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Although indie Flash games can be sold as standalone desktop or mobile apps, or launched with in-game purchases, the traditional way of making money from them is via sponsorship. This is when you reach an agreement with a company to add their branding to your game to direct players to their site, or to create a custom version of the game for that company.
In this guide, I'll talk you through the process of getting a Flash game sponsored, and the many considerations you should take into account when doing so.
Note: This tutorial is written from the perspective of a Flash game developer, but with the increasing popularity of HTML5 and Unity games, you may find that many of the same approaches work for those platforms.
1. Using FGL vs Going Private
FGL (formerly known as Flash Game License) is an online marketplace where gamedevs can upload their games, get feedback, and put them up for sponsorship. Sponsors will look through the catalogue of user-uploaded games and, if they are interested, place a bid on them. Developers then select which bid they wish to accept (if any), and FGL gets a 10% commission (which may be paid by either the developer or the sponsor, depending on the deal).
The alternative to FGL is contacting publishers (i.e. sponsors - the owners of the websites you're aiming to get published on) directly, and setting up the deals yourself.
Let's look at the advantages and disadvantages of each approach:
- There are clear Terms of Agreements.
- You get the support of FGL staff to help you sell your game (this could be through an agent that specifically promotes your game further).
- There's a great community on the site.
- The feedback service is really handy.
- You can see useful statistics of plays from sponsors.
- The service is personalised.
- Sharing your game is secure - it's extremely uncommon for a game to get stolen.
- The floating icon rating system helps you improve your icons (these are essential for getting your game noticed by players and sponsors).
- You can get player feedback before you make your game visible to sponsors.
- There is a lack of follow-up support.
- You must factor in the 10% commission on sales and revenues from deals made through FGL.
- Waiting for counter bids and other bids can be a slow process.
Tip: If you do sell through FGL, it is still a good idea to send out private emails to sponsors to heighten your chance of success.
In the case of Angry Bees, which I sold through FGL, I encountered long waiting times for bids and it was a slow process - it took over a month to sell. However, the community provided good feedback and FGL was supportive to an extent.
For my game Physics Robbery, FGL never received commission payment from the sponsor. (They said they would pay for us but by taking it out of our payment - confusing, but due to the programmer not being able to send payments.) The sponsor was brought to FGL privately by us.
- You gain publisher contacts.
- You have more control over the whole process.
- There's usually less waiting around.
- You'll feel more proactive!
- There are no commission fees to pay.
- You can add a personal touch.
- It's less secure (you don't get FGL's built-in security for preventing theft).
- There's more chance for you to get ripped off if you don't know what you're doing.
- It requires good communication skills.
- Without a lawyer, the terms agreed can be somewhat unspecific.
Presentation is a very important part of the process of selling a game; it will improve the perceived value of the game to the sponsors, and increase your chances of a higher sale.
Trailers are a good way to show sponsors the content and general feel of a game in a brief period; they let the sponsor know what's in the game while illustrating its quality game. Your trailer should therefore should show all the main content and features of the game.
I also recommend adding developer credits and a "Brought to you by: sponsor.com" placeholder for the potential sponsor's branding. It should say, "look at all this awesome stuff in my game," without the sponsor having to play through the whole game to find it all.
Sponsors and general game publishers have a standard at which they will publish games. They will expect all games to have:
- some sort of instructions
- a mute button
- a preloader
- a help button
- a pause button
- save games
- sponsor branding placeholders
- Title of email: "SPONSORSHIP - Name of game"
- Greeting: "Hey [Sponsor Name]" - Make it look like it's not just a copy and paste.
- Intro: Explain why you are contacting them, what kind of game it is, what players can do.
- Game URL: Link to the game - make sure when you upload your game you have site-locked it and it is private!
- Trailer URL: A public version is usually best, but if it is likely you will not have many views it may be better to use a private link. It's a good idea to make sure the trailer is HD and to link to the HD version via the Share options on YouTube.
- Game Features: Facts about the game ("it has 50 levels", and so on).
- Final remark: Just something like "Looking forward to hearing from you", plus your name, like "Regards, Julian." Let them know who is contacting them.
Other optional (but recommended) features to include are:
Branding placeholders usually consist of generic "sponsor.com" branding on main UI elements of the game, such as menus and preloader screens. If you don't include these, it could leave a bad impression on the sponsor and may lower their perceived value of the game.
Aaron from the FGL staff says:
I often advise that developers implement placeholder sponsor branding in their games; not because it adds value, but because I think it's important for the developers to decide where they want to integrate the branding before the sponsors decide for them.
Communication With Sponsors
The original contact with sponsors is often through email; this is usually done by sending a "pitch" of your game.
