After the Gold Rush: Competing in today’s App Store

It’s hard to believe that the App Store is only six and a half years old – it was launched in July 2008 with just 800 apps. Now there are 800 apps downloaded every second – 2 billion a month – and the number of apps available has grown more than 1,000 fold to 850,000.

Games dominate this marketplace, with more than twice the number of apps as the next biggest category, and well over 10,000 new ones being added each month. The barriers to entry remain low – you can code and release a simple game on your own – but the barriers to success continue to get higher. This is typical of all markets as they mature, but it is striking just how fast this has happened in mobile, and developers of all sizes are finding the competition fierce. Beyond the sheer quantity of games available, there are three clear indicators of this development.

Firstly, the top grossing charts are largely static. Candy Crush Saga and Clash of Clans have been in the top 3 games for over 2 years now. These games appear to have locked down their respective genres in the way that Call of Duty or World of Warcraft has on other platforms. Many of the other games in top 10 are similarly long lived, and just two developers: Supercell and King consistently account for at least half of the top 10. Games that do manage to break into the upper reaches of the charts are notable because they are so rare now, and often supported by very strong brands, such as Kim Kardashian.

Secondly, the cost of user acquisition is rising steeply. SuperData estimated that the cost of acquiring a user increased 37% between Jan 2013 and Jan 2014. Machine Zone’s recent $40m advertising campaign for Game of War illustrated just how much money the top companies can throw at marketing. SuperData also reports that CPI now stands at an average of $2.78 for mobile games, whilst average revenue per user is just $1.96 – not a good ratio for developers.

Thirdly, the production values of games have increased dramatically. Super Evil Megacorp spent two and a half years developing Vainglory, and it showed – the graphics looked closer to AAA standard than what we would normally expect from a mobile game. Smaller developers can pull off great looking games such as Monument Valley or Badlands, but only when they choose very stylized appearances that facilitate lower costs of production. Even the UI transitions in Hearthstone demonstrate a level of polish that few established studios, let along Indies could hope to pull off.

So where does this leave us? How to we compete in a market that has become this tough? It’s a question that we ask ourselves a lot at Wooga, and even with our current successes (Diamond Dash, Pearl’s Peril and Jelly Splash) something that we are still working out.

Looking at the charts it is clear that cloning games does not lead to success – the only game with similar mechanics to Clash of Clans is Boom Beach, also by Supercell. Replicates of Candy Crush Saga have performed similarly poorly. It is for this reason that we do not clone games at Wooga, and never have. It’s also creatively unsatisfying and for a combination of these reasons many people advocate the opposite end of the spectrum: radical innovation in the hope of striking it lucky.

This was my approach on my last game too. Whilst Wooga has a history of casual, single player games, I set out to make an action strategy game. I loved the genre myself, and felt there must be an audience who were likewise unsatisfied by the current offerings on the App Store. I felt that given the talent at Wooga, our understanding of game design and the amount of user testing we used in the creative process we could make a success in any genre. But in hindsight this approach seems just as misguided as cloning games, as I had failed to recognize the current state of the market and the value of building on existing company expertise, tools and audiences.

Games are complicated systems, especially action strategy games designed to give years of play. We had a good prototype and the gameplay was novel and fun. But the more we worked on the details the more problems we threw up. Exactly because the gameplay was novel, we needed novel solutions to these problems – we could get inspiration from other games, but no one had solved these exact problems before. The team did a great job of working through these, but it took a huge amount of time and emotional effort to be continually rebuilding large sections of the game.

Furthermore, as we worked through design issues, we realized that we were left with a number of risks that we could not remove before launch. By staying true to the vision of the game we had ended up with intense synchronous PvP gameplay that only Hearthstone and World of Tanks came close to. These are successful games, but it seems largely because of their existing PC audience. We also started hearing horror stories about the CPIs for the mid core audience, several times higher than the best LTV any of our existing games had. In combination we were not sure if the audience we were targeting existed, and if it did whether we could profitably reach them.

Despite the team’s enthusiasm for the game I could see that this was becoming a passion project for us rather than a legitimate chance at creating a commercial hit, and unfortunately for those of us that make games professionally, commercial realities cannot be ignored. Eventually I decided it was time to stop burning time and money and start on something afresh with greater potential. I realized that we had been arrogant enough to assume we could build something as good or better than what was already out there, despite having none of the tools, none of the design knowledge, and no audience compared to developers that were already making these sorts of games.

