Categories
Business Code Design Game Development Game Industry Games

itch.io announces refinery, an early access alternative for indies

itch.io has launched Refinery, a toolset it promises will allow indie studios to conduct early game releases with the flexibility to set their own terms.

If this sounds like a shot at Steam Early Access, that probably isn’t a coincidence.

“Early access ‘programs’ have long been an issue for developers looking to get feedback and build communities around their in-development games,” itch said in press correspondence. “They have overly competitive environments, sometimes hostile and unwelcoming communities and non-existent sales model flexibility. For games releasing in these ‘programs’ just to get playtesting and grow, it’s a disaster.”

The solution, itch leadership believes, is to give studios the freedom to customize the distribution model of a game’s limited release.

“Whether that comes in the form of an open paid alpha with limited keys or a closed beta playtest with select testers, the toolset allows a developer to customize their program,” said a representative via email. “The toolset allows for limited key quantities, tiered purchases, digital rewards, private playtesting, and community forums embedded right on their customized game pages.”

In addition, itch announced five upcoming indie games that will utilize the Refinery toolset for limited release purposes, including Overland, Manifold Garden, Jenny LeClue, hackmud, and GoNNER. There appears to be no word yet on the nature of those releases, but each should give players and developers a unique look at the capabilities of the Refinery system.

itch.io week began Monday the 9th and wraps up today. The event revealed other features such as support for studios to hold sales, create product bundles, and utilize The Widget, which will allow developers to easily embed itch promotion and purchase information about their games on other sites.

itch also made recent headlines when the official itch.io desktop app appeared on Steam Greenlight on April Fools Day. The listing was not a joke, but a fully functional client, which Steam subsequently blocked.

Categories
Business Code Design Game Development Game Industry Games Productivity

Inside Indie Dev: Philip Devine, Falling Stars

Philip Devine (@ArkisVir)
Founder, Riveted Games
Project: Falling Stars: War of Empires

After discovering game development in college, Philip Devine wanted to give other content creators a head start on the unique career opportunities available in gaming. He set out to create a club for programmers, musicians, and artists, that grew to about 25 members in its first year. He credits this experience with building the confidence he needed to start his own major development project.

Now a Chicago-based IT professional, Devine is leading his team at Riveted Games through the last stages of development on Falling Stars: War of Empires, a 4X PC strategy game already greenlit on Steam that he expects to release within the next few months.

For those unfamiliar, 4X is a genre of complex strategy games in which players control an empire by eXploring, eXpanding, eXploiting, and eXterminating.

Falling Stars: War of Empires is likely to please a diverse crowd. 4X strategy players beg for games with substance from anyone who will listen. Space games and board game-like experiences requiring diplomacy and intellect rarely have trouble finding an audience. The game also follows on the heels of a movement in the gaming community that recognizes and celebrates a game smart enough to offer new and different experiences to long-term players.

“That feeling when you lay out a really intricate plan and try to carry it out against your friends is something that is totally missing in video games right now,” Devine says. “It just doesn’t exist in a format that is conducive to multiplayer.  My goal was to make a challenging multiplayer game that rests on the same intellectual and diplomatic skills as modern board games, and what we have now is way better than I’d ever imagined it would be.”

Based on the concepts Devine demonstrated to me in the most recent build, Falling Stars will give many of these players what they’re looking for.

screen1

Development for Falling Stars began in earnest in October of 2012, when Devine started devoting his travel time on Chicago’s public transportation system to working on his game. He says that he developed 90% of the game on his work commute. Though the workspace wasn’t ideal, he says there was an unexpected benefit from working in this setting.

“Kind of a cramped development environment,” Devine says. ” But it got lots of ‘organic marketing’ that way by talking to people who have never seen a game being actively developed.”

This grit has served him well in the years that followed. Falling Stars was almost completely redeveloped on two occasions, his first child was born (now two years old, with a second on the way), and he now manages one full-time developer, two artists, one composer, and conducts business with his new publisher, Lock ‘n Load Publishing. Thanks to the help of industry friends like The Foundry’s Simon Pickles and Hungarian developer Daniel Karsai, Riveted Games now boasts all the benefits of a AAA development workflow without the time constraints that hurt products.

screen3

Devine’s refusal to rush Falling Stars and his unending communication with players has led to a positive relationship with the community. The game has been in private beta since December and he says testers have helped make big positive changes and contributions to the game. Devine has also reached players during several promotional campaigns.

