PS: Since today there are no news, I have decided to share an article about a lesser known F2P Flash games platform from the times before WoT, a place that I still miss to this day (including its spin-offs like Blobzone). You can find certain similarities with WG, such as „friendly” gambling. All in all an interesting read, I hope. You can also read our 5 year old article about Club Penguin’s death.
We cannot deny the link between the boom of free-to-play games and the democratization of Internet access. Since they were free content on the Internet, people tried to find ways to monetize them, and naturally this extended to videogames. Many companies attempted to make profits out of free games (see my article about Studio Tanuki), and often ended up going out of business without making any impact on the cultural landscape whatsoever.
But, in the pioneering years of the Internet, there were one website that managed to stay online for almost two decades, still is remembered to this day, and changed the Internet as a whole: Prizee
If you were a French-speaking teenager during the first half of the 2000s, you have certainly already heard of Prizee. It was the biggest free gaming website of its era, gathering an immense community of players around addictive Flash games, kid-friendly mascots and intricate monetization systems. Years before the debates about microtransactions and loot boxes, this website made literally millions of euros out of free-to-play games promising physical rewards to players.
So, what was Prizee, exactly? Weirdly enough, there is no article available on the Internet about the history of this website, as big as it was. The closest we have available is the French Wikipedia page, clearly written by an ex-employee. It is surprising because the story is so complex and fascinating, involving young developers, big corporations, the studio Motion-Twin, lawsuits, dubious auto-generated content, and yes, at some point, a themed restaurant. Don’t believe me? Well, let’s go back where it all started…
2000: The early days
The year was 2000. Youtube and Facebook wouldn’t exist for a few years, and Newgrounds was opening its portal, allowing anyone to upload Flash games and animations. It is said to be the first community portal of the Internet. The success of Adobe Flash, only four years old at the time, is undeniable. Flash-focused websites are some of the most popular sites at the time, and many people try to capitalize on the trend…
It is in this context that Prizee came to be, a basic-looking website pretty unremarkable in its presentation, with a frontage showing several Flash games and a form to subscribe. Nothing out of the ordinary in this era. However, one particularity made it stand out, and it was right in the title: play games to win prizes. With games named Golden Tickets, Treasure Hunt, Lottery and such, there was no ambiguity on the main selling point. No fake currency nor token, your account displayed your virtual wallet containing actual money (in francs at the time), and you could either gain some by playing games, or add your own money to use it on lotteries or special events. The website was leaning hard on the reward, whether they were monetary, or physical.
Surprisingly enough, only one person is credited for the first version of the website: Tristan Colombet, a 19 year old programmer in his first year of Computer Science studies. Colombet said he got his start by making online lottery games during his student years, and invested 50.000 francs (about 10.000 euros) out of his own pocket to create the website, because no one would invest in it after the crash of the dot-com bubble.
There are no official statistics for the traffic of Prizee in 2000, but Tristan Colombet asserted the website turned some profit “since its first day” with the advertisement. He also said he promoted the website himself on forums and online chatrooms, and the word-to-mouth took off. We have no proof to say otherwise, but nonetheless, in the following years, Prizee would never cease to increase in popularity, evolving as it gained new users every day. It started as a student’s side project, but by the end of its first year, Prizee was a company.
2002: The Motion-Twin touch
The first versions of Prizee weren’t targeting any demographic in particular, but it is safe to assume it was made for adults with disposable incomes. After all, the frontpage was leaning hard on the monetary aspect of the rewards. But in 2002, things were going to take a 180° turn in what might be one of the most clever strategic shifts in the history of online businesses. And it came from a partnership with a small game development studio called Motion-Twin.
Today, Motion-Twin is mostly known for its hit game Dead Cells, but for many French gamers, they are first and foremost the creators of countless free-to-play social games such as Hordes (Die2Nite for the English version) or La Brute (My Brute). It is pointless to list all of their games, there are so many: a solo platformer with daily ranking, a turn-based MMO, a hacking simulator, a weird hybrid of adventure game and block breaker, the list goes on. There was a Motion-Twin game for everyone, each with their own gimmicks but sharing the same level of polish and fondness for the social aspect of online gaming. And, despite all of their games being very different, they seemed to privilege cute, mascot-like characters.
