Casual Games – Designing for Success

Over the last 12 months our Studio has put out 3 games for Mobile Devices.  We’ve learned a number of hard, sometimes bruising, lessons along the way.  Today I want to talk about what makes Mobile/Casual games different, and some points you should keep in mind when designing games for mobile platforms.

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Fun, Fun, Fun

If you haven’t dipped your toe in the water of Mobile Gaming be prepared to drown in a sea of acronyms – CTR, CPA, CPI, DAU, MAU, IAP, LTV .  These things are important, and it behooves you to understand the space, but remember the cardinal rule:

If your game sucks – it won’t sell.  

Everything comes back to making fun games that players enjoy, ALL else is a distant second.

Casual Gamer != Hard Core Gamer

Obvious right?  Casual Gamers play in short 2-10 minutes bursts, they like social experiences, many of them are women, yadda yadda.  However, often or more like – usually, the people who *MAKE* casual games *ARE* hardcore gamers, *ARE* mostly male, and *HATE* social experiences themselves 😉

MediaHandler

I’m being a slightly facetious, the point is the Casual gamer often has a very different world view about games than the self-same people making those games.  They don’t have fond memories of the screee of a ZX Spectrum loading Chuckie Egg or pumping 50 pences into a Street Fighter II cabinet in a warm arcade with a sticky carpet.  Many of them weren’t even born when SFII was released!

So you need to get inside your customer’s head.  Casual Gamers don’t have huge ethical objections to the F2P business model, they don’t care Candy Crush is a Bejewelled rip, they expect games to be free (even if you’ve sunk 12 months of your life into your game), they will buy IAPs if well integrated, and they expect regular/very regular updates, which brings me onto…

Updates – Pile ’em High, Sell ’em Cheap

Casual gamers YEARN for updates, they cleave to them, they covet them.  Regular updates keep your players coming back for more, improve your conversion rate and so on.  So the tricky requirement from a game design pov is to balance what makes your game awesome, with making it quick and cheap to update.

If you look at the undisputed champions of Casual Games – Supercell.  Both Hayday and Clash of Clans are great games but they can be very cheaply and easily updated.  When Supercell add a new building to Hayday the fans go batshit and all start grinding so they can have a Boathouse.

So the point is don’t create an epic space battle simulator that needs 6 months of effort to add a new level, because there’s every chance your game will die while you build it.

Important from a production pov – If you think it’s easy to optimise your Studio to release monthly updates of your games, you’ve clearly never built software or managed a typical dev cycle

Feedback Loop – Listen to Me Them

In this world of Social Media and Cloud Services it’s stupidly easy to set up a twitter account, email account, Facebook Page to allow your players to send in their suggestions or more likely complaints (usually about the cost of everything). Do this, listen to your players and practice Complaint Driven Development.  Your players will love you, they will get the features they want and they generally know more about your game than you do.

and finally

Hopefully these tips are useful, but remember the mobile space is a massively exciting field and a massively fast moving one.  To quote William Goldman –  Nobody knows anything.  So if someone tells you a “fact” (even me) about not doing something, but you believe it will work – try it – because for your audience it might just be the difference.  Except for $69.99 IAPs, don’t try those they are just plain a bad bad BAD idea, but for anything else…

F2P – Whales, Addicts and Dirty Secrets

On the 26th of September the OFT published its interim report into Children’s Online Games [pdf].  The consultation paper is well worth reading, and contains a number of commonsense proposals that the industry would be crazy not to adopt.  That this event was largely unremarked by the gaming press was, to my mind, a big wasted opportunity by the industry to engage with the general public’s concerns regarding games for kids, and monetization in games, in general.

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Whale?

Casino Capitalism

I’ve been working in the mobile games space for around a year now, and like everyone else I’ve been wrestling with the problem of monetizing games and users.  Like the majority of studios we want to make fun games that players enjoy and turn a healthy profit into the bargain.  One avenue we’ve explored, and continue to explore, is the F2P Model with it’s siren call of easy(ish) user acquisition, and potentially vast profits (See King, Supercell et al).

Like all business trends and fads F2P has attracted a vast array of acronyms, “monetization consultants”, evangelists, preachers and cranks.  It is extremely difficult to seperate the wheat from the chaff, but the principle of F2P is simple enough to understand.

Allow all players to play for free, and attempt to convert a small proportion to become paying users by offering them additional content or “value”, typically in the form of coin packs that can be used to pay for non-consumables (ie avatars, vehicles) or consumables (ie powerups, spells etc).

So if I can persuade 1 million people to play the game every month, and further persuade 2% (a typical conversion rate) to spend £1, I can make £20,000 per month.  This simple sum should demonstrate the kind of numbers you need to turn a really good profit.  You want to either have millions of players, or persuade your Paying Users to spend A LOT more than £1, or even better – both.