I remembered that Clash of Clans was an iteration on Backyard Monsters and Candy Crush Saga a refinement of Bejewelled. But even before their big successes, Supercell had experienced teams working on Hay Day and Clash of Clans, and King had its casual gaming portal and picked games out of that to develop for Facebook and then mobile. In each case the companies had existing assets that they built on, as well as refining mechanics from other games.

A company with the size and track record of Wooga has plenty of assets to build on. We have an existing audience, established IPs, game design experience earned through hundreds of user tests and millions of players on our live games, the know how to set up extensive content pipelines and so on. We hadn’t recognized their value before though, and instead choose to innovate across the board. Our core gameplay was different, our elder game novel, we were attacking a more core audience we knew only as players ourselves. The only asset of Wooga that we really used was building on technical expertise from previous games. In our post mortem we realized this was also the one area that was free from major problems over the course of the project.

Let me be clear though, that when I talk of innovation, I am not talking solely about design. I am talking about all aspects of production from the audience and genre you choose to the technical setup you have as well. Design can be innovative and successful, but innovative designs are best supported when you build on existing assets elsewhere. Hearthstone is a great example of this: the team built on a vast wealth of assets that Blizzard had to make the game a success. There was the experience of the design team, the strength of the Warcraft brand and Blizzard’s ability to recruit half a million fans whilst the game was still in beta. The gameplay was fresh, the genre basically non existent on the App Store, but even from the outset the risks that the team faced were greatly reduced by building on Blizzard’s strengths.

I also believe that this is the case whether you are a mid sized developer like Wooga with 280 employees, or an indie developer with a fraction of that scale. The key is to recognize the particular skills and assets that you have, and the niches where you can best apply these. Smaller companies may need to choose small niches to succeed, but they also need smaller successes to cover their costs. As a smaller company you can serve niches that aren’t big enough to warrant the attention of bigger players. As you serve that niche you should aim to build up tools, marketing channels such as email lists and other assets that aid your future work and thereby grow your business.

Learning from my recent experience, for my next project I will work on something that builds on a far greater number of Wooga’s assets. This is the best way for me to maximize my chances of seeing my game launched and successful – a goal that I am sure many developers can sympathize with. This might sound like a dispassionate approach to making games, but I don’t feel that it needs to be. Like most people in the industry, I work in games because I love games. Building on the assets that Wooga already has may seem constraining given the wonderful variety of games that exist. But it is an additional constraint and not the definition of an entire project, and as the saying goes, creativity loves constraints.

This article was originally published on Gamasutra

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Beyond Fun: Real Drama

We don’t tend to typically think about games as emotional experiences, and perhaps because of this, the most interesting talks I saw at GDC 2013 were about games that had made people cry. Crying is not something that we expect from games, yet if a book, film or play made us cry we would think that a great achievement. Instead, we expect games to be fun, which whilst pleasant, is not a deep emotional experience. However, the games that do go beyond fun to deliver real drama are some of the most interesting, memorable and successful games out there.

Here are some four techniques that games can use to deliver hugely engaging, dramatic experiences.

Jeopardy

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One of those talks at GDC 2013 was on DayZ (the other was about Journey). Dean Hall, the lead designer talked about creating a consistent world where things had value. The game is an FPS in a zombie apocalypse setting – so far, so generic. But the game is also permadeath, has scant supplies, and as well as zombies, has other players who may or may not be friendly. As well as avoiding zombies and bullets, you have to keep your character fed, watered and warm.

The zombie apocalypse does not itself generate tension and danger, it just provides the backdrop for this. The game boasts incredible levels of tension from the unpredictable way that other humans will act in a world without strict rules, and where killing you for ammo is just as likely as agreeing to team up. Staying alive is a painstaking process of amassing equipment from match boxes up, and all of which can be snuffed out in a moment from a sniper you never saw.

Players have been quick to share their stories on the forums. Many are the early triumphs of new players surviving more than a few minutes to gather some food and set up camp. Others are more heroic, inflicting revenge or justice on rogue players. Most make some reference to the feelings and ethical dilemmas that players experience – how a miscommunication can lead to unintended bloodbaths, or the acceptability of sniping noobs.

