Today, we launched an MMO called Realm of the Mad God (RotMG) in partnership with our friends Rob and Alex at Wildshadow Studios. It is, I believe, the first-ever massively cooperative bullet hell shooter. 85 people rampaging together, in real-time, through a bullet-riddled landscape. Oh, and its all Flash. Must be seen to believed. :-)
RotMG is available exclusively via the RotMG website and via Chrome Web Store for the next several weeks. The game has been in open beta for over a year now, but we’ve never attempted to drive traffic to the game via portals (or announcements on our blog) before now.
Spry Fox and Wild Shadow
When Rob and Alex first approached us with RotMG, we didn’t know what to think. It was an insanely ambitious game from a technical perspective (several engineers who we trust said of the game, more or less: “that simply isn’t possible.”) It was Hardcore with a capital-H: difficult to play without practice and skill, very retro in its aesthetic, and it featured perma-death. When your character dies, it is truly dead forever, and all you get is a bit of virtual currency (we call it “fame”) as a silver-lining.
So why did we agree to join forces with Rob and Alex? Well, for starters, they convinced us that they were capable of solving the technical challenges with RotMG that everyone else seemed to think would be insurmountable. Second, they seemed like good, honest, logical guys, which counts for a heck of a lot with us. Third, we appreciated their willingness to buck convention and try new things.
Doing the niche thing
And lastly, it was an opportunity for us to stop talking about the potential of niche markets on the Web and start actually exploring that potential. Regular readers of this blog will know that I think the “long tail”, as Chris Anderson initially presented it, is an over-hyped and tremendously misunderstood phenomenon; but I’ve also frequently said that if there’s anywhere the long tail could potentially benefit game developers, its massive and open platforms… aka the Web (and, to a lesser extent, big proprietary platforms within the Web like Facebook.)
RotMG is a game that will never achieve anything close to the active user population of a game like Cityville or Bejewelled Blitz. But a game like RotMG doesn’t need to. We can reach many millions of potential players via web game portals like Chrome Web Store. If we can convert just 40k of those people to recurring visitors, we can make a healthy profit. And we can hopefully maintain that community for many years to come, because there’s nothing like RotMG on the market as of now.
I would never dream of attempting to launch a game like this on XBLA and PSN or even iOS/Android, with their comparatively much larger audiences. A game like this simply isn’t going to appeal to most people who play it, no matter how well-designed the game may be. And on the Web, that’s entirely OK!
The best way to leverage the web game portal ecosystem is to rip all the barriers to entry out of your game. For example: most MMOs, even F2P MMOs, will make you create an account to play, or at very least create a character. The RotMG experience for a new visitor goes like this:
- Load the game.
- See and click the large, pulsing text that says “PLAY”.
- Immediately begin playing the game as a wizard (the easiest class to wrap your head around) with a randomly-generated name.
If you like the game, you can always change your randomly-generated name to a permanent one and experiment with other classes. But we don’t want a single person quitting the game because they weren’t feeling inspired enough to work through an arbitrary account creation process. We know the wizard class is easy to understand and fun to play. We don’t need to make you wade through the tedious process of trying to register a name that hasn’t already been registered by someone else. We want you in the game and playing.
Try it out
I hope you’ll take the time to give Realm of the Mad God a try. It’s a weird and wonderful thing. :-)
PS. I’ll try to write another post on RotMG in two or three months that gives more insight into the game’s business model. One thing I’ve found is that even with the many thousands of players we’ve observed in the open beta, we simply don’t have enough data to draw statistically-significant conclusions about much of what comprises the game’s economy. I’ll look at a period of three or four weeks, with many thousands of visitors during that time, and think I can spot meaningful trends in purchase behavior; then I’ll expand the window of time to two months and realize that my assumptions were incorrect. Lesson: depending on the nature of your game, it can take tens of thousands of visitors before you have the slightest idea what’s really going on in your economy…
I’m pleased to share the news that Microsoft’s Ribbon Hero 2 is now freely available to all users of MS Office 2007 and 2010. If you have any interest whatsoever in the educational power of games or business-related uses of games, you absolutely must check this out.
Danc and I had the pleasure of assisting in the development of RH2, which improves on its predecessor in a variety of ways, including: the addition of a narrative, a more polished feedback system, substantially more interesting and creative challenges, and a tighter, more streamlined activity loop in general. Each of these changes are notable in and of themselves; together, they represent a remarkably evolved and polished gameplay experience. (See Danc’s just-published thoughts on the design.)
Most serious gaming projects fail because the organizations behind them lack the will to iterate on, test and polish their prototypes as needed. Microsoft, on the other hand, has been working on the Ribbon Hero franchise (can we call it a franchise now?) for approximately two years. The development team behind Ribbon Hero has approached the daunting challenge of “making it fun to learn Office” with humility and persistence. Its members have attended GDC, studied game design, consulted with expert designers, and playtested/polished the heck out of this game. Most importantly, they have developed skills which represent a significant competitive advantage to Microsoft. Two years may sound like a long time, but once you’ve figured out how to make learning fun, there are an unlimited number of ways in which you can dramatically improve the fortunes of your business.
So here’s to Ribbon Hero 2! May it be the first of many such educational experiences to emerge from Microsoft.
This article was originally published in Game Developer Magazine. It was the first in a series of business columns that I am writing for GDM.
Ask anyone over the age of 30 how many times they’ve had to “learn something the hard way.” Most people can’t count that high. Businesses are just like people in this regard: they need to experiment in order to gather the data that will enable executives to make informed decisions. And experimenting often means failing.
Despite this, most game publishers and developers are profoundly averse to experimentation and risk. “Little” mistakes, like failed prototypes, are not embraced. “Big” mistakes, like failed attempts to capitalize on new markets, are assiduously avoided until those new markets “prove” themselves, by which point it is deemed necessary to spend a fortune acquiring a successful competitor.
Dan Ariely, the author of “Predictably Irrational”, has noted that there’s plenty of research to explain this behavior. In his own words: “Experiments require short-term losses for long-term gains. Companies (and people) are notoriously bad at making those trade-offs.” Put another way: short-term risk aversion is a major psychological handicap for businesses… one worth recognizing and confronting.
The big acquisition: a misguided risk management model
Case in point: EA’s $300m to $400m acquisition of Facebook game developer Playfish. Whether EA paid a fair price for Playfish is probably irrelevant. The company had decided that it needed to get into the social gaming space, and Playfish was a good option (not to mention comparatively cheap, relative to Playdom and Zynga.) The more interesting question is: should this acquisition have been necessary?
