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Mobile Gamers Cost More Than They’re Worth

“Mobile Users Cost More Than They’re Worth” is the slightly pithy interpretation of this piece on Venturebeat titled “Developers, brace for a bloodbath: The cost of getting a new mobile gamer exceeds revenue that user generates“, which is a summary on mobile user acquisition costs versus spend published by Superdata Research.

The short version: the average user costs $2.73 to acquire through paid installs, but the average revenue per user is $1.96 – giving leaving a net loss of $0.77 per user. Obviously the average figures don’t really mean much as revenue per user will vary so much from app to app, but still the figures highlight just how cut-throat the industry is becoming in the race to acquire users and grow. This graph shows the growth rate:

Will this stop the mass of new games being released and new companies entering the market? Probably not, but it certainly looks like there’ll be a lot of disappointed bank balances in a few months time. The growth rate certainly seems unsustainable and, once the crash and the trough of disillusionment has been reached on the other side of the crash, there’ll be some great opportunities out there.


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Is An Energy Mechanic Fun?

I think it’s fair to say that the energy mechanic is one of the more hated of the free-to-play game mechanics that have emerged over the past few years. In simple terms, the energy mechanic prevents a player from playing a game as much as they’d like to by allocating energy within the game and depleting it with each in-game action. Energy typically restores at a rate that means a player can play for couple of short sessions a day, and if they want to play more then they can buy more energy

The energy mechanic is generally hated by game designers because a) it’s a fairly lazy way of making a game monetise, and b) it stops people doing exactly what game designers like their players to do with their games i.e. play them for as long as they want. For both these reasons, at best the practice is largely filed under “necessary evils” if the game designer wants to make their game and make money out of it.

However, the Psychology of Games website published a piece on playing Candy Crush Saga which floats the idea that in limiting a player’s access to a game, as the energy mechanic does, then it can actually enhance the playing experience:

This phenomenon is called “hedonic adaptation” and refers to the fact that we get used to nice things over time until they no longer anywhere near as pleasurable. It’s the reason why your new car is a lot less exciting after 6 months of ownership, why a new song gets old, and why a fourth piece of pie isn’t nearly as appealing as the first. 3 Like with the study on chocolates, other research has found that frequent breaks enhance your enjoyment of pleasurable activities. For example, Leif Nelson and Tom Meyvis reported in a 2008 study4 found that taking breaks while listening to music or getting a nice massage protracted and increased the pleasure subjects received. Other research by Nelson and Meyvis5 found that enjoyment of a television program was actually enhanced by commercial interruptions. All this despite the fact that most people didn’t want to take the massage breaks or commercial interruptions offered to them. They wanted to watch Breaking Bad and have Sven keep working those shoulder muscles until they couldn’t stand it any more. Or at least they thought they did.

If that’s the case then maybe we can stop feeling guilty at introducing the kind of gated experience that so many mobile and social games rely upon to prevent players from burning through their free content in a few hours and drive them to become purchasers instead. And maybe the delayed gratification does actually increase enjoyment of a game and make a player feel more satisfied with paying for it.

And so it is with Candy Crush Saga and other games that counter-intuitively limit how much you can play them in one day. While most of us are used to the option of gorging on a game until we burn out on it and move on, Candy Crush Saga cleverly forces us to avoid that behavior. If you are forced to take frequent breaks, you will get more enjoyment out of the game when you do get to play. And thus you will develop a Candy Crush Saga habit spread over a broader slice of time like jelly spread over a long slice of bread, which gives the developer, King, more chances convert you on in-app purchases or convince you to send game invites to your friends.

Read the full piece over on the Psychology of Games.

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Mobile or PC Development?

Does Betteridge’s Law apply to the headline “Game devs ditching mobile in favor of PC, console?” (i.e. is the answer “no they’re not”?) The piece does raise some interesting points about risk vs reward, taking into account investment needed, piracy, and expected returns. The rough thrust, as I understand it, is:

  • PC games can still be sold on a traditional retail model rather than free-to-play which is almost the consumer’s expectation on mobile
  • Therefore you can at least predict some income from PC games
  • Mobile is very competitive at the moment, and so discoverability is a big issue
  • Only a small proportion of free-to-play players ever become payers
  • To help discoverability on mobile you either need a big user base, big enough for network effects to happen, or a big advertising budget
  • To make money you need a really big user base

All good points and valid reason for considering PC as an independent developer, and Betterdige’s Law doesn’t quite apply here as the answer to the question appears to be “sometimes”. Or rather, game devs aren’t really ditching mobile, but just finding the platform where their skills, experience, and market fit is most appropriate. Which is exactly as it should be.

