So many games, so little time to play them all! As a game designer, it is imperative for you to appreciate just how much competition you are going up against. There are hundreds of games of potential interest to any given player, all competing for their attention, time and money. Why they choose your game versus any other should be of great interest to you and something you need to regularly reinforce with them. This concerns your registered users, mailing list, product cycles and your player’s habits.
For starters, whether mobile or pc, people who play games are not always playing the same game all of the time. Certainly there are exceptions, but in all probability they will tend to cycle through several games over time. From personal experience and observation of other players over many years, we keep to a fairly regular rotation which depends to varying degrees upon price, new content, in-game progress, a threshold for monotony and whim.
Normally, I prefer to play strategy games, but will occasionally shift over to MMO’s, RTS or FPS type games. In most cases, these are all games in which my progress is saved, where I can pick up where I left off regardless how much time I spent away from the game. I may go a year or two, or maybe even five, before opting to return to check out an old game’s new features.
Of special interest then, is what prompts me to return to any given game? The same principles apply to all other gamers:
The core issue for developers is to notify their players of these incentives, on a regular basis. In addition to the above points, developers can also offer content that provides in-depth exploration of game mechanics, builds, game lore, recaps or promoting fan sites and blogs covering your game. Promoting your fan sites is always good for your PR and marketing – and theirs! It is worth going the extra mile to offer your fan sites in-game items to give away for contests of any sort – from best game picture, caption, riddle, drawing, special achievements, or whatever your imagination can call up.
To go with this, it is worthwhile to spend time examining and developing your product cycle – offering a mix of small and large updates or expansions. Three factors are involved here. First, your marketing activities need to be synchronized with your product development to constantly update your players as to what is new and what is coming. Second, it is worth defining how much time the content in your update or expansion will provide players and in relation to their play habits and time per session. Last but not least is the price tag for any new content.
Here, I would note that it is useful to include free content that leads up to any premium content. This may include a free trial period for something like a “universal bank” where players can freely transfer items from one character to another. It could include providing one or two free adventures developing the story for an epic, premium expansion. Give players a taste of what they could have to incentivize their commitment whether in time or money toward getting it.
The games I keep coming back to allow me to pick up where I left off – some, but not all of the games are subject to some kind of (temporary) end game. Once players reach the end game, continued play runs up against the law of diminishing returns. This is especially the case with MMO’s wherein the rewards that come with any new expansion are almost always better than the best of the previous cap.
It should be no surprise that developers who make an active effort to entice former players to return perform better than those who don’t. Many developers don’t try to maintain regular contact with their registered users. As shows in virtually every marketing study, those players who spend once are more likely to spend again. Those who played your game 7 times or more over the course of 4-6 weeks are also more likely to return to explore your new features and content.
For additional reading on these subjects, I would recommend:
Hearthstone® from Blizzard is a free to play card game with an estimated 50 million players and making over $20 million monthly (that’s more than Dota 2). You can download it now via Opera Mobile Store – on Android or iOS.
Here, we will take a look at some of its dynamics that may be of interest to app developers whether from a design, play or marketing perspective. It’s a rare game that keeps me coming back daily over three months and rarer yet to persuade me to spend real money on a free to play format. Further, yesterday marked the beginning of Hearthstone’s new Standard Format along with a new “Whispers of the Old Gods™” (Cthulu-themed) expansion pack.
Free to Play or Pay to Win?
It becomes obvious quite quickly in some “free to play” games that one must “pay to play” outside the starting gate. That, for me, is an immediate call to delete the game. With Hearthstone, the call to pay is more subtle and refined but repeatedly (and literally) smacking you in the face, but let’s back up.
Gold is the in-game currency which can be spent on Card Packs (100 gold), Adventure Wings (14 in total, usually 700 gold each), or a round in The Arena (150 gold). Each adventure wing unlocks several new cards while rewards in The Arena scale to player performance (play until you lose 3 or win 12 matches). So, that’s what you can spend gold or real money on (aside from a few vanity items), but we’ll come back to the real money in a moment.
Gold can be earned by winning 3 matches (10 gold), completing daily quests (roughly 60 gold each on average), through a few milestones (like playing on your Android device or iPhone), and from winning in The Arena. Additionally, a free card pack can be earned from each week’s Tavern Brawl. Committing to this “minimum” will yield the equivalent of 2500 gold (2100 gold + 4 decks) per month.
