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Netflix for indie games: How Jump aims to help devs beat discoverability issues

Netflix for indie games: How Jump aims to help devs beat discoverability issues

July 10, 2017 | By Alex Wawro




Kermdinger Studios was established in 2012 with a straightforward goal: make game, sell game, repeat.

But there was a foreseeable problem with that second step, one many fellow devs are likely grappling with: a lot of games come out every month, and it's tough for even great indie games to get reliable, meaningful attention on most game marketplaces.

"We didn't even launch our game because we knew we wouldn't be able to sell enough to make it impactful," company chief Anthony Palma tells Gamasutra. 

"Being an indie was getting harder and harder, even in premium sales. You've seen that with Steam in the last couple years, just the number of games launching, it's getting harder to sell. So we wanted to figure out a different way to help developers get their games discovered and played."

Moreover, Palma (who has also spent years as the program director at game dev accelerator Core Labs) says he wants to try and provide developers with a way to monetize their games outside the established dichotomy of premium and free-to-play.

Thus, roughly five years after it opened, the company formerly known as Kermdinger is finally launching not a game but a game platform: Jump.

Building a 'Netflix' for indie games

 
"Think of it like Netflix."

Launching in beta this month, Jump aims to be an "on demand multi-platform game subscription service" that asks subscribers to pay a $10 monthly fee for access to a library of games (available via Jump apps on PC, HTC Vive and Rift at launch) that emphasizes the work of indie developers. 

"It's a highly curated library, it's going to be between 60-100 games at launch, and then we'll be adding a certain number every month after that," Palma says. "Really, what we wanted to be able to do is provide that highly curated, polished, responsive experience that hasn't really come up in gaming yet, particularly in the subscription world."

What makes Jump especially interesting is its proposed payment model: devs with games on the service will get paid in proportion to how much time Jump subscribers spend playing their games.

"We're planning to take 70 percent of the net revenue of the total subscription income and divvy that up and pay that to developers, based on a proportion of how much time their game gets played vs. the total amount of time that all games got played on the platform," says Palma.

A sample game page in the (beta) version of Jump

His pitch, then, is that the problem of discoverability on a marketplace like Steam has gotten so bad that a developer might actually make more putting their game on Jump, where the library of games to play will remain artificially low and there will be no "purchase anxiety" since players are paying subscribers.

"It goes back to the discoverability problem," continues Palma. "With Jump, someone comes in and tries a game, and unlike on Steam where you can refund your game within 2 hours and then that whole sale is lost, here, no matter what amount of time someone plays, the dev is going to get paid."

There's also not a lot of pressure, up front, on devs to bring their games to Jump. Palma acknowledges that it still makes a lot of sense to release your indie PC/VR game on Steam first, and suggests that devs might be better off bringing their games to Jump after their initial sales on Steam have slacked off. 

"In most games, if you look at a graph of money vs. time, they have this huge spike when they put their games out on a retail channel, then it goes into that long, dwindling long tail of sales," he says. "So the ideal moment to bring your game to Jump is after you've already gotten the majority of your premium sale income, and then depending on the game, maybe 3-6 months later would be the ideal time to add it to Jump, which is meant to help lift that long tail of revenue, maximizing and even adding more lifetime revenue from a single game."

It sounds a bit similar to what RockYou started doing years ago: acquiring games (typically social games that had done well on Facebook) that were perhaps no longer doing peak business, but were still profitable and compelling enough to support active communities of players.

Jump, of course, doesn't see itself as rescuing defunct games, but Palma is polite enough to go along with the comparison.

"That's the whole angle we're going for," he says. "Just because a game added to Jump is 3, 6, 9 months old, maybe 2 or 3 years old, that doesn't mean it's not a high-quality game. They may not be day-one launch stuff, but a good game is a good game. As someone who appreciates games as art, and a hugely intrinsically positive thing for the world in general. I think it's...it's not rescuing, but it is putting them on a pedestal."

Avoiding the overcrowding problem of major game marketplaces

But there's a weird line to walk here, right?

For a subscription service to with one hand reach out to devs and say your game will be visible here; it will be on a pedestal with a curated library of other great games. At the same time, Jump's other hand is reaching out to potential subscribers and entreating them to pay a monthly fee for access to a library of games.

Isn't there some pressure there to expand quickly so you can say you have the biggest library, with all of the greatest indie games -- potentially leading all but a handful of games on Jump to get insignificant playtime?

 Jump VP of content and community Cade Peterson acknowledges that this could be a problem, but says it's basically his job to make sure every game on Jump "gets its time in the sun."

"Our plan right now is to launch with a good number of games, and then every month after that only add 10, maybe 12 games," says Peterson, who has a long career in community management and dev relations at outfits like Leap Motion and PlayStation. "That way, every one of those new games each gets high-profile visibility on the front page. And then there will be an algorithm that will be serving up games to individuals later, like a recommendation engine."

As you might expect, launching a curated subscription service for indie games that algorithmically generates recommendations has Palma and Peterson pitching Jump as "Netflix for indie games."

"Think of it like Netflix. You go in there now and you get these very specific categories, like indie horror movies with strong female leads," says Palma. "That's what we want to be able to do. So we will be able to serve up not only games that you particularly will like, but we're also gonna be able to resurface games. So just because your game launched in month 3 and now its month 12, it's not going to be buried and unfindable."

