Op-Ed

Op-Ed
The YouTube of Videogames?

Russ Pitts | 26 Mar 2007 17:00
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imageJim Greer is an old-school idealist. Co-Founder of independent game community site, Kongregate, he was formerly Technical Director at EA's casual game site, Pogo and before that worked on a number of games, including a few entries in the storied Ultima series. Last year he decided to make a go of building his own independent game site and co-founded Kongregate.

On the face of it, that's all you'd need to know, really. Former minion at one of the largest casual game sites in the world breaks off and founds one of his own. Happens every day. The game industry is literally rife with such stories, and most of them end in failure - or smashing success. To try and guess which category Jim Greer will fit into, one must dig deeper.

Looking beyond the generous venture capital funding (put up by such luminaries as the founder of LinkedIn and co-founder of Excite) driving Kongregate, the site itself is an intriguing independent game portal site mixed with such user-friendly features as a vibrant forum community, time-based achievements and a robust, rewarding review system (whereby a user's "rank" is affected by how many games he's played and reviewed, as well as by how many achievements he's unlocked). The result is a refreshing take on user-submitted games; one which doesn't differentiate between games submitted by first-time game developers and those put up by industry veterans looking for the 14th place to push their mega-hit, and therefore rewards games on their merits alone - at least in theory.

Journalists and PR wags have christened Kongregate the "YouTube of independent games," but Greer, who co-founded Kongregate with his sister Emily, shies away from this moniker, likening his product to Microsoft's Xbox Live service, if anything. In actuality, it's unlike anything else, which is bad for marketing people looking to raise money (and awareness), but good for you, and for independent game developers. As I spoke with Greer last week and received the grand tour of Kongregate's soon-to-be-announced open beta, it became apparent that what motivates the founders of Kongregate is not so much an urge to build the Next Big Thing, but rather a desire to give the industry back to the people who create the games.

For starters, the subject of how and how much a game developer is paid for their work came up about a dozen times before I'd even asked. It's clear that as a veteran of the industry, Jim is aware of how loosely certain distributors allocate ad and sales revenue, and that he's setting out to change that with Kongregate. "It's in our best interest to be developer friendly," says Greer, whose deal to game developers includes up to 50 percent of total ad revenue generated by their game. But increased revenues aren't the whole ball of wax. Kongregate's deep community represents a tiered social order of veteran developers, talented amateurs and pure enthusiasts who all have access to the same tools and all have the power to review the games on the site. The result is a hotbed of spirited analysis and informed criticism the likes of which a game developer would be hard pressed to find anywhere else.

image"The community stuff is a Trojan Horse," he admits, suggesting that the real benefit of Kongregate is in how easy it is to get a game in front of people who can play it, review it, critique it and help make it better. Greer estimates that his current ad-based revenue model will achieve profitability with a few million users, at which point, with 30-40 new games added per week, the sum total of diversions offered by Kongregate, and the amount if user-created commentary, reviews and additional content (in the form of forum posts) should be astronomical. And although the user-based community creation aspect of the site is a key selling point (and buzz generator), Greer is quick to point out that the games are the thing.

Greer's own career started with code ripped out of the back pages of magazines, then re-written as (or included in) his own games. He later went on to work on the illustrious Ultima series at Origin Systems. He says it's not hard to be innovative, it just takes imagination, suggesting Kongregate is simply the second wave of empowering amateurs to make great professional games and hopes that through sites like his, the game makers of tomorrow will find their voices.

From what I've seen, it looks like he may be on to something. The site is designed so that no matter where one goes, from the forums to member profile pages to the actual game windows, another game is no more than a single click away. And many of the site's features, such as profiles and chat, are accessible right from the game window itself. It's an elegant bit of coding that rarely takes a user's attention away from what's really important: the games. Which makes it all the more important to stock the site with quality titles. Luckily, Kongregate's community has been hard at work.

From the indie darling Fancy Pants Adventures to arty, fun titles like Sprout, Kongragate is chock full of creative time wasters, all easily navigable and searchable by category and user rating. In addition, attention-getting community programs alike Kongregate's leader board, (scoring players based on factors like how many games they've uploaded and rated), and the monthly contest, awarding prizes (currently $1,500) to the developers of the month's highest-rated game, are helping ensure that user stay active - and interested.

Whether you call it The YouTube of Gaming, independent games' Xbox Live or something else entirely, it seems clear Jim Greer and Co have created something with the promise to become the genesis of a new era of creativity unbound, opening the field of game development to practically anyone, and "crowdsourcing" the quality control.

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