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Making the Jump: my journey from Flash games to desktop games!
by YC Sim on 01/06/14 12:17:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

A few years ago, I made the huge decision to leave a comfortable, well-paying engineering job with a fairly large oil and gas firm to pursue a career as a game developer. In my country, Malaysia, that's a pretty strange career choice, in a land where many parents consider engineering and medicine as coveted jobs for their children.

The Land of Browser Games!

I don't make a life decision like that very lightly, of course, and I was already making sponsored games in my spare time by the time I left my job. At the cost of having very little sleep over the nights and weekends, I had been beavering away, learning game development skills on the side, reading articles from Gamasutra, watching how the bigger developers make money from the Flash gaming market.

First, a quick summary of my understanding of the Flash game market and the game developer's place in it, for those who are considering it as a career choice. 

The biggest advantage browser games have is their huge reach: a successful game can easily reach tens of millions of plays, since every computer has a browser and the games are often designed to be quickly loaded and played within a short ten minute break. Most of this traffic comes from large Flash game portals, such as Kongregate, Newgrounds and Armorgames, just to name a few. These portals provide the hosting and pay the considerable bandwidth costs, while developers provide the content and generate traffic to the portals. The main income for many Flash game developers comes from sponsorships by the portals, where a certain amount of money is paid (the actual amount varies from portal to portal, and from one game to another) in exchange for including a logo and link to the sponsors. As the game is spread far and wide throughout the expanse of the Internet, the sheer number of players and the probability curve dictates that SOME of them will inevitably click through to the portals, which gives value to the games. The sponsorship figures for the most popular games can be found on Gamasutra, and are often lucrative enough to keep the developers going for a while.

My Early Years

I read in a PC Gamer article about the existence of Kongregate back when it first started in 2007, and decided to try my luck with a few unsponsored games. They were uniformly terrible, and ended up earning a small pittance for me (a quick check reveals that my very first game has earned me less than $30 in the seven years since it was uploaded!), but I am grateful to Kongregate for giving me that initial exposure I needed. Your first game always seem amazing to you, until you put it in front of a wider audience: while I was initially a little upset over the criticisms and harsh feedback I received, I realise now that this was completely normal, my games really WERE that bad, and prepared me to deal positively with negative feedback in the years ahead.

I remember my very first sponsored games: Zombies Took My Daughter, sponsored by ArcadeBomb, and Vertical Drop Heroes, sponsored by NinjaKiwi through the FlashGameLicense site. I owe all of them my eternal gratitude for starting me on the path I am on now! When I received my first payment for the games, I told my parents and my girlfriend (now my wife), and they ALL expressed skepticism at the money, worrying that I was about to fall victim to some sort of Western hoax. It's all a bit funny now that I look back on those days!

Zombies Took My Daughter: A Procedural game I made in 2010!

Zombies Took My Daughter: A procedural zombie survival game I made in 2010!

Vertical Drop Heroes

Vertical Drop Heroes: a procedural platform game, and my second sponsored Flash game

2010-2012: The Years of Nerdook Games

When it became clear that the sponsorship payments for the games were not some kind of elaborate hoax, I began my game making career in earnest. For the next few years, making games became a part-time job for me, with my nights and weekends filled with game development work. To save costs, I had to learn EVERYTHING: coding, game design, art, animation, sounds and music. In the end, I realized musical talent is not something that I was able to honestly say I have, and outsourced it to composers recruited from Newgrounds (and on a few occasions, my then-girlfriend-now-wife, who is a musical genius). 

The old adage is "make hay while the sun shines", and 2010-2012 appeared to be the golden years for both me and Flash gaming in general. I managed to make a game every 2 months or so, almost all of them sponsored by Kongregate, and while only one game was a huge success (Monster Slayers: 4.1 million views on Kongregate alone, and over 10 million worldwide to date), the rest were moderate successes. Even today, I had no idea how I really did all of it, except maybe from sheer determination to see each project finished. As of today, I have eighteen Kongregate sponsored games on their site, with a combined total of 25 million plays.