The first social games that really took off generally cost less than $100k to initially develop. EA could have funded *ten* independent, tiny social gaming studios working on such games, empowered them to experiment with new business strategies and game designs, and it would have cost a tiny fraction of Playfish’s acquisition price. Assuming roughly $2m in cost per studio, that’s about 1/20th the price of Playfish. And don’t forget that unlike other publishers, EA already had a pool of experienced casual game developers within its Pogo group that it could have tapped to seed this initiative. So why didn’t EA do that?
Some might argue that it was impossible to know social gaming would become so popular, and thus that it was worth investing in. So let’s say that for every emergent opportunity on par with social gaming, another four that look similarly appealing turn out to be complete duds. Now the price of attempting to create the next Playfish has increased by 5x. Which, by my admittedly rough estimate, still means it would have cost 1/4th the price of acquiring Playfish.
I don’t mean to pick on EA; in many ways, it has been one of the most forward-thinking publishers in recent years. I’m trying to illustrate the fact that, contrary to popular wisdom, it may not be more cost-effective for publishers to acquire innovative companies than it is to actually innovate. And when you consider the fact that many research studies have demonstrated that somewhere between 50% to 80% of all big acquisitions end up being viewed as failures for the acquiring entity, it becomes clear that growth-by-acquisition is *not* a low-risk strategy.
The other justification I hear for M&A spending sprees is that internal innovation is simply too hard for big companies. They can’t hire the right people. They can’t adapt their development processes. And worst of all, they can’t protect innovative teams from the politics and bureaucracy that tend to doom groundbreaking projects. These are unquestionably major challenges that I don’t mean to trivialize. And yet, given the astronomical cost of recent high-profile acquisitions, and given the odds that those acquisitions will look bad in hindsight, it’s time to reevaluate the cons of organic growth.
A different approach to innovation: applying portfolio theory to concepts and development teams
So what’s the best way to encourage internal innovation? Here’s my take. (Also, note Kim Pallister’s lecture on the same subject at the IGDA Leadership Forum.)
First: given the perils of internal bureaucracy, new teams should be spun up in separate locations and treated as wholly independent studios, while still benefiting from certain shared resources like legal counsel and financial services. They should be tasked with seizing an opportunity but be given the flexibility to attack that opportunity however they wish, even if that means stumbling through a few relatively inexpensive failures. And they should be kept small, as in four to six people. It doesn’t take an army to experiment in most emerging games markets.
Second: the initiative needs protection from the top. Otherwise, the mini-studios will be cannibalized the instant a “more important” project comes along. It is not beneath a CEO or senior vice president to make this a priority… no less than deciding to greenlight a half-a-billion-dollar acquisition.
Third: the initiative needs to be overseen by a small group of people who understand that they are managing a portfolio of high-risk investments. It is not only likely, but a given that a significant percentage of those investments will not pan out. In other words, preventing failure is not the key goal. Supporting promising new experiments and helping the mini-studios share learnings with each other is the goal.
This issue is not only relevant to large companies. Indie developers may not have EA’s resources, but that doesn’t mean they can’t adopt a portfolio strategy. My studio, Spry Fox, amounts to just 18 people in total when you include partners and contractors. But as of the time of this writing, we have five F2P games in simultaneous development, with five completely independent, tiny teams working on them. Each team is experimenting with original game designs and/or new business strategies, and each team is fully aware that the experiments they are conducting may not ultimately be successful.
It is possible that all our projects will fail. But if we succeed, we’ll have accomplished what very few large companies in our industry have been able to accomplish: a true portfolio process for developing innovative, original IP within new markets. I look forward to sharing the results of our efforts, be they successful or not, in my upcoming columns.
In the meantime, I invite you to ask yourself a question the next time you’re weighing the pros/cons of conducting a business or game design experiment: are you focused on all the ways the experiment could go wrong, or are you focused on how to make the experiment as efficient and educational as possible?
A belated post to help explain why I’ve been so quiet on this blog as of late. :-)
Mama Eve and baby Aria are doing great; the former is glowing and the latter is a champion eater and sleeper! She’s also got awesome hair, like her papa. ;-)
When I posted debating F2P monetization back in August, it attracted quite a lot of attention. In the post, I argued that most F2P games cannot rely on purely aesthetic monetization features — not enough consumers are willing to pay for that alone.
Some folks were grateful for my post. Some folks were furious because they felt that I was advocating for the sale of items that “make a game less fair.” (I had done nothing of the sort, but it’s no surprise that the charge was leveled at me.) However you feel about it, here’s another proof point worth paying attention to. EA has been kind enough to share some details about the profitability of Battlefield Heroes before and after its development team resorted to selling items that impact gameplay.
I highly recommend reading this article, especially if you’re still convinced that Western gamers will reject “aggressively” monetized F2P games.
For a long while now, the video game industry has had a very simplistic definition of a “good customer” and a “bad customer.” A good customer is someone who pays you $60 for your game (and better yet, pre-orders it.) A bad customer is someone who buys a used copy of your game or worse, pirates it. The problem is, this worldview ignores a variety of important factors and doesn’t translate very well to the digital markets that most indies are focused on.
Tell me which of these people is the best customer:
- Customer A: pays 99 cents for a copy of your game immediately after launch, gives it a 1-star rating for some trivial reason and deletes it forever.
- Customer B: pays 99 cents for a copy of your game, gives it a 5-star rating and even tweets regularly about it, but is such a toxic presence in the forums and/or in-game that she drives other customers away.
- Customer C: pays 99 cents for a copy of your game and enjoys it, but never rates it and does nothing to promote it.
- Customer D: pirates your game and regularly tweets about how awesome it is to her hundreds of followers. She also eagerly and politely answers the questions of newbies who visit your forums and happily beta tests your new games.
Customer C might have seemed more attractive at a $60 price point, but at 99 cents she isn’t generating much profit for a game’s developer. When reaching the top of the charts means everything (as it tends to in digital markets) I’d rather have help reaching critical mass than have another 99 cents in my pocket. Sorry, 70 cents after the platform’s cut. (Five more of those sales and I’ve got myself a latte!)
But there’s a bigger question: why are you even trying to sell your game in the first place? When piracy rates are sky-high and even big companies like Ngmoco have turned to F2P as their saving grace, why bet on being the next Angry Birds when the odds are way more likely that you’ll be the next corpse on the pile of well-intentioned indie devs?
