Shooter School

Flash game site Kongregate has recently opened Labs, a new section devoted to tutoring novices in how to make games in Flash. The site has done much to promote and support the scene, giving its members a share of ad revenue – a game attracting a not-terribly-popular 100,000 plays is estimated to net around $100 – and the chance to win money in game creation contests. We spoke to founder Jim Greer about Labs, how the site and scene have developed since Kongregate opened, and what Flash’s future has in store.

EDGE: Have the first 18 months gone as expected?
Greer: The direction the site has taken is what we were expecting, though we got to hosting 100 games in the time I expected we’d get to 20. I had no idea of the depth and hunger that developers would have to make games.

Other Flash game sites haven’t yet copied Kongregrate’s template – is that a surprise?
Yeah, I’m a little bit surprised, though to do that means extra technical work, managing the community, and getting developers to use your APIs [for its achievement system]. It’s not trivial at all. Developers are also making money – some thousands or tens of thousands – from the ad revenue share and the contest prizes. The top few developers on the site are making a living, but we’re trying to extend that so anyone with a popular game can make one. We’ve got some other things we’re doing in that direction, like microtransactions and multiplayer hosting.

Many games on Kongregate are posted on other Flash game sites, too. How do you feel about that?

That’s the nature of the web, that it’s open. We have a deal where we sponsor Desktop Tower Defense on [creator] Paul Preece’s site and we don’t see that as a big threat. I want to give the existing portals a lot of respect. They’ve a whole load of great games and they’ve been around for a lot longer, but we’re raising the bar on the deals the developers get. They’re making a lot more money because of us. We’re trying to do something a bit different and deeper, and offering multiplayer to any developer means that we will start to get different games than can exist on other portals. But, even then, it’s never going to be the case that one portal will own Flash gaming.

How has the Flash gaming scene changed since Kongregate launched?

The total audience has grown a lot because the appreciation of it has gotten more mainstream. A couple of years ago a console gamer would have said that Flash games were mostly garbage, but they realise now that there’s a lot you can do in that small window. There are sites dedicated to reviewing them and a broader appreciation among developers that there’s money to be made – though the scene is mostly people just wanting to make a game and get it in front of people.

You used to work at EA – do you think there has been a change in perception in the mainstream game industry, too?

Of Flash games yes, but also of indie games more broadly as a phenomenon. When I was leaving EA I was talking with two other guys there about creating our own game studio, but I had this Kongregate idea, so we formed two companies and shared offices – well, an apartment. Those two guys were Ron and Kyle of 2D Boy, and World Of Goo is another step in raising the bar for indie games. We’re riding a wave of the fact that the internet has meant that shelf space isn’t a problem any more.

Was Kongregate Labs a part of the plan from the beginning?
We always wanted to have tools to help people to make games. I’m 37 and learned to program when my mum got me an Apple II. Then there were magazines with BASIC code to type in and I could hack around Rogue and use a hex editor to change the icons in Ultima, or whatever; stupid stuff, but it demystified what making a game was all about. That’s just not true today. If you play something like GTA or Spore they’re so complex, and even the idea that they were made by people like you is kind of abstract.

The thing about Flash is that of all the game creation tools it’s one of the easiest, but it’s still intimidating, so we’ve made nine tutorials on making a side-scrolling shooter, from how to download the 30-day free Flash trial to collision detection and AI. Basically, by the end you’ve created a game including all the source code, and then we have a contest for cash prizes for modifying it. People will be able to upload their own tutorials too, and we’ll keep doing new sets for different genres.

Was there already an informal development community on Kongregate?
Yes, and it’s pretty active, with programming and art forums. But the passage from playing a game to making one wasn’t as easy as it could be. Most members have a latent interest in making games and we were getting a lot of questions about how you do that. Though there are some tools and tutorials around, there isn’t anything we thought was done as well as it could be.

Have you had much support from Adobe? It doesn’t appear to be working particularly hard in getting game developers to use Flash.

I think there’s been a problem, but it’s changing. It’s easier to sell tools to enterprise companies for making shopping carts and they’re trying to get it on mobiles. But the new Flash 10 has had a lot of work put into performance and some 3D acceleration, so they’re coming around. We’re talking to Adobe about providing free copies of Flash for contest winners. So we’ll see.

With plugins like Silverlight and Unity3D, browser-based gaming seems to be an important part of PC gaming’s future. Do you see yourselves as part of that movement?

Communities for making games on these new plugins are only just getting started, and there’s a barrier around downloading the plugins, so they’re not quite as lightweight as Flash. But I expect Kongregate to be around in ten years and I expect us to be making browser-based games. People live in their web browsers so you’d be crazy not to think that’s part of gaming’s future.