attention-grabbing than the real case is. I.e. they compete for consumers by appearing to be different and appearing to be better because of those differences.
BKNFR has gripes with the lack of clarity in language alone, but neither knows enough about legal anything or business-talk to avoid being embarrassed later when people “call [BKNFR] dummy” for being critical of things they don’t understand.
That said, to protect from this: Fester acknowledges that he isn’t incredibly smart and that this could be wrong: It seems though that no matter the quality of a game above some Publisher baseline, its developers relinquish much of their own control to Distributors (Publishers, Gaming Portals) and Ad Networks too, who ultimately define what kind of audience a game attracts and what kind of game is viable at all.
It’s a common option for developers to avoid the hurdles of total control in marketing and distribution and monetization, presumably because “games are already really hard to make,” something echoed by BKNFR too. “Sad is that they [(games)] get sent to the rest of the world through Publishers who force-fit them into a hundred different demographics with varying successes before retiring quick.” The sentiment between Bark and Fester is of losing a baby to unfortunate circumstance, or because of pre-occupied parenting.
There is still some work in relinquishing control in marketing and distribution and monetization – not being a toss-away thing completely. Developers still can choose which throughput out of a few dozen Publishers (who altogether offer licensing compensation in the range of a couple hundred to nigh a thousand dollars per game) and Ad Networks (who follow a range of dartboard compensation methods), and of course in naming a game at all, or preparing its pitches. Just an example.
BKNFR are avoiding most of what’s established after having done their own research. They’ve luckily got time and they’re working on their enthusiasm for homebrew alternatives. For everyone else, they hope the following rundown of established practices helps. They then detail mobile inspirations and what kinds of monetization are being used in ROTOPO, their debut HTML5 Q-Bert homage from the voxel-ful future.
Bark pleads with the reader: “Please, there are going to be a hundred different elevator pitches for ROTOPO in these posts, let us know which ones are good and which are bad.” Fester: “If they’re all bad, say that too.”
The big picture, and the one established and persisting thanks to the 90’s and 00’s Flash wasteland goes:
Developers sell exclusive and nonexclusive licenses to Publishers, who serve advertisements within or paired with licensed games, which are then distributed across a variety of different Gaming Networks and Portals, if more than just its own, depending on the Publisher. This is the most popular practice for monetizing HTML5 games today.
(These examples move from least to most developer control and work.)
You are a Developer attempting to negotiate the cost for a Publisher’s use of your game. ArmorGames, the publisher, would like to purchase a non-exclusive license (meaning other Publishers can purchase licenses too) of your game to host on its own Portal at ArmorGames.com and at various other Portals such as AddictingGames.com. They’ll give you like 500 bucks.
Marketplaces are a similar option, where developers place their games on sale for purchase by Gaming Networks and Portals, essentially skipping over directly interacting with Publishers.
Second to that, Ad Networks are available to serve in-game advertisements for games freely hosted on Gaming Networks and Portals, whose main source of revenue comes from on-site advertising or subscription-based models. Think of Ad Networks as bizdev between Developers and Ad Agencies whose hosted products might fit to be advertised with games. Publishers who distribute games to Portals are sometimes referred to as Sponsors, a term BKNFR has found only used by Ad Networks. Ad Networks generate split revenue based on predefined advertising model rates (read: compensation methods) for themselves and Developers.
You are a Developer whose game is being hosted, for free, at ArmorGames.com for split advertisement revenue. They’ll put ads around your game and you’ll get a portion of that determinant on their terms. Where before all aspects of monetizing your game are left to the publishers who purchase it, here you can then choose to integrate ads within your already-hosted game.
Depending on the compensation method(s) used by the Publisher, you can be paid per impression, per ad click, per video ad watched, etc. The list is growing constantly as Publishers and Ad Networks iterate on their models.
Third, Developers host their own games and get served advertisements by linking with an Ad Network. Some Developers choose to include microtransactions, which many other Developers are adamant about having no place in browser-based games. For one, there is comparatively less trustworthiness in online payments than on mobile platforms. And second, there is a universally not-so-great payment system cut per transaction, which is discouraging for models with small and frequent payments.
You are a Developer without a platform to host your game. You instead host your game on your own website. At this point, you’re more vulnerable to not meeting the traffic conditions set by Ad Networks, because unlike Game Portals, you likely have few views and fewer plays.