The F2P world does a brilliant job of forcing developers to focus on the true definition of “good customer.” You stop worrying about landing that 99 cent sale up front and start worrying about what matters:
- Is this person going to eventually convert into a paying customer? If not,
- Is this person going to effectively evangelize my game to other people? (i.e. are they essentially free advertising.) If not,
- Is this person going to be a positive presence inside and/or outside the game, helping to keep it alive and healthy if not grow?
Only someone who fails all three of those tests might be a bad customer.
Lots of people have been jumping onto the anti-gamification bandwagon lately. I’ve been surprised by the thoughtfulness and intelligence of the critiques that I’ve read… particularly those that are short, sweet and to the point. And since so much has been eloquently said about the problems with gamification, I won’t bother to repeat the arguments here. Instead I want to address something that everyone else has ignored up till now: why some of gamification’s proponents have allowed it to devolve into the mindless application of points, achievements and leaderboards.
Is it because the proponents of gamification are generally not game designers and don’t understand how hard it is to make a good game? In some cases, probably so. But there’s a deeper and more pervasive problem that is driving the “dumbing down” of gamification. The problem is: gamification is a very tough sell.
It doesn’t matter how many books on the subject are published: most executives aren’t reading them. It doesn’t matter how many conferences are created: most executives aren’t attending them. But these issues are positively trivial compared to the biggest challenge of all: getting your average executive to understand the importance of prototyping and iteration.
I mean, a fair percentage of executives who work for publishers in the video game industry still do not understand the importance of prototyping and iteration. What are the odds that a marketing VP at Coca Cola is going to get it? Certainly not zero, but not too far above zero either.
Corporate executives are accustomed to being pitched things in a very defined way and don’t like it when the pitch includes too much ambiguity. “Hire my consulting firm and we’ll tell you the best strategy for entering an exciting new market after a three month research phase in which we will do X, Y and Z.” That works. “Hire my software development firm and I’ll have a new and better intranet built for you in nine months, and it will look almost exactly like this [insert mockups here].” That works, too.
You know what doesn’t tend to work? “Hire my game development studio. We think we can gamify your product in about three months, but it might take two months if prototyping goes really well and six months or more if prototyping takes longer than expected. And we can’t show you pretty mockups of what the final product will look like because we don’t know yet — that’s the point of the prototyping phase. Hey, you can trust me — I’ve done this 100 times before! No, not in your industry. Does industry expertise matter to you? Damn.”
I’m exaggerating a bit to make a point. The folks who are trying to sell gamification services are trapped between a rock and a hard place. The product they are selling is naturally hard to sell. And it’ll be another five to ten years before most of the senior executives at any given company are people who grew up with and “get” games, which complicates things further.
Given all that, is it any wonder that some folks have been driven to distilling the power of games into “points”, “leaderboards” and “achievements?” Those are easily defined things. You can show pretty pictures of them. And if you can convince a buyer that they are easy enough to implement, the buyer might be willing to take a gamble on you. In other words, gamification proponents are under enormous pressure to dumb down their pitch.
I’ve never talked publicly about why I didn’t focus my career primarily on the topics in my book after it was published. It wasn’t for lack of interest — I’m a deep believer in the power of games to transform business and I expect them to infect every aspect of the corporate world during my lifetime. One reason I chose to focus primarily on traditional entertainment (aside from personal passion) is because I believed the next several years would be an extremely hard slog for the serious game and gamification movements. So far, given the relative dearth of great gamification case studies to be published since my book was released in 2008, it appears that I was right.
I still do a little bit of serious game and gamification consulting. Every once in a great while, I meet a client who actually understands and appreciates the risks and uncertainties associated with game design. But more often than not, when I explain how game design works, my only reward is a blank stare or a nervous smile. And at that point, I know they’ve basically stopped listening to me. They’re thinking, “This sounds complicated and risky. I’m just going to buy some Google Adwords to advertise my product. I know that works.”
2010 was a very special year for me. From founding Spry Fox (which I would never have had the courage to do without a great business partner like Danc), to releasing our first games, to winning the IndiePub mobile games competition, to finding ourselves at the top of Amazon’s “top rated games” page… it’s been a better ride than I could have hoped for. But all of this pales in comparison to the most important news that I received in 2010: Eve is pregnant with a little girl — our first child — and due to give birth on March 4th. So here’s to a joyous and sleep-deprived 2011!
And, lest I seem ungrateful, I’d like to thank all of you from the bottom of my heart for your kind comments and encouragement. When I started writing this blog almost five years ago, I never really expected it to become a meaningful part of my life. I’m mildly astonished and grateful that it has done just that.
Happy new year, everyone. :-)
I thought some of you might be interested to know how our experience launching Steambirds on iOS and Android worked out. So I’ve written up a little post-mortem of sorts, below. But first, some important notes: the excellent iOS version was developed and published on our behalf by Semi Secret, best known for their wonderful game Canabalt, and the equally-excellent Android version was developed by Flat Red Ball and published by us.
Both the iOS and Android versions of the game were featured by Apple and Google, respectively; the iOS version was featured immediately upon launch, while the Android version was featured a couple weeks later. We did little in the way of traditional marketing to support the game, but we did put a very prominent link in Steambirds: Survival to a page advertising both the iOS and Android version, and given that SB:S has already been played by over two million people, that’s a fair amount of promotion. We were also fortunate enough to get a shout out from Penny Arcade, among other notable sites.
So, enough background information. Here were the pros/cons of each platform we released Steambirds on:
First: Fragmentation was an issue, and not simply because of the many older Android devices floating around out there. We got one-star ratings from unhappy users of newer devices (such as the Dell Streak) who complained of inexplicable crashes. Given that even Rovio (the developer of Angry Birds) has struggled with Android fragmentation, it was pretty much a given that we’d struggle with it, too.
Second: For a while, refunding was a big issue. Prior to a very recent update, Android Market essentially encouraged users to request a full refund, no questions asked, if they uninstalled a game within 24 hours. Many people realized that Google’s refund policy was a way to play any game they wanted, for free, without resorting to piracy. Prior to the aforementioned Market update, roughly 15% of people who purchased Steambirds ultimately requested a refund. After the update, the rate dropped to about 9%. That new number is both good and bad — good because it isn’t 15%, but bad because I’m guessing most of those nine-percenters are folks using a device that is not compatible with our game (…speaking of fragmentation…)
First: the ease with which I am able to update the Steambirds application itself, the description of the app, and the price of the app is simply awesome. With a single click, an update is instantly available to consumers worldwide. When some early negative reviews alerted us to problems with the game’s memory footprint on older devices, we were able to turn around a quick fix and staunch the bleeding immediately. (In fact, some users took note of the quick change and rewarded us by recanting their negative reviews.) Similarly, when reviews indicated that users were unhappy with the lack of a software setting for disabling music and sound, we were able to satisfy them immediately… and once again, reviewers took note.