Of course, you have the option to pay real money for any of these items; and there are discounts for bulk purchases – 2 decks for $2.99 ($1.495 each) to 60 decks for $69.99 ($1.167 each). We can consider the base value of 100 gold as equal to $1.50. So, the 2500 gold from above has a theoretical in-game value of $37.50 – or roughly $450 over the course of a year. That’s a fair chunk of change! Essentially Free, but with a cost in Time.
Many MMORPG’s today offer player’s the opportunity to fast track their entrance into a game – to start at level 80 or 90 instead of level 1, for example. Time and money are both currencies, of which everyone has more of one than the other. While being able to purchase “content” does accelerate entry and can help to win, it does not by itself equate to “pay to win”. In Hearthstone’s ranked play, there is no shortage of players between the ranks of 20 and 15 with undoubtedly awesome card collections.
Not all cards have the same value, from several different perspectives. Every Hearthstone card pack is guaranteed to have 5 cards, mostly Common but at least one is guaranteed to be Rare. They may occasionally include an Epic or Legendary. While you can get most cards from opening packs, you also have the option to craft ones you deem essential, at a cost:
Thus, for the cost to craft 1 Legendary card you could craft 40 Common cards, 16 Rares or 4 Epics. The process of collecting cards proceeds in basically that same fashion – far more likely to get all of the Common cards before getting all of the Rares, repeating similarly relative to Epics and Legends.
Consequently, this is the big draw for the Adventure Packs, guaranteeing 1 Legendary per adventure wing, plus a “final boss” after completing all of the wings.
There is no in-game card trading in Hearthstone, as obviously that would cut into sales of card packs. Leastwise, designers need to spend a fair amount of time fleshing out their game’s economic model – as relates to in-game currency, cash and potential marketing components.
The inherent problem of Hearthstone’s format, or any competitive format, is that the longer people play it the more difficult it is for new players to effectively compete – making it more difficult for the game to grow. Honestly, after seeing Dr. Doom and his Boom-Bot companions appear 8 matches in a row, I started questioning my long-term interest in the game. It’s not that Dr. Doom equated to an automatic loss (more 50-50), so much as realizing how much of a head start that perhaps 20-30 million other people had. About that time, news came of Hearthstone introducing a new play format which would weed out some of the older cards from most competitive play. This has the inherent impact of evening out the playing field, some – not completely.
On Day 1 of the Whispers of the Old Gods release and introduction of the new Standard Format, everyone was greeted with 3 free cards (one being a Legendary, C’Thun). On top of this, everyone received 3 free card packs with cards from the expansion. Players were also given a new extra Daily Quest – Win 2 Games in Standard and win 5 free card packs. This was followed by Win 7 Games in Standard and win 5 more card packs. No coincidence that these add up to 13 free card packs – and roughly $20.00 in base value.
A promotion leading up to the expansion offered the pre-purchase of 50 decks for $49.99 (or $1 per pack) along with a vanity C’Thun (Cthulu) themed card back (a vanity item).
By taking the time to play to earn more card packs you acquire a good deal of experience to help you get the most out of the cards you already have. By purchasing the content, in many perhaps most cases, players may have a greater selection of cards, but not necessarily the experience to get the most out of them. It’s a roughly equal trade.
Generally though, my willingness to spend money has been significantly influenced by how much the game gives to me – which after all, if players don’t play – the developers make no money. That’s not necessarily saying to give everything away for free – not at all. It is simply advocating, with freebies like the Daily Quest and Weekly Tavern Brawl, to keep us coming back – and to strategically channel our rewards into the things we need most to advance our game further, faster and better.
The majority of my investment into Hearthstone was on the Adventures, purchasing the complete sets at a significant discount for the biggest bang for the buck. Even so, I could have opted to earn them via regular play at the rate of roughly 1 wing per week. With most games, there is a dynamic where, “You need the gear to get THE GEAR” – i.e. it is easier to beat a monster with a +1 longsword as compared to a rusty dagger. Different game… same principle.
