The Kongregate story is a familiar one.
It was founded by sister and brother team Emily and Jim Greer. Jim was a game developer who created the cult favourite real-time strategy Netstorm: Islands of War.
"It was a total failure commercially, in part because the relationship with the publisher had gone south," Greer tells GamesIndustry.biz. "They ended up open sourcing the game servers and shutting down. Crazily there's still a fan community playing the game even though I think less than 10,000 copies were ever sold."
Jim was talking about setting up his own studio again some ten years later with friends from EA, but felt intimidated by the challenges facing indie studios in terms of distribution, monetisation and the ability to control your own IP.
This is where the idea for Kongregate came from. An open, online distribution platform with terms that were extremely developer-friendly, and also offered consumers advanced social features and achievements.
"I thought it was a good idea, and started helping him with a business plan," Greer recalls. "I wasn't in games, I'd been doing marketing and data science in catalog/retail companies. But I had a lot of complementary skills to Jim, and after a couple of weeks I volunteered to be his co-founder and quit my job."
They even shared an office with those same friends from EA (Kyle Gabler and Ron Carmel), who did set up a studio and created World of Goo.
The story of a developer setting up a business to offer studios more power over their games is similar to many of the indie publishers that have emerged in recent years. Since digital has become dominant, we've seen a rise in these sorts of companies. Yet Kongregate predates all of them, having started back in 2007.
"It feels like every three to four years we have a year that's an inflection point in the business that really changes us"
Kongregate's growth has been impressive. Emily and Jim have grown Kongregate from a ten-person team to the publishing and platform powerhouse it is today. In 2010, its browser business began to accelerate, attracting the attention of GameStop, which acquired the firm. In 2013, it extended its services into mobile. It was shortly after this that Emily Greer took over as CEO from her brother, and in 2017 the firm has experienced one of its most significant transformations.
"It feels like every three to four years we have a year that's an inflection point in the business that really changes us," Greer says. "This year we were bought by MTG and have been able to expand and invest in a lot of different ways, from acquiring studios to expanding to PC and Console, and some things that we haven't announced yet."
GameStop's decision to sell Kongregate to MTG was a strategic one for both companies, and one that has freed Kongregate up to be more independent
"I'd call it a mutual decision as much as anything," Greer explains.
"We'd been talking with Gamestop for a couple of years about what would be best, since we were clearly growing and thriving but also not on their retail-oriented strategy. With the sale to MTG we're getting a more independent structure and access to capital for acquisitions. But some of the changes this year are driven by our increased growth and profitability, which gives us more manoeuvring room."
Alongside the acquisition, Kongregate has begun significantly investing in publishing PC and console games (with a $10m fund). In October it acquired game developer Synapse Games (the team behind Animation Throwdown), which means it now operates two in-house studios. And it's continuing to see success from its browser business, too.
"Most things we've succeeded at we failed at first"
"A lot of these [investments] come back to our original mission, which is to help independent developers succeed and grow," Greer continues. "That shouldn't be limited to just Kongregate.com, or mobile. So we've started publishing games on Steam, on console. Players should be able to game where they prefer, and some games have different natural habitats. We want to help gamers find them.
"We also don't think our help should be limited to free-to-play games. That works for some games and teams, but not all. As the premium PC and console market gets more competitive we saw an opportunity to provide meaningful help to developers in that market as well. We're just getting started in these markets, so look to that to continue to develop over the next few years.
"With studio acquisitions I'd describe that as just another flavour in our publishing relationships. We very much believe that to make good games the creative vision and ownership needs to be with the team making it. As a publisher we provide complementary services, infrastructure, and financial support. With acquisitions we're deepening the financial ties in a way that's beneficial to both parties, but continuing to work with teams like independents. That's our mindset."
Emily Greer and her team's impact is keenly felt by developers across the globe - whether they're using the Kongregate platform or its publishing services. And she says the success they've enjoyed comes down to the core ideals that defined the company at the very beginning.
"A couple of things [have been central to our success]," she concludes. "Keeping focused on helping developers, whatever we're doing. That's built up a lot of trust over the years with developers, and that is so valuable. Being reliable and fair not just with developers but with players and other types of partners - building trust there, too.
"The other thing would be some combo of resilience/patience/stubbornness. A lot of things we've tried have not worked the first time, or the second time, sometimes the third time. Our browser IAP startegy made no money at all for the first year, before taking off. We tried a totally different mobile strategy with Kongregate Arcade before regrouping and trying publishing. Most things we've succeeded at we failed at first."