Second: Google’s responsiveness to our questions was remarkable. I nearly always received answers to my questions within 24 hours, even if the answer was simply: “we’re working on that.” I enjoyed several very active and very frank chat sessions with someone on the Android Market team. We’re a small company, so for us to experience that level of attentiveness was truly gratifying. I should note that since the iOS version of Steambirds was published by Semi Secret, we didn’t interact directly with Apple, so I can’t compare levels of responsiveness.
Third: I can log into Google Checkout and see every single transaction (purchases and cancellations) made for Steambirds in real time. And we get paid by Google within days of selling a copy of the game. Awesome!
First: I’d been told by friends that Apple has significantly improved its turnaround time on application (and app update) approvals. For the iPad version of Steambirds, this certainly seemed to be the case; our update, which addressed a critical sound bug, was released almost immediately. But for the iPhone version of Steambirds, this was not the case. We were forced to wait nearly a week for the release of our update, which addressed another critical, iPhone-only bug that seemed to drag down our review scores by at least a full star — more than enough to potentially harm our sales momentum in the incredibly competitive iTunes app market.
This was unfortunate, because Steambirds was featured immediately at launch, which meant that it was receiving tons of attention at precisely the moment when it had its biggest problem. I thought that being featured would get our updates fast-tracked, but for at least the iPhone version of Steambirds, that was clearly not the case. Ultimately, our problems were our own fault — I can hardly complain about the fact that Apple generously decided to feature Steambirds. I just hope that in the future, Apple will find a way to process updates faster (if not as fast as Android Market.)
Second: speaking of that “critical bug” I mentioned in the iPhone version of Steambirds — it was a pinch-to-zoom issue that prevented players from completing the tutorial. What I didn’t mention was that the bug only affected people with v3.1.3 of iOS running on their phone, which turns out to be a small but significant number of 3G owners who want to avoid the performance hit caused by upgrading to iOS v4+. We had tested the game on a 3G device running v3.1.2 (which, notably, had its *own* unique bug) but we missed v3.1.3.
As I mentioned earlier, this single bug seemed to really hurt our overall review score. It makes sense — if you buy a game and can’t play past the tutorial, your odds of getting pissed off and giving a one-star review are very high; people who play the game successfully are much less likely to give reviews of any kind. Long story short, while there’s no question that fragmentation is an issue for Android, I wouldn’t say that life is completely hunky-dorey on iOS. Adam Martin posted a similar story on his blog recently.
First: When the update for the iPhone version was finally released by Apple, our rating quickly stabilized at a much higher value. That’s partially because we fixed the critical bug, partially because Apple helpfully resets your rating when you update an app, and partially because we added a “would you like to rate this game?” popup to the app, which quintupled (5x) the number of reviews we received in a day and helped prompt fans of the game to give us a boost. (Some people don’t like the fact that updates reset your rating in the app store, but let me tell you, when you’re trying to recover from a bug, that’s a pretty great feature…)
Second, but pretty much all that really matters: The iOS version of Steambirds has thus far outsold the Android version by almost 6 to 1. What makes this even more remarkable was the bug I mentioned earlier, which hurt our iOS review scores during the first week that Steambirds was featured. The Android version of the game had a significantly better average review score during the time period in which it was featured, and yet iOS sales were still dramatically higher.
One important thing to note: Steambirds is $0.99 on the iPhone and $1.99 on the iPad, whereas the price is $1.99 on all Android devices. So, the revenue difference between the two platforms is more like 4 to 1 in Apple’s favor, not 6 to 1.
You might also wonder if the higher Android price somehow artificially depressed sales relative to the iOS version. My thought: the average price of top Android games is much higher than top iPhone games, so our having gone with $1.99 should not have had too much of an effect on purchase intent, and as (admittedly anecdotal) evidence to support that, we have noticed very few complaints about the price in customer reviews and on forums. Consumers judge prices based on locally relevant information, not some sort of “universal value” system. If you own an Android phone, and you want to play games on that phone, the average price of highly-rated games in Android Market is mainly what matters to you, unless you’re also carrying around an iPod Touch.
In general, as I’ve noted several times on this blog, I’m more excited about the potential of free-to-play games than I am traditionally-purchased games. I think it’s likely that the next iOS/Android game that we release will be F2P, and it will be interesting to see how that changes the relative revenue performance of the game (if at all) on iOS and Android. I’ll let you know.
PS. If you didn’t hear, the Android version of Steambirds won the IndiePub Mobile Games Competition grand prize! Congratulations are due to our friends at FlatRedBall, and to Andy and Daniel for their tremendous design work.
Today we launched Steambirds: Survival (SB:S), the first true sequel to the original Steambirds. It’s essentially “Steambirds meets ‘Horde Mode’ from Gears of War” — your goal is to fight off ever-growing waves of enemies for as long as you can manage. Aside from this central conceit, the key differences between SB:S and the original SB are:
- In SB:S, you can choose from 24 planes, all of which need to be unlocked, and nearly all of which have very distinct characteristics which heavily impact your play style.
- In SB:S, when enemies are shot down, they leave a collectible powerup where they crash. Judiciously deciding when to collect these (and how to use them) is key to your survival.
- In SB:S, there are microtransactions. Seven of the twenty-four planes in the game can only be unlocked with cash. One of the twenty-four planes is unlocked for free, if you create an account and sign up for our newsletter.
Adding microtransactions to SB:S proved to be non-trivial. To understand why, you need to understand our distribution strategy. We’re excited about Flash because it opens up such a huge audience to our games. Part of that huge audience comes from the hundreds of Flash gaming portals who will happily host and promote your game for free, without any negotiation or formal arrangement needed, in exchange for the opportunity to monetize the game via their own site’s advertising system. Normally, all you get in return (aside from exposure) is a prominent link (or links) in the game to other websites of your choosing. But we wanted more than that – we wanted to monetize content inside the game, no matter where it was hosted. That turned out to be a huge pain in the butt.