You then choose a smaller, self-integrated Ad Network instead. These primarily serve low-quality, poorly-paying advertisements. Note that Google AdSense is NOT provisioned to serve ads to non-Flash-based games. If this term is violated, you are at risk of AdSense suspension.
Fourth, Developers embrace free-to-play. Somehow the traditional tedium of microtransactions in a browser are made to work (something like in Facebook’s own gaming services). Or Developers choose instead to publish their games on mobile platforms, preferring the convenience of one-button payments. Else, monetizing is only as complicated as figuring out how much to charge upfront.
You are a Developer with freemium microtransactions (hopefully) supporting development costs. Or… You’re trying something else, something not entirely covered by the brand of today’s freemium.
Or you are a Developer aiming for mobile and choose one of several HTML5 wrappers for the iOS and Android platforms.
BKNFR don’t really know the actual history of these business practices. Web stuff seems, at least to Fester, like a “two-decade-long hodge-podge scramble.” Web game monetization “… [seems to have] followed the last half of that path, businesses discovering and fitting together ambiguously divvied services all with the intention of monetizing a single small aspect of Flash games. [And that they’ve split these games into pieces (their distributions and platforms and their mechanics) to respond to a growing pressure to make money in an increasingly saturated marketplace.]”
And though Flash is moving off away, still these extremely niche practices remain. Unfortunately, it results in (or highly suggests) a very specific type of HTML5 game: casual, forced-length, addicting, replaceable, manufactured, and attritional. Games in these spaces do not have to be any of these things, BKNFR hopes.
Not like this bares mention. BKNFR thinks that if games are totally defined by how they can be monetized in a specific space, perhaps only because of well-established practices, then they should be described as tools for revenue foremost. Publishers and Ad Networks define and mold games; they do things like “generate revenue” for “middlemen” and “stomp on our weens.” The point is, “Games should define and mold business around them, rather than games around business,” says Bark.
“… worrying to enter a space for a small developer with little backbone and little support and it’s sure there are lots of other devs in this position too that could use encouragement to make web games that don’t resemble every other… [because] they are [necessarily defined] by web-based monetization… but it could just be naive, again thinking that [BKNFR] can be above something.”
BKNFR can’t encourage developers to pursue alternative paths toward success with HTML5 games without committing to do so themselves. So Bark and Fester of BKNFR are committing. Fester says, “Maybe it’ll be a failure and it won’t make anything Cool or money or break new ground and it won’t impress anyone too,” and Bark says, “Or it’ll be really, really fun anyway.” Fester tremolos. If ROTOPO fails, the following is cautionary.
BKNFR thinks it’s hard to talk about monetization without any underlying design. They think it’s also tough to treat that part of games, in front of an audience of gamers, as deserving of their attention. They think this because there are lots of negative associations people have with cash-grab games and freemium-model disasters. People don’t like to think that the developers of the games they play should think of them as moneybags.
But business is business and monetization is a part of game development and BKNFR can only feel so bad for so long for wanting support. “It’s always at the forefront to be totally totally aware that whatever monetization is used in ROTOPO is Cool and Fine and not evoking of ‘moneybagging.’” BKNFR wants to respect the player as much as they want the player to play their games and afford them food. It’s a relationship they think is extremely important.
What playtesters were had are gone now because of poor working conditions. BKNFR says, “[we have] regrets… were having them isolated and listening to Bark’s synthy beeps for hours upon hours to see if ROTOPO’s music had any effect on their persons… Fester also another time read to them aloud a series of his poetry and when he asked for and received criticism…” “… then went crazy and fuckin’ kicked me in the shin and then he started crying…,” reveals ████████████, former playtester.
BKNFR takes inspiration from Crossy Road, whose developers “definitely are nicer, more gentle people.” Its model is built on a large amount of individually-priced content with no purchasable currency and is supported by voluntary video ads that make easier the progression of unlocking that same content through in-game means.
Hipster Whale talks in detail about why they were so successful monetizing this way in a GDC presentation. To sum: players are not pulled away from the core of the game with interstitial ads or energy systems or any constant distraction serving social media and marketing. All their advertising, they say, is organic – with no money-in. Their success, attributed to great player retention, re-engagement, and virality.
BKNFR knows nothing about any of those things or how to achieve them. “It’s luck,” says Bark. “:( yeah,” says Fester. Their attempts to monetize ROTOPO are shots in the dark guided by the success of another developer. The parts most influenced by Crossy Road, too, fall short of Hipster Whale’s plea to “please ‘PLEASE’ innovate in F2P systems.” They have some confidence left that “not knowing enough means doing things different.” They also think that maybe it’s not enough to model ROTOPO’s own emulation on another platform, the distance between mobile and web not actually being so great.