The partnership with Motion-Twin lasted from 2002 to 2003. During this time, we saw Prizee evolve gradually from a generic Flash website, with a few games titled “Haunted House” or “Lottery”, to a portal with high quality games (as far as Flash standards at the time are concerned). They were simple, fast-paced and relying heavily on a scoring system, reminiscent of the arcade era.The games weren’t just casino minigames anymore, they would tell little stories starring cute characters such as Toudou the rabbit, Bubulle the fish, Diabolo the little devil and Koulapik the frog. They would quickly become the mascots of the website, being widely used on its pages outside of the games, and even outside the website in all of Prizee advertisements.
In the early 2000s, the French-speaking Internet was relatively small, and there were very few French Flash games and animations, as they were overwhelmed by English content. There were outliers, but not the kind you could describe as “kid-friendly”. This is why it is noteworthy to see Prizee, a website that was at the time little more than an online lottery, becoming a website for kids of all ages, starring cute characters in cute and non-violent games.The collaboration between the two companies lasted only two years, but needless to say, Motion-Twin gave Prizee an identity, creating the most memorable Flash games of the website and the famous mascots that would become even more popular with each passing year.
Prizee became the number one French gambling website, and one of the most visited by kids. Literally thousands of people logged into the website every day, playing games in the hope of winning a prize. And, as a final step towards total transformation, by 2006 there was no mention of real money in-game; the player wallet, previously in euros, was replaced by the fake currency “Bubz”. After several years of evolution, Prizee found its definitive identity.
2004: Kid-friendly games and aggressive monetization
The term “free-to-play” wasn’t widely used by the game industry at the time, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t already a common practice, especially on the Internet. Many browser games, MMOs and such limited the players with a certain number of actions and asked them to pay if they wanted to play more. Prizee, in this regard, was pretty standard: you had a selection of games to play, and each day you received a certain amount of tokens. A token allowed you to play one game, and if you ran out of tokens, you could either wait the following day, or buy new ones.
But there was one particularity. One of the currencies allowed you to buy special tokens usable for special games. And by games, I mean online scratch tickets and lotteries with very random rewards in Bubz. These tokens were expensive to purchase, you had to play a very long time to be able to purchase one of them, so if you wanted to play these special games more than once per year, you had to buy more regular tokens, and therefore spend real money. In effect, it was gambling targeting kids.
Like in the debate about loot boxes, the distinction between the Prizee games and gambling amounts to technicalities and definitions. You see, you can’t cash out, so it is fine, right? The comparison with carnival games and crane games is often made in interviews. In nature, yes, Prizee was some sort of carnival where you purchased tokens and took part in many games in order to win prizes, ranging from keychains and stickers to TV and game consoles. But if we learned anything from the thousands of studies on addiction and mobile games, is that none of this is inoffensive, especially with games relying hard on luck and calculated reward systems. In an interview, Tristan Colombet stated that “3% of users spent money on the website, and these 3% accounted for 100% of our revenues”. Knowing that at the time their revenues were by the millions, these numbers are very close to the ones we saw for games such as Candy Crush, where most of the income comes from “Whales”, a crude word describing players who are willing to spend so much money that they sometimes end up bankrupt.
What is striking about the history of Prizee, is that, overall, it was seen as very safe for kids. One article in particular characterized Prizee as being “ethical and adapted for kids”, while proudly stating in the same article that they were the number one website in the category “gambling and contests”.
On the other hand, it would be a lie to say that Prizee was popular only for the prizes and that people engaged with the website like carnival games. When I reached out to former players, most of them said they were fond of the games, despite never winning any prize, going as far as saying that they never expected to win anything, seeing the prizes as unreachable goals. Also, the daily limitation of playthrough encouraged players to come back every day, making the website part of a daily routine. Also, it is useful to say that Prizee never truly attracted kids only. Many parents were playing alongside their kids, or alone (to the point where Prizee was blocked on computers in some working places), and while teenagers could spend money if they liked on the website, the parents were the most likely to spend. This is clearly shown by the disparity between what prizes players fantasized about: kids wanted the stickers and the plushies and such, while parents were attracted by the televisions and expensive household devices.