Some of the key strategies I used throughout these years were:

a) Keep it simple: Each game had a clear core concept, and this was quickly built into a prototype and iterated upon until it's good enough to be published. As far as possible, I resisted the temptations to add too many things to each game, and focused on making that core loop simple and fun.

b) Learn and adapt: With every game I made, I did my best to use each one as a learning tool for the next game, building a common library of functions and tools, and researching better and more efficient ways to use the resources I have. Better collision detections, improved pathfinding, better procedural algorithms, and animation tricks were all things that I learned along the way, sometimes from other people, and sometimes through my own experimentation.

c) Build the fanbase: I have to admit, my marketing skills are not as good as they could be, but I always did my best to engage my fans honestly and openly, doing my best not to be dragged into countless arguments with them, and sharing the rationale behind some of my game design decisions. I made a lot of good friends on the Kongregate chatrooms, gathered all my fans slowly but surely on my own Facebook page, and recruited some of them as beta testers for upcoming games.

Making the Jump

I left my job in early 2011, and on Christmas Eve that year, I got married. My daughter was born on 31st December 2012, and with the flexibility I have working from home, I decided to take on extra duties as a stay at home parent while the wife goes to work.

Taking care of a child always takes precedent over my work, so I am only able to work on my code while someone else is taking care of her, or when she finally falls asleep. It's amazing how much energy a little child has! As the months went on and my bank account dwindled from the reduced productivity, I made a major decision: maybe it's time to leverage the things I've learned from Flash development into bigger things. 

And so I started learning again, first experimenting with Starling on Flash, then learning Gamemaker Studio. I decided to make my very first desktop game in Gamemaker, since it's similar enough to Flash and Actionscript. I decided to return to my roots for this "career reboot" of sorts: it's time to modernise Vertical Drop Heroes into a roguelite platformer that incorporates everything I've learned in the last seven years!

And so I beavered away again, making a playable version of the game, built an early alpha demo for download, crafted a trailer, and popped it into a brand new Steam Greenlight page, where it now languishes, awaiting the approving votes of the masses, like a thousand other indie games. 

So here I am today! I am still working on the game, but most of my time is now spent trying to convince others to give it a try, checking feverishly at the daily votes, wondering why the vote ratio is dropping, and all the other borderline obsessive behaviours that every independent game developer with a pending Greenlight project totally understands.

This game development career thing has been a crazy adventure and a wild ride, with plenty of challenges and its own unique brand of ups and downs. But if you're considering it as a career, I'd say go for it, but do it with your eyes wide open, do your research, have a backup plan if things go south, and always keep that passion for games burning through the dark hours and the endless problems you will encounter along the way.

Will I succeed? Who knows? The future is as uncertain as ever, but I'm happy with what I've done so far, and it looks like an exciting year ahead for PC gaming in general. It's always been strange career choice, but I wouldn't have traded it for the world!

Oh, and here's that plug for my Greenlight page: http://steamcommunity.com/sharedfiles/filedetails/?id=205631999 ;)


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Comments


Sjors Jansen
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I wish you good luck.
Perhaps you'll want to check out Haxe / OpenFL, it's very similar to actionscript and allows you to build for multiple platforms. http://www.openfl.org/developer/documentation/

Hamana Boulet
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I try to always keep an eye on flash games. And each time I see a new game from Nerdook, I am always very excited. Your games are really great, as you say each game has a simple concept but it is always innovative and fun.

Did you think to release your games on mobile?

I wish you the best!

YC Sim
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Actually, I do have a mobile port of Nuclear Outrun out on iOS, and though it's not a huge success by any means, it did do pretty decently.

YC Sim
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@Sjors: I do have HAXE (and also Unity) on my main developing system, but after trying all of them out I settled on Gamemaker for my first effort. Will definitely try out Haxe in the future!

Phil Maxey
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What about Unity though? I'm coding my current project in Obj-c, but the next is definitely going to be cross-platform and right now the leading contender for that is Unity, I keep reading good things though about GameMaker and Haxe.

