All posts by Mark Dabbs

Originally from Washington State, Mark has lived in Odessa as a permanent resident for the past 8 years. Involved in online projects and publishing since 1996 starting with webmaster for Primestar Satellite TV by Continental Cablevision. Since then, he has served on the board for several non-profit organizations, co-founded CyberCraft Corp., and enjoyed three years with Amazon.com. He found his way to Iraq in support of the US Marines from 2004-5 with Lear Siegler and EG&G heading up the corporate newsletter and promotions program. New with Opera Mobile Store, developers can expect to see useful, wide-ranging information on the new Global Mobile Internet.

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As the final post for the OMS Blog for Developers it is proper that my last words of advice focus on the two things that matter most for successful businesses – asking questions and validating answers.  The absence of these two things are most responsible for every failed company, failed app, every project overdue or over budget.  For simplicity and general purposes, we can call this Due Diligence.  Normally, it aims to take care that everything is as it is supposed to be before investing in it.  But, equally, it can apply to taking corrective action on problems as they arise.

It is rational that if you are going to invest weeks and months into developing a mobile app to expect something for your effort, above and beyond completing the app itself.  Just because you have an idea for an app does not mean it is worth your time.  Thus, it is desirable to have multiple app ideas to choose from and some fixed basis to compare them against.  If you are just starting out in mobile app development, than simply breaking even might be your control point.  Conversely, you could compare it against your hourly wage for your present or previous job.

You want options, just like all investors do – whether it is on the stock market, commodities, gold, BitCoin, real estate?  Use Decision Points to help walk you through the process of deciding which app idea is best for you.

Far more questions should arise after you have decided upon your next app project.   On the technical side, these will include things like user interface, graphics, layout and design, features and making sure everything works as is intended.  These are all important, but they only bring you the potential to compete with other apps.  Nothing more.

How are you going to monetize your app?  In app advertising is perhaps the easiest option, but it is by no means the only option.  Even if you are working on your first mobile app or may not have a lot of experience with sophisticated payment systems, you do have a variety of options to choose from, some of which may have nothing to do with the app itself.

This may well bring you to question who else is out there that might benefit from your app?  Many small and medium-sized businesses are looking for ways to benefit from the mobile market, too.  Why not try to combine efforts or convince one to help sponsor your app?

From the point you start working on an app to long after you’ve published it, keep asking questions.  Is it performing according to your expectations?  How could it perform better?  Why is it not making more money?  Or perhaps you want to move on to something completely different, do you just want to let your app fade into history, or perhaps license it to someone else?

My hope is that you will turn to the Opera Mobile Guide for Developers to help you find answers to your questions and give you ideas for more questions you may not have asked yet.  In many cases, the answers will require research.  Getting an accurate answer may not always be possible, until after the fact, because even the best app may fail to take off – if only because someone else had a similar idea at the same time and had more people, time and money to market it.  Knowledge is power, so the more questions you ask and the better you validate the answer, the more likely you are to succeed.

Simply, never stop asking questions – they are in the spirit of competition to make things faster, better, more efficiently, more profitably, and better serve the interests of end-users.

It has been decided that this is the last month for the Opera Mobile Store Blog for Mobile Developers.  Since it was started, its primary objective has focused on ways to help developers achieve financial success.  It has covered a lot of ground from design and business development to marketing and distribution, and much more.  My last few posts will take aim at what will prove most interesting, and likely profitable, for the future of mobile apps.

The future is here, it is just not evenly distributed – William Gibson.

Seven broad categories of development are of special interest:

  • eSports
  • Free Trade Agreements
  • Internet of Things
  • Real Time Translation
  • Digital Money
  • Human Augmentation
  • Artificial Intelligence

eSports is still comparatively young, but is a rapidly growing niche with strong marketing and monetization potential.  Over 27 million people watched the League of Legends World Championship last year and many top players have hundreds of thousands of followers and hundreds of millions of page views.  Creating the next eSport sensation is a longshot.  But, developing apps for existing eSports and using cross-promotional or other marketing tools to reach this market is viable.  This deserves special consideration in that competitive gaming tends to draw a higher proportion of super-users (top 5% of spenders) with carry over on active fan sites.