If developers can effectively navigate the problems of discoverability and piracy, there’s no doubt that the potential is massive. One look at the overwhelming success of Angry Birds, Temple Run, Clash of Clans and others proves what’s possible. But for the vast, vast majority of devs, that’s a pipe dream.

Read the full piece: Game devs ditching mobile in favor of PC, console?

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Jesse Schell on Ideas in Games

Do Not Covet Your Ideas

Jesse Schell goes into some depth on a subject that I’ve long believed in: it’s better to tell other people your ideas than worrying about having them stolen. In bullet points, the reasons for this are:

  1. No one has time to steal your idea
  2. Even IF someone did steal your idea, by the time they were done working on it, it would be so different as to be unrecognizable
  3. Zynga is not interested in stealing unproven ideas, they only seem interested in stealing proven moneymaking ideas
  4. More and more, indies are realizing that the best way for them to build a rep is to get their games out there, even if they just give them away for free

The first and second points are the main ones I’ve always used when people are very keen to emphasis that if I tell them my idea then they won’t steal it. Basically, with (1) then the only people likely to steal the idea are probably so devoid of imagination that they won’t be able to follow through with it. Which leads to (2): the idea is so early stage that there’s more to solve than has been solved already. It’s like having an idea for a novel and then thinking writing it will be the easy part.

As a corollary, I don’t have a great deal of time for people who are over-protective of their ideas and refuse to talk about them (especially if they’re actively looking for you to be involved in their project… yes, it happens). If someone has such a paucity of ideas that the only one they have seems so valuable to them, then they’re probably not as creative as they think.

Perhaps there are one or two ideas a decade that are a) brilliant and b) easily copyable, oh and c) need no further development, but I can’t think of any. Or maybe I’ll just tell you once you sign an NDA, huh?

Read Jesse Schell’s full article: Thou Shalt Not Covet.

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“Dear indie mobile game developer”

There are a lot of truths in this article about mobile game marketing, even if it makes slightly depressing reading. The main point is that developing a game is only part of the way to having a games company and without a marketing plan, or just being extremely (extremely) lucky, then making money is going to be hard.

A summary of the bullet points in the piece:

  1. You must accumulate data in a test market
  2. You must analyze the data you have collected
  3. You must iterate on the game based on the results of your analyses

The aim is to reach a high one-day return rate. 40% is mentioned as the starting point, but it really needs to be higher.

The two solutions for gaining users seem to come down to a) spend money on marketing or b) find a publisher who’ll take a large cut of the game and they’ll spend money on marketing. It’s hard to argue against these two being the viable planning routes.

Go and read the full piece.

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Ace Patrol on Steam Store for PC

Ace PatrolA while back I wrote about Sid Meier’s Ace Patrol and how it’s difficult to make the transition from boxed retail game design to free-to-play microtransaction-focused game design.

Now it seems that Ace Patrol is available for PC on the Steam Store. The interesting thing about this is that it appears to shun microtransactions altogether: the (reasonably cheap) purchase price comes with everything included. I can’t think of any stronger indication of how close the original microtransaction-based game was to a boxed retail design but with some monetisation bolted-on.

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Confessions of a Failed Indie Developer

Confessions of a failed indie developer is a thought-provoking post by an experienced console developer who tried to “go it alone” as an independent game developer. The lessons learnt seem largely familiar compared with other failed indies that I’ve talked to or read about, and to take an extract from the original article:

