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From Flash to Steam — how Adult Swim is building a publishing empire

If you need evidence that video games have made it, look no further than Adult Swim Games.

The digital side of Adult Swim, Cartoon Network’s late-night block of mature programming, has churned out cool game after cool game since 2007. Last week, the publisher released its first title on Valve’s Steam distribution service, and now it’s looking to expand even further.

What makes Adult Swim Games a beacon of the medium’s maturity is that its parent company doesn’t treat its titles as marketing material for the shows. The games stand as parallel representatives of the network’s brand. These Flash releases are just as important to what Adult Swim is as any of the shows are.

“We started with the philosophy that we want to make games that are like our shows but not based on them,” Adult Swim Digital vice president Jeff Olsen told GamesBeat. “A lot of networks were doing show-based games, and we thought for our audience — which is a pretty savvy audience — that was a mistake.”

For an example, look at Adult Swim’s daytime counterpart, Cartoon Network. Nearly every game on Cartoonnetworkgames.com is based on one of the shows. That’s not bad — kids love that kind of stuff — but it doesn’t work with the cynical college-age-and-older crowd that Adult Swim targets.

“They perceive those advert-games as something less interesting than something that is like our shows,” said Olsen. “Something funny and original — something that has Adult Swim’s perspective and level of quality and creativity but isn’t just a marketing tool.”

And that’s working.

Adult Swim has a stable of hugely popular Flash games, Facebook titles, and mobile apps.

Gamers played Amateur Surgeon, where you use common items to perform complex medical procedures, over 55 million times. Endless runner Robot Unicorn Attack has more than 45 million plays, and that’s just for the Flash game.

Adult Swim released Robot Unicorn Attack on Facebook, iOS, and Android as well, where it certainly racked up a few million more plays.

“It was 2008 or 2009 when we published our first game on the App Store, and that did really well,” said Olsen. “We’ve continued to publish aggressively on iPhone and on Android. We’ve had around 10 top 10 titles on mobile, which has been great.”

House of Dead Ninjas

And now Adult Swim has its first Steam game in Super House of Dead Ninjas.

“With Super House of Dead Ninjas, it was just sorta opportunistic,” said Olsen. “One of our game producers was working on the Flash version, and he thought it could be really popular on Steam if they added some new features. So we spent a very small amount of money to port it over there to just see what would happen.”

What happened is that it immediately went to the top of the games-under-$5 chart (Super House of Dead Ninjas now goes for $6.99).

“It made sense to us that the Adult Swim audience and the Steam audience would overlap,” said Olsen. “So we definitely have plans to expand our efforts.”

Those efforts include more mobile games and definitely more Steam releases.

“Based upon the success of Super House of Dead Ninjas, we’re definitely in contact with the folks at Steam,” he said. “We’re trying to enlist their support for a wider slate of games on that platform.”

Adult Swim is even interested in working with Sony, Microsoft, or Nintendo on releasing some of its titles on the traditional home consoles.

“We’ve looked at it before, and the numbers just didn’t quite work,” said Olsen. “But that’s not to say that it couldn’t. It’s a matter of finding the right title. If it’s something that we develop that we think would be particularly fun on a console with a controller — and we can get the support of the people that run those platforms — that would be great.”

Adult Swim Games Flash

Olsen said he’s interested to wait and see how the next-generation of consoles handle digital content and that they’ll get involved if it’s profitable.

But just because Adult Swim is expanding and finding success (and lots of money) on Steam and iOS, that doesn’t mean it’s abandoning its Flash roots. The company’s games on Steam and mobile can charge the customer a few bucks to generate a lot of revenue, but Olsen says the ad-based model of Flash games is still incredibly vibrant.

“We have a video preroll in front of every game play, and our most popular games have done tens of millions of plays — if you add in social, there’s an additional hundreds of millions of plays,” said Olsen.

That adds up fast — and those numbers help Olsen and his team attract more talent.

“It’s really about trying to find the best people — primarily in the indie-game space — to give funding and support and feedback to make something that we can all be proud of and that we think our audience can appreciate.”


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