When I am contacting sponsors for a first time about a game I usually follow this format:
Don't mention a price unless you are offering some sort of cheap price to sell it fast. Also, note that half the sponsors you email might not contact you back, so you shouldn't be offended if they don't.
When I'm selling a game I will usually send out an initial batch of emails, and then another set once I have a few bids and offers. I wouldn't suggest contacting a sponsor too many times, but sometimes emails you send out may just get lost in their inboxes, so don't be afraid to send another if you don't get a reply.
I asked Jay why developing good relations with sponsors is so important; here's what he said:
They are people and you may end up meeting them one day - particularly if you go to FGS or GDC!
The relationship should be mutually beneficial - go out of your way for them, be understanding and under no circumstances be rude. Do not burn bridges. This is a fast-changing industry and small players can become big players very quickly.
With my first game Super Wicked Awesome, I began communicating with Armor Games. They didn't end up sponsoring the game, but by striking up a relationship I have been able to work with them on almost every game since then!
Sponsors are extremely busy people; make it as easy as possible for them to see your game. I have found that a YouTube trailer which shows off the main features of your game not only saves the sponsors a lot of time, but also ensures they see all the things you want them to. Got an awesome last boss? Don't expect a sponsor to play for 45 minutes to see it - they have a hundred other games they need to check out. Make life easier for them.
Having said that - take your time! If you get an offer, wait a day and think about it. Be honest: if you are waiting to hear back from other sponsors, say so! Thats how the business works and everyone is aware of that - who knows, you might trigger a bidding war.
Put Your Name on the Game
I made a big mistake with my original games Copy N' Paste, Fallen From the Moon and Launch to the Moon, each of which I sold privately to publishers. The sponsors basically removed all credits that the game was made by me, and published the game under their own name; this resulted in them receiving credit for the game even though they didn't make it.
This meant, in turn, that a lot of other game developers didn't know my games, and that if I mentioned a name to a sponsor they had no idea who I was.
To be a successful big player in the Flash game industry, you need to market yourself with your games. Use splash screens that contain icons with your logo and a link to your websites; embed yourself in the game. This will enable more revenue through clicks to your site, and will add more perceived value to your game.
Okay, this doesn't mean that if you make a bad game it will get sponsored for a lot because it's got a certain name attached, but it may help a good game to get a higher sponsorship. It's like buying clothes: you aren't going to buy a super ugly shirt because it's a such-and-such brand, but you may pay more for a decent shirt because of its brand.
If you are a recognized game developer, sponsors will know that you'll be making more games - and that the more games you make, the more players will click through to your site, which may lead back to their games. This may be a consideration for sponsors, but honestly it isn't a selling point.
The First Impression of a Game
First impressions are very important: if you give a player a bad first impression of your game, then you're setting yourself up to explode in a fiery explosion of explosions.
With Super Adventure Pals, we started the game a cutscene and then jumped straight into gameplay with super simple instructions. We spent a while polishing off the initial game content as this is what's going to hook players, so we focused on making it immediately interesting and letting players easily get into it.
Try to introduce the main mechanics of the game - such as levelling up, fighting, collecting, and so on - within the first few minutes. Don't wait too long to introduce new content into the game, but at the same time don't overwhelm the player with content.
Getting feedback is a crucial part of game making; if your game cannot adapt to feedback than it may fail.
It is important to listen to feedback - don't take it personally! When looking for sponsorship, make sure your game is polished and has been tested well for bugs and flaws in the game. Jay's feedback on this was:
Step back and be honest with yourself. Chances are, the game needs improvement, and the more self-critical you can be, the better your game will end up.
Have non-game friends play it and take their advice. I have recently developed the 'girlfriend test'. My girlfriend has never held an Xbox controller in her life and thinks that Super Mario is an Italian restaurant - but if she is able to play and understand my game, then I know it is clear, accessible and intuitively designed.
FGL is a great place to hear what people think and I highly recommend it for getting started.
Don't get your players/fans to beta test. I did this with Kit & The Octopod and they treated it as a chance to play the game early. While I did get a few odd bits of good advice, the overwhelming majority did not bother to fill out the feedback form. Stupidly thinking that meant the game was OK, we launched - only to discover, to my horror, that it was full of bugs!
I also strongly recommend FGL for getting feedback on your games. Other game developers and players will play the game, and game developers can be very critical on small things.
You can also buy First Impressions - pay $1 and an anonymous internet dweller will play your game for five minutes, and give you their thoughts on it. These sometimes offer some valuable information, and every batch of them usually has at least one good review, but they can be a bit hit-and-miss and will often just tell you what you want to hear.
