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The following are my initial thoughts on webgame publishing business best practices for this year as an indie game developer veteran. Survive in the harsh online game world! Prepare for the next golden age of webgames!
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Starting in 2020, I am working on building up Solitaire.io into the world’s top solitaire destination online (I will surprise you! 😇). This will surely take me multiple years to accomplish. The following are my initial insights coming into this process. I am not yet a webgame pro (as in, that has not been my main focus in my gamedev career in the past), but I have published webgames before, and have published several games on Steam\Mobile and so on in the past. At the end of 2020 I plan on doing a retrospective of what worked and what didn’t in contrast to this article, what I then think are the most important things those starting out and are working to build up their webgame sites.
Who is this for? You should already have experience with making games. You can start from zero, but people who are already a few years into making games will get the most from this. If you want a game engine to learn and use you should look into the engine I am using now which is Defold. All of the webgames on Solitaire.io are exclusively powered by Defold.
There few real hard rules. Disregard most of this as you wish, some things are more true depending on your goals and audiences. Trust your gut.
Remember when webgames were really huge? This was before the mobile boom. There were so many more big webgame sites than there are today. Many of the biggest online game portals sort of vanished, stopped making new webgames, or changed their focus to mobile only. It’s in part due to the death of Flash, and the movement to mobile a decade ago. That’s not to say that people still don’t play webgames… but I feel a change in the winds. The “.io” craze is only the herald of this new potential.
We are due a new webgame boom. With mobile devices becoming more and more powerful, even the most intense HTML5 games can still run great! Flash may be dead, but new technologies have finally arrived and are ready. Fiber is reaching fully around the world, speeds go up, costs go down, more people than ever become connected. In the immediate future (as in blink and you’ll miss it) I believe there will be a renewed focus toward the web being the primary access point for gaming for many more people in the same kind of way the mobile gaming revolution happened 10 years ago, but bigger.
Make sure you use tools which allow you to pack your games so that they are not easily modifiable. You do not want people taking your game, swapping the images, and calling it their game. Make sure you have scripting in your game to lock it to your domain, and block external embedding too. You do not want others to be able to rehost your game by stealing it, and you don’t want others to embed your game, and then surround it with their own ads on their own site while making you pay for the bandwidth. That’s super rude, and many people are super scummy about doing that, so make sure you put in the due diligence to make it not easy for others to do these bad things. Most of these people are lazy and if they can’t figure it out they will move on fast because they are only in it for quick bucks at any cost (including their soul).
Tons of new webgames are being hosted on itch. It’s free, and convenient. So why not? And supporting itch as an alternative to Steam is a good idea for devs. But it’s also not a long term strategy for you as an individual or group. If you publish your game on itch sure you don’t have to pay for bandwidth, but people will link to itch instead of your site, and itch will get the long term benefits of that - not so much you.
The same can be said about sites like Kongregate. While it certainly does have benefits in terms of building a brand if they feature you (which honestly they probably won’t) it’s not actually a good idea. I think making your own site as a brand is much better long term thinking. Remember that we are entering a new age. You could potentially transition your own site into the next big publisher, the next big portal of the new era. So don’t shortchange yourself by giving the lion’s share of that potential to others.
There is still value for making games which you do not protect, and you do host on these other sites. Don’t use the same names (so instead of Mario Bros you might say Bros Jr. for the micro version of the main game that is shareable), and don’t host these less protected games on your main site (so you don’t get your bandwidth stolen) - instead only distribute them via sites like Kongregate, itch, or Newgrounds where others rip games from without your permission. Do make them hard to unpack and modify, and also stuff them full of links and promotions to your own site. That way when the rehosting farms get their hands on your games they are driving traffic to you. Mini games only (they should not obviously look like demos, they should be their own self-contained micro games in a sense), upsell your full versions playable on your own site. There is technology to pack entire games into a single HTML file, use it for small games when it makes sense.