  1. I vastly underestimated the money needed to pay for the project. You need a good source of funding, or a lot of savings to make the indie adventure work. Relying on a crowdfunding campaign is a huge gamble that’s unlikely to pay off unless you can get a lot of press and/or are already well known.
  2. I was way too ambitious with the game I was trying to build. I was trying to build something the size and complexity of Portal all on my own, when I really should have listened to people and built something small and simple.
  3. Building my own engine, whilst fun and a great learning experience, was an expensive mistake. For six months’ work all I had to show for it was a short proof of concept demo. I should have used UDK, Unity or one of the other available game engines and got on with building a game, but my pride as an experienced game engine programmer didn’t let me!
  4. I was sorely missing an artist or level designer – I struggled with Blender and it took me an awfully long time to build the demo level I had. Also, having someone work with me would have been a great way to get feedback on what I was doing.
  5. I vastly underestimated the time it would take to build the game. My prediction of shipping my first game in September 2011 was, in hindsight, laughable. I actively avoided any detailed scheduling and management of the project, preferring to just get my head down and write code – this was a mistake, particularly given the slim funds I had at my disposal. In fact, I had no real business plan at all – Make game, ???, PROFIT was about as detailed as it got.

These are all good points to run any game ideas against at an early stage and be prepared to raise a red flag and postpone a game altogether. (I don’t think many good ideas get thrown away, just postponed… possibly forever.) It’s a reminder that it’s all about delivery. To paraphrase the “to finish first, first you must finish” saying: “to have a hit game, first you have to have a game”.

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Space Hulk and PC Versions of Board Games

Space Hulk

I own a copy of Space Hulk, the board game. If you know nothing about it, then just imagine something like Aliens with lots of tiles and lots of figures to move around a map made of corridors and rooms. It’s a fun game that mixes a surprising amount of tactics in with a huge amount of luck. Setting it up takes a while but it plays fairly quickly and as each individual turn is short it rattles along at a decent pace.

Yet despite being a fan of the game, the news that Space Hulk was coming to the PC didn’t particularly excite me, and it seems that my lack of interest may be justified in this preview by Rob Florence over at Rock, Paper Shotgun:

Crucially, the Space Hulk board game feels like a distillation of the very best turn-based strategy mechanics. Just the good stuff. All killer, no filler. So why is this PC game so bad? I mean – how can that even happen?

Space Hulk, PC Screenshot

He goes into a great deal of detail about why it doesn’t work, and covers a lot of what sound like really poor implementation decisions and bugs. For example, the fact that it’s an animated game means that each figure on the map spends more time moving around than they ever would in the board game. The summary as I interpret it is that the poor implementation has really let it down, and if it was just for some more thought and polish it could be really good:

It’s about as bad as it could possibly be. I’ve played through half of the campaign missions, missions that are close to my heart, and I’ve hated every one of them. I stopped at exactly halfway, because the game told me I’d lost a mission I’d just won. And that was the final straw. What an achievement that is, to turn magic into soup. To turn a thing of such celebrated greatness into a thing of such grated celeryness. It sickens me to think that some people will play this game and think that this is what Space Hulk is – a leaden, dated bore. That’s not a Space Hulk I recognise.

Sure, you might still want to buy this expensive disaster purely because it’s Space Hulk.

But this is not Space Hulk.

I will not accept it. I just won’t.

But I think the issue is a deeper one, not related to a specific implementation, and that’s just this: a game like Space Hulk doesn’t really work as a digital game. And this quote from the piece gets closer to the heart of the matter for me:

Okay – give me a moment here. Space Hulk is a board game. You know what I mean? It is a board game. It’s a game that demands your opponent is right there with you, shaking dice. You need to be able to laugh at your opponent’s misfortune, in his face, at the exact moment it happens. You need to be within punching distance. There is a LOT of luck in Space Hulk. To make that luck factor palatable, you need that thrill of throwing the old bones down on the table right in front of your opponent. When you’re playing against some slow, unseen stranger, who isn’t even rolling any dice? Those moments of ill fortune just make you angry. That’s all. Angry.

The key here is that the board game experience works because of the physicality of the thing, the build-up of rolling the dice and hoping for the right outcome, and goading your opponent with just how doomed they are in any particular situation. When you just boil it down to mechanics, then you miss out the most important half.

I had a similar experience with Memoir ’44, another heavily luck-based 2-player board game all about direct conflict. In this game you spend time thinking about what your opponent might be able to do, launching an attack and trying to read how worried they might be looking about it, and then building up the tension before rolling the dice.