Polish, polish and polish - a golden rule of turning your game into a great game. Polishing can refer to just cleaning up and adding content to your game that just smooths out the bumps and hiccups in your game which may otherwise give a bad impression.
When I polish for a game, I usually just focus on the first impression it gives and try to make things a bit more juicy and exciting in this period. Polish is usually based on the feedback of others and your own personal critical analysis of the game, but through polish you should aim to be consistently engaging the player. If something looks like it should do something, then it should.
Daniel McNeely (founder and owner of Armor Games) mentioned in a podcast with Super Indie Pals, "I'm a huge fan of polish," going on to say it was one of the main things he looks for in a game. He spoke of "constantly telling a story, no matter what part of the game you are in," and the idea of keeping everything intertwined and connected.
3. Primary (Non-Exclusive) vs Exclusive
First, some definitions:
A primary sponsorship is an agreement where the general, distributed version of the game is released with the primary sponsor's branding in it. The developer can still sell sitelocks - extra versions of the game, specific to a given site or portal - to other sponsors, with their branding in, although there will usually be a period of exclusivity before they may do this.
This usually gives you more freedom over your splash screens, and results in higher views for your game overall. It's also good for getting sponsor contacts via selling sitelocks.
An exclusive sponsorship is an agreement where there is only one version of the game, with one sponsor's branding, that usually resides exclusively on that sponsor's site - no general distribution allowed. In this case, you cannot sell any sitelocks!
Which License Should You Take?
Jay Armstrong writes:
Sometimes a combination of primary and non-exclusive deals might work better than a straight up exclusive - even when you don't have non-exclusive offers on the table, they might come!
Sometimes speed might be important. If you have a rent payment coming up sometimes its better to forgo the odd bit to ensure you have a roof over your head.
Don't underestimate the extra time for implementing non-exclusives and APIs. This can range from an hour to a few days. You need to decide whether your time might be better spent working on your next brilliant creation.
I would suggest having in mind from the beginning the notion that you will want to switch out sponsor links and splash screens. Keep the sponsor link in a static variable you can easily change, and leave spaces for the sponsor logos wherever possible.
Now you have your game ready to be sent out for sale, you should gather up a big list of sponsors you are going to contact.
Usually, I start by contacting my favourites and then target the not-so-well-known sponsors. Basically, you want to contact as many sponsors as you can; the more people that are looking, the higher the price can be.
I recommend contacting Armor Games, MoFunZone, MAD.com, bored.com, Bigdino, Not Doppler, Game Pub (owns a few arcades), Newgrounds, Kongregate (although I have never received a reply), Kizi, Spil Games, Addicting Games, MochiGames, Miniclip, and Adult Swim.
Bids and Offers
Now, when you are looking for sponsorship you'll want to have as many sponsors interested as you can; this is the basis of creating more demand.
Think like eBay: if more people are bidding on something, the price is going to end up higher. If more sponsors want the game there will be more competition and more demand for it. It also means you'll have more choice over your bids, and allows you to be more confident negotiating with sponsors.
Knowing the Value of Your Game
When negotiating with sponsors, you will usually be asked by the sponsor to name a price. This is a tactic used to try and get developers to under-sell their game. So, when setting a price for your game it is important to know its value.
It is much better to over-sell then to under-sell. Under-selling a game also implies that your perceived quality of the game is not equal to the sponsor's, and they may try talk you down from that offer. If you name a high price for a game and they end up taking $5,000 off that price, they will think they are getting a good deal as the game was valued higher.
If a sponsor is interested they shouldn't be too scared off by your offer. The worst-case scenario is that they will not reply to your email, but if they are interested they will usually offer to buy a sitelock instead. For Super Adventure Pals, Jay and I discussed what would be a price that would make our efforts worth it and how much we wanted from it, in comparison to how much it was worth. A good method is to decide on the lowest number you're willing to sell for, and aim for anything over this.
My average selling price is $8,000, but this is due to me making smaller low budget games as well as big budget games. FGL's current (May 2013) average price for games sold is $1,410. I have seen Flash games sell from $100 to $50,000, so there is quite a range of "reasonable" prices!
I also asked Jay for his opinion on this matter; here's how he replied:
This is probably the hardest rule. Development time is not correlated to game value. Genres come in and out of fashion (look at all the Kingdom Rush clones out there); timing is, unfortunately, important.
How long will your game last - can people keep coming back to it over and over again? Or is it a one-shot adventure? If your game is a little 'different' or unfamiliar, people might be unwilling to take a risk on it. I had a bit of trouble with my game Castle Commander - not that different, you may think, but different enough to make it difficult for sponsors to predict how successful it was likely to be, and therefore how much they wanted to spend.