Players need to know what they could have to have any interest of getting it – which brings us to:
Players have the choice to purchase card packs for 100 gold or enter The Arena for 150 gold. Even if you don’t win a single match in The Arena, you are guaranteed 1 card pack plus a random reward (gold, dust for crafting, or a single card). The average Arena ticket sees 3 wins before accumulating 3 losses, and is considered the breakeven point (as in 1 card pack plus roughly 50 gold of random reward value). One can go “infinite” if they can average 7 wins per ticket (1 card pack plus 150 gold). That’s a rarity, but some are doing this and you can easily find them on YouTube (Trump and Kripparian are two who come to mind).
The Arena exposed me to lots of cards that I didn’t have – and realizing that card value is not entirely dependent upon card rarity, but presenting lots of new possible strategies based upon card synergy. Any card in Hearthstone can show up in an Arena Deck – exposing players with a basic collection to lots of cool cards. Players are given 3 classes to choose from and then proceed to make a choice on 30 three card options and having to make difficult decisions. It was The Arena and the potential of “endless rewards” that ultimately convinced me to buy the Adventure Packs – and really learn the game.
Choices. Decisions. These are the bread and butter of the games that most people enjoy most.
It also needs to be noted that Blizzard runs cross promotions for most of its games. Reaching level 20 with a new character in World of Warcraft® will get you a new Hero portrait (vanity item) in Hearthstone. Starting an account in Hearthstone and completing a few achievements will net you a free mount in WoW. Of special interest to developers is that Blizzard starts promoting some of its new releases by almost a year in advance. Almost everything Blizzard does includes some marketing component – either to attract new players or retain existing ones. Of course, their player base does fluctuate substantially, but that is normal to product and release cycles.
Aside from daily quests, Blizzard has game content for almost every major holiday – coinciding with appropriate email promotional mailings. They have a recruit-a-friend programs along with generous rewards for group play. Early on, Blizzard was one of the first to offer free CD-trials of its Warcraft RTS games (mid-1990s). Leastwise, when it comes to marketing a game, take a look at what Blizzard has done and is doing because it is intrinsic to virtually everything they do, including game design. Their latest moves in WoW have been to simplify character skills and abilities with an eye toward 1) making games fun to watch and 2) make it easier for eSports casters to highlight the action in broadcast events.
Warcraft: Orcs & Humans debuted in 1994 – 22 years ago, which translates to being older than dirt by computer game standards. There have been a lot of great game companies that have risen and fallen since, but Blizzard not only survived, it has thrived. My simple assertion to game developers of today is to take a look at what other successful game companies have done and are doing – and try to emulate them. That starts with producing high quality games, yes — but there’ve been a lot of high quality games produced by companies that have long since bit the dust. What transcends everything? Marketing – constantly expanding your audience, getting new and dedicated players. Including marketing principles in your game design is what retains them.
Networking is a recurring topic of this blog in that it can help you build marketing and distribution channels, media relations and even develop your business model. This post aims to expand on the usefulness of networking and assert that it should be a consistent, long-term practice whether you are just starting out in the world of app development or on its lead edge.
Before getting into networking though, I would like to make another appeal to developers to spend a little less time developing and a little more time on other components of your app business. Unless you are paid to produce apps, developing them does not generate revenue without efforts in marketing, distribution and business development.
The Pareto Principle. Constantly underscored on the blog is the idea that 20% of your efforts will generate 80% of your revenue (roughly). This extends similarly to where 4% of your work is likely to be responsible for 64% of your revenue; and that over half will come from .8% of total effort. Practically speaking, you may spend months developing an app and get paid nothing; but adding it to stores (distribution) will take you a few minutes and provide you the opportunity to make some money. Simple.
The 1% Rule or 15 Minutes per Day. Fifteen minutes is roughly 1% of your day. The basic idea is to spend at least 15 minutes a day doing something other than what you would normally do – and further, an hour or so (4-5%) on a few different things. My top 5 picks are:
If you are looking for traffic (and downloads) you need to be seen where the traffic is. Obviously, you can advertise – pay to have your app promoted where you like. Again, as most mobile app developers are not breaking even, it is appropriate to press on matters of networking as an extension of marketing to help developers generate the revenue needed to launch into advertising.