It is here both ethics and casino capitalism raise their head.  The accusation that is most often flung at F2P games is that they are no more than glorified fruit machines, and it has to be said where there’s smoke there’s fire.

Whale?
Whale?

F2P Dirty Secrets

One thing that does the F2P industry no favours is the bracketing of its paying players using the casino terminology of Minnows, Dolphins and Whales – effectively admitting, or at least implying, that the players are punters and that these are not games of skill and chance but nothing more than elaborately designed roulette wheels.  So my first plea would be to drop this terminology from our vocabulary.

Secondly, as the OFT points out, many of these games are not, in fact – free.  Many contain gates and levels that are effectively impassable without spending money.  So it’s an outright lie to describe a game as “free”.  Sounds dodgy, doesn’t it?

Worst of all, and in my view, the most dangerous and likely to get the industry into big trouble with regulators, is the use of game mechanics to encourage so-called whales to spend vast amounts of money in game.  The cuddly term whale makes us think of the Texan Oil Baron, but the reality is more likely to be a player who may have become addicted to the game and is spending more than they want, made easier by the inclusion of indefensible items like £69.99 coin packs. [see here] [see here] [see here]

I don’t often hear people saying they felt the got “value” from paying money in Candy Crush the common refrain is “yeah it forced me into it”, “can’t believe I wasted a fiver” etc etc.  These are straws in the wind.

Whale?
Whale?

Duty of care

The F2P industry is a product of the App Stores that spawned it.  The Free price point created a race to the bottom, coupled with a lack of alternative ways of monetizing meant that the F2P business model was inevitable, and that the sharks were happy to exploit the whales or more correctly addicts.

Despite what the evangelists say I struggle to believe any player really wants to spend more than £20 per month on a casual game and still feels good about the purchase next morning.  Given a £10 per month subscription to Spotify or Netflix offers a huge range of content a £30 gem pack looks like nothing other than a huge rip off.

For me the future must be in offering players tiered subscription services.  Allowing players the ability to easily mange their monthly spend, and game makers to turn an ethical profit.  In the meantime ethical game companies should make it easy for players to manage their spending and to implement a monthly ceiling that players can’t breach, maybe around £50.  They should remind themselves that they have a duty of care to their players and possibly that “whale” spending £200 per month is deeply unhappy.

If things continue as they are, I fear the many F2P sharks will poison the waters for everyone else, leading to one almighty backlash and much tougher regulation (deservedly so).  F2P games will find themselves regulated up to the hilt and be categorized in the same bracket as bingo and poker games.

Which is why the industry must not turn a blind eye to the public’s concern, and embrace and implement the guidance contained in the the OFT report.  If not, the perception will become that, no matter how carefully curated, the app store is nothing more than a ghetto for games that provide cheap thrills while emptying the wallet.

Introduction to Mobile Advertising

Many in the mobile industry see advertising as a dirty word, something to be avoided, a necessary evil – at best. This view is, perhaps, driven by the fact that the most successful games don’t have advertising – Minecraft, Clash of Clans, and lately Candy Crush Saga.  Of course it’s easy to promote life without ads when you’re making $2.4 million in revenues daily.

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I’d argue this view is mistaken.  Advertising when done well can add a significant percentage onto a developer’s bottom line.  The most famous example of integrating ads seamlessly with your product is, of course, Google – who now earn massive profits from returning ads along with search results.  Why can’t the rest of us integrate ads in a way that enhances or at least doesn’t alienate users and players?

Many people still associate mobile advertising with cheap Banner Badgering.  However, the mobile ad industry is evolving at an extremely rapid pace, there are now all kinds of affiliate, interstitial, video, offer walls, to take into consideration.  Developers have reported that when done well ads are adding $500-$3000 onto their daily revenues – a figure not to be sneezed at.

To that end I put together a presentation for the team at Tsumanga Studios, where I work.  To introduce some of the terminology and options that are available to games and app developers, I hope you find it useful.

Best Practice

Of the current crop of top games, take a look at Gameloft’s Minion Rush – the way they have integrated ads is very clever, rewarding users with tiny amounts of currency in exchange for watching an ad.  Similarly Disney’s Monsters University have integrated an offer wall in a way that doesn’t spoil the game at all for those uninterested in ads (note this is a paid for app).

Placing interstitial ads at appropriate points, ie at the end of a level (like Fruit Ninja) or rewarding the player for watching ads should not destroy the user experience, and may help your app break even faster.  At the very least, you should use ad networks to cross promote your other content.

Conclusion

The mobile app and game space is still pioneer country.  No one knows anything.  There are plenty people doing well with and without ads, but you need to make up your own mind and run your own experiments.  There are a number of competing business models out there, clearly if you can get your game or app right vast profits can be made.  That, however, is not an easy task.  Until you get it right, perhaps, ads can help?