ROTOPO’s monetization model in basic: Points earned during ROTOPO’s play are used for purchasing content. Players can choose to supplement their purchasing power by spending money on this same in-game content and by also voluntarily watching video ads to provide a boost to how many points they earn in the course of play.
Asked if would buy level packs for 10 cents a piece, “I guess… more than would be the case otherwise if they were for big money,” “was principal for offering extremely low-value content,” says Bark. “Lots of content, very low prices, a shopping cart…” “… like a thrill in rummaging through a clearance end-cap for granola bars and squeeze juice,” says Fester.
ROTOPO’s monetization model in detail: The in-game store, filled with content, contains text descriptions paired with a Youtube embed of a short BKNFR-made preview. These preview videos show off specific content – a step off from Crossy Road’s character trial system – and include Youtube’s own ads. Players would evaluate if that content is worth in-game currency, actual currency, or nothing at all. In any case, some small amount of Youtube ad revenue would be earned or some small amount of conversions from previews to IAP would be made and a more informed and multiplier-rewarded player would continue playing ROTOPO. Or is the idea, at least.
As for why BKNFR is choosing to use Youtube over a professional ad network: BKNFR could not find a single service capable of providing video ads without also applying to ROTOPO the raised conditions of admission reserved for Publishers. ROTOPO could be released with only IAP and BKNFR could hope to meet the Publisher requirements for being served ads sometime afterwards, but they’d potentially miss out on significant revenue during that first month in evaluation where the bulk of many games’ fiscal performance peaks.
“another thing… it’s [a] piss-stain caveat that cc information is to be used with a service that people are [probably] wholly unfamiliar with and don’t trust at all. Doesn’t matter that it’s convenient like a one-click app payment with Apple or [that there’s a PayPal button], it’s that the web is dangerous…,” and that there is nobody evaluating the trustworthiness of websites like ROTOPO’s. BKNFR are trying their best here to be as transparent as possible with monetization because of this.
Even then, thanks to the ambiguity of YouTube partnerships, BKNFR are left in the dark on generating revenue from any hotly-watched videos they upload. “This is an experiment,” they assure themselves. “Experiments can go wrong and can be blogged about for other devs interested in failures… there are at least dozens of dollars to be earned there in IAP conversions,” says Bark. But this experiment isn’t an only option, and the hope is that by the time (and if) it fails, enough telemetry would have been logged by BKNFR’s analytics department to impress upon Ad Networks that ROTOPO is something of a success.
ROTOPO, then, for the foreseeable future, will have no Publishers or Ad Networks serving ads to players. It will have bespoke videos instead. It will also have freemium microtransactions. It will include no purchasing of in-game currency. There will be some priced content of very clear, high value: a level pass to unlock all current and forthcoming levels and a piggybank-like character to boost a player’s access to content. ROTOPO will be totally and completely controlled by BKNFR.
There’s more work because of more control, then stretching out development into months rather than the weeks it would be with a simpler, established route. These are things to do with payment systems and server security and video editing and store UX design and creating more value throughout the entire experience to justify purchases.
“This is a lot.” “Yeah, it’s a lot.” BKNFR don’t say anything about it after this. They spent the last few minutes mulling over a list prior to it being condensed above, both thinking they’ve missed a few key points. Both are eager to read them again in each other’s scattered notes. Fester looks anxious, gets up, and begins reading over this post, saying “Can this be done already? This needs to go up with a few more still and there needs to be one about beta testing pretty soon and… “
I stop listening. Bark “just discovered a new kind of puzzle,” one with “reversals and a city block, with birds and lots of other cool things.” It will have more camera angles than ever before, “to make the world more livable as that counts too. Add it to the list: livable,” Bark says. “And making sure us too [two?] are living; add it to the list,” Fester says. They leave a little bit later to get food, unable to decide between expensive and frugal. The next day, Bark sends an email, written, “end it [this post] with a question that BKNFR is made half of children (re: Fester), like another experiment, what will happen when poisoned with success (capital). For posterity maybe intrigue? A told-you-so.”
A last point: Cut from this post was the topic of content pricing. It was discussed between Bark and Fester a hundred times over, for a hundred different reasons. There will be a post about it eventually.