Instant games like on Facebook can also be another good proxy for driving traffic from micro games to your main full games. Though some of these instant game providers have somewhat anti-competitive rules about not allowing you to link to your own site. It’s lame, but having something there with your brand can still be worthwhile — especially if you have in game promotion of your main game’s cover art / title. Even without direct links to your site people will get interested by the game logos, search, and find you.
Gameplay is king. So is the experience. Modern art may look ugly to many people, but when you add a story to it then suddenly it can get great value to people. This is sacrilege to art lovers like me, but it is still an undeniable quality of human perception that narratives drive value. Your game must be great in some way. Great in terms of gameplay. Great in terms of narrative. If you want people coming back again and again it must be great in replay value. If your game is mediocre then at least try to do better next time. This is not to say that your game must be entirely original — chasing originality at all costs is poison for the game developer, but you must stand on the shoulders of those who came before you and make something which pushes up higher.
This goes without saying: Know your audience and make them the best game possible. You will have better results if you make multiple games for the same audience in mind. For different audiences, it is much safer to use an entirely different website/publishing label. Otherwise publishing entirely different games on the same site can lead to justifiable fan backlash.
Small, weird, funny games can be great material for so called influencers who play games for a living. If your game can make people go WTF, scream in terror, or laugh for real then it’s probably a winner! These kinds of weird games defy the rules of normal game production. Don’t disregard them! Serving the YouTube / Twitch Streamer audience by making product specifically for their use in mind can mean huge boosts in your overall traffic. Usually it’s only temporary traffic, but big temporary boosts chained together can lead to sustained long term growth.
There are sites where you can buy pre-made HTML5 games which others have made and allow you to slap your logo on. Don’t do that. It will cheapen your site, and lower the value in your player’s eyes. Make the kinds of games you want to play, that you know your audience wants to play. Go the extra mile to make something special which others cannot easily replicate.
It has never been easier to make games from an engineering point of view. Game engines like Defold handle so many of the hard to solve issues when making games, and enable you to actually focus on making games themselves instead of engines. Use the tools available so your time is used wisely and you are as productive as possible!
Don’t think you have to make one kind of game either. I am making solitaire games, you could make action RPGs. There is huge amounts of new potential online. Think about the games you enjoy the most, and boil them down to the components you enjoy the most about them… then invent a new game based on that summation. This is not an article about making novel games, or making games. I just want to impress on you to not try to take shortcuts that will surely lead to disappointment. Do it the right way, do it for an audience in mind, and do it for the long term.
Don’t get sunk on making only one game for years. You must be able to make and publish high quality games on a fixed schedule if you want to compete in the webgame space. 1 game every 2 weeks is possible though may not lead to the best results with a small team. 1 game every 2 months is also possible and maybe is more sustainable — it’s your call. Less time limits scale, but you can use previous projects to boost the launch time of your next projects. Focus on one game at a time, and make it great!
What kind of content do you see being shared online? Make that in addition to your games. Then this supplementary content will promote your webgames site passively.
Your strategy should involve a consistent schedule of content production. Ideally as quickly as possible as long as it is kept consistent. You still need to try to make things people would actually want to share / discover. And you need to be mindful of your time. Your major time sink should still always be making more and better games first.
You need content which is worth sharing, and you need content which can be linked to so that search engines can give you free, organic traffic when they do their job of delivering people to the best links for what people are asking for.
Your side content may even take off and turn into your primary business. Totally possible!
You’ve setup your site, made pages, and published your game. When is the free traffic going to arrive? The first thing you should do is setup your domain on Google Search Console and Bing Webmaster Tools (yes, many people do actually use Bing so it’s worth doing). Then you can begin to see the search traffic your domain gets on these search engines. You can see which pages are getting traffic, and for what search terms.
What you will most likely see (and what we saw at the start) is your site will only get search traffic for terms directly related to the domain name. That is at least assuming you got the word out about your site somewhere. How long will it take to get other kinds of traffic from search engines? It could takes years. At least 1 year before you have a chance. But more likely 2 years before you really begin to see results. And this is with consistently producing content which fulfills the needs and desires of your target audiences. Don’t expect a get rich quick situation, this is a long term commitment to do it right. Don’t be disappointed when you don’t see results right away, or even a few months after you start, and don’t give up. Organic traffic is only one part of the strategy, you will get direct traffic too so long as you make things people can get excited about and figure out how to directly reach those people so they can share the word.
