Sunday, February 03, 2008

What are Kongregate etc missing?

I've become quite the fan of "neat gaming" in the last year. Not least because it has become my job (I now work for Sky Games as a development manager of casual games on interactive TV), but also because it is simply the most interesting and alive sector of the whole gaming world bar none.

Yes, you have your console shenanigans and your managed Live networks, your retro collections and your handheld cooking simulators, and most of these are perfectly valid enterprises. For a while, casual games was somewhat mired in the realm of big portals like basically squeezing value out of both developers and customers, but that is changing.

There are hundreds of portals now selling games or subscription packages for games, and distribution networks from companies like Oberon are servicing that whole fragmented sector, as well as helping to publish. The distinction between casual and self-labelled indie games is also blurring considerably, which is why I use a broader name like "neat gaming" to describe what is essentially a taste for smaller applications.

Services like Kongregate - which basically are trying to be a Youtube of gaming - are emerging and doing a good job of capturing the innovation mindset, the neat idea set and the popularity contest. And it seems to be doing all of this via advertising, which is the aggregation model that is very "web". There are even such neat things as chat clients hanging beside many of the games on such services, and attempts to place ads in-game via the likes of Mochiads.

Flash is really the technology that is making all of this happen (finally) and providing a road toward a single platform that the hardware makers and devkit-obsessed developers of the classic industry are simply unwilling to face. You can play any game on an aggregator, such as Bowman 2, for free in your browser without any fuss. It is easy to see how such a game could be converted into an iPhone-friendly format, or a DS format if Nintendo saw the light and opened the DS up to indie development with no strings attached (maybe that'll have to wait for DS2). In a world of gaming dinosaurs, Flash is the fore-runner of mammals.

The problem that these would-be aggregators have is that they are not quite there yet in terms of really embracing the aggregator mindset. They still have some of the elements of a games directory about them, and they have not yet really gathered the full power of the social network to their cause.

For example:

Kongregate places a lot of advertising on its pages and offers a Digg This link to help popularise its games. What it's lacking, however, is sharing technology.

1. There should be a link on the page that allows the players to share the game with their friends, embed the game in their blogs and so on. This is a critically missing piece.

2. Each of the games should have a Kongregate watermark or small bar at the bottom of the Flash app, and also a short pre-game advertisement in the Flash app. Thus Kongregate-hosted content can travel anywhere and be monetised.

3. Each of the games should have a facility that puts its tagging to use, recommending other games on the page. A lot of the detail on the Kongregate pages are unnecessary (such as the description text, which can wax lyrical) and instead be replaced with small icons for other games that the player might like to try.

Significantly, AddictingGames does include the ability to share games, but it doesn't always seem to work (I attempted to embed a game in this post by copying and pasting the embed data, but it didn't work).

The problem that AddictingGames has is one of layout, in that their sharing/embedding code is very tiny on the page, so much so that it's easy to miss. They are also missing the lively chat and community sense that Kongregate has, and the overall site design is not particularly attractive in terms of colour choices etc.

I think that these are mostly teething problems, however. Services like Kongregate and AddictingGames are likely the forerunners of what's to come. Between the embedded Flash game sector and the downloadable PC casual sector, the future of much of the games industry is all about what the web can do to break down the barriers. It's so much more interesting right now than anything that the traditional games industry has been doing for quite some time.

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