2006: The Biggest website in an oversaturated market.
With every success come imitators. Many French websites targeting kids with free-to-play elements were launched during the 2000s, inspired by the success of Prizee, or sometimes plainly copied from them, like Yacado, imitating the concept even to the point where they used a similar pun for its name (Yacado is a pun on the sentence “il y a cadeau”, which means “there are gifts”). This phenomenon was not limited to Flash portals. In 2006, many new browser games with microtransactions were launched in French, such as 650 km : Perdu dans l’ocean, a survival simulator with some RPG elements, or Urban Rivals, a deck-building card game. Long was the time where no one would invest in free-to-play gaming websites. Prizee proved there was money to be made on free content, providing your monetization system was clever enough.
The competition was ferocious; it is hard to estimate exactly how many multiplayer browser games were created during that time, but in this domain, their most ferocious competitor would be no other than Motion-Twin themselves. Probably using the expertise they acquired during the partnership, the prolific game studio launched a number of free-to-play websites during the late 2000s, with many original concepts, but also straight-out copies of the Prizee formula, down to the name and the focus toward mascot characters. In fact, they launched three distinct Flash Portals with limited tokens per day: KadoKado in 2004 , CaféJeux in 2007, and Arkadeo in 2013.
Despite the market quickly becoming oversaturated, in 2006 Prizee was at the top of the world, grossing more than ten million euros. The website was available in six languages, and they announced they shipped more than two million prizes. It was more than a successful website, it was an online cultural phenomenon. Every French-speaking Internet user knew about the gaming website with the animal mascots. Countless blogs and websites shared strategies for the various games. Somebody even told me they downloaded a software supposedly farming tokens for the website. Yes, it is highly probable that it was a virus.
In 2007, Prizee inaugurated a brand new office in Clermont-Ferrand, located in a sprawling business center where they occupied a whole building, housing more than a 100 employees. A big screen in the entrance showed in real time every sale made on the website. In an interview, Tristan Colombet had already talked about expanding the company and hiring more people. Everyone at the company thought Prizee could go nowhere but up. In fact, it was the highest point Prizee would ever reach, and things would only go downhill from that point onward.
But in 2007, nobody could have predicted. The company was so lucrative, they knew it was time to expand the brand. Prizee was no stranger to side projects; in 2005 they opened an online virtual pet simulator named Blobzone, probably in order to compete with Neopets (and, while being quite popular and fondly remembered, failed to outlive it). But now, it was time to dream big. It was time to take the Prizee brand out of the Internet. After all, the name and the characters were so recognizable online, the transition to “real life” would be smooth, right?
Anyway, like anybody in their mid-30s fed up with their current job, they decided to open a restaurant.
2007: Themed Restaurant and Children’s Book : Welcome to Prizee World
As absurd as it sounds, it is true. A free-to-play gaming website for kids had at some point its own restaurant. But to understand how we got here, we have to understand how popular Prizee was at its highest. It was a brand known by all, a success comparable to Amazon or eBay, in France at least. Also, the characters were very popular, the most coveted prizes by players were the goodies (plushies, stickers, cheap pamphlets they called cookbooks, etc.). They were icons of the Internet, and Prizee intended to make them even bigger.
End of 2007, a new company called Prizee World was registered. It is described nebulously as a “finance company”, with very little information publicly available, but by the name itself we can deduce the goal. You see, Prizee was officially registered as a company under the name Prizee Dot Com. Prizee World was most probably the new umbrella company aimed at expanding the Prizee brand outside of the Internet. Ambitious plan, that could very easily go south.
It is how, in 2008, Prizee Café made its grand opening, advertised as a mix between a restaurant, an arcade, a cyber café and a playground. In other words, a small Chuck E. Cheese with Prizee characters instead of creepy animatronics. Parents could eat vaguely Prizee-themed food surrounded by Prizee decoration and some walkaround characters, while kids could go upstairs to play videogames on the computer while ordering soda, or go play in the playground.
