What happened to PlayZap?

A couple of years ago, I developed a HTML5 mobile game portal. Built with Node.js at the backend, and Ratchet.js (something like a precursor to Bootstrap, but specifically for mobile devices) on the front end, it was one of the first of it’s kind.

It was reasonably successful – successful in so far as it achieved the initial goals I set for it, but unsuccessful in that I couldn’t (or didn’t know how to) pivot and turn that success into a self-sustaining business.

In 2012, HTML5 games were in their infancy, and, being a web developer with a keen interest in games, I wanted to do something to push the technology – to show what it was capable of. I’m not going to pretend that my motivations were entirely altruistic – as a freelancer, growth in adoption of HTML5 meant that I could write games for clients instead of websites, which at that point I had been doing for years. The new tech was exciting, it had promise, all the right noises were being made, I wanted to work with it. I was going to work with it (I did work with it!), but it’s even better if you can get paid for it.

I decided to create a games portal, solely for HTML5 mobile games. Developers would be able to show off their games and profit by the adverts shown in them, and I’d have something to point to to prove how awesome HTML5 really was. I shipped PlayZap in early 2013.

After a slow launch, adoption quickly picked up as I spent a bit of time on marketing. I had thousands of users each month – both players and developers seemed to really enjoy the site. The stumbling block arose when I tried to think of how to turn it into a business. Server costs were negligible (I was hosting a dedicated instance on EC2), but I didn’t want to self-fund it forever.

As the tech was new, there wasn’t a business model as such to follow; but it was supposed that it would work in a similar way to how the Flash ecosystem used to work. Developers would integrate advertising APIs into their games, which were then (in lieu of an exclusive licence bought by a portal) shared widely on portals. It was a mutually beneficial relationship – portals provided the platform and the traffic, developers provided the games. The more eyeballs, the more gameplays, the more ad revenue for both the developer and the portal.

It didn’t quite pan out that way. In fact opposite happened – ad providers like Mochi, rather than pivoting, simply shut down.

There was – and, as far as I’m aware, this is still the case – a total lack of HTML5 ad providers that cater to mobile web games. Without providers like Mochi, early adopters turned to AdSense, on the assumption that, as HTML5 games are basically the same as web pages, they’d be able to use AdSense in their games. Some tried to use the square banners as interstitials, and many were banned for it. No one tried to fill the gap in the market, and the few that did have a suitable API placed such restrictions on their APIs’ use as to make implementation infeasible.

Without an interstitial ad provider on the horizon, all I had was banner ads that didn’t cover the bills.

In the end, PlayZap was very much a project without a business model. Others have pivoted to providing games for messaging apps, or used the partnerships they forged with developers to move into the mobile space. HTML5 has landed, but it found it’s footing elsewhere.

For me, the portal served it’s original purpose. I shuttered PlayZap earlier this year.

Do I regret doing it? Not at all. PlayZap started as a learning experience, and ended as a learning experience. I learned more about responsive user experience. I learned Node.js. I learned about hosting MongoDB in a production environment (hint: Monit is your friend). I learned that, if you want to turn something into a business, you need to know what your business model is *before* you build it. All valuable lessons.

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Nicola Hibbert is a mobile game developer based in Guildford, Surrey.

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