The Business and Design of Free-To-Play Games


10 Things You Didn’t Know About the Most Successful Shockwave MMO

I don't know if Maid Marian's Sherwood Dungeon RPG is indeed the most successful Shockwave free to play MMO, but it's done pretty well for Gene Endrody and his wife - the only two employees of the developer, Maid Marian.

More interesting though is that the lone source of revenue for all of Maid Marian's games is Google Adwords PPC (Pay Per Click) ads.

Recently, I had the chance to sit down with Gene and discuss Maid Marian, Sherwood and his company's other projects. He was kind enough to offer up some very interesting info for those of us who aspire to create a free to play game as a "lifestyle business," as Gene calls it.

Here are the Top 10 things I learned over coffee with Gene at Caffe Artigiano.

1. Revenue
Sherwood Dungeon sees 1M unique users each month, generating 10M ad impressions via Google Adwords. Gene claims a 4-5% CTR (click through rate), where traditional banner ads see a paltry .3% CTR.

Out of respect for Gene's privacy I won't reveal everything, but based on what he told me I estimate Maid Marian is grossing approximately $700-$800K/year, with 50% of that number being reinvested into the business.

Pretty solid income for a husband-wife team with a homegrown, free to play product supported solely by ads.

2. Technology
Maid Marian utilizes Shockwave for all their games. And Gene says that while Shockwave has just 55% penetration among the general populace (and Shockwave installations are declining), his market - teens - sees about 80-85% Shockwave penetration.

So the higher Shockwave penetration among Gene's target demographic makes it an excellent technology platform.

Note: As a point of comparison, Flash has 98% penetration and is coming on strong as a robust game development platform. Interestingly, Gamasutra and Next-Gen.Biz both ran articles this week on Flash game development.

3. Servers
Sherwood Dungeon needs just 6 servers: 2 web servers, 3 game servers and 1 test server. Crude load balancing is accomplished via a round-robin DNS splitting scheme that directs incoming users evenly among the servers.

Maid Marian's servers are provided by Peer 1 - a hosting company with a Vancouver data center - at a cost of $200 each per month and provide 2000gb of monthly bandwidth. But Gene is quick to point out that equivalent servers can be had for as low as $80/month these days.

Because all the user data in Sherwood Dungeon is stored client-side, there are no database security concerns or associated db speed drag. Data encryption and some client-side checks attempt to curb cheating or too rapid character progression, but of course player cheating is possible with this scheme.

4. Demographics
Because Gene's game is web-based, he uses Google Analytics for most of the coarse metrics on his user base (country of origin, platform, unique users, etc). Some interesting stats:

  • 15% of Sherwood's traffic is from US (largest single territory)
  • 5% of Sherwood's traffic is from Canada
  • is the 500th most visited site in Jamaica

Hungary and Poland also have disproportionately large representation in Sherwood Dungeon. The game outperforms in areas such as Eastern Europe that aren’t well served by traditional game distribution methods.

5. Usability
In the interest of making Sherwood Dungeon more accessible, Gene has chosen not to expose player levels to each other. This means Player A can't see what level Player B is at. Gene believes that this encourages more experienced players to help out new players, supporting the casual nature of the game.

Additionally, player levels are not even considered in PvP (Player versus Player) mode. So even if an experienced player chose to pick on a new player, ganking is much more difficult.

Players can also change their character type or look at any time. Players are not locked into a character after making their initial selection.

6. Content
Most of Sherwood Dungeon is procedurally generated, which saves a ton on level data. Among the items procedurally generated:

  • Dungeons
  • Islands
  • Height maps
  • Trees
  • Ramps

Gene uses seeds to ensure the same result every time with his procedurally generated worlds.

7. Genres
Maid Marian features three types of games, theorizing that users who are temporarily tired of one type can jump to another for a while. These game types are:

8. Distribution
Rather than block third party sites from linking directly to his games like many casual game providers do (at least the ones that rely on revenue from ads on their sites), Gene chose to embrace them. As a result, web game aggregators such as Addicting Games have become great secondary sources of new players.

Maid Marian's highest referrer is Arcade Town, accounting for 5% of Gene's total traffic. But Gene ensures his Google Adwords are preserved even if the third party iframes his game. Using his logs, he's able to identify sites that violate his affiliate policy by stripping out his ads.

However, the sites are free to bracket his game with their own ads, forming an ad-hoc revenue sharing program.

9. Client Size
I'm a big believer in tiny client sizes and Sherwood Dungeon is a clear winner here. Clocking in at just 2mb (compared to 4mb for the already tiny Runescape and Habbo), Sherwood's puny downloadable client makes it the fastest loading free to play MMO I've ever experienced.

Couple that with deferred sign up (as I mentioned in my previous article), and you have a deadly fast way to get players into your game.

10. AI
In Sherwood Dungeon, the AI monsters utilize distribute processing to reduce server load. This means that the brain for the monster you and your friends are fighting resides on your PC, not the server.

When you log off mid-fight, the control of the monster's brain is seamlessly handed off to another user's PC. A monster might "lose his mind" momentarily if his AI can't successfully land on another user's PC, but it's often tough to tell the difference between a monster that's flailing with purpose and one that's not.

A big thanks to Gene for his time. I had for more interesting points, but had to cut them down for this article.

Also thanks to Raph Koster, for directing a small subset of his traffic my way twice in the last couple weeks.

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Comments (8) Trackbacks (3)
  1. Fantastic article, thanks for posting it. I’m astounded by the success of Sherwood Forest, kudos to its developers!

  2. Thanks, Tony. Gene has sure built a great business for himself.

    Another interesting fact: he still spends the bulk of his dev effort – by far – on new content.

    Whereas many F2P creators who choose to go the virtual item sales or subscription route report that they eventually spend the bulk of their dev effort ensuring scalability and security.

  3. a “lifestyle business”

    omg thanx so much for this article, it’s rekindled enthusiasm for an idea/dream i’ve had for decades! :)

  4. Great article, thanks for sharing!

    However, am I reading this correctly? So, 10M ad impressions per month generate about $62,500 in revenue. That’s $6.25 eCPM! Very impressive, especially if majority of the traffic comes from outside of US and Canada.

  5. I’ve just stumbled across recently, so it’s a very interesting and complementary article. I’m interested to learn how long it took Gene to develop the game, the development phases, and a rough estimate of costs to bring it into completion.

  6. Interesting, but this is misleading:
    “Rather than block third party sites from linking directly to his games like many casual game providers do (at least the ones that rely on revenue from ads on their sites), Gene chose to embrace them.”

    Sites typically block DIRECT LINKS TO THE GAME FILE. Gene also does not want direct links to the game file. He wants links to the PAGE, same as every other site wants.

  7. I am a user on sherwood dungeon and i would like to ask gene something. Gene, how come you dont update sherwood alot so that it will look better and also is there a way to stop the hacking that people do in the game and to stop the freezing in the game when there is a full room? that makes me mad cause then the virtual memory on my computer stops the game and ends it while i am playing. I beht alot of other users have that problem too. this is a problem that I and you should discuss because it is a real problem for the game and the players.

  8. 4-5% CTR is pretty amazing… well I guess if the players are in front of the computer for hours it’s hard not to click on what’s hovering below the game, especially if the ads are something of interest to them.

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