To get results faster you need to create content which is strongly link-able. This is the kind of content which gets shared naturally without you ever asking for people to share it. Because it has genuine value of some kind. It is funny. It is beautiful. It is extremely informative. It’s a useful tool. It’s an incredible illusion. It’s a great game. It’s… the kind of stuff people share with their boss to impress, the kind of thing people share with their friends to give them a laugh. In short, this is the kind of content which when shared gives genuine social value from one person to another. This is difficult to pull off, but if you study how other content being rated high on social networks or constantly being shared around in private group chats works then you too can work toward building content which gets the same kind of results.
There is nothing wrong with prompting people to share your works on top of making high value content. Like right now — please share this article if you feel it will bring value to others interested in webgames! 😇
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Few people actually have dumb lucky as credit to their success. The public likes to disparage wealthy people by saying they were just lucky, but what does that actually mean? Most of the time, yes, they were lucky, but there is more to it than the idea of suddenly being given millions of dollars for free. Instead the truth for most wealthy people is that they sought out opportunities and constantly worked toward them. They did not fear failure, though they tried to avoid it, they did not let the fear of failure stop them from trying. Though there is wisdom in knowing when to cut your loses, there are also still very clear opportunities out there. The more times you try the more chances you’ll have to be lucky. The more you learn and gain insights and develop the skills necessary the more likely you’ll know where you need to be in order to have a chance to be lucky. Don’t give in when it’s hard, don’t give up, be ready to pivot if necessary.
An important message is that you need to be able to tell if you’re wasting your time doing things the wrong way. You cannot expect results too soon, but you should still be getting some results. And naturally your metrics should be going up over time. If not something is probably wrong. Knowing this all takes experience for your gut instinct to be right. I do see people putting tons of hours into projects which to me will obviously go nowhere. Though I have been wrong about things too, and some people have developed ideas into incredibly successful game brands that I never would have expected were possible. Trust yourself, trust your gut. Listen to your friends too, but not your ignorant friends who only exist to try and tell people they are wasting their time every time like it’s their personal mission in life to shut down everyone’s hopes and dreams (why are you friends with these people? 🤔).
If you are making games that look cheap and thrown together with random clipart then you are probably not building strong brands. Think of the biggest brands in gaming (or anime). Why exactly can’t you build a similar brand in terms of quality as far as look, style, aesthetic, characters, lore, and feel? Of course you can. Any brand by Blizzard is incredibly strong and valuable. Strive for that kind of high tier brand to pair with high quality gameplay. And use your brand in your side-content to develop it further. If you’re lucky (as in, do things the right way at the right time) you might even develop the next Micky Mouse or Hello Kitty.
You need good enough art, good aesthetics, but it doesn’t have to be perfect. Strong brands can still spring from so called “programmer art”. Minecraft is an example of this! Dwarf Fortress is also a very strong brand even though for most of its existence it only had a text based interface. Characters can make brands stronger, but they are not exactly required. There are many parts of the magic to making a strong brand and what you like about your games and are best at making may be what is necessary.
Having high bandwidth costs is a good problem to have. It means you have something people want. But be careful not to blow your budget on bandwidth. You can get high quality bandwidth without spending too much. You can also accidentally drastically overpay on bandwidth far more than you need to.
For example, serving files raw over S3 is a very bad idea (bandwidth is how AWS is profitable). At the very least use CloudFlare along with a CDN to reduce prices further and guarantee consistency in cache hits.
The CDN I am currently using is BunnyCDN. It has competitive prices and is very high quality so far in my experience. Their support is also responsive, and the product has as many features as you need for a webgame CDN. BunnyCDN offers a generous trial period with 1TB or 14 days whichever comes first. For games you can use their Volume pricing which is more than fast enough in my opinion. For small game sites your monthly bandwidth will most likely be under $1 a month so long as you have your CDN properly setup.