If you’re a relatively small company like Spry Fox, there’s no way you’re going to implement your own secure billing solution for microtransaction-based games. You’re going to use a 3rd party solution like Mochi, Social Gold, Facebook Credits, etc. Unfortunately, none of these solutions support a virally-distributed game (Social Gold has been promising support for ages, but they haven’t delivered on those promises and it isn’t clear when they will, if ever.) After wasting quite a lot of time trying to identify a solution that would work, we finally settled on Gamersafe, which is run by the same people who run FlashGameLicense (FGL) , a well-established auction site for flash games. Chris Hughes, one of the co-founders of FGL, worked directly with us to implement Gamersafe in SB:S and has been a huge help, in general.
Many flash game portals will happily host Gamersafe-enabled games (especially since Gamersafe pays them a small percentage of all microtransaction revenue generated by the game.) However, some of the very largest flash game portals will not accept a Gamersafe-enabled game, sometimes because they have their own microtransaction system they want you to use, and sometimes because they simply don’t want a third party API for currency or achievements to be active within their portal, which is not too surprising. In such cases, we’ve decided to either integrate the portal’s own currency system if that is an option, or to insist on a very prominent link back to Steambirds.com (the link appears instead of the cash-only planes in the game.)
A prominent out-link may seem like a trivial thing, but it is not. Large portals don’t like it when the games they host feature prominent out-links, and will often insist that such links be removed. But as a Flash game developer, you have to ask yourself: why are you creating games? To eke out a modest income cranking out disposable content? To be perpetually firewalled from your fans? That’s just not a sustainable business model.
Because we just launched SB:S today, I have no idea what our conversion rate (free user to paying user) will look like, but I promise to post something about this in the future. What I can tell you is that we’re not expecting much – 0.5% would be a real win in my book. The reason for my “low” expectations is this: SB:S is a completely single player game, so we’re missing many of the social hooks one would typically employ to encourage purchase. Additionally, while I think SB:S is an incredibly fun and extremely replayable game, it isn’t particularly “deep,” and that’s going to impact our retention, which will ultimately impact our conversion rate.
That said, there are still things we could theoretically do to nudge the conversion rate upwards, and we’ve done them. Here are some examples:
- Instead of having eight awesome cash-only planes, we have seven awesome cash-only planes and one awesome plane that you get for free if you simply register a Gamersafe account and our newsletter. This removes one of the major barriers to purchase: the annoying task of giving us your username, password and email address. It’s all totally optional, of course.
- Some of the coolest planes in the game must be earned with a very large amount of unpaid currency (aka “copper.”) But you can earn those cool planes more quickly if you fly other planes with a high “copper bonus”, which is simply a multiplier that is applied to all the copper you earn during a mission. There are free planes with a high copper bonus — you just need to work your way up to them, and then you can use those planes to unlock the more expensive ones. But if you’re in a hurry, you can purchase a plane with a really high copper bonus straightaways. Or, if you don’t mind spending a bit more cash, you can pay to unlock every plane in one fell swoop.
- It’s important to note that because this a single player game, and because every plane has its own leaderboard, unlocking planes for cash confers absolutely no competitive advantage on paying players – it simply enables them to progress through the game faster and/or experience more gameplay variety sooner.
I hope this insight into the business thinking behind SB:S has been useful to you. If so, you can return the favor by checking out the game and better still, tweeting about it, posting an update to Facebook, etc. :-)
Just a quick note to announce that we’ve launched our second Kindle game, a neat little word puzzle called “Panda Poet.”. It’s a somewhat faster game than Triple Town, and it takes advantage of the Kindle’s keyboard. It also features really cute pandas, which is apparently the killer feature for many players. :-)
This is the fourth game in the word game genre on the Kindle platform (not something we realized would be the case when we first started developing it) so it will be interesting to see if Amazon’s customers still find it appealing. On other platforms in the “uncertain beginnings” phase, customers can definitely exhibit genre burnout.
That said, so far the reviews are good and Panda Poet is rising on the charts. I think the game’s success will depend largely on Amazon’s support of it, word of mouth, and the cuteness factor. We’ll be doing our own marketing, but thus far I’ve found it difficult to reach Kindle users — many of the traditional tactics (like using Google and Facebook advertising, for example) haven’t proven effective. I’ll do a post-mortem on both Triple Town and Panda Poet sometime in the next few months and will go into greater detail at that time.
This week is a big milestone for Spry Fox; we released the first independently-developed game for the Kindle, which we called “Triple Town.” Our playtesters have described Triple Town as, among other things, “the Civilization of Match-3 games”, which is both flattering and terrifying. :-)
As a supplement to Danc’s post, I thought you might like to know our business rationale for creating Triple Town. It shouldn’t surprise long-time readers of this blog that I’m always on the look-out for platforms in the “uncertain beginnings” phase that may soon enter “early glory”. The Kindle seemed like just such a platform. Let’s break that down:
1. Platform prospects
First and most important question: is there a reason to believe the platform has a good chance of becoming a viable ecosystem for its first wave of game developers? Looking at the Kindle, I saw a platform with a reasonable number of users (Amazon will not release ownership statistics, but I’ve been guessing that there are currently at least 2m+ active content-enabled devices out there, based on publicly available information. I could definitely be wrong about that, but hopefully not by too wide a margin on the downside.)
More importantly, I saw a platform with users who are inclined and encouraged to purchase large quantities of digital content at relatively healthy prices. And given Amazon’s merchandising expertise, I hoped that unlike on so many other platforms (Wiiware springs to mind as a sad example), Kindle games would get plenty of visibility and Kindle developers would have reasonable marketing tools made available to them.
2. Content supply
Secondly: what is the supply of high-quality content likely to look like when the platform first launches? Will it be an overwhelming flood or a small trickle? The latter is what creates a supply-demand imbalance during the “early glory” phase, and which ultimately leads to strong returns for early developers. The Kindle was an interesting case in this regard. While I’d imagine that software developer interest in the Kindle is quite high in general, when I personally asked a large number of my friends in the game industry, “are you planning to develop a game for the Kindle,” the answer was always either “no” or “you can make games for the Kindle?” Furthermore, I didn’t see much Kindle-related news in the game industry press or at game industry conferences. To me, that indicated a potentially-unappreciated market opportunity.