“Steam Greenlight went great, given my game and company were relatively unknown, and working in a niche genre,” Devine says. “We laid out a strategy ahead of time and timed a bunch of campaigns all at once. I had a fairly active twitter account that I built up a few hundred followers on, I had a Facebook page with about 100 people, and I posted about the game everywhere people were talking about games in my genre. The ‘kicker’ was I also launched a Kickstarter campaign the same day and put my link at the top. That’s what helped give that huge spike in the beginning. After that, I focused a lot more attention on development and the game was greenlit on its own after about 3 months.”

screen4

To other indies working on their first big projects, Devine suggests putting one’s focus on the true finish line. He says the core mechanics and a playable game are far from all you need to plan for.

“You spend all of this time developing the game you want, so why settle just to release it when things get hard?” Devine asks. “I’m a runner, so I think of it like running the first 20 miles of a marathon, and then quitting right when it gets hard. Don’t quit when it gets hard, and the end result will be worth it…Finishing the game is the first 20 miles, and thorough testing cycles are the last 6. Make as many fixes/optimizations/user experience enhancements as you can, break down core mechanics if you have to…you’ll know you’re done when you’re happy with the feedback. It doesn’t have to be perfect, no game is, but you’ll know when the game feels right.”

Categories
Business Code Design Game Development Game Industry Games Productivity

Inside Indie Dev: Iber Parodi Siri, Mission Massive Migration

Iber Parodi Siri (@rmbsevl)
Founder, Rombosaur Studios
Project: Mission Massive Migration

Mission Massive Migration is a 2D retro action game created by Iber Parodi Siri under his Rombosaur Studios label. It was released to a quietly positive reception on the Google Play store in early January. Though the game is still listed in the 500 – 1,000 Installs range, an average review score of 4.45/5 across a current total of 36 reviews marks a well-received first effort for Rombosaur. Between the game’s retro charm (think of Solar Jetman from the NES days) and Iber’s personal background, I was curious to learn more about the project and find out what’s next for his studio.

Iber lives in the Tolkienesque Bariloche, Argentina where he tests and develops software professionally. His free time is a whirlwind of electronics projects, music and video production, art, blogging, and code. He says the journey began early in life and his passions have naturally led from one to the next.

“I’m a guitar player. I built two electric guitars when I was 15 years old,” Iber says. “I also build my guitar pedals. I’m into hardcore punk, metal, thrash, alt rock, indie rock, and synth stuff…I had multiple bands in the past. My latest was called DAR (“Desafiando a la Realidad” or “Defying Reality”) but I quit because of a lack of time. I wanted to program more and focus a little bit more on college. Programming is a passion for me, as well as music. I guess I like to create things.”

In this area, Iber is greatly accomplished. In casual conversation he was able to point me to a YouTube channel, a blog, and a Bandcamp profile all full of his creative and technical projects. He participates in a variety of online communities and offers up many of these creations simply for the enjoyment of others.

Blogged artwork
Blogged artwork

Iber views game development differently. Though he made Mission Massive Migration available for free, he views creating games as a way to earn income and dictate the next direction for his professional career. To get started, he drew inspiration from a small team famous for shaping their destiny through game dev.

“At the time I started creating [Mission Massive Migration] I was playing Doom: BFG Edition, that comes with Doom, Doom 2, Doom 3, and expansions for all the games,” Iber says. “Doom 3 blew my mind away. I had never played it before…I put like 88 hours into this game. I became a little bit obsessed about it, watching YouTube videos about the creators, reading interviews, and finally reading a book called Masters of Doom. That was the final motivation I needed to make it happen.”

With that motivation, Iber described the 10-month development of Mission Massive Migration as straightforward. He had a specific vision for an Android game with a virtual game pad, and a 2D character to make jump and shoot. He got started with placeholder assets from the internet, while learning conventional game design and development strategies.

Iber says the discovery of some public domain graphical assets created by Adam Atomic gave him an opportunity to focus on development while creating a small amount of retro art to supplement the freely available graphics he had found.