The Prizee Café was intended to be the first one of a franchise, but, sadly, it was closed down very shortly after its grand opening. There is no official explanation on the closure. In fact, very little information is available online, a clear indication on how quickly it was closed. Aside from the advertisement video shown above, the only information about the restaurants are a few reviews, definitely not stellar. We can only speculate on what happened, but it is safe to assume the café was an absolute disaster, to a point where it sank after a few months. Opening a restaurant is always a gamble, especially in a location outside of town, because it means not many people will notice you. It’s one thing to rent a small venue when you’re a team of three dreamy college students who want to start their first business, but it’s another to invest large amounts of money in advertisement in hopes of turning a restaurant into a franchise when you’re a multi-million euros company.
But a themed restaurant wasn’t the only plan Prizee had up its sleeves. In 2008, soon after the opening of the Prizee Café, they announced their next project: Toudou et la plante magique (Toudou and the magical plant), a children’s book targeted at 3-to-7-year-old kids, published internally by Prizee Edition. There is no information online about the sales, but we can safely say they weren’t great either, considering the low number of reviews and the fact that Prizee Edition published only one book ever before being completely forgotten.
I actually bought the book second hand for less than a euro. It is fine I guess. I have no kids to read the story to, and as an apathetic 26-year-old, I am clearly not the target demographic. The drawings don’t really feel like the website, aside from the characters, but you can still see an effort to extend the lives of the characters outside of the games, by introducing a larger world around the mascots. Who knew what doors the success of the book could have opened ?
But, a more important question is on my mind: why publish a book targeting 3-to-7-year-old kids, starring characters from a website made for teenagers? The answer is in fact quite simple if we see the book as nothing more than an advertisement for very young kids. At the end of the book, a message invites the reader to “Meet Toudou and Bubule’s friends at Prizee dot com”. We can imagine the plan was to market the book for parents playing on the website, only for them to read the story to their very young childrens in order to push them to go themselves on Prizee by the time they are old enough. If it feels manipulative and very insidious to expose three-year-old children to disguised advertisements in order for them to spend money on a free-to-play website, it’s because it is.
Well, bad news: it didn’t take off and Prizee World was closed in 2011 after no other attempts at expanding the brand outside of the Internet. The Prizee World venture could have been only a misstep in the grand scheme of things, but it was in fact a sad foreshadowing of what would come.
2008: The turning point
If 2007 was a year of optimism and skyrocketing success for Prizee, 2009 was the exact opposite. Only one year after the opening of the new office, the company went under a restructuration, quoting heavy losses for that year, combined with the effect of the global financial crisis of 2008. Half of the employees were laid off, despite a strike and numerous negotiations. Whether the failure of Prizee World is to blame or not is up to debate, but it probably didn’t help.
Prizee benefited from a large established fanbase, but trends were moving fast, and they were desperate to reinvent themselves, making new versions of the website, updating the graphics and making new improved games. The Internet of the 2010s was nothing like the Internet of the 2000s, having been transformed by Facebook and other social media. The iPhone, released a few years prior, completely changed the casual gaming industry, and worst of all for Prizee, Apple wouldn’t allow the Flash plugin on their devices, officially for security and performance reasons, but most probably because it allowed users to run applications Apple couldn’t have a control over. By 2009, Flash had a ticking clock over its head.
Things were bad for Prizee, but they were going to get worse. In September 2011, the Paris Court of First Instance condemned Prizee for unpaid royalties. An artist fired in 2009 complained that many of the music he created for Prizee were sold on a CD without his knowledge. The court ruled in favor of the artist, forcing Prizee and the CD distributor to pay him more than 60.000€ in reparation.
To sum it up, there was a lawsuit that cost Prizee a lot of money and damaged its reputation, in a year already impacted by financial losses. Combined with the casual gamers migrating to smartphones, you might have already guessed what happened next: it was time to sell.
In 2012, Tristan Colombet sold Prizee to Digital Virgo, a French company specialized in online marketing. The website he founded twelve years prior was now out of his hands. In a recent interview, Colombet said Prizee reached 15 million players in 2012, making it its best year, and said he had sold the company because he “had an opportunity, and felt like [he] wanted to start anew”. Which sounds like a half truth, knowing that in 2014 Prizee would be merged with the parent company, before going under restructuration later that year, laying off many employees.