Free Trade Agreements - Though much more abstract as concerns the mobile app developer, free trade facilitates the opening of new markets, expansion of existing markets, and better monetization potential for most markets.  Four major agreements have been or are in the process of being made, including:

  • TransPacific Partnership (TTP – North America and Asia),
  • TransAtlantic Investment and Trade Partnership (TTIP – North America and the European Union),
  • New Silk Road (China, Asia, Middle East, Africa and Europe)
  • EU-Ukraine Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (EU and Ukraine)

The impact of free trade will apply in several directions as relates to products, services, markets, wages and the creation of infrastructure to bring improved internet capabilities to developing markets.

It is appropriate to remember that both Singapore and Hong Kong were relatively undeveloped markets in the 1960’s but are both now have a GDP per capita ranking of #3 and #10, respectively.  Developing a market today can be accomplished much faster and while we are not likely to see such a meteoric rise of today’s developing markets, we will see a gradual evening out.  China, itself, is poised to be the #1 largest economy in the world suffice that global mobile dynamics are changing and generally favoring high-growth developing markets over saturated high-income markets.

The bottom line for developers is the reach for your marketing and advertising dollar as measured in downloads and average lifetime value of your end-users.

Internet of Things   –  Still young but overlapping with numerous technologies and endless devices, IoT is rapidly picking up steam.  Per Business Insider, the Internet of Things will add 24 Billion more devices and see over $6 Trillion in spending through 2020 and inherently ties into issues of Free Trade.  For developers, this opens the potential for developing apps enabling control platforms (smartphones, tablets, computers) to interact with a broader range of peripheral devices.

Much more than all of this is the ages-old belief in the “connectedness of all things” – it translates philosophy into common practice.  This has an inherent impact on marketing in that if you create apps for smartphones that can interact with toasters, that you could also be in the business of selling toasters.  The line by which “one thing ends and the next begins” will become increasingly blurred.

Real Time Translation - The ability for you to speak in English and your audience to hear you in Portuguese or Chinese is developing rapidly.  Granted, it may take a few more years to perfect; the more people who use this technology, the faster it will improve.  Real time translation capabilities will make it easier for everyone to do business on an international basis.

Digital Money   -  This is an epically complex matter driven not only by technology but by governments seeking to limit organized crime, terrorism, tax evasion, etc.; along with other far-reaching geo-political and corporate interests in connection with and tangential to free trade.

But of some practical value to developers is the fact that the ability for anyone with a digital device to make a digital purchase will become progressively easier.  One of the major constraints of developing markets until recently has been the difficulty for the end-user to make a purchase via the payment processor the developer is using.  This was an early mistake by many companies who asserted that, “People in developing markets don’t buy things.”  They do buy things, including smart phones and data plans.  The pay walls are gradually coming down.

Human Augmentation  - Some will consider this over the top, but we are moving in this direction.   Aside from overlapping with the Internet of Things and Real Time Translations, potentially the most practical… or perhaps interesting, technology relates to how we interact with computers – and especially how we “see” the data on computers.

One of the characteristics of mobile apps has been that they need to be designed for smaller screens.  It is one thing to work with a 16 inch computer monitor and another to work on a 4” x 6” screen (or smaller).  The gap between personal computers and mobile devices will continue to close, but the single greatest hurdle is the screen size.  One direction being explored could make your eyes the mirror of your CPU.

Most issues of human augmentation will not achieve an economy of scale for several years yet.  Oculus Rift became a household name with a $2 Billion acquisition for taking VR to the next level.  There is the potential for an ambitious company able to create a safe, easy to use, non-invasive device to do the same – and there will be the demand for corresponding software and apps.