It is not required to use a CDN. A Linode nano ($5 a month) comes with 1TB of bandwidth each month, and if you’re already paying for that you can always just use that until you grow more. The main benefit of a CDN is that your files are cached globally, which reduces global latency when serving those files. Make sure you check over all of the settings of the CDN and choose appropriate options. Your cache time should be quite long so long as you are not rapidly updating your game, and if you use versioned urls for your game imports (easily setup in Defold) then it’s no issue to upload a new build and have the links go to the newest version of your game files.
If you have the money to spend it may be tempting to buy a bulk bandwidth service like 100TB. I strongly recommend you do not use these options until you are actually using enough bandwidth for it to make sense. It sucks to pay for a certain amount of bandwidth every month and to only use less than 1% of it. 🙂 Even with a Linode nano you may struggle to break 1% of what it gives a month for its price. And even when you get up to those huge bandwidth levels, using a service like BunnyCDN may still make more sense.
This is something specific to HTML5 games made to use WASM which is very important. It is generally setup with your file server settings. Beyond this, pay attention to the console when playing your games on your site itself. Solve all of the warnings and error messages you can.
Search engines are smart about duplicate content like which appears on CDNs, but you can make their job easier by making your CDN urls canonical. This is usually most easily done in your CDN provider settings, or in the software of whatever you are using to serve data from. It’s important when you have duplicate data on another domain (such as a cdn. version instead of a www. version) and don’t want search engines to think that your CDN subdomain is the site they should list in the search engine results.
Make sure you do proper redirects when you move things if you really need to. But try to plan things out right the first time so you don't need to move pages around. If you do not do proper redirects you will lose all of the search engine power on links you once had!
Webgame tech is amazing right now but not perfect. Test your game in various browsers and devices to know what is and isn’t working. Thanks to Spectre and Meltdown the processing side has taken a hit, but it’s still not bad enough to make HTML5 games non-viable, and with devices naturally becoming more powerful over time it’s already not that big of a problem. The main issue you may run into is audio so know when to mute your game (such as when you unpack/load assets) so that you do not diminish the gameplay experience. Browser vendors are currently working on solving the processing issues.
This is a tip I’m currently breaking right now (which is very stupid of me) so do as I say not as I do. Once you get people to your site, you need ways to reach them so that you can tell them to come back. One way to do this is to get them to give you their e-mail address. Get a newsletter setup somewhere, and get people signing up. Offer them some exclusive bait (that they would actually want, without it being too good of bait that people will spam your newsletter with fake e-mail addresses to get it multiple times) in exchange for signing up. Then e-mail your newsletter list whenever you are about to release new games (to build anticipation) and again when you do release new games.
Not having an e-mail newsletter means launching new games is that much harder. You want your game launches to feel like a special event and for those who play on day 1 to feel like they are playing something no one else has, something entirely new, which they are!
It’s been a while since I researched newsletter providers, but the last time I checked Sendy in terms of cost was the best if you can handle managing the install and server yourself (which if you’re here you should). While you’re just starting out and your list is small you can use some other provides (which I will not list since I can’t recommend any of them). The reason cost matters with games is that unlike with most businesses you will most likely get a much larger volume of e-mails. The other e-mail newsletter providers charge based on total e-mails you have on your list, and that can easily end up costing more than your site’s total bandwidth every month once you get popular.
For Sendy hosting I do recommend Linode — be sure to pay for backups too. Their $5 a month nano is more than enough for newsletter list hosting, and with backups it’s $10 a month total for your newsletter. Then on top of that you pay AWS SES per e-mail, which is usually only cents per newsletter you send out. The Sendy site has a calculator so you can get an idea of how much you’ll save by using this.
That said about Sendy if you are making ridiculous money then it may be worth you paying for a managed service to save time and worry. Again, I can’t recommend any, but ask your dev friends — or figure out what other game companies in your niche are using (and probably overpaying for).