3. Investment threshold
Unfortunately, even when both the conditions above hold true, there is no guarantee that the emerging platform will ultimately prove viable. Any number of issues — ranging from mismanagement of the platform, to unanticipated technology problems, to rotten luck — could cause the ecosystem to be less viable than you might hope. Consequently, the third major condition of a good “uncertain beginnings” investment opportunity is simply: can I dip my toe in the water with a project of relatively small scope? If entering the market requires a huge expense, it probably doesn’t make sense for most independent game developers. But Daniel and I were confident that we could create a great game that we were proud of in a reasonable period of time, with a reasonably small team. And so we did.
Of course, it certainly didn’t hurt that both Spry Fox and Amazon are based in the greater Seattle area. Knowing that I could easily meet the platform managers in person if they were interested in our company or our game was a nice bonus. That said, I wouldn’t call location one of our key investment criteria.
Anyway, long story short, we decided to give the Kindle a shot. I am very grateful to the people at Amazon for their decision to release Triple Town as one of the first games on the Kindle, and look forward to seeing how this grand experiment turns out. :-)
Since well before I entered this industry, I’ve wanted to make my own games. At first, I thought I’d make exercise games, but that was before the launch of the Wii and well before I had any credibility in this industry, so it didn’t work out. Then I thought I’d make downloadable console games, but in a bizarre twist of fate, I was instead hired by Microsoft to review everyone else’s creative work. Well, they say the third time’s the charm, so I’m pleased to formally announce the birth of Spry Fox, a new kind of game development studio that I’ve co-founded with my good friend, Daniel Cook. The fearless Tom Buscaglia is our general counsel.
What do I mean by “new kind of game development studio?” Put simply: we focus on the business and design aspects of game development. We do not employ developers and we do not outsource. We create games by partnering with other talented individuals whose development abilities we respect, and everyone shares in the profit. In this regard, Spry Fox functions somewhat like a modern movie studio — we form teams around a project that everyone is passionate about, and the team disbands when the project is done (or, in the case of a free-to-play game, when the projects stops generating meaningful revenue). With a bit of luck, a team will gel nicely and may reunite many times (ala a Kevin Smith production), but it isn’t strictly necessary. We work together on what we love, and we part ways when our interests diverge.
Game studios of this sort have been attempted in the past, but the most prominent attempts have focused on larger, more expensive projects, which plays against the strengths of the distributed model. More importantly, previous studios appear to have been fixated on the debatable benefits of “outsourcing,” as opposed to building true partnerships with outside individuals and firms who are treated as integral to the creative process and who share in the profit. We believe that by building small, tightly-knit teams, we can make this work.
Most importantly, we have no interest in becoming yet another middleman in the increasingly crowded digital publishing space. When Daniel is involved in a project, he plays a major role in every aspect of a game’s design, including building the UI, architecting the major gameplay loops, fine tuning the balance and directing the art production if not creating the art himself. When I am involved in a project, I am deeply involved in the design (particularly with an eye towards monetization systems), the in-game writing, and of course, all aspects of the business including marketing and distribution. We are not publishers. We are co-creators.
Spry Fox is focused primarily on emerging opportunities in the digital game market. For now, this means two things: web-based free-to-play games for various demographics, and downloadable titles for emerging platforms. Our reasons for focusing on these two things are straightforward:
- There are strategic benefits to focusing on under-served markets,
- As noted earlier, our development model likely works best with smaller teams, and
- We don’t enjoy waiting two+ years to discover whether our game will resonate with fans or not.
Some of you might wonder if developing “web-based free-to-play games” qualifies as targeting an under-served market. This is the subject of a longer post, but in brief, I’d argue that there is no opportunity more compelling at this moment in time. The ratio of quality content to potential consumers is vastly out of whack on the Web relative to the console ecosystem or the iPhone app market. Despite the fact that 99% of all Internet-enabled PCs have Flash installed, boasting an audience more than 10x the size of even the most popular game console, you can literally count on one hand the number of really good Flash-based F2P games in any particular genre. That’s our kind of market.
Because our teams are (and will continue to be) relatively small, we need to focus on design methodologies that deliver the greatest amount of bang for the buck. That means user-generated content, procedurally generated content, and multiplayer mechanics that don’t require a constant influx of expensive content. So that’s exactly what we’ve started doing.
- We’re building on Daniel’s previous work with Andy Moore to create a bigger, more engaging, multiplayer version of Steambirds that will fully capitalize on that IP’s potential (with an intermediate version in the meanwhile).
- We’re working with Andre Spierings to evolve the impossibly cute Bunni into the fully social experience we’ve always known it could be.
- And we have two downloadable games and one exceedingly unusual flash MMOG in the works, but unfortunately we can’t share any more information about those projects at this time.
All that said, my consulting firm, Fuzbi, is not going anywhere. Both Daniel and I will continue to do targeted consulting on just about anything (console games, f2p games, serious games, etc), and I wouldn’t be surprised if the Fuzbi team grew further in the future.
I can’t wait to share more with you all soon. Thanks for reading this post and for all your comments and encouragement in the past. And if you think you’d like to work with Spry Fox (or Fuzbi), don’t hesitate to drop me a line. We’re more than a little busy right now, but the future is always just around the corner. :-)
One of the things holding back the evolution of F2P gaming in the West is the understandable discomfort that many Western designers feel about the “aggressive” monetization strategies employed by Asian game developers. For the purposes of this post, I’m defining “aggressive” as the sale of items that impact gameplay and/or speed up a player’s progress, in addition to other, less controversial premium features like aesthetic items and account personalization.
To many developers, the idea of designing a game to be anything other than “fun” is heretical (they may also fear the possibility of offending sensitive players.) Consequently, they either ignore the F2P business model or attempt to create games with relatively tame revenue-generating systems; for example, focusing on the sale of items with aesthetic benefit only, or roping off a portion of the game and hoping enough players voluntarily pay for access.
The irony of these fears should not be lost on anyone who was designing games thirty years ago. Classic arcade titles were explicitly designed to eat quarters over brief, regular intervals, and people of all ages still put up with it. By comparison, modern F2P games are positively generous to players!
All this is why, up until the social game explosion, we heard of so few financially-successful F2P games in the West. The social gaming companies get a lot of credit for leveraging Facebook and for rediscovering the market potential of asynchronous gameplay, but they deserve equally as much credit for realizing that people in the West are not culturally predisposed to hating any game with an aggressive monetization model. As with everything in life, context matters.