“[Adam Atomic’s] assets contained laser doors, batteries, and powered cells,” says Iber. “Basically I built a game around the art assets I found. I drew the final boss and the first scene on Earth. I’d say that sometimes, if the planets are aligned right, I can make decent retro art.”

This strategic decision allowed Iber to complete his first game in 10 months. He published the game officially on January 7th, showing his work proudly to some of his online communities including Reddit and Twitter.

Iber’s sense of accomplishment gave way to feelings of disappointment.

“To be honest, the game didn’t reach the amount of people I would have liked,” Iber admits. “It got almost 400 downloads in the first 2 days due to a post on reddit/r/gamedev, but then it just dropped to two downloads per day on average.”

Not to be deterred, Iber has remained incredibly gracious with critics and maintains a positive outlook about the road ahead.

Oh Reddit…

“This is definitely the beginning of my career in game development,” Iber says. “I went all in on this game. Of course it has flaws, but I’m really happy with it. I’m already learning new technologies to make better games.”

Iber says he’d like to tackle darker material in the future like his heroes of Doom fame. He acknowledges his flaws in art creation and has an interest in teaming up with a dedicated artist for his next project.

As for fellow aspiring game developers, Iber has both technical and philosophical advice to offer. For programmers interested in creating games, he recommends Java with the Flixel-GDX engine for its clear code and helpful documentation as a free introduction to object-oriented, multi-platform development. For aspiring developers with little or no coding experience, he recommends learning Love2D, a LUA programming language engine that’s simple to learn and allows newcomers to achieve small objectives quickly, which helps with the learning curve.

“That was technical,” Iber says. “But the most important advice I can give is, your first game should be a game that you like to play, a game that you are proud of making, a game that you’re motivated to finish. If you don’t finish a game, you’re not a game dev! You learn a lot by finishing a game. There are a lot of details that need to be taken care of. There’s the publishing part, and the criticism part too that you need to learn how to extract the valuable information from.”

Iber’s social media accounts make it clear that he isn’t resting after his work on Mission Massive Migration. He remains active in the game dev community, still encouraging others to keep pushing and discussing new work of his own. His work ethic and his unfailing optimism make him a great bet in the indie scene’s near future.

“It’s just a dream I have that I will try my best to make it come true,” Iber says. “We’ll see what happens on the way.”

Categories
Business Code Design Game Development Game Industry Games

Inside Indie Dev: Garry Hamer, Push for Emor

Update: You can submit your indie project for possible inclusion in this series! Here’s more info!

Garry Hamer (@_LupusSolus)
Founder, Lupus Solus
Project: Push for Emor

When I first encountered Garry Hamer, he was eagerly showing around the alpha for his upcoming sci-fi shooter RPG, Push for Emor. We had a lighthearted chat over Twitter–I offered my condolences upon hearing he had just purchased the $600 Oculus Rift–and he jokingly described explaining it to his sobbing girlfriend. We went our separate ways after I offered to play the demo and get back to him.

The Push demo impressed me with its ambition. There are some slightly rough placeholder models to overlook and some knowingly goofy dialog to take in, but it quickly became evident that Push for Emor has great bones. My first play session sent me from a command ship down to a planet’s surface where I joined up with local resistance fighters, retrieved a quest item from a cave dungeon worthy of an Elder Scrolls title, and sabotaged enemy installations in a mech walker. Then it was off to dogfight with space pirates and board their creepy ships before taking over my own space station. After finishing the alpha demo, I was curious to learn more about this project.

Hamer, I learned, is a full-time commercial C# programmer from Blackpool in Northwest England. He has no prior game development experience and is developing Push for Emor completely alone in his spare time. This has carried on for around 18 months.

“I had always been intrigued by game development,” Hamer says. “It was all very voodoo and mysterious to me. I picked up a copy of Unity, started noodling around with a concept I thought might be fun, showed it to some friends at work, and they liked it.” The satisfaction of seeing friends enjoy his creation has kept him working diligently ever since.

Hamer’s efforts appear to be paying off. The Push for Emor site advertises a launch version featuring 11 planets spread across five solar systems for players to explore and organize against the enemy. In addition to creating content and perfecting the game’s core flying, shooting, and interaction mechanics, Hamer has natively supported both standard PC monitors and the Oculus Rift since the game’s earliest playable demos.