If you code your own site and newsletter service of course you can use SES/Mailgun/SendGrid directly. This is not a bad option as long as you are enough of an expert to do it well, quickly, and securely without spending too much time not making games. The last things you want to do is make an insecure service which allows others to spam e-mails with, or steal and leak your e-mail list. Very bad PR.
It is more important to make it easy for others to share your content than to have a presence on social media yourself. If you had to pick, focus your time on reaching people via e-mail and letting your users get the benefits of sharing your content out into the greater social world. That said if you have time for both it is still very valuable to maintain a social media presence so long as you are also getting interactions which result in more sharing. If you’re not posting content which gets shares re-evaluate and automate. Appealing art is one of the best types of content to share which gets shares reliably. Social media requires consistency too, and using the features of each site (like hashtags, gifs) well. Make sure to watermark your site link in everything in tasteful ways! Think the way Blizzard does it. Nearly all of their posts have appealing images and animations.
Your games should always come first. If you don’t have games on your site, why would people return? So don’t spend money on anything else until you have your games sorted. This includes things like buying ads or merchandising. Don’t waste your time and efforts until you have a game done, an existing audience, and a full plan to make money.
Your priority for any spending should first be for your games, and then for content which lives on your site. Non-game content is worth investing in because it can bring you traffic for years. So it is safe to invest in early on for this kind of side-content since it takes a while to mature in search engine rankings and will probably be well worth it as the years add up.
That’s not to say that you shouldn’t consider buying ads, but wait until you have a game!
The same goes for merchandise. By the way, the best selling merch is exclusive and time locked. To use this strategy, don’t build up a big merch store with so many various things. Instead have one or two things to sell at time to sell in limited quantities, and be super careful about shipping costs. When picking merch to sell make absolutely sure it’s something people would actually buy. If it’s based around a character they like from your games, or invokes some kind of strong emotion (like hype!) then it may be a good idea. Merch is still something that should only come later after people love your games.
My content strategy is in part delivering what real people want. People ask questions, they want answers. They want to find something. They want to know about something. Anticipating questions is easier when you are part of the audience itself, but you can also use keyword research to find what kinds of questions people ask when they are searching. By making such content to satisfy searches, you can build a vector to bring people to your games, and reap the benefits of mostly free organic traffic to your webgame site.
You can get insights on what people search for by checking what terms your site gets impressions for on Google Search Console. What you get impressions for may not be what most people search for so you will also want to do keyword research on Google Ads to see search volume. It can be tricky to find questions to answer that are actually useful — unless you think bigger beyond your specific niche. When I was doing research on solitaire I found that many food recipe sites also had “how to play” guides of various solitaire games. Clever! Think bigger on what kind of answer-based content you can deliver to people who are within your market segment and would possibly want to play your games after getting their search needs met.
A free tool is AnswerThePublic. You do not need to pay for this tool to get use out of it, it can give you big lists of questions people ask related to your keyword. Make sure to click data instead of visualization. These kinds of questions may give you ideas not just for content to add to your site, but useful tools to build which would be valuable enough for people to want to share.
I do have games up on the web, and have for years, even if it wasn’t my priority in the past. One such game is the HTML5 version of Faerie Alchemy. I uploaded this build in 2013 and then forgot about it. To this day there are still a few hundred people a day doing a Google search to find it and play it with zero effort on my part to make that happen. I do not recommend this kind of negligence, I am only giving this as an example that once you build something for the web it can keep getting traffic for years. Also be wary of changing things so much or you may kill the golden goose.
Even if you stop updating your webgames site it will still to get traffic (and naturally up and down as people link to your site over time or search engines change their rank criteria). If you optimize your site with a lot of great high quality content then you can expect to get dividends in terms of organic traffic for many years to come so long as it remains relevant to searcher desires.
Your site should be setup properly to minimize costs and maximize profits. Ideally you should be able to take a vacation without everything burning down. Long term very little maintenance should be necessary while you still get traffic, plays, and income from your webgames if you decide to stop some day.
We are in a globalized world and barring WW3 there’s no turning back. You will get visitors from all over the world, give them the best experience you can. Don’t bake text into textures, make it easy for translators to translate your games. If you keep your games low on text or use standardized text you can have very low translation costs.