Understanding the impact of conversion rates and ARPPU
Why is it worthwhile to at least consider the merits of designing a game with a more aggressive monetization model? It all comes down to conversion rates. The average Western F2P game is lucky to convert 5% of active users to paying users. At the low end, you get 1% conversion rates, which is where games like Farmville and Mafia Wars tend to sit. Some very rare games reach 20% or better, but to hit that level you generally need a fair bit of luck, an incredibly powerful brand and/or an intensely loyal niche audience. Bottom line: if you’re only going to convert 5% of your active users to paying users, you want to give those people every opportunity to pay you! Many of them will be delighted to do so if you handle the situation appropriately.
I’ve asked many F2P game developers to share their monthly ARPPU ( “average revenue per paying user”) statistics. Several have obliged in confidence, so I can’t share specific data points, but I can share averages. From my limited research, it seems that a game with a more aggressive monetization model and a loyal, niche userbase can hope to generate $50 per paying user per month, on average. (The term “average” is somewhat misleading — most users might pay $5 a month, while a small percentage of wealthier players might pay hundreds.) Obviously, these dollar figures will vary from game to game, depending on design, but they’re a useful generalization for the purposes of this post.
On the other hand, a F2P game that limits itself to flat subscription revenue and/or non-functional items is generally more likely to fall somewhere between $5 and $10 per paying user per month. You can expect the F2P equivalent of WoW (whatever that is) to do better than this, and you might expect a game that is largely focused on aesthetics to do better as well, but again, this is a useful generalization for most F2P games.
Different customers have different needs
Why is there such a big discrepancy between these types of F2P games? Basically: different customers have different needs. A game with a more diverse array of offerings is going to satisfy more people and earn more cash in the process, especially if it doesn’t arbitrarily cap the amount a loyal customer can pay. Some customers don’t have much spare time and are willing to pay for things that accelerate their progress. Some customers are mainly interested in making themselves or their surroundings more attractive. Some customers want anything that improves their social status. Etc. Customer XYZ might be willing to spend only $1 on aesthetic items, but $100 per month on functional items. Customer ABC may be the opposite. Every person is different.
There are other nuances to this issue. For example, the monetization strategies that convince a newly-active user to become a paying user may differ from the strategies that convince an old paying user to become an active payer once again. For example, imagine a game in which upgrading your avatar is an important (but costly) means of distinguishing yourself from newbs. A player might be willing to pay for the privilege of updating her avatar and distinguishing herself from newbs, but she only needs to do that once. How do you convince her to resume paying you? The answer, as before, comes down to having a diverse array of offerings that appeal to different kinds of players.
HappyFunTime: a fictional case study
To help put this in context, I’ve invented a fictional F2P game called “HappyFunTime”. You can play HappyFunTime forever without paying a dime (in other words, this is not one of those games that restricts most of its content to paying users.) HappyFunTime’s servers accommodate 2,500 active users per month. Each server costs $80 per month and eats approximately $120 in bandwidth per month. These fees consume a fixed percentage of HappyFunTime’s profit for every 2,500 active users, unlike payment processing fees (i.e. Facebook’s 30% rev share on credits) which are only incurred with paying users. There are other costs that scale with active users (for example, community moderation) but those costs don’t scale linearly, so I’m ignoring them for now.
If HappyFunTime combines subscriptions, aesthetic items, functional items, progress accelerators, etc, it can hope to generate $6,250 in revenue per server per month. That’s 125 paying users (5% of 2,500) paying $50 per month on average. Subtract 35% for all costs other than servers/bandwidth, and subtract $200 for server/bandwidth, and you get $3,863 in profit per server per month.
- This is a niche game, so we’ll assume just 50k active users. That nets us a total monthly profit of $77,260. Not bad for a niche game that converts only 5% of its players to paying customers!
- Server/bandwidth costs are eating just 3.2% of revenue in this scenario.
Now, for argument’s sake, let’s say that if HappyFunTime incorporates a flat subscription and non-functional items alone, it converts *twice* as many users to paying users. (In reality, I believe it would convert fewer players because it addresses fewer needs, but let’s run with this scenario.) HappyFunTime can now hope to generate $1,875 in revenue per server per month. That’s 250 paying users, paying $7.50 per month on average. Subtract 35% for all costs other than servers/bandwidth, and subtract $200 for server/bandwidth, and you get $1,019 in profit per server per month.
- 50k active users nets us a total monthly profit of $20,380; approximately 1/4th of the profit in the previous scenario (or just 1/8th the profit with an equivalent conversion rate of 5%.)
- Server/bandwidth costs are eating 10.7% of revenue in this scenario (or a whopping 21.4% with an equivalent conversion rate of 5%.)
In summary: because so few players actually pay anything for F2P games, the less aggressively you offer opportunities for paying users to support you, the less likely you are to be successful. And while it is possible to imagine a game that accomplishes this without selling functional items, progress accelerators, etc, that’s a hard feat to pull off.
Enough about money, what about ethics?
Some of you may still be thinking, “this still doesn’t seem ethical.” I can only respond to this by sharing how I feel. In my opinion, if the average person can enjoy playing a game for free, forever, without paying a dime, not only is the game’s design “ethical”, it’s practically charitable compared to the arcade games of the past. Or, for that matter, compared to $60 console games (given that I only have a few hours to play any given game, I frequently resent paying $60 for a bunch of content I neither need nor want.)
For that matter, I consider even the more aggressive monetization schemes in F2P games to be *far* preferable to the old TV model. Forcing me to watch 10 minutes of advertising for every 20 minutes of content feels abusive (if not akin to brainwashing.) I much prefer the opt-in monetization systems of F2P games.
Ultimately, ethical questions like this are highly subjective, and I neither expect nor wish to convince anyone of my opinion. This is how I feel about the work that I’m personally doing. Your mileage may vary.
Several months ago, my wife Eve had a blood test and was subsequently informed by her physician that she was “very” deficient in vitamin D (also known as the “sunshine vitamin” because our bodies naturally generate it when exposed to solar UVB rays.) Since we live in Seattle, where it’s perpetually cloudy for approximately three-fourths of the year, Eve’s deficiency wasn’t too surprising. She started taking vitamin D supplements, and I started doing some research on vitamin D in general. I discovered three important things:
- A very large percentage of 1st world residents are vitamin D deficient because we spend so much time indoors (and often use sunscreen when outdoors), and,
- Vitamin D deficiency is linked to a disturbingly wide range of very serious diseases, including cancer, heart disease, autism, osteoporosis and multiple sclerosis, and,
- Because the “daily recommended minimum” intake of vitamin D is 400 IU (the amount found in many multi-vitamins), many people mistakenly believe that a multi-vitamin is a sufficient source of vitamin D even if, like me, you go weeks at a time without significant sun exposure. Even people who get sun exposure before or after work may not be entirely OK; most UVB radiation penetrates the Earth’s atmosphere from approximately 10am to 3pm. The National Institute of Health recommends 5 to 30 minutes of sun exposure between those times at least twice a week, sans sunscreen, to people who wish to self-synthesize the recommended minimum amount of vitamin D.
