Here Today, Gone Tomorrow, Here Again?: Kongregate CEO on Disappearing Android App

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It’s been an interesting couple of days for Jim Greer, CEO of Kongregate. The web portal destination for independently-developed, browser-based games launched  the Kongregate Arcade app on Android Market earlier this week. Bringing 300 of the site’s best games to the millions of Android devices out in the world meant that users got a new infusion of fun games for their gadgets and the game developers suddenly got a whole new level of exposure. Win-win, right?

For some reason, the powers that be at Google decided otherwise and removed Kongregate from the Android Market. It can still be had via direct download at kongregate.com/android but Greer and the team at Kongregate are still working at getting the app back onto Google’s official distribution hub. I spoke with Greer to hear his side of how a beloved app ran afoul of the very people who approved it.

First off, can you describe Kongregate for people who may not know about it?

We’re a Web destination that has 36,000 games for browsers–PC, desktop, laptops, et cetera. And those are coming from about 9,000 developers, and we reach about 13 million monthly unique players. So we distribute games from indie developers and then we make them social through achievements, high scores, comments, ratings, forums. You level up as you play the games. So really, kind of like an Xbox Live type experience around browser-based games.

And so our mobile app is really a pretty complete expression of that, but adapted for a four-inch screen. Actually, it works great on larger tablets as well. The initial release has over 300 games and we’ll be adding new games weekly. And those, like the web-based games, will have achievements and you’ll be able to rate, comment, share them, and so forth. So, yeah, I think it’s a really slick experience of playing Flash games.

What was the reception when Google first saw it?

We showed it to several people at Google and they said, “Wow. This is great. This is something that iOS devices really can’t do, and it’s much better than playing in a regular browser.” At first, the main thing for us is that we launched the app and quickly got a really great response, I think. Our rating in the market is 4.6, which is very high, and lots of really positive reviews and attention.

And then it got pulled from the Market. How quickly did that happen? How long was the timeframe between the release and being pulled? Was it a matter of hours? Was it a day after going live?

Yeah, it was the same morning. So, it was same day. It had tens of thousands of downloads in a very short period of time. So, I imagine that it came to their attention fairly quickly. We’re actually quite optimistic now, more so than I was in some of my statements yesterday, is that we’re going to be able to get that re-enabled in the Google App Store. We’re working with them. And hoping to get specific guidelines.

Generally, there’s a lot of apps that allow you to download and browse content from the Kindle app to things like the Slacker Music App, to Google Reader. And our app is in that same category. I think Google is just kind of trying to define what the line of demarcation is there. And we’re hopeful that we can work with them and have a released version that falls on the right side of that line.

Evan: Two things occur to me: One, you showed it to Google before submitting it for approval. You said you showed it to representatives of Google who were impressed by the interface and the smoothness. And two, it doesn’t sound to me right now like you have a sense of what the offending characteristic of the Kongregate app was that caused it to be pulled.

Yeah. Yeah, I can address both of those. First off, I think we showed it to people at Google. But Google is a large company, and they weren’t necessarily the decision makers who had all the information about the guidelines for the Google market. Those guidelines certainly are evolving as well. So we understand that.

We haven’t had a direct conversation, but Google did make a statement that if the caching functionality were modified, that would probably allow us to be re-enabled. So, we haven’t spoken with them directly about that yet, and we want to get that clarified. It’s our hope that either through that or through another method we can find a way to release a version for them that will be acceptable. In the meantime, of course, one very nice thing about Android is that the app continues to be available.

Right. People can go the site and get it.

I mean, if this were in the iTunes world, the iOS world, if we were taken off the store, that would be it. It wouldn’t be available to anybody. In our case, if people are willing to adjust the settings on their phone, they can download it directly from Kongregate.com.

From the GameStop side of things, we’ll most likely also be working with retail locations to enable people to get it from there. So, I think it’s worth emphasizing that Android is still the most open smart phone platform, and technology evolves. I think the important thing is whether we can work with Google to meet their guidelines, and we’re willing to do that. It sounds like they probably are as well.

Evan: So, what kind of data was being cached that, that was being teased out as specific part of what might be going wrong?

So, the game files are Flash files. So technically that’s a .sws extension. It’s the exact same file that you would play in a browser. In fact, we do play them in a browser. It’s a bit hard for the user to tell that because Flash goes full screen and so forth. But it’s all being played. You download it into the Kongregate app.

For some games, they’re always played online. Others, we enable a feature that would allow you to download it to your SD card and play it from there. And that seems to be the particular feature that we’re hoping is the sticking point. It’s not entirely clear. Yeah. So. Of course, all browsers cache content. But we were customizing that cache and giving the user control over it as opposed to just using the regular browser cache. So, that’s one area of distinction. Maybe it’s the one that took us over the line.