If you have to choose what to spend translation budget on do in game menus first. The the rest of the game text. Then your site text. The reason is people within a language will let others know that the game itself is translated, and so they will directly visit. Your site text is still important because it is how organic traffic will reach you. But a gamer who finds your site via a translated page and then finds the game untranslated will be very disappointed.
Don’t translate your game title if it’s not absolutely required by the target language. If it is required then still keep the English version of the title next to the translated title in parentheses.
Host different translations of pages on different URLs. Search engines prefer different languages being on different links rather than swapping languages with JS.
Your site must:
Don’t worry about doing everything perfectly from day 1. Over time learn and optimize more. So many other sites in the webgame space are completely complacent or gave up years ago. Now is a great opportunity for you!
Make things that are good enough — then move on. Iterate quickly. Be productive and use your time wisely.
Laws like COPPA and GDPR are obligatory to follow with global distribution. It’s easier when you do not collect and store data yourself. If you use any major analytics company they most likely handle these laws themselves and are the only ones responsible since they are the ones handling the personal data. Be aware, do things right, and make sure your users know you are being careful with their privacy. Better yet — don’t collect personal data!
Do not think that those who are your competition are your enemies. By cooperating, you can ultimately each profit much more in the long term. Try to not make mistakes which burn bridges. Try to not have an ego that would get in the way of doing what’s best long term. I have made the mistake of burning bridges with others, and others have made the mistake of burning bridges with me. In the end, it often hurts both ways, is is very difficult to mend. So leave the ego and emotions aside and be professional (and transparent as is required) with your fellows. Mistakes happen, try to do better when you do make mistakes, it will serve you better in the long term to do as much as you can right and fair for everyone involved. Study the Asian ideas of saving face, and avoid participating in making others lose face — or suffer the silent consequences 😇.
Some bridges burn themselves. The world is a politically polarizing place, and some people will blacklist you for simply refusing to pick a side. I have found that people who are willing to work professionally and generally talk about ideas instead of people do not often make this mistake. You will see that people who do burn bridges like this tend to not do as well long term. Eventually they spiral out into the abyss.
Cross promotion is a powerful tool you can use to cooperate. Back in the day you would see sites linking to their fellow sites as a network. Do it! Even if you are the top traffic site in the network, you never know when one of the others in the network will get a big boost which will benefit you too. Still, pick people to cooperate with carefully, and just because you should not treat your competition as enemies does not mean you should treat them as friends who can get away with anything or get everything for nothing. Make good deals which benefit everyone involved and you will naturally attract more deals which do even more for you in the long term.
Complaining about your audience publicly never ends well. Generally, avoid ever complaining about anything online (save it for 1:1 if it’s even worth your time to do at all). Try to find positive things to focus on and uplift. You’ll feel better, your community will appreciate the focus on positivity, and you will not risk needlessly alienating others who may take slight to your complaints.
Your audience will give you grief. Some audiences are harder to deal with than others. But like returns like. Play it cool, you will be treated cool. Feed the beast, and the beast will want more until it consumes you.
Be careful about managing expectations. If you setup expectations too high too soon you will disappoint your audience. Do it too much and even your most faithful fans will lose heart in you. It’s better to under promise but dramatically over deliver.
If you screw up — acknowledge it publicly, and visibly work to do better. Listen to genuine complaints, and improve. You will probably screw up eventually in some way. The better you consistently do for your fans, the more they will be committed to you. Trust and serve your fans, not people who don’t even support you in any way. If you have drank any of the poison meant to vilify “gamers” snap out of it right now. Gamers are real people, like you and me. Many are very passionate about the games they play, that’s a very good thing. Make good games for them and win their hearts eternal.
All signs point to the 2020s as being very crazy for growth in webgames. The world is BIG and the opportunity is HUGE. Be a part of it! Build up your games, your site, your community, and more connections with your peers and the world.
P.S. Is a correction required in this text? Tell me in our Discord!
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