Designing Flash Games for Fun and Profit

If you want to make a game and share it with the world, it doesn’t get any easier than with a Flash-based browser game[1]. With an internet connection, some readily available tools, and basic programming knowledge, you can create a game, post it online, and anyone in the world with a browser can play it instantly.

A sponsor may ask for exclusive rights for a period of time, share a small amount of advertising revenue, or offer additional money if a game does well.

You also have the freedom to make exactly the game you want. Want to cross SimCity with a zombie apocalypse, or create a one-button action platformer? Go ahead. Want a 70-year old British alcoholic or a puppy-loving robot for a protagonist? Knock yourself out.

But can designing games using Flash actually put food on the table? It’s a crowded market; there are hundreds of portal sites devoted to Flash games, and the big ones host anywhere from 3,000 to almost 50,000 games each (though the same game often appears on many sites). What’s more, that competition is giving itself away: Flash games are almost exclusively free to play.

Yet there is money to be made designing Flash games. Sometimes there’s a great deal of it, says Chris Hughes, a former Flash game developer and a co-founder of

While Flash games may not make money from game sales, they can generate a lot of web traffic. The greater the web traffic, the more money hosting websites can charge for advertisements on their site. Portal sites are willing to share their advertising money with designers, because a single top-tier game can generate more than 100 million plays, Hughes says. Additionally, according to an industry report, about forty percent of internet users worldwide play Flash games..

Hughes has been using FlashGameLicense, or FGL, to connect designers with sponsor host sites – and money – since 2007. Flash developers can showcase their games on the site; host sites can preview games and bid on them. If a game sells, FGL takes a small cut. To date, the company has brokered nearly 6,000 deals and given $8.6 million to developers.

For their money, sponsors typically get the developers to include the sponsors’ name, logo, and website in the game; that way, when a game inevitably spreads around the internet, there’s a figurative and literal link back to the sponsor’s site. Developers keep the rights to their game and intellectual property. There can be additional features to a deal: a sponsor may ask for exclusive rights for a period of time, share a small amount of advertising revenue, or offer additional money if a game does well, but most money typically changes hands through sponsorship.

As for developers, the amount of money they makes varies tremendously, both due to the terms of the deal and the success of the game. At FGL, one or two games a month – roughly the top one percent – might sell for between $20,000 and $30,000, and a similar number of games might sell for half that amount. The average price for a game sold is closer to two or three thousand dollars, but many games sell for much more – or significantly less – than that price, Hughes says.

[1] Not all designers use Flash to make browser games, but Flash is by far the most common tool. I’m using “Flash-based games” to refer to games made by these related Web tools, such as Unity.
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Meet the Developers

Sarah Northway’s Rebuild is one of FGL’s success stories, and not just for the developer. When sponsored her city-management-meets-zombie-apocalypse mashup Rebuild in early 2011, it saw an exponential rise in traffic, from 5000 unique visitors in December 2010 to nearly 150,000 in February and March 2011. That’s roughly a 3,000 percent increase.

“Generally, I put in at least 40 hours a week. Sometimes I have to force myself to actually take a weekend,” Stradwick says.

Northway received a hefty chunk from TwoTowers, as well as several thousand dollars from contests and ad revenue from other sites. Together with her husband, another game developer, she’s living the kind of life many designers dream about. She’s doing exactly what she wants to do professionally (currently that’s working on Rebuild 2), and she’s traveling around the world. Northway and her husband live in countries like Thailand, Honduras, Japan, and Scotland for two to three months at time.

Northway says she’ll typically work most of the day, taking breaks to explore and soak up the local culture at lunch and by night. Finding an internet connection can sometimes be a challenge, but the whole experience is very enjoyable and cheaper than living full-time in San Francisco, Northway says. “Indie developers are very flexible, and many of us could work from anywhere, so why not from a tropical paradise?” Northway says.