Push for Emor cave screenshot

When I asked if Push in its current state lined up well with Hamer’s initial vision for the game he told me that, if anything, the game includes more than he’d planned. He says he only pursues new features that can be added with very little schedule deviation and that he feels the game’s core mechanics–missions, inventory, dialogue, combat, driving, and flying–are working and complete, save for some polish.

“These are things that, once done, are repeatedly used throughout the game in a drag-and-drop manner,” Hamer says. “This means that I can get on with the job of creating new environments for the player to game in and new characters for them to interact with.”

Push for Emor city screenshot

While Hamer takes development and the game itself very seriously, he wants to have fun with Push for Emor and he’s loaded it with thematic jokes and nods to his favorite sci-fi influences. He has listed influences like EVE and Borderlands in press material and discussed growing up with Star Trek, pointing out his game’s subtle tribute to the Enterprise crew in sending the player from planet to planet with no idea what to expect upon arrival. He hopes this is as rewarding for players as it has been for him.

“I have come to realize that I have this opportunity to spoof up some of the gameplay elements and I have a massive catalog of popular works to draw from,” Hamer says of the game’s easter eggs. “I am very serious about Push for Emor but the game itself is quite tongue-in-cheek. It’s a sad truth that hardly anyone reads mission text or watches cutscenes all the way through but, for those that do, hopefully Push’s interactions will raise a wry smile.”

Push for Emor Space screenshot

As a former professional software developer and hobby game dev myself, I know progress like this doesn’t come without a cost. I asked Hamer to tell me about the impact the project has had on his personal life and how he’s striking the right balance between work, game development, and life.

Hamer’s description of what he calls “game dev madness” is a familiar one. He says he doesn’t always let sleep interfere with his development time. When his girlfriend notices his prolonged absence she visits his “man cave” to check on him and occasionally stays to share some red wine. She does this with trepidation, he says, as it usually results in his putting a Rift visor on her to have her check out new features.

Push for Emor snow screenshot

Despite the hardship, Hamer credits his relationship with enforcing healthy boundaries and maintaining the strength to continue the project.

“Luckily for me, my [girlfriend] is very understanding, but at the same time she does not take any BS from me,” Hamer says. “She keeps me grounded and encourages me when I need it but, more importantly, she forces me to step away from the keyboard every once in a while and remember that there is more to life than making alien worlds: friends, laughing, and usually alcohol. She has become very adept at gauging the game dev madness in my eyes and, when it looks like it’s taking over, I get my ass kicked into the shower. Then she drags me down to the local pub whether I like it or not! I’m pretty sure I would have burnt out by now if it wasn’t for her.”

Push for Emor mother ship

Though Hamer hasn’t pinned down Push for Emor’s exact release date, he’s cautiously optimistic about the near future. He’s hopeful about implementing a few crowd-pleasing final touches like massive space battles requiring the player to command from the mother ship and jump in a fighter to join dogfights as needed.

“I can see it in my mind’s eye,” he says. “I just need to get it onto the screen.”

Categories
Business Code Design Game Development Game Industry Games Web Writing

Announcing the Inside Indie Dev Series

Update 1/15/16: Want your indie project to be considered for this series? Here’s more info!

Update 1/13/16: The first installment of this series is up!

Just a quick post to announce the Inside Indie Dev interview series! In these posts you’ll get a look at new and upcoming independent projects and interviews with the creative minds behind the games.

Later this week you’ll hear about the upcoming shooter RPG Push for Emor. I chatted with creator Garry Hamer and gathered his thoughts on the great sci-fi influences of our time, developing for PC and VR simultaneously, and balancing life and game development when you’re already working full time. You won’t want to miss it!

Push for Emor screenshot
Push for Emor is an ambitious title full of surprises.

If you haven’t yet, this is a great time to subscribe via e-mail (which you can do on just about any page on the site) and follow us on Facebook and Twitter. Keep an eye out!

Categories
Business Game Industry Games Web Writing

Weekend Roundup

Time for the weekend roundup! It’s been a big week here and around the web. I’m always happy when a post starts a discussion here on the site, so I was glad I shared my Google Adsense disaster story. I also kicked off a new series detailing my countless indie dev missteps and my first contribution over at Zam.com has been posted! Check out anything you missed and tell a friend!

