And that’s the rub – in the early days you could engage users on the platform and bring them into your experiences outside of the platform; then you pretty much had to build a business WITHIN the platform, but users were relatively easy to get via virality; today Facebook wields all the levers to drive traffic to a business built within Facebook. Why invest in building something on Facebook when they can slowly squeeze your ability to grow and profit?
There is a little bit of the old “wild west” game development experience happening in Messenger games which are slowly being migrated into the main Facebook app with its own tab. The games are channeling some of that PvP magic with a hint of old-school virality, and Facebook is providing developers incentives (promotion aka cheap traffic) to build games there, but ultimately Facebook owns your users (and over time will extract more from you to reach your own users) and with more developers vying for eyeballs, you’ll have to pay to maintain the traffic you see during these early days.
Apple as a platform had had similar promise early on, leaving a window for developers to build a booming business. Here Apple exchanged the value of their platform for 30% of your profits, but it was a pretty huge audience. Eventually, once the app store platform got saturated, user acquisition got expensive and pretty much priced out smaller game developers.
Now with the introduction of Apple Arcade – at a ridiculously low price point of $5 a month – focusing on apps from a select few developers, they have relegated the rest of us to the morass of the over-saturated app store (where paying 30% for the privilege now seems overly exorbitant for the access what Apple provides).
Early in the last decade, companies like Zynga, King and Super Cell were built by the reach of the Facebook and Apple platforms, but as the decade came to a close, the platforms have become the powerful gatekeepers and ultimately are moving to not only own the customer paying relationship (ad views on Facebook, direct payments on Apple), but the user experience as well.
Rovio Stars’ new app Jolly Jam has been getting attention – and rightly so – for a new match three mechanic: instead of dragging or swapping tiles to match three objects or more in a row, users select a rectangle where the two corners must be the same character and everything within that rectangle that matches those characters is removed from the board.
It’s great to see innovation in match 3 puzzles. But the other thing that I noticed when I played through it last week was how much game play I was able to run through before getting hit with a gate – I easily played over 30 levels over an hour and a half.That’s a lot of play time right out of the gate. And games like Best Fiends by Seriously (a studio by previous Rovio execs) had a similar very easy early on ramp. So what’s going on?
Getting You Hooked
This is a general trend I’m seeing with a lot of casual free to play (F2P) games: we’re giving players access to more unencumbered content to get them hooked and engaged.When a user spends an hour playing your game, they are making a hefty investment of time.
In conjunction with this, we’re seeing more casual puzzle game adopt a visual map of progress.(The success of Candy Crush bred a lot of adotpion). Besides providing a light leaderboard showing where you are versus other players, it also provides a strong reminder of just how much time a player has invested in a game.
I haven’t combed through the top app charts, but according to the speakers at the Year in F2P Games at GDC this week, over 20% of mobile games in the top charts now employ some sort of map overview that shows the user’s progress (and more importantly investment or time) in the game.
Time Investment and Monetization
I think that it’s pretty clear that showing a player’s investment in the game can definitely help retention, but can it also help monetization?
One of the biggest money drivers in these puzzle games is when a player is just 2-3 moves short of completing a level, they are prompted to spend currency to get an additional pack of moves (echoing classic arcade games prompting you to put in another quarter to continue your game).
I’d argue the time spent in playing a round (some of the later rounds in Candy Crush can take over 15 minutes) is also a psychological driver (do I want to spend another 15 minutes and try again?) in getting players to fork over that extra quarter.I don’t have data behind this, but it definitely bears testing.
Raising the Stakes (and the Value)
Bottom line, the top developers are creating a lot more content for players in order to get them hooked, getting users deeper into the game and hoping the investment of time ends up driving users to stay (and pay) longer.This increases users expectations (and I’d argue in a good way) that upon downloading a free to play game, there is not just five minutes of play and a pay wall, but a deeper initial experience to enjoy.Monetization only really begins to be a conversation (an exchange worth considering) after players have fully realized the value from the game.
I’ve spent the last four years on quite the ride, so pardon the long absence. I jumped into OMGPOP in 2010 as the product lead for a Facebook game; we delved into mobile apps in 2011 as the market shifted and then I was fortunate enough to be part of the crazy explosion of our game Draw Something. After getting acquired by Zynga, I jumped crosstown to FreshPlanet to grow and monetize SongPop as well as try to develop more social causal mobile hits. And here in 2015 I’m watching the market shift yet again as mobile game developers are now turning to traditional brand marketing by spending tens of millions on TV ads.
So here’s a couple things I’ve observed along the way:
#1 Overnight success takes years to perfect
Two of the biggest hits I’ve been associated with (Draw Something and SongPop) came after years of iteration.
Draw Something started off as a real-time flash game Draw My Thing on the now defunct OMGPOP.com site (but you can still play the embedded game on sites out there if you are looking for it). Drawing with your mouse sort of sucked but it was fun in real time – you had to beat the timer and draw well enough that others in the group could guess it.