Memoir '44

The online implementation of Memoir ’44, however, despite being extremely well built, also feels like it’s missing all of the good parts of the game. When it comes down to it, the mechanics are simple and when a game plays out in under ten minutes the huge amount of luck becomes a source of frustration rather than tension.

So it came as not surprise to me that Space Hulk is similarly lacking. There may be implementation issues, but I think it’s going to be a challenge to recreate the feeling of this kind of board game in a digital environment no matter how well made it is. Board games have simple mechanics because they need people to run them; computer games can have complex internal workings because a computer can calculate variables and output the result millions of times faster. Take away the people, but don’t add in the richness of complexity, and the bare bones are going to have a hard time standing up by themselves.

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Jesse Schell on the Imminent Future of Consoles

Jesse Schell talks to Games Industry International about the next generation of consoles:

“There’s one mistake that they all make, and that mistake is listening to their customers”

He goes on to talk about how Microsoft may actually have made the right predictions for the future of consoles with the Xbox One, but their current customers don’t like what they hear.

“The thing that’s going to make the biggest difference in the next four years, say, is that someone’s going to come out with a great gaming tablet – a really grade-A tablet for games. Exactly what that means I don’t know; I suspect it has a separate hand controller, and I’m sure that it connects up to your TV no problem. I don’t know who’s going to make that, but it doesn’t smell like Microsoft, Sony or….. well, maybe, who knows what Nintendo has up its sleeve, right?”

Personally, I think the market for controller-based games is never going to be as big as it was – in the same way that keyboard-controlled games are never going to be as big as they were in the eighties. Everyone’s a gamer nowadays and as it’s feasible to produce approachable games for the mass-market it’s often cheaper and lower-risk for even self-identified gamers to pick one of those up and play it without either the financial or time overhead of learning a complex game system. I think he’s right that tablets are going to slowly erode console market share, but I don’t think there’s going to be anything with a separate controller that’s going to reverse that.

Read the full article on Games Industry International.

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Project Choice in the Free to Play World

Ace PatrolWhile most discussions about Free to Play (F2P) games revolve around the ethics of microtransactions versus up-front purchase costs, from a game developer’s point of view one of the biggest effects that F2P is having on the games industry is its influence in the types of titles that are built.

Games that work successfully as F2P are often not the types that would work as up-front purchases, and the opposite is generally even more true. The pivot from boxed retail purchases to free games with revenue generated as the player plays appears to be causing trouble for many in the industry that have had a great deal of success with the high-value box purchase model. In a lot of the games I look at it seems that traditional game design practices are being applied, and creating interesting games, but that the monetisation side appears quite weak. As a simple contrast, its hard to imagine Sid Meier making Clash of Clans and enforcing a strict energy mechanic. To me, Sid’s flight-based game Ace Patrol has all the signs of being a well-designed game from a traditional standpoint but with in-app purchases bolted on.

photo (1)The free version of the game comes with a few missions and planes. Once you’ve worked your way through those then more can be unlocked for a couple of pounds each time. There are also a range of planes available to buy. The problem is that, once I’ve unlocked a couple of missions, I really can’t see why I would spend money on the planes. The game plays really well without them, so why should I? Contrast this with the successful F2P games that present the player with a highly throttled version and offer significant short-term power-ups in return for real money. And note the short-term aspec: buying some gems in Clash of Clans does not give a great deal of benefit; if you want to climb the leaderboards you need to be in the whale category and spend hundreds a month. Somehow, I just can’t see Sid Meier ever stooping to do that.

Rather than get into any debate over ethics (yet again), I think the issue lies more in the choice of game just as much as the specific implementation itself. In short, to make a lot of money in the free-to-play world then a game needs to have consumables, and Ace Patrol just doesn’t have that. Sure, it has a lot of in-app purchases, and given how well-designed it is it’s got a great chance of converting a large proportion of players into one-time purchasers of mission-packs, but the maths of F2P mean that making a couple of dollars per paying user just isn’t enough: if only 2% of your players are going to turn into payers, then you need to make sure that the money you make from the 2% covers the other 98%.

As a corollary, it may mean the death (or certainly reduction) in a lot of game types and the growth of those with consumables and grind, but that seems to be where the forces of industry (aka “people who spend money”) are going.

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