To this end, it useful to start with three operating principles which make networking useful:
Networking is about developing relationships, suffice that it is a natural process for everyone having common and overlapping interests. The goal, of course, is that networking will lead to something tangible – from being referenced in an article, having a well-placed link for others to download your app, or perhaps pave the way for you to meet with someone who can help your business in a profound way.
While networking for the sole purpose of developing relationships is good, unto itself – you are investing time in meeting with others. It is reasonable to expect a return on your investment on at least some of that time, so you want to network with a purpose. Your objectives might be directed to getting an interview, an app review or critique, having your app featured and played in a video on YouTube, or setting the stage whereby you can get a favorable, personal introduction to someone important.
We are talking about developing “relationships” and not one-time events. Thus, we are talking about forming the basis for “multiple opportunities” to create traffic for your endeavors. It’s not a one way street though, meaning that at the same time you are looking for ways that they can help you, you need to be looking for ways you can help them. This is where maintaining a regular blog can be useful, as you can always provide them links, comment on their discussions, etc.
Remember the first principle above, the inverse is that what you have to say about someone else is more important than what they have to say about themselves. If you already like and support what they are doing, promoting it in a meaningful manner is a good step toward getting a good start with them.
Every time you, your business or mobile app is referenced with a link can be said to have a monetary value, even if you received it for free or accrue no financial benefit from it. It is realistically measured by the time it took you to get that link, which is relative to your income. The point is, that if you are not making money and not engaged in marketing, distribution or networking, you will rarely have the basic possibility of making money.
If you committed to developing one relationship per week after a year, you will have over 50 relationships each with multiple opportunities toward mutually reciprocating, tangible benefit. It may eventually require more than 15 minutes a day, but you will see the benefit.
Sometimes, idealistic people are put off the whole business of networking as something tainted by flattery and the pursuit of selfish advantage. But virtue in obscurity is rewarded only in Heaven. To succeed in this world you have to be known to people.Sonia Sotomayor – Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States,
One of the frequent recurring themes I see in the mobile app world is an overly narrow definition of, and excessive fixation on, a “target market.” This can be a serious problem if your target market is not proving profitable “enough” or you do not take steps to evolve with it. It can be profitable to explore some diversification by looking a little to the left and right of your target market.
Perhaps the most important thing to understand is that the Internet is a network, a web, where theoretically any given point can have a relationship (a link) with any other point. The idea is to spend time finding and developing relationships between what you are doing and other points that would be profitable for it. That is what marketing and advertising is all about. If you want to be seen, you go to where people interested in what you offer are.
While you may have a target market for today, you have decisions to make about your target market for tomorrow. Let’s say your game is targeted to teenagers (13-18) – they will get older, their interests will evolve, they will likely find a job, upgrade their mobile device and have greater means for buying things online or through your mobile app. While there will always be a steady stream of new youngsters entering your target market (hopefully), their interests and expectations also evolve, if simply by device and in relation to the apps of tomorrow.
How to Diversify? Diversification is best done on a case by case basis and it can take on several different forms and the following provide a few good examples.
Mobile Apps for Ages 5 – 24. One commonality for almost everyone from ages 5 to 18, and a good portion of those 19 to 24, is the classroom. Common to every classroom is a teacher. By getting one teacher to use your app as the basis for a practical exercise, you could end up reaching up to 180 students. That is 6 one-hour periods with 30 students per day. By virtue of the teacher’s relationship to your target market they could be a fundamental part of it. That does require a distinct decision to include them as part of your target market; if you are not aiming to reach them, odds are you won’t.
Mobile Apps and PC users. The mobile world tends to differentiate itself from the personal computer world, but there are more similarities inherent to the devices than there are differences. The primary differences are inherent to the end users, across a broad range of demographics. However, we are talking about a broad range of demographics wherein a) there are people who do have mobile devices and personal computers, and b) those able to afford a personal computer are likely more able to make an online purchase.
But!!! They won’t make an online purchase if they are not provided the option to do so. The implications here run in several directions spanning your entire product line and marketing efforts.