And Artificial Intelligence.  While subject to endless debate, there are a few practical points to be made.  Many games of yesteryear failed largely because they didn’t provide enough of a challenge in solo-play.  This is as much a game design as it is a logic design issue.  Several companies are pursuing the development of AI and contrary to what the naysayers would like everyone to believe; each step in the development of an AI makes the next step in its development faster and easier – if in relative terms.  Whether we reach the point of Singularity is almost irrelevant in that each step in that direction facilitates faster, easier developments, almost on an endless loop basis.

Practically speaking?  It is not too much of a stretch to imagine it will be possible, one day, for app developers to focus almost exclusively on game design while providing an interface for an external AI to handle the logic of playing it (against humans)… with different difficulty levels.

Presently, most games provide the computer opponent lots of advantages while providing the human opponent various handicaps.  With a proper AI, those dynamics would likely be reversed.  It is hard to get game balance “just right for everyone.”  This has the potential to resurrect some much older game titles that could have been totally awesome games if only they were a challenge to play.

A look back to see where we are headed…

All of these topics could be explored in much greater depth – and I encourage you to do so.  Some of these points may be a bit of a stretch “today” – but tomorrow?  The first computer game I played was Pong, followed by games like Space Invaders, Pacman… Zork, Ultima before there was an Ultima II, back when the closest thing anyone had to the Internet was a local BBS (Bulletin Board System) relying upon ASCII… for graphics.

Now, we are talking about technologies that may be able to “digitize your brain” so that theoretically some part of “you” can exist “forever.”  Now, we aren’t talking about monochrome monitors, but holograms.  We aren’t using dot matrix printers and carbon paper much anymore, but literally using 3D printers to print houses.   I remember buying an IBM Selectric III for $1.00.

It’s on this basis that I tend to think less of what the state of technology is today and question what it will be tomorrow.  I remember when the common consensus was that the Internet was a passing fad despite all statistics to the contrary.  Those who assert “IT IS POSSIBLE” are proven correct infinitely more times than those who say the opposite.

History and Technology are not on the side of those who say, “It can’t be done.”

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:

  • An investment in time and/or money
  • Discounts on older content
  • New content or level cap
  • Special events offering one or more of the above
  • New play concepts or features
  • Something that piques my curiosity – often through a YouTube video

Email Notifications

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.

Card Value

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:

  • 1 Legendary = 1600 dust
  • 1 Epic = 400 dust
  • 1 Rare = 100 dust
  • 1 Common = 40 dust

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.

Whispers of the Old Gods™

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:

The Arena

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.

 Blizzard’s Marketing is Comprehensive

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.

Following recent posts on eSports, it seems like a good idea to get into what it means for the world of mobile apps, particularly on the design side.   While many eSports games are played on PC’s, more and more are becoming available for iOS and Android.   Several of the Top 50  eSports Games can be played on mobile already, Hearthstone and World of Tanks Blitz being two quick examples.

Additionally, there are hundreds of apps built around one or many different eSports games – as mods, dedicated game news, gaming tips, training and managing play statistics.  For example, with League of Legends, one of the most popular eSports games, you might look at:

Or, for other popular games:

These are just a few examples, but they provide a wide range of examples to draw upon for app ideas that can tie into a game.  You will need to carefully examine the terms and conditions of each game to avoid legal and copyright issues.  It is advisable to contact and work with the game company, many of which welcome community support.  It can pay huge dividends to get a publisher’s approval and support.  Their approval boosts the potential for successful, popular players to publicly use your app on their live stream events further boosting your visibility.

To come up with ideas, reading the publisher’s game forum and community forums can help you get a feel for what players are looking for.  By looking at what is available, too, you may get ideas on what could be done to make it better, or offer more.

There’s Always Something New Coming

Always bear in mind that hardware and software technology is constantly evolving and can be expected to mitigate the physical differences and limitations of both personal computers and mobile devices.  The science fiction of a decade ago is increasingly becoming the reality of today – from virtual reality experiences and holograms to neural implants and Drones getting bundled up with the whole Internet of Things.

The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.  – William Gibson