But, again, I don’t know that Google has come to a decision about that yet. So I don’t think it’s, by any means, a certainty. But anyway, we’re hoping that we’ll be able to have a dialogue. As I said, in the meantime, we have tens of thousands of people who are still able to download the app directly from us and from other sources.

What kind of feedback have you gotten from users in terms of the individual games that they might be liking the most? What do you personally feel like people who check out the app should be playing?

Oh, yeah, good question. One thing is we take some of the best games and put achievements on them. So, my favorites are the ones that have those achievements and those run the gamut. So we’ve got a very, kind of old school, 3D arcade game called Vector Runner. Imagine a game like the old Atari BattleZone but turned into a racing game. It’s kind of like that. Super fun. Very addictive and fast. And then, another game I like a lot. It’s totally different. It’s a dice game called Zilch, where you’re playing against a friend or against a computer. A little bit like Yatzee or something like that, but just a super compelling kind of thing where you always want to take one more turn.

Then we’ve got deeper RPG games, role-playing games. A big part of our audience is sort of a core gamer audience, and that’s one of the reasons that GameStop, when looking at companies to acquire, acquired Kongregate because their bread and butter is the core gamer demographic that buys lots of console games.

So, a lot of those console games genres are reflected both on the Kongregate website, and now on the mobile app as well. So, there’s a game called Monster Slayers, for instance, where you’re controlling a party of adventurers, and you’re sort of a dead king floating above their heads and giving them orders to rush into battle. So, it’s a very lightweight, sort of one button version of a role-playing game but it really gets at a lot of what’s fun about it.

That’s what we’re really going for is taking genres that people are familiar with from big screen play, from console play, and finding developers who are really skilled at turing that into an experience that works great on your four inch mobile phone screen or your seven inch tablet screen, and to take with you wherever you go. The other point I want to make is that community is a huge part of what makes Kongregate work. Playing smaller games means much more if every time you beat one or get an awesome score, your friends can all see it. That goes in your profile, your leveling up. I think that’s what made Facebook social games so effective, and it works very well for a hardcore audience.

Xbox Live does it. World of Warcraft does it, frankly. And we think that the combination of a Web destination with a mobile community, having community in both places, works really well. Whereas Apple’s Game Center, that’s a mobile-only gaming community.

You see some limitations there, then?

Well, if you go back and look, what if Facebook only had launched as a mobile app? It’d be kind of limiting. It’s hard to really have interesting communication, and meet other gamers, and communicate, and show off your status when you’ve got a tiny device.

So, the fact that we’re connecting the 13 million monthly unique players on our desktop site, and giving them a handheld experience where the account system is the same, the points, and the achievements, and a lot of the games actually crossover as well. Means it just really ties it together into an organic whole. I think a lot of the best apps that I use on my mobile phone sort of share that characteristic.

Meaning, I think Yelp is a great experience on a mobile phone, and they adapted their full-blown website very well. Our website is great for developers to upload games, for people to spend hours finding friends and talking to each other. But then, wherever they go they can take the phone version with them, which is what we are hoping for, and is the essence of what this app is. And I think that fits in very well with what GameStop is trying to do overall, which is to reach gamers on every screen that they use, be it their living room through console games, mobile, tablets, and the future, and so forth.

Do you have any, I guess, lessons learned from this experience in terms of distribution, caveats, or anything like that, that you feel might be worth sharing with other people who are going to be distributing over the Android market?

Yeah. I think the main thing about Android is that it’s growing extremely quickly. It’s changing extremely quickly. Google is coming out with new versions of the OS. I don’t know if you saw some of the coverage of the Gingerbread or saw it yourself.

Yeah, I mean, it’s a radical shift. I think at the same time that they’re radically advancing it, the technology, and the vendors, and OEMs like HTC, and Motorola, and Samsung, and people are creating amazing phones. That Google is finding their way into what the exact relationship between all those vendors. I mean, you’ve got carriers, you’ve got OEMs, you’ve got Google as the operating system provider. Then you’ve got Google as an application provider and search provider.

And you’ve got thousands of developers. There’s a complex web of relationships, and I think overall, that’s a sign of a healthy ecosystem, and it’s part of what made the PC ecosystem so vibrant. I mean, if you think about it, gaming on a PC is not nearly as sort of slick and lockdown as it is on Xbox 360. And there’s a lot of advantages. The combo version is really easy to use. It’s all very curated. Then on the PC, you get something like Steam, from Valve, which is just people who are really good at games, creating a very focused experience around that.

And they were able to do that in a way that on a closed top format, I don’t thing they would have been able to do. So, we’re hopeful that the vast majority of signs that Google has sent has shown that they are looking for partners to specialize in what they’re good at, be it games, or music, or movies, or news. And provide great experiences that are sort of a blend of apps in the mobile Web. An
d I think the exact parameters around all those things are something that naturally are going to be in flux. And hopefully Google will continue to have a dialogue with the developers about that.

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