My Google AdSense NightmareInvalid Activity: My Google AdSense Nightmare – Long before Code Write Play came along I spent years building and running a geek culture site with a close friend of mine. This post discusses some of the ups and downs of building and monetizing your own site and some of the pitfalls that can catch you by surprise. Google didn’t exactly catch wind of this post and come running to resolve the issue so hopefully it’s at least entertaining.

Confessions of an Indie DevIndie Dev Confessions: Part 1 – As well as things have been going, I felt the need to step back at the turn of the new year to assess my game development progress. It hasn’t gone well. I decided the best thing I could do is evaluate my strategy as objectively as possible in an effort to make 2016 a better year. If you have a passion for creative projects of your own, perhaps this series will strike a chord with you.

Weekend Roundup10 Indie Games to Watch in 2016 – This is my first published contribution to Zam.com! For this post I got my hands on a ton of great indie games and put together a list of titles I expect to turn heads in the coming year. Though I didn’t get to spend time with all of them (a couple are very early in development) all these games either have a great Early Access build available or they already have an audience in a pre-Alpha frenzy. Some are small initiatives that do what they set out to do well while others are highly ambitious, aiming to change the way we play. One of the developers was so pleased with his mention that he announced his game’s release window for the very first time in the comments! Check out the list and let me know what great upcoming games you’re looking forward to.

I’ve also been hard at work promoting the site around the web. If you haven’t yet you can follow @CodeWritePlay on Twitter or Like us on Facebook to see new posts as they go up.

See you next week!

Categories
Business Code Game Development Game Industry Games

Indie Dev Confessions: Part 1

2015 was an incredible year. My son was born, my wife has an amazing new job, and I walked away from a career ten years in the making to care for my son and pursue my passion. I finally had the chance to take a run at full-time game development. While last year was full of unforgettable memories, the truth is that it also came with a lot of painful realizations about my indie dev career.

A basic Google search reveals that this experience is not uncommon. Countless developers have stopped to assess wreckage, unable to put their finger on exactly what went wrong. Others have made very astute observations about the challenge of going it alone in the game industry. I think the best thing we can do to carry that discussion forward is to be very open and honest about where we’re at in an effort to determine how we got here. That in mind, I’ve decided to start a series of posts exploring the real, hard truths about my experiences in the indie dev game.

Confession #1: I Abandoned the First Indie Dev Project I Announced Almost Immediately

Before I had even quit my day job I became fascinated with the idea of paying tribute to the old text-based adventure games with my own updated take on the genre. The ingredients were perfect: It would allow me to write (my other great passion), there’s a ton of room for improvement in the traditional formula for these games, and I could use web languages and tools like HTML, JavaScript, CSS, etc., all of which I’ve been fluent in for over well over a decade. It took some stumbling around but I eventually landed on great mechanics for updated text games and it didn’t take too long to lay a strong foundation for the engine. The writing also picked up encouraging momentum as soon as I was able to invest some dedicated work sessions. I settled on a story that I felt was compelling in its own right, but would also allow me to write about some issues that were very close to home for me. I was finally doing work that truly meant something to me.

It was at this point that I fell into a notorious indie dev trap. Instead of taking advantage of being my own project manager, PR lead, and filling all other pertinent roles, I wanted to act like a triple-A tough guy. I put together some screenshots and GIFs, wrote up some basic marketing material, and announced a needlessly aggressive release date for what would be my first product as a full-time game developer.

It felt great at the time. People liked and shared it around Twitter, they left notes to commend the ideas and implementation I was showing off, and let me know they were enthusiastic to get their hands on it. “This is it” I thought to myself. “I’m finally doing it.”

That’s when the most difficult development challenges arose, the writing got less creative and more technical, and the project generally demanded the most from me. I got quiet on social media and even quieter in person. I pounded at the keyboard every chance I got, working way harder than I had in my full-time traditional office job. I stayed in this state as my own senseless deadline came and went, never saying a word. I eventually gave in to the growing desire to work on something fun and new. I’ve never gone back.