Jump will also resurface older games "back up to the top of the queue", and Palma says the team hopes to use that functionality to highlight Jump games with fresh content. 

"We're not going to do any sales of DLC, no ads, this is a very pure experience. But to incentivize doing DLC, what we'll do is bump you back up into a top row that would say something like 'New Content,'" he explains. "And so even if it's 12 months after launch, all of a sudden you're being discovered again by everybody. So we'll have ways for devs to bring their games back up into the queue, so they're not just going to get buried. And we're going to grow the content library very linearly, so hopefully our users will outpace our content, so there will be a chance for good revenue on the platform."

Devs who are interested in having their games in Jump's library can expect to jump through a few peculiar hoops. For example, Jump's client doesn't exactly download full games to customers' machines or stream the games live; instead, it relies on native web builds of games that can be quickly downloaded via the proprietary app and played in chunks.

"This was kind of the revolution I saw when Unity announced its WebGL export at the end of 2014," says Palma, recalling how the engine maker wound down its venerable Web Player in favor of new WebGL game publishing tech.

"What we're doing is pulling the game from our servers, and it's up and running in 20 seconds or so, and we're then able to jump into the game and play right away," he claims. "Without having to install it, without having to set up all the Microsoft redistributables or whatever, and not having to take up storage space on this device. So with this native web tech and then some of the propriertary hooks we've built into it, we're able to deliver these games very quickly and directly to players' devices. And they run with no latency and no quality issues."

As you might expect, games built in Unity are the easiest for Jump to work with, but Palma says the team is happy to work with devs using any major engine. To assuage fears of piracy, Palma adds that games on Jump are all modified so that they effectively have to authenticate with Jump servers before they'll run on someone's machine.   

"For Unity in particular, we hand over this plugin that's essentially one prefab you drop into your first scene, and then you write about four lines of code," says Palma. "The whole cycle takes maybe ten minutes. And then your game is automatically hooked into our backend, and so you can't play those games unless they're running either through our app or on our website. So you're not actually able to download the code and all the assets and try to run it outside of it, it will never get past this screen. It will never even start loading."

Enticing devs onto the platform 

Jump has also set aside some of its money ("almost a third of our funding", says Palma) to advance to devs who are thinking about putting their games on the service. The goal is to take some of the risk out of taking time to port to a new platform, and Peterson says that as long as that advance is recouped or repaid, devs are then free to take their games off Jump if their contract allows.

"All the original contracts, they just have like a minimum of 1 year to stay on Jump," he says. "After that they can take it off. If it is one of the games we offer advances to...as long as that advance has been recouped or repaid fully, then at the end of the year they can pull it off if they like. It's very open-ended."

And if you're working on something that you'd like to put up for sale while it's still in development (via Steam's Early Access platform, for example) Palma says Jump also has space for you -- albeit in very limited quantities.

"We have a really specific vision for how Early Access works, because we've seen how it shouldn't work," says Palma. "Basically if everyone can submit as Early Access, that turns into the new way people distribute builds."

What Palma instead envisions for Jump is "one row on the app" where a small, curated selection of in-development games are available for subscribers to play. Developers will generate revenue from that playtime, just like any other game on the service, and they'll also be able to get feedback from the players via Jump's forums or their own community hubs.

"People will be able to play those games, they'll be able to generate revenue just like any other game on the service, with the understanding that they're going to finish and probably go sell their game elsewhere, and even leave Jump for a while," adds Palma. "But we want to give them an outlet to get their game in front of people without having to charge for an unfinished game. So it's a bit more user-friendly, where people are already paying subscriptions to play finished games, and then they can also get this early look at like 5 or 6 games as well, that we will very heavily curate and pick."

So how do they pick and choose? How do they deal with the very same problem they're trying to help solve, that there's just a wild number and variety of indie games in the market these days? 

 At multiple points throughout our conversation both Palma and Peterson refer to the "three pillars" they look to for guidance on what games to bring onto Jump, and when pressed Peterson says those pillars are critical response, peer response, and marketplace response.

"Highly-reviewed, award-winning, sellers," says Peterson. "They have to have at least one of those three, most of them have at least two, and several of them have all three, in our lineup. But that's the rough core of what we look for when selecting a game."

Curious devs can check the platform out for themselves: Jump is live (in beta form) today, and the platform is expected to see a proper debut later this year.

It's not alone, either; longstanding game service Humble Bundle recently launched its own download-based game subscription service, and many game companies have tried and failed to operate similar services in the past.

Palma acknowledges the risks, but says Jump is built to succeed where other, similar services have failed. argues that most game subscription services suffer from three main weaknesses, and that "I think we've fixed all three of them" with Jump.

"First, the user experience typically isn't that great. Second, what comes with that, is the price. Streaming services in particular can be unrealistically expensive. And then the third is that they were all bound to one, maybe two platforms. With the tech that we've built, we're not bound to specific platforms anymore," says Palma. "So we addressed all 3 of the problems we've seen in prior subscription services, and we've done it in a way that's incredibly cheap for us to deliver, so that we can pay most of the money out to developers."

Oh, and that game Kermdinger Studios initially set out to make, back in 2012? It's now called Stunt Runner, and it will finally come out -- on Jump. Eventually. 

"It's horribly optimized, but it actually does run in Jump now," says Palma, with a laugh. "So yeah that game is going to launch after five years of....not."



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