The official statement quoted the losses of the company during that year and a decrease of traffic as the main reasons for the merger. The Prizee Headquarter, said years before to be too small for the whole team and to be replaced by an even bigger one, was closed down unceremoniously, relocating the development team in Paris. Whether Colombet jumped off the boat before it sank, or whether he was absolutely honest and it was all Digital Virgo’s fault, we might never know.
In theory, 2014 was the end of Prizee. More exactly, it was the end of Prizee, the company founded by Tristan Colombet in 2000, and the team of people who built and managed the different versions of the website for it to become this cultural phenomenon known to every French kid out there. But it wasn’t the end of the Prizee website. In fact, it was still active during all those events, offering visitors to play games in order to win prizes as usual. Against all odds, the website still managed to be profitable enough to justify being open, having survived way longer than most websites of the same type. But for how long would it stand?
2014: The slow death
Prizee went under two massive layoffs, two business shutdowns, the departure of the creator, and a decline in traffic. But it was still open, still offering Flash games and sending prizes. Sure, the concept was reworked quite a bit, with a new monetization system, and the disappearance of the tokens in 2015, but it was still Prizee, with the same iconic characters and the same golden logo. They still wanted to expand their brand, but (wisely) limited themselves to software development. During 2010, they launched several new websites (that didn’t last very long), a game exclusive to Facebook, as it was popular at the time, and, as usual, new games for the original website. But, most importantly, they launched their first smartphone game, a logical step forward for the company.
But Prizee’s popularity was already on the decline, and it would only get worse in the second half of the 2010s. It wasn’t because the website or the games were getting worse, nor was it because of the increasingly bad perception of Flash at the time: multiplayer browser games themselves were on the decline. They never really disappeared, but only a tiny fragment of what existed in the early 2000s is still up and running today. Countless pet simulators and city builders were closed, alongside multiplayer adventure games (such as a weird reboot of the Zork franchise that got very poor reviews and didn’t manage to be open for more than two years).
Despite all of this, the developers were still hard at work, making new games, new arts, proudly showing their new creations on social media, inviting fans to their office to play games in early access. Prizee was way past its prime years, but the machine was still running, and it would run until the very end.
In 2016, a new lawsuit opposed players and Digital Virgo for prizes not received. Despite rumors of unset prizes being around since the beginning, it would be the only lawsuit that Prizee.com would face about this issue. Sadly, the ruling is still unknown. It is noteworthy because despite its very questionable relationship with gambling, it would be the only time Prizee would face criticism from its userbase.
In July 2017, Adobe announced its plan to end support of Flash at the end of 2020. It was sort of expected, Flash had a bad reputation of being non-secure and obsolete against HTML5 (whether it was true or not is very debatable). Theoretically, that was the deathblow for Prizee. Since the beginning, the Flash technology was embedded in the website to its core. Prizee had to either evolve or disappear. This is probably why, in 2018, they announced the closure of the website, to focus entirely on their smartphone app. The farewell to the original website got a bit of attention, but not that much.
It is interesting to read the tweets of the official Prizee Twitter account during this period, still active until the very end, announcing the big winners of the day and the prizes such as blenders or vacuum cleaners, showing that the last Prizee players were certainly not kids. It is kind of sad to admit it, but by 2019 Prizee was nothing more than the shadow of itself, having lost most of its userbase. Not even because of the quality of the website or of the games offered on it, but simply because the players moved on. Casual gaming became so ubiquitous, it is hard to imagine a concept like Prizee gaining the slightest of attention today. I am not saying “things were better before and today’s games are worthless”, the reality is way more complex and nuanced. Simply, Prizee came to be at the right point in time, and that time passed.
And then, on July 10th of 2019, the news dropped: Prizee was closing down definitely. It was just announced via Twitter and Facebook, and didn’t really make the rounds on video game news websites. By that point, nobody really cared anymore. Sure, there were still people who played the games, but most of the former Prizee players I talked to didn’t even know the website had closed, nor that there had been a smartphone version.