YC Sim
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Unity is a much better choice for cross platform off the bat, if that's your main aim then I'd say it's a far better choice. Gamemaker gives me PC and Mac as export options (though I need a working Mac to export for it), while it has limited Linux support for Ubuntu, with an additional payment to unlock it.

Haxe is really good and has a lot of potential, but the extra work needed for graphis acceleration reminds me too much of the headaches I had working with Starling... though that may be me doing it wrong!

Lars Doucet
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It's NERDOOK! Glad to see you on Gamasutra!

I've been using Haxe extensively for Defender's Quest 2, so if you have any questions feel free to ask and I can explain any of the details. It does have some overhead to be sure, so whether it's right for you depends entirely on what you're planning on doing with it.

The recent updates to OpenFL make it pretty awesome in my opinion.

YC Sim
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Thanks for the welcome! I hope to emulate your success in moving from Flash to full games. It's certainly very different, very challenging and very exciting!

Yes, I learned about Haxe through one of the comments on RPS you posted, and downloaded it to check it out. It's good, but at the moment, Gamemaker Studio serves my needs better for this current project.

Doctor Ludos
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I was a huge fan of Zombies Took My Daughters when I discovered it on Kongregate (I played for hours, literally). So it's great to see that you are taking it to the "next level"!

If it's not a secret, could you tell how much income did you generated when you made a sponsored Kongregate Game per 2 month? (on average, just curious if Flash portal in their heyday were as good as Steam today to earn a living).

Anyway, I wish you the best for your current project!

YC Sim
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Unfortunately, sponsors aren't really willing to let everyone know how much they pay, since it also varies from project to project, but suffice to say, it's definitely more than enough to keep me going (though far below the large five figure sums per game the REALLY successful games make), and even with all the changes going on (shift to mobile, the rise of Steam, etc), I think Flash portals are still doing a decent business for now, albeit with much slower growth.

Doctor Ludos
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Thanks a lot for the info! :)

So, you think, even today, it still possible to earn a living doing sponsored Flash games?

When I look at all the articles saying "flash is dead, mobile games is the future" a few months ago, and now the articles saying "mobile is reserved to big players, let's all do steam pc games instead", I was under the impression that now wasn't a very good time to creates sponsored Flash games.

In others word, would you recommend this route today to someone wanting to "go indie"? Or is really "steam pc" the only one worth it nowadays?

YC Sim
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Honestly speaking, Flash gaming is NOT dead, but neither is it as fast growing as it was just a few years ago. I guess the portals are still monetizing well from F2P games, but mobile is growing so fast that the big players there are raking it in. Look at the big names like Candy Crush, making more dough in a day than the portals ever did in their heyday!

If you want to go indie, I would say Flash is a good option TO START WITH due to its low barrier of entry. All it costs to make a game is a quick download, and your own precious time. Don't expect sponsorships right off the bat unless you are very lucky, and use the exposure to learn the ropes of game design and get used to the harsh reality of negative feedback and criticism!

Sean Gailey
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When I saw the blurb about publishing to Kongregate, I immediately scanned to find who wrote this. Nice too hear your story, Nerdook! Great games, I've played many.

I think I've had a similar game dev experience. I develop on Kong as MrJinx and went through the same woes when Flash began its slow spiral of doom. I tried Starling, then went to GameMaker, but I actually ended up in Unity (especially with the native 2D support in the latest update). The primary decision maker was Unity's browser player, and being able to stay in the gaming portal world.

Loved the article!

YC Sim
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All the best to you! I will definitely try Unity after this project is complete, but for now I am perfectly happy with what Gamemaker offers!

Andrew Wee
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Hi YC,
Great to see your interview. Monster Slayers was one of my favourite games on kong, and I always thought you were in the US, so was quite surprised to find out you're in Malaysia.

I've been trying to work on various projects like FB games, mobile apps, and game/app discovery is usually the tougher part, so working with a strong platform or publisher is key to seeing the explosive growth of your games.

I'm in Singapore, so if you come down for a visit, let me know!

To your continued success and good to see that VDH is doing well on steam!


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