It’s hard to remember what was going through my mind when I put that kind of pressure on myself and my project. I’m sure I felt embarrassed that I went months with nothing to show for leaving my office job. I’m sure the family was trying to adjust to less income. I have little doubt that I let my nerves get the best of me. I love being connected with larger indie teams on Twitter and I know a number of great indie dev community managers all over the world. It’s possible that I tried to follow their lead, much to the detriment of my one-man operation. I can tell you for sure I’ll never handle another project this way again. You’ll hear about my games when they have a functional beginning, middle, and end. If I’m not in the polishing stage, you’ll have to be content to hear that “work is going well!”

Join me in the rest of the series and I’ll tell you more cringeworthy tales, like how I left an LLC behind in another state and why I actually hate working in Unity. If you’re an indie dev yourself, leave a comment and tell me about the coolest project you left behind.

Categories
Business Web Writing

Invalid Activity: My Google AdSense Nightmare

My name is Todd Mitchell. I am personally banned from the benefits of the Google AdSense program for life. I’d like to tell you the story, though there are large portions of it I do not know, and I’d like to warn you about how easily this can happen to you too.

Introduction: Two Friends and a Big Idea

Nightfall Comics Logo

Like any memorable nightmare, this one starts as a pleasant dream. A few years ago I found myself catching up with an old friend at a movie night where we discussed what we were up to as well as plans for the future. My friend lamented that his short run in retail had taken up much more of his life that he’d hoped. His dream, he said, was to one day join with an artist to turn several scripts he’d written into comic books and graphic novels. Eventually he wanted to run his own website where his work could be found and perhaps one day open a comic shop of his own.

“That’s fantastic!” I told him. I shared an interest in this type of geeky pursuit and certainly encouraged those interested in writing at every opportunity. I asked what steps he’d taken and he said he felt stuck until he could establish a small web presence to attract artists that may be seeking exposure for their work. This seemed reasonable. He didn’t know a lot about my background so I told him a little about my areas of expertise. I shared some ideas about how to make such a site successful and I offered to help get him started. He was ecstatic.

In the coming weeks we stayed in close contact and I’ll admit I became very excited by the idea as well. I’ve written a couple of scripts and outlines along the way myself and, with a variety of content ideas and access to artists, we could have a full-blown indie publishing operation on our hands in no time. We decided we would keep the initial cost low, we would write about interesting industry news and other geek topics of interest to generate some traffic, and simultaneously work on the development of one book each. We would publish online initially, print on demand, and expand as necessary. Done right, we felt the project could pay for itself.

The Birth (and Rebirth) of a Website

Nightfall Logos

Before long we had a modest WordPress installation in place, several logos and headers designed, and we were even speaking with a couple of local artists interested in reading our scripts. I recall paying for at least half of the domain registration, hosting, and other expenses standing between us and the starting line. My friend was very eager to help but was not technical, and I had no problem with investing a little money and a good amount of time for a worthy cause. As we communicated with artists we happily wrote about everything from comics to video games and urban legends. My friend is a leading authority on the Gates of Hell here in the greater St. Louis area and his first post on this topic turned out to be the site’s most popular by far. We were doing what we loved and looking ahead with excitement.

Comics, as it turned out, make for a brutal business for newcomers. To this day we have and cherish some great concept art we received from a variety of interested contributors but we never found artists who truly bought into the dream. They rightly wanted to be paid for their work. I’m the first to agree they should have been. We should have been too. That’s not how indie operations often work (it’s worth noting here that crowdfunding hadn’t quite yet arrived). Worse, we disagreed about how to make the best of things. After our first year I wanted to put together all the concept art we’d received, put together some facts and anecdotes about our journey thus far, and sell it for next-to-nothing so we would have our first product available and could raise a little revenue for reinvestment. My partner didn’t buy in. We were exhausted, disillusioned, and we argued bitterly. We parted ways and the site laid still as we went months without speaking.

In time we reached out as friends do and made amends. We agreed that our initial plan could work, but it wasn’t working yet. We missed the fun we were having writing about general geek culture while we pitched artists and waited for their replies. We quickly reached a decision that we would rather have the freedom of a broad geek culture site that may or may not launch comics of its own in the future. The spots we couldn’t fill with artists were quickly taken up by eager, talented writers. A very short time later we were editors of a geek culture news site with loads of potential. The dream had changed suddenly, but we were having a blast.