But Prizee wasn’t an outlier; in fact, most multiplayer browser games we talked about in this article didn’t survive past 2016, and the ones surviving never reached the same level of engagement that the most basic websites reached in 2006. Prizee was an oddity of the past, and simply couldn’t survive. Ironically, the imitators launched by Motion-Twin survived longer than Prizee, despite being way less popular.
As for Tristan Colombet, his career in the tech industry seems to be fine. It turns out he kept the former Prizee office, now a coworking space called Turing 22. He is also the CEO of Domraider, a company he created one year after his departure from Prizee. I am unable to explain exactly what this company does except for the fact that it delves into cryptocurrencies and NFT, so… Yikes. I tried to reach out to him but I’m not willing to buy an access to Linkedin Premium only to be able to send him a DM.
2020: The weird half-life
July 10th 2019 was the end of Prizee, the game portal with the iconic yellow logo and the mascot characters. But, despite all of this, despite the closure of the company, the website and the smartphone app, it STILL wasn’t the end of Prizee as a brand. Because, as weird as it sounds, Prizee… came back? Sort of?
In late 2020 the website Prizee.com reopened without any prior announcement, under a completely new design, branding and even concept, now an unremarkable gaming news website powered by WordPress. And to be clear, it is not a completely different website that just bought the domain name as it is often the case. The official Twitter, Facebook and Instagram has been repurposed around the new design and concept. Whoever held the Prizee name and social media presence officially handed the keys to a new management team.
Now, the question is: who is in charge of Prizee? Because as far as public information goes on the Internet, there is no clear answer. The website shows no mention of an editorial team or any writers. The articles and news seem like auto-generated editorial pieces, and the only two names on the whole website are the two authors of the articles, and appear nowhere outside of it. The new website just appeared out of thin air, only benefiting from the SEO of the name Prizee and the accounts on the various social websites. Digital Virgo didn’t respond when I asked them, and neither did any former Prizee employee I managed to contact.
I could say it is sad to see such an iconic name being used for cheap profit, but, the truth is… it doesn’t really matter anymore. We are in 2021, Prizee is already a distant memory by that point, and this website certainly won’t replace the memories of the literal millions of former players. Plus, you know, Prizee was always kind of about the money. It was a free-to-play website and a brand name after all, not an art piece.
Or was it, though?
It is undeniable that Prizee was created for monetary purposes. It was at its core a one-man business venture to sell lottery tickets, virtual scratching tickets and casino games. Nobody can say for sure what truly was Prizee except Tristan Colombet himself. Was it a gaming website for adults? A kids franchise with iconic characters? An attractive name we could slap on smartphone games? Well, it is all of these things, and more. Prizee wasn’t just Colombet’s creation. It belonged to every person who participated in it: Motion-Twin gave it its kid-friendly identity, the many developers and artists made the mascots alive in all the games, and the players allowed Prizee to survive all these years.
When I started writing this retrospective, I was ready to dunk on this gambling website targeting children. But as I kept hearing from former players, it was hard for me to stay negative. I am not ignoring the ethical problems it posed, especially in this era of gaming where it is more topical than ever. I am simply stating a fact: Prizee is remembered very fondly, by countless kids who logged in every day, not because they were baited by the prizes, but because the games were genuinely appealing. And for better or worse, it reshaped the Internet, and pioneered practices still in use in the free-to-play gaming market.
Prizee survived 19 years, way longer than any of its direct competitors. It is hard to say what exactly doomed Prizee in the first place. The failure of the café and the children’s book weren’t direct causes, but symptoms of a bigger issue. Digital Virgo, on the other hand, only bought the website after things started to go south, so even though they clearly handled the franchise with carelessness, it is hard to put all the blame on them. We can laugh at the prospect of a website opening a bad restaurant and then sinking into complete oblivion, but let’s not forget it was created in a region of France not really known for its tech companies, and became one of the biggest names on the Internet.
Thanks to Francis Janvier for the very helpful proofreading, and thanks to every former Prizee player who answered my questions.