Regardless of where you live, designing Flash games for a living is still a lot of work. Just ask Daniel Stradwick, a full-time Flash designer based in Melbourne, Australia. In 2007, he released Monster’s Den, a top-down, dungeon-exploring RPG. He’s been working on the series since. His sequel, Monster’s Den: Book of Dread, has been played more than 21 million times, and two more titles are in the works.

Stradwick spent close to six months putting together Book of Dread. He’s already spent more than a year on the forthcoming sequel. “Generally, I put in at least 40 hours a week. Sometimes I have to force myself to actually take a weekend,” Stradwick says. Sometimes these long hours can mean working all night and sleeping during the day. “I like the peacefulness and the large block of uninterrupted time you get that way,” Stradwick says, and sometimes he’ll work business hours so he can spend evenings with his girlfriend.

The game industry has noticed Monster’s Den’s success. In 2008 Stradwick received a call from the head of EA2D, a studio owned by Electronic Arts, asking Stradwick if he wanted to work on a Flash-based tie-in to Dragon Age:Origins, one of the largest, most anticipated games of 2009. Stradwick led a small team to produce Dragon Age Journeys, a three-part action-RPG that stood on its own and helped promote the original Dragon Age.

Stradwick enjoyed the opportunity and might consider doing similar work in the future, but he’s not about to stop working with Flash any time soon. “I’m designing and building my own games exactly as I want them,” Stradwick says. “That’s a situation that’s almost impossible to reach in the traditional games industry, even after paying your dues with many years of gruntwork.”

Not all Flash game designers work from their homes or from a tropical paradise. A lot of them work from an office. The 11 employees of IriySoft design Flash-based and mobile phone games while working together, attending daily meetings, following group timelines, and dealing with other routines associated with a normal day job. The larger team size and standard procedures allow for an efficient workflow; the company has produced more than 100 games in the past five years.

IriySoft’s success illustrates how the internet eliminates geography as a barrier for designers as well as players. IriySoft is based in Bryansk, Russia, a medium-sized city about 250 miles southwest of Moscow, yet they’ve partnered with major global sites like Miniclip and Addictinggames and have made games on their own. IriySoft’s biggest hit, the tower-defense game Cursed Treasure, has been played more than 40 million times, says IriySoft’s CEO Dmitry Pavlenko.

The most common mistake Hughes sees among first-time developers is people who try to do too much.

Getting Started

Chris Hughes has two words of advice for anyone interested in making Flash games for fun and profit: “stay simple.” The most common mistake Hughes sees among first-time developers is people who try to do too much. Starting off with a simple game has several advantages, Hughes says.

First, completing any game inevitably takes longer than expected. Each new feature added makes it more complicated to design, code, and debug. First-time designers who try to make a game with too many characters, levels, or features often wind up frustrated in the latter phases of game design when everything has to come together. Those cool additional features can always appear in a sequel or followup title.

Second, the market has a short attention span. “The majority of plays in a Flash game typically come in the first few months, or even weeks, of its life cycle,” Hughes says. This makes it easy to break into the market, but tough to recoup a long-term investment of time and energy, Hughes says. Successful games can have a long “tail” period in which they continue to get plays for months or years, but their initial burst of popularity rarely lasts, Hughes says.

Third, successive releases allow designers to build reputations for themselves and their intellectual property. Hughes points to the Flash portal NinjaKiwi as an example. One of their earliest games, Bloons, had a simple, effective premise: monkey throws darts, darts pop balloons, finish level to pop more. The success of Bloons led to a sequel, player-made levels, a series of spin-off tower-defense games. NinjaKiwi and other developers have also brought the brands they built online to make successful games for Android and iOS.

“This is definitely not an easy market to make a true living in. But the money is there, and it can be done. We get about 30 games a day being submitted. The best games always sell, and they sell for a whole lot,” Hughes says.

Will Alexander writes about a lot of things, most often women’s health. He has a blog at The Embassy of Kazakhstan owes him $1,000.

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