You will get it wrong the first few times. I've no doubt I completely under-sold a few of my first games, but at that stage I think its extremely valuable to establish yourself. Its only through experience that you will begin to get a handle on the value of what you are creating.
This brings me on to my next point...
Performance deals are a great way to gamble on the success of your game. Often you will be offered a conditional bonus, like "$50 if you end up on Kongregate's Front Page" for smaller games, or perhaps extra cash depending on how many thousands of views the game gets.
From personal experience, I recommend doing a deal that encourages meeting a goal and surpassing the goal. This way, if it exceeds expectations you will be rewarded. An example of this would be a deal like, "$1,000 per million views higher than the expected 10 million views". We got offered something along these lines (but on a smaller scale) for Super Adventure Pals.
FGL describes a sitelock as so:
This is the most common form of non-exclusive license and it is compatible with the primary license. There are a lot of forms this can take, such as: API integration, In Game Ads removed, Original Sponsors Branding Removed/Replaced, Removing External Links, and all the way to re-skinning the game or changing game play elements.
Sitelocks are very important if you go down the primary sponsorship path - they are the reason you go down that path. Sitelocks can be gained from contacting sponsors and offering a sitelock sale. The value of a sitelock will usually decrease with time; they are most valuable on initial viral publication. This is why it's a good idea to try and attain your sitelocks before you accept a primary offer or publish the game, although it is easier to get sitelocks once your game has a Kongregate or Newgrounds score.
You can sell as many sitelocks as you like, so be persistent with your emails. Look at the popular publishers of your previous games and contact them if they haven't already bought a sitelock for your newest one.
The Waiting Game
When you're selling your game you are going to be waiting for email replies a lot (and manically refreshing your browser). I asked Jay Armstrong what he thought about this; he offered some tips about how to stay strong and be proactive through this period:
When we finished Super Adventure Pals, it really, really looked like no one was willing to sponsor it. There had been a few similar games which had flopped, and so a lot of people weren't willing to take a chance.
However after a few (too many) weeks of hollow terror and furious emailing we finally had someone who wanted it. After that, everything changed. Having an offer on the table shows other sponsors that the game is worth their time.
Waiting to hear can be a scary process. I have gone more than a few nights without a wink of sleep. You know you should be moving on to the next thing, but instead you spend your whole time refreshing your emails waiting to hear back.
I think it is important to always know "what's next" in terms of projects.
From my experience, we nearly sold Angry Bees for quite a low amount because it had been waiting for a while and we couldn't get anyone to place that first high bid (which is often a problem). We were close to accepting a low offer, but we held out a little longer, and eventually got six times that! It definitely pays to wait.
Auction sites are a fantastic resource and way to get started, but you are completely vulnerable to market fluctuations - and might get overlooked entirely.
By developing good, meaningful relationships with sponsors, you can enter discussions and find out what they do and don't like about what you've created. (Not that they will have a lot of time - don't expect them to help develop your game; it needs to be a finished product by the time you sell it.)
5. After Publishing
After you have published your game, depending on the license type, you may have the option to distribute the game. This is an essential requirement for getting those high views and giving your game the best chance to succeed.
The go-to sites for post-sponsorship distribution are Kongregate and Newgrounds. Why these sites? Well, for starters, you get to upload the content yourself and retain control over it. They will also both earn you ad revenue, and a lot of publishers keep an eye on these sites for upcoming games which they might consider sponsoring with a sitelock. Plus, Kongregate has monthly and weekly game prizes for developers.
Distribution refers to spreading your game around to other portals and creating awareness. The easiest way to distribute manually is through distribution channels.
These channels are feeds of published games that a lot of online arcades and portals automatically scrape new games from. If you have ads in your game, and so your goal is to get as many views as possible, you'll want to get it on as many of these sites as you can. This is managed through popularity, promotion, viral appeal and distribution.
Although many popular games will not need to be manually distributed, as they will spread on their own, it's always a good idea to set this up and doesn't take too long. The first thing you may want to do, if you are allowed to distribute your game (check with your sponsor), is to make a Game Package. This should consist of icons of many varieties, including larger images for front pages, a description and instructions, developer and sponsor information, and the game file itself.
Distribution channels include:
This is a great way to see how people have perceived your game, and to find out what could be improved. Also, check out YouTube reviews people will leave of your game - it's very satisfying seeing a video of someone playing your game!
Now you have this information, it's time to go out there and sell your Flash game!
Most importantly, remember: be passionate about your game, make it the best it can be, and present and sell it in the way it deserves. Think about all the ways you can get your game out there. Stay strong and through the sponsorship process; it's easy to get discouraged and end up going with a low bid because there hasn't been activity in a while. Build positive relationships with the sponsors you deal with. And again: be patient.