Much of the available data about vitamin D presents a paradox that confuses many people. Vitamin D can be toxic in extremely high doses, so people are afraid to consume too much. On the other hand, if you investigate dosage limits, you’ll learn that just 30 minutes of full body sun exposure (at the right time of day) will cause the average person to synthesize 10,000 IU of vitamin D — 25 times the daily recommended minimum — which suggests that it’s pretty darn hard to overdose on vitamin D, but which also might make you think you don’t need supplements if you get any sun whatsoever. Unfortunately, for the reasons I mentioned earlier, most indoor office workers would probably still benefit from approximately 1,000 to 2,000 IU of vitamin D supplements per day (2.5x to 5x the daily recommended minimum.) At least, that’s what the experts say.
So, a few months ago, I started taking 2,000 IU regularly. Then, a few weeks ago, I visited my doctor and asked for a vitamin D blood test. The outcome? My vitamin D level was “slightly low.” I don’t even want to know what it looked like before I began taking supplements.
The ironic thing about me writing this post is that I’m a pretty serious skeptic when it comes to supplements of any kind. And for good reason: most studies have demonstrated little-to-no benefit from the vast majority of popular supplements. In fact, some well-regarded physicians have gone so far as to say that every supplement except vitamin D is a complete waste of money. A more balanced take on supplements can be found in this fantastic diagram, which visually depicts the varying levels of research supporting any given supplement. You’ll notice that very few supplements other than vitamin D and omega 3 make the cynic’s cut. My own physician heartily recommends both those supplements, and none other.
The bottom line is that, as of now, there’s enough evidence to support vitamin D supplementation for most indoor office workers. Of course, given the pretty dismal track record of even our most prestigious healthcare research institutions, I wouldn’t be surprised if ten years from now new studies dispute the benefits of supplementation. But I’ll take my chances (and heck, maybe I’ll even buy one of those UVB reptile sun lamps… it might help improve my mood during the long, dark Seattle winter!)
“People are willing to pay for magic.”
That’s what my friend Brian replied when I told him that no one in Microsoft’s target audience would purchase an Xbox plus Kinect for a minimum price of $300 when they either A) own a Wii already, or, B) can purchase a Wii (with MotionPlus, Wii Sports and Wii Sports Resort) for just $200. Brian, as I frequently must admit, is a perceptive fellow.
People are indeed very willing to pay for magic. They have lined up around the block to pay $500 minimum for a slice of magical iGoodness from Apple. They lined up to watch Avatar in 3D (multiple times.) And they — that is, we — will continue to line up for the products and services that dazzle us, recession or no.
So, if you want to know who “won” E3, perhaps one way to figure that out is to apply a magic test to the products that were unveiled there.
By essentially copying the Wiimote’s nunchuck, Sony forfeited one of the few ways it might have differentiated the Move from the Wiimote w/ MotionPlus. Furthermore, the Move games I played exhibited noticeable lag, despite frequent assertions from booth attendees that the Move is lag-free. Lastly, there was nothing in the Move 1st party content portfolio that particularly stood out for me (Ubisoft’s Child of Eden was thoroughly intriguing… but also multi-platform.)
Verdict: magic tricks lose their luster after we’ve seen them too many times. This trick is getting old.
I’ve been waiting a long time for someone to make camera-based games that actually work. And there’s no question that controlling your media center with your voice and a wave of the hand is a magical experience, in theory. (How many people spend a small fortune on a universal remote? Now imagine that, minus the remote, plus a system that recognizes you on sight, and you’re starting to appreciate the possibilities.) Interestingly, pre-orders have made Kinect the #1 best-seller in the video game category on Amazon.com for the past six days; a clear signal that many people have bought into the initial hype. And finally, I will personally attest to having witnessed many people (usually women) positively cooing with pleasure while watching Kinect demos at E3. (Mostly Ubisoft’s fitness offering and Harmonix’s delightful Dance Central.)
That might or might not be enough. Nobody wants a universal remote that doesn’t work when you’re sitting. Being a Jedi loses some of its appeal when you’re paralyzed from the waist down. Noticeable lag isn’t a deal-breaker, but it certainly reduces the total potential number of magical experiences. And it’s still unclear how a party game works when anyone who walks into the party room can accidentally break the experience.
Verdict: very possibly magical… as long as you’re not sitting down, not in a crowded room, and not hardcore.
You turn it on and play games in 3D. No glasses. No excuses. It just works. Today, you get Kid Icarus dodging lasers in 3D. Tomorrow, it’s a safe bet you’ll get Mario hopping into your face.
Now that’s unadulterated magic.
The Magic Test, in summary
If you’ve seen it before, it’s probably not magic. If it doesn’t work the way you feel that it should (or doesn’t work in “normal circumstances”) then it’s probably not magic. But if it’s novel, fun, and just works, then you just might have magic on your hands. This test can be applied to game development, not just hardware development.
Don’t take my word for it. Just think about any performance given by the world’s greatest magician.
No, not Houdini. Steve Jobs, of course!
I’ve decided to stop posting “articles of interest” and start simply making better use of the content sharing features in Google Reader. GR converts my shared items into a feed, so you don’t need to be using GR to access my shared items; just subscribe to my GR feed as you would to anything else. That said, I highly recommend GR if you aren’t using it already (and apparently my readership agrees — over 70% of you are using GR. Talk about a monopoly!)
For those of you who visit this website regularly but don’t subscribe to the feed, I’ve added links to my GR shared items at the bottom of the left-hand navigation menu on the site.
I’ve been casually tracking the daily active user numbers for the top 40 Facebook game developers for the past six weeks. Why the top 40? Because that’s the quantity displayed by Appdata.com on the first of 200 pages. Why daily active users? Because monthly active user numbers are widely considered to be an unreliable statistic for Facebook games, whereas DAU is, if not perfect, at least more directionally accurate.
I was mostly curious to learn how “hit makers” are faring on Facebook. (The 40th developer on the list has