As with so many other Rogue-like games, it’s the danger of loss, the jeopardy, that makes the experience so rewarding. When things in the game are hard to come by and easy to lose, players place a huge amount of value on them. It’s the same reason that players love FTL or Dark Souls, where every encounter is a story and a chance to be a hero, because the risk of failure is so real and tangible. (Here is another great review on DayZ).

Empathy

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A sense of loss is also prevalent in X-Com, though to a lesser degree. Here your inevitable squad casualties from taking on alien invaders can be replaced for the next mission. However, a number of details make you feel each death of a soldier under your command more keenly. Some of this is down to the mechanics – troops gain experience and become more powerful as they survive longer, gaining unique special abilities that are crucial to your long term success. But beyond that each solider has a name, a nationality, and their own physical appearance.

These cosmetic details build on their varying stats to give a surprising amount of individuality that you empathise with, even in the absence of scripted dialogue. Pierre from France might be a craven sure to break at the first sign of danger, whilst Brad from the US is your favored sniper with a history of saving you from impossible situations. As a player you start to fill in the gaps and elaborate on their characters and backstories. If your troops survived long enough they also earn a nickname that further endears them to you, and if they die, their names are remembered in the in game memorial.

These details mean that when a soldier dies, it is not only a setback in your progression to build up an experienced team. It is a much more personal testament to your personal failure to protect your squad mates, who trusted you to command their every move. X-Com is a great example not because it is the best game at showcasing empathy for digital entities, but because it manages to achieve so much with so little.

Context : Half Life

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When you start Half Life, you don’t get a gun, and you don’t kill anyone. It’s an incredibly mundane start to an FPS, as you walk around a research facility going through the daily routine of the protagonist Gordon Freeman. But few games are as feted as much as Half Life for their quality of narrative. The slow start has a couple of beneficial effects on the rest of the game.

Firstly, you know that at some point, very shortly, Bad Things will happen. Just as Tarantino cranks up the tension with long, drawn out conversations that you know will eventually end in a blood bath, anticipating the upcoming excitement is every bit as good as actually experiencing it.

Secondly, once the facility is infested with aliens trying to chew your face off, there is an added gravity to the drama that you are going through. The dead bodies aren’t just decorative as in so many other games. Here they are fellow scientists you were exchanging pleasantries with a short while ago. You haven’t been born into carnage a hero, but thrust into the role of a reluctant hero as a survivor of an attack on the world you knew.

Agency : Game of Thrones

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Telltale have been making games giving player big choices for 10 years. Their games are dialogue heavy, with players deciding how to respond to other characters from a range of predefined options. Their latest offering, Game of Thrones, has some exquisite moments, such as when you are interviewed by Queen Cersei. Squirming through her questioning was on a par with any similar scene from the TV series where some piteous underling is pulled apart, and I found new sympathy for the impossible situations that minor characters often find themselves in.

This scene works so well for the same reasons that many game choices of this nature fail. As an avid fan of the franchise I knew the political landscape and dangers I was traversing, and also had strong views on the type of character I wanted to play. Without this background knowledge and the sense that the choices offered would actually make a difference, my choices would have felt hollow.

In the same game there are breaks in conversation where as the player you are given the choice to say the same thing in three different ways. This adds nothing to the experience apart from slowing it down, and in reminding you that you should be identifying with one of the characters, that in actual fact you’re not.

I recently came across the other problem, of insufficient knowledge to inform a decision, in the otherwise excellent Dragon Age Inquisition. Here I had to choose between allying with one faction or another, but could explicitly not choose both. Although both factions were well known to me I felt I was still getting to grips with the world lore, and could not fully grasp the potential implications of the choice I was being given. Frustrated I resorted to the internet to understand what I was getting myself into in each case. Again, instead of deepening my immersion in the experience, poor agency had broken it.

Giving players choice to direct the story in a game is one of the defining attributes of the medium, and can be extremely powerful. However, it needs to be both a genuine choice and the player must understand the choice they are being given, or it can risk backfiring.

Wrap Up

Games are often thought of solely in terms of fun. But engagement and memorability often peak when there is more than just fun, and they deliver real drama. Increasing the drama in games can be achieved by making things have value, getting players to empathise with the characters, giving the story context and allowing the player agency.

This post was originally published on Adventures in Mobile Game Design.