We ported the game to Facebook which greatly expanded the audience, peaking at about 2.1 million Monthly Active Users (MAU) – but that was a mere blip compared to what we saw when we jumped to mobile. The iterations on mobile were huge: In 2012 doing real-time mobile play wasn’t an option so we shifted into asynchronous game play; the clock and “winning” or “losing was eliminated; and typing out your guess on a mobile device was a pain, so we shifted to a sort of scramble-like listing of letters from which to make your guess.
SongPop too had an earlier incarnation – can you believe The Crazy Cow Music Quiz? Obviously we ditched the cow, and a bunch of pre-game power ups, opting for a simpler and more direct game play.
Neither of these game ideas were a success overnight. And that’s about the same for every indie darling that makes it big, the latest being today’s #1 hit Trivia Crack by Etermax. Trivia Crack was built on the success of its Spanish-language version predecessor Preguntados which was built on the success of it’s Scrabble-like game Adworded which was built on the company’s past experience as a third-party developer.
#2 Sometimes there CAN be too much of a good thing
When Draw Something first came out, it was like crack. People couldn’t get enough of it. They played non-stop, during class, over night – it was this incredible social binge event. But unlike binging on Breaking Bad episodes on NetFlix, when you were “done” on Draw Something, there were a ton of opponents waiting for you to draw back. Unlike Scopely’s Dice with Buddies where a round is literally a couple seconds, Drawing took quite an investment of time and thought. That’s cool with three or five of your close friends, but having to draw for 50 people gets a bit overwhelming.
When Zynga bought us, Draw Something was barely a month old and no one had a clue what the eventual retention curve would look like. I won’t second guess anything we did in Draw Something to become such a cultural phenomenon, but today social mobile games put a lot of effort into gating the content a bit, to get users to stay a while instead of binging and leaving.
SongPop limits the number of opponents you can have at any one time. Many games like Two Dots or Candy Crush have “life” systems – you lose lives when you fail a level and either have to ask friends, wait or pay to regenerate those lives and keep playing. Trivia Crack sort of combines the two – limiting opponents you can play by a “life” system. The balancing of these gates and when they appear are key both to monetization, but also regulating the consumption of your content.
#3 Deja vu all over again
When I was younger, I remember a movie would stay in the theaters for weeks. Today, most movies are gone in a flash — maybe two weekends at the cineplex and then gone. But hits last longer – just not as long as they used to. In 1977 Star Wars was in 40% of it’s max theater release for 29 weeks. For last year’s Guardians of the Galaxy, it was in 40% of it’s max theater release for only 10 weeks. The economics have changed – there are about 4x as many theaters today so more movie-goers can see them in the first couple weeks. Looking ahead it’s becoming more clear that theaters will eventually give way to direct-to-home streaming.
When I was marketing downloadable games in 2005, a hit game like Luxor was at the top of the sales charts for six months – a game we all called a “AAA” game back then. Within two years the top selling game was at the top of the charts for just two to four weeks. The economics changed – there were 3x as many games being made. And then this little platform called Facebook started making it easier for users to get free games instead of paying $9.99 a pop for the downloadable game.
Are we seeing a similar trend in mobile? Saturation makes it hard for a new game to get heard. The majority that do break through — with either a burst campaign or the lottery ticket of an Apple feature — don’t end up lasting long on the charts.
Developers in the download space tried to pivot to Facebook games, but it was the early adopters on the platform like Zynga and Playfish that were able to take advantage of looser viral channels. Few other developers were as successful than those early entrants on the Facebook platform.
Are we seeing a similar trend in mobile? Over half of the top grossing games (Clash of Clans, Candy Crush, Big Fish Casino, Hay Day, Soltomania) were released in 2012 or earlier. In 2012 there were 500,000 apps to compete with in Apple’s App Store – today there are 3x as many. The companies that were able to establish hits in or before 2012 have been able to maintain those franchises as early adopters on the platforms.
So while we all know it’s been getting more and more expensive in the last two years to create a new app (more depth and polish required) and acquire new users (CPIs easily can climb over $3), the money accumulated by these early adopter developers have allowed them to grow and move to an entirely different level: full-fledged brand marketing (cue Kate Upton). With city take overs by King.com and apps buying commercial time during NFL football playoff games, these are the marketing tactics that a small to mid-size developer can’t even begin to compete with.
So what’s an indie developer to do?
Well the great thing is that based on #1 above, there’s always room for iteration and innovation. When you can provide a unique experience, tell a unique story, change the way you interact with a device, then you might be able to find that big hit. Just realize you might have to fail 20 times to get there.
Second, be on the look out and try different platforms. Facebook disrupted the downloadable/PC games market and created new developer power houses. Mobile disrupted the Facebook games market hierarchy and has created new developer power houses. Eventually new platforms will come, we just don’t know where. So innovation and iteration is key for the indie developer to find a new market where they can be successful. Can someone crack Instagram and Twitter to create a new mash up of game play with social? I’m betting they can.
But this is my big question going into 2015: Can the medium-size developer shop survive? Or will we continue to see consolidation with a bunch of power house developers and a lot of small 1-3 person teams trying to create something new and unique?