Consider, for a moment, it may take you three months to develop a mobile game. Conversely, it may take you thirty minutes to set up a web page to promote a product, whether your own, as a cross-promotion, or part of an online store or even through promotions and newsletters. This form of diversification is heavily dependent upon traffic, suffice if you have a lot of traffic and it is not generating revenue for you, it is up to you to find a means of monetizing it (better).
Cross Promotions are inherently a form of diversification for expanding market reach and alternative revenue streams. Mobile apps can have an affinity with mobile devices, mobile subscriptions, other apps or software in the same genre or category, events, books and movies, or nearly anything else sharing a similar theme or purpose.
Work and Other Activities. It could also be that your mobile app utility might perform better as an actual business, service (SaaS), or in conjunction with a membership site. My last article on eSports was another example. It is not a stretch to think that a developer of games might actually play games, too. Knowing some of the internal mechanics of how games work can apply to how to play them better, providing a competitive edge and an opportunity to make money. As many developers have full-time jobs and develop on the side, eSports is becoming an interesting and viable option with the added feature of also being a marketing venue.
Most app developers are not breaking even, as I constantly reiterate. There are numerous reasons for this, but the top three are: 1) app quality, 2) little or no marketing and advertising, and 3) poor business or monetization model.
It is one thing if you are developing apps simply because you enjoy it and don’t really expect to make money from them. If, however, you enjoy it and want to monetize your efforts it is also quite easy to get stuck in a rut where you keep working without realizing tangible benefit. It is also easy to become so fixated on a target marketto not see other profitable opportunities a little to the left or right of it.
For further reference, I would recommend “Reaching a Profitable Target Market” – as sometimes, it is not your product, marketing or advertising to blame for insufficient revenue. It could be your business model or decisions.
Let’s start with some numbers. The world championship for “League of Legends” reached 27 million viewers in 2014. Over 100,000 people attended the Intel Extreme Masters in 2015, hosted by the world’s largest eSports company, ESL. Turner Broadcasting and WME/IMG aim to broadcast 20 live e-sports events over the course of 2016. Tournament prizes for some of the top games include nearly $60 million for Dota 2 over 578 tournaments and over $27 million for League of Legends in over 1600 tournaments.
All metrics are increasing: physical attendance, number of online viewers, number of competitors, cash prizes, etc.
I’ve touched on eSports a few times previously, suffice that competitive gaming is (or should be) a common interest to both game developers and gamers. At its simplest, competitive gaming provides an opportunity for everyone to have fun and possibly make some money. However, professional players, teams, ladder rankings and tournament events are also marketing venues – even if the “game” is not your game. That is to say, getting involved with other racing games is a way to promote your raging app to gamers likely willing to try it.
The race car above shows the decals of numerous sponsors who contributed either financially or materially to Scott Pruett’s racing team. Of course, race car sponsorships represent a different marketing model than is associated with mobile and online games. It does not hurt to take a look at their model to see how it might be applied to yours:
Numerous marketing and promotion elements are in play and can be easily adapted for mobile apps and eSports events. The cost of eSports sponsorships vs the opportunities they may create are very much on the low-end of budget requirements, consisting of cost of game play and team apparel, perhaps some extra hardware. The primary expense is likely to come from admission, travel and lodging to attend tournaments. Still many events are conducted online at the same time as events become more widespread and accessible.
Obviously, there is a major gap between starting a team and getting the team to place in major tournaments. Leastwise, you have the option to form or recruit your own team or seek out teams already looking for sponsors. Like anything else, winning in tournaments comes from consistent and persistent practice. Still, we are talking about people who are going to play anyway.
One option for developers to consider is to invite the highest ranking players of their own app to form the basis a competitive eSports team for a similar game that is already heavily monetized in tournaments within the same genre. Companies with enough developers could form their own teams, as well – as not long ago (and still) there are many businesses which have their own baseball and bowling teams. That goes to say that gaming, sports and esports are not just games but social and professional networking opportunities, as well.
You only need to look at professional sports like baseball, basketball, football, hockey, tennis, racing, even surfing to see the outcome of eSports. From forming or sponsoring your own teams to running competitions and potentially hosting your own events (physical or virtual), you have several possibilities to consider. I remember the days when most people had never been online and where the internet was believed to be a passing fad. Obviously it wasn’t, but the lesson is to get in on the “groundfloor” of The Next Big Thing early.