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Trip Hawkins, who resigned on Sunday as chief executive of mobile and social game maker Digital Chocolate, was trying to form an alliance dubbed FreeGameLeaders to generate free traffic for browser-based games. It was like the “rebel alliance” fighting against the evil empire in Star Wars.
The alliance was a cross-promotion network aimed at helping smaller independent developers, including his own company, in an age dominated by big publishers such as Zynga on Facebook and Electronic Arts on mobile. The idea was to publish games directly to the web and set up a nonprofit alliance to promote traffic without bias or corporate overseer fees.
“Indie developers today need a durable and predictable place to plant their flag, and the open browser is such a place,” he wrote in a pitch letter to fellow developers. “Indie developers are surrounded by platform titans and enormous corporate rivals, but if we all collaborate and cooperate in methods like this, we can share some of the market power of the big guys.”
Hawkins declined to comment on his resignation. But he said that the effort to create the alliance has been “suspended” for now. Although someone else could certainly pick up the cause.
The purpose of the FreeGameLeaders web site was to enable games that could be played instantly and conveniently in the browser without requiring payment, downloads, plug-ins, non-standard technology, or memberships. The site’s high-quality games would be free-to-play and monetize through high-value virtual goods.
A year ago, Hawkins saw the writing on the wall for small developers. He said at our GamesBeat 2011 conference that we were stuck in a “dark age of video games” because developers were beholden to major platform owners such as Facebook and Apple, which impose a 30 percent fee for selling virtual items in games. He went on to write a “browser manifesto” about how publishing to a royalty-free platform on the web was the path to a truly free and vibrant game developer economy.
“How many great companies have been built on the world-wide web, which is an open platform,” he said last year. “The list just goes on and on, and Nintendo’s been doing things this way for 25 years and there are no great companies that have been built on the back of Nintendo.”
In his pitch letter, Hawkins added, “Apps and social games have other ways of acquiring free traffic, but our industry needs more methods for open browser games, where the marketing CPA today is high. By sharing traffic, partners with this type of open browser game can reduce their effective cost of acquisition with new sources of free traffic. The site will include partners that specialize in providing traffic, games, or game review editorial.”
It’s not clear how much progress Hawkins made. The effort was not unlike the intentions behind Applifier, a for-profit company that started a cross-promotion network for Facebook games. But Hawkins said the model for his alliance was built on “transparent click trades, with no money changing hands among members.” The traffic partners would bring in users to the site and then link to qualifying games that are hosted on their own web sites.
In some ways, the alliance makes a lot of sense. But it also an act of desperation that speaks to the market power of industry platform owners such as the console makers, Facebook, and Apple. It also shows how hard it is to acquire new users, a massive problem in mobile games and the power of dominant publishers such as Zynga.
Hawkins formed Electronic Arts three decades ago to elevate the creation of video games to an art form. He then left and formed 3DO in the 1990s. In 2003, he formed Digital Chocolate to focus on making mobile games.
But Digital Chocolate’s execution hasn’t been good recently, and the company decided to retreat from a more ambitious strategy. After eight years at Digital Chocolate, Hawkins resigned.
Here’s the full text of Hawkins’ pitch letter:
Here finally is clarification about FreeGameLeaders, a new method of generating free traffic to browser games.
As you may know, I have been championing the needs and interests of innovative game developers for more than 30 years. This is my latest attempt to help smaller independent developers, including my own company.
The intention is to recruit a group of founding members and set it up as a non-profit to serve its members. The idea is to provide both traffic and a “home base” that developers can really count on, invest in, and that is not biased by any corporate or profit angle. Indie developers today need a durable and predictable place to plant their flag, and the open browser is such a place. Indie developers are surrounded by platform titans and enormous corporate rivals, but if we all collaborate and cooperate in methods like this, we can share some of the market power of the big guys.
The purpose of the site is to provide traffic to open browser virtual goods games that can be played instantly and conveniently in the browser without requiring payment, downloads, plug-ins, non-standard technology or memberships in something other than the game itself. The site’s goal is to become a brand that stands for this level of instant convenience for high-quality, high-value virtual goods games that can cross-promote with each other with high effectiveness.
Apps and social games have other ways of acquiring free traffic but our industry needs more methods for open browser games, where the marketing CPA today is high. By sharing traffic, partners with this type of open browser game can reduce their effective cost of acquisition with new sources of free traffic. The site will include partners that specialize in providing traffic, games or game review editorial.
The entire commercial model is based on transparent click trades, with no money changing hands among members. While the site will offer an optional Facebook Login, the site is not intended to become a destination, social network, storefront or payment system. The concept is that traffic partners would bring traffic in and then it would link off to qualifying games that are hosted on their own websites, which would also run a cross-promotion bar inside the games that further cross-links the games in the network. There will be modest dues and fees to support the site’s overhead and governance.
At present, the website is up and running and preparing to be ready to be spun-out and organized around a group of founders. The initial focus will be on Western World traffic that is higher value. Therefore this concept is not currently a good fit for native apps, social network games, advertising-based games, MMOs that require a download, or games that primarily have second or third world traffic. I’m not saying there is anything wrong with an app or a Facebook game, and if you have a qualifying open browser game, once a player is in that game you have complete freedom if you want to market other products, mobile apps, Facebook versions or whatever you want. But the qualifying game has to operate in the open browser in the first place.
Those that make the biggest and fastest commitment to giving FreeGameLeaders (FGL) a critical mass will get some benefits as founders and partners. For example, founders and partners will bring and take traffic from FGL, but will also cross-promote their qualifying games with each other. They will also make dues payments that enable FGL to launch, and by joining together will make it safer and more obvious to others to join later. Read the enclosed PPT for more details.
If you are a potential traffic or news partner, or have at least one qualifying game and want to learn more, reply with a list of qualifying games that you represent and feel free to lob in some questions.