AdSense and Other Business Development

Gates of Hell
The Gates of Hell are just a few train overpasses. Sorry to disappoint.

My friend and I found ourselves with a strong product on our hands and determined to focus on differentiating ourselves from the competition and find ways to monetize the site. Having already worked closely with a number of business and marketing grads at this point in my young career, I quickly volunteered to take the lead. I was eager to try my hand at building something from nothing. I wanted to make this work and reward the people who were already working so hard for us. I enrolled the site in a number of affiliate programs including Amazon and Audible (which we’d also promote in a new podcast we’d set out to develop) and I set up Google AdSense ads in strategic locations throughout our WordPress theme. I spread word throughout the staff: Do. Not. Touch. These. Ads.

Nearly the moment I finished setting up our new stat tracking system the site saw its first post go viral. We saw a sudden spike in traffic and ad revenue and, I’ll admit it, I panicked. There was no way I didn’t mess this up somehow. Surely something was wrong. That’s when we started seeing the Gates of Hell write-up posted all over Facebook. Our best days saw tens of thousands of unique site visits pour in as our modest site strained to handle the attention (our host initially assumed it was a DDoS attack and shut us down until I called). I don’t have the numbers lying around anymore but I distinctly recall we beat a couple of small cable networks in views per day once or twice. Our AdSense account was off to a great start. We were well on our way to our first check. The podcast even got a jump start as listeners followed along during our moment in the spotlight.

Morale remained high long after the viral wave subsided. Several staff writers very wisely adjusted their focus to give viewers more of the urban legend coverage they craved and readers responded well. The rest of the staff continued to branch out into all areas of geek culture and pursue new projects including specialty podcasts, site-wide challenges, cross promotion with other sites, and a variety of video posts. Everything we touched started turning to gold. The future grew brighter by the day.

Then, at 8:41 AM on a Friday morning with no prior discussion, Google dropped us from the AdSense program.

Blacklisted

Adsense suspension letter
It may surprise you to learn I do not understand at all.

Citing invalid activity on our ads, all our unpaid revenue (meaning all revenue period in our case) would be returned to its advertisers and we would no longer be allowed to participate in the program. No specific offenses were listed. My formal appeal was almost immediately denied with no additional information offered. I personally would never be allowed to participate in Google advertising programs again. My current account was immediately suspended, any future accounts I opened would be suspended, and any accounts opened by relatives or business partners of mine could be discovered and closed without warning at any time. I could never make money from another YouTube video again. The years of work were blown. The site shut down soon after. The money I’d personally invested would never be recovered. The completely unrelated professional work I wanted to do in the future was wasted in advance in the blink of an eye. Words like “angry” and “confused” fall short of the state I was left in.

My staff was angry at me. I was angry at my staff. My partner eventually suggested he misunderstood the rules, saying his wife may have been occasionally clicking the ads, but he didn’t give me specifics. My appeals with Google were open and honest. Surely I couldn’t babysit every site visitor. Surely I can’t be held responsible for more than my own actions and the crystal clear instructions I gave my staffers. Google had literally no interest at all in working with me or explaining the exact problem.

I tried appealing the suspension one last time last night, over one year after the initial notice. It was rejected before I woke up this morning with the shortest, most dismissive message to date.

A Broken System

I reminded myself that my friends were not at fault; this is a bad business practice with victims all over the world. Accounts are suspended due to malicious ad clicking, accidents, and often with no useful explanation whatsoever. Any business partner who starts with a reasonable set of rules but absolutely refuses to listen to a circumstance or work with you to reach a resolution is a bad business partner, even if that makes Google a bad business partner. This is not said in bitterness. The proof is the moderately successful AdSense account my old partner now runs under his own name on a new site from the same network that may well have brought down the previous site. Has this rule protected Google’s advertisers at this point? Or has it just ruined a relationship with a capable AdSense partner?

Beyond the defunct website I’ve stopped creating YouTube videos and I’ve sworn never to release any of my mobile apps to the Google Play store while this suspension stands. I’m just one guy. I can’t personally hurt Google, but I damn sure know the difference between right and wrong. Google got this one wrong.

Have you been hurt by the AdSense program? Share your story in the comments.