Kongregate’s secret features: Microtransactions and Leagues

(this is part 2 of “Flashback to 2006: How Kongregate Started”, and looks at the features Kong was supposed to have but hasn’t brought to market yet, and makes some wild guesses at why not)

Microtransactions

What were these going to be? Are they still coming?

In his explanation above, Jim said:

“We’re also opening up the microtransaction API so developers can charge for premium content in their own games (extra levels, gameplay modes, etc) — we’ll take a much smaller cut of that revenue.”

The API has long been rumoured to be a bit flakey, which is no surprise for a startup (and the people in the community saying this mostly weren’t professional developers, so their expectations need to be taken with a pinch of salt). I’ve not tried it myself (I joined during closed beta, fully intending to get back into Flash and make some stuff for it, but never quite got around to it. Having to re-purchase all my now-out-of-date Flash dev tools for stupid amounts of money from Macromedia/Adobe just proved one barrier too many), but a couple of friends have, and they’ve all said good things about it’s simplicity and how it “just works”.

(for another view on this, a while back I spotted this great article by someone who decided to take a flash game made in a single weekend and see how easily + well they could make money from it by putting it on various portals including Kongregate. It’s an interesting read, and goes into detail on the time it took to get the API stuff working, and what it was like to work with from cold)

But on the whole, the API has been up and running and working fine for over a year now (from my experience as a player on the site). So, I’d expect that adding new features to the API is well within Kong’s abilities as a company / dev team.

In the list of features, it reads as though Kong intended to make this thing work themselves, but Jim’s expansion suggests instead that they wanted it to be driven by developers. I think they expected game makers to be frustrated at the low per-game monetization possible from ad revenue, and to push Kong to support micropayments for more content. It hasn’t quite happened that way, I think – Flash + Kong makes it so easy to knock up a game and publish it that I think few developers on the site really think about putting in the kind of time and effort needed to chop and slice their content. Combine that with the large revenues that Desktop Tower Defence was widely quoted as making from Kong alone, and you can see that many are probably happy with just releasing “extra games” rather than “extra content for a single game”.

This is despite the fact that with Kong’s current revenue-sharing model *that* is a sub-optimal setup for developers. The way Kong’s rev-sharing works, you get ad-rev-share, but also the top-rated games each week/month get cash lump-sums from Kong. But there’s a big drop-off in amount between “1st”, “2nd”, etc – so if you, as a developer, have three awesome games, you’re much better off having them win 1st place three months in sequence, rather than launch them all at once and only get 1st + 2nd + 3rd. So, yes, you really would be better off making one game stay top of the pile every month (and I’m sure this was very deliberately done this way to try and encourage game quality and discourage game quantity; I just don’t think it’s working all that well yet).

Here’s a wild guess as to why: even the more advanced and experienced of developers on Kong are still in the mindsets that the crappy portals over the years have forced upon them, e.g. “for better revenue, embed an advert from a portal and get a better rate; for REALLY good revenue, embed an extra-long advert and the portal will give you a single cash lump-sum”. This is unsurprising when you consider that making a living out of independent, single-person casual games development still requires you to put your product out on as many portals as possible.

Until that changes, most developers will probably continue to use whichever lowest-common-denominator approaches they can deploy across ALL the portals. In that sense, Kong has a hard struggle ahead of it if it wants to change attitudes. But that’s part of why Kong is great for developers – if it DOES change those attitudes, it makes the world a better place for developers, and for players. Unless, of course, Kong gives up and fades into being “just like all the other portals”. I sincerely hope that doesn’t happen.

Leagues

I used to like them, I used to sing their praises, but I can’t continue to deceive myself (or anyone else) any longer:

Kong’s features for communication between players suck horrendously.

They promised so much, and then delivered so little. They started off doing some really awesome stuff, inspired things like the AJAX-powered mini-forums for each game, that allowed you to post to the forum WHILE PLAYING without your web browser navigating away from the page (which, because of the nature of Flash, would lose all your progress in most games).

But those mini-forums, which worked “OK” for when the site was smaller, say a year ago, and had only 5-10 pages per forum, or 40 for a popular game, quickly became chaotic (mildly popular games now regularly have 50+ pages of comments, and top games have many HUNDREDS of pages … all with NO NAVIGATIONAL STRUCTURE AT ALL. Ugh).

And what about chat? Right from the early beta launches (probably from alpha too, although I never saw that, so I don’t know), people talked about Kong as “game + chat”, glued together “without the game developer doing anything” (Kong provides the chat system and it automatically attaches itself to the side of the game on the page). So … where’s the contextual chat? How come, when you’re in chat, there’s NOTHING that relates the chat you’re in, or the people you’re talking to, to the game you’re in?

(this is a particularly interesting question given IIRC Pogo.com – Jim Greer’s previous job before he founded Kongregate – made a big thing of showing profile information about other people in the chat window. IIRC you could choose a handful of your Pogo badges that would be displayed with your avatar whenever you chatted (in fact, IIRC it was Jim who originally explained all this to me years ago when I cheekily applied for a job with the Pogo team and he gave me a phone interview*)).

How does this have anything to do with Leagues?

Well, leagues for casual games are a classic example of how three things in gaming crossover and make something much bigger than the sum of their parts. It is a bit of a poster-child for “Game 2.0” (a stupid concept IMHO, but nevermind), and it IS a good idea, but most people miss the point:

  • Competitiveness (…in front of an audience)
  • Community (…around a shared experience)
  • Communication (…of shared struggle)

The beautiful thing about leagues as opposed to other Web 2.0 + Game / Social Games features is that they are technologically VERY easy to implement. That’s also the ugly thing: it means most people who implement them don’t actually know why they’re doing it, and screw them up.

I could believe that the only reason leagues haven’t been implemented yet is that Jim and the Kong team *do* understand them, and know that they “could” throw them up almost at a moment’s notice – but that getting a complete process and system that fulfils all three of the core elements is a much much bigger design challenge, and needs them to fix a whole bunch of things at once.

i.e. you’ll see Leagues appear on Kongregate ONLY at the same time as they “fix” the chat and the mini-forums, and start providing proper Profile pages instead of the quickly-hacked-together ones they’ve got now that look like a beautified output of an SQL command:

SELECT * FROM PROFILES WHERE USERNAME="playerX"

…because without doing those other things too (which we know they’re working on, according to previous commenters on this blog) the Leagues would fall far short of their potential.

(*) – about that interview (although I’m sure Jim’s forgotten completely), it’s an interesting illustration of how my attitudes to software development have undergone a sea-change, so I’m going to bore you with a description here ;)…

A recruiter put me forwards for it, but I had very little expectation of getting the job, or of taking it if it was offered. But I *did* want to know more about what EA’s “casual gaming” group looked like internally, and how they worked. I dismally (no, really: dismally) failed the programming test, I think – they wanted me to write a java game, as an applet, from scratch in under an hour. At the time, I’d just come from writing big server-side systems – also in java – and was still wedded to using rigorous software engineering approaches. They needed someone who would just churn out crap, see what was good, throw away the rest, and iterate on it. Which was right of them. But with a timed test and no run-up practices I couldn’t overcome the habits I’d been using as recently as the week before.

(I say this now as someone who is firmly in that camp too, who strongly advocates Guy Kawasaki’s “don’t worry; be crappy!” mantra – but back then, I understood the concepts, but was in the wrong frame of mind to put them into practice. Certainly I wasn’t mentally prepared at the drop of a hat to unlearn everything I knew and re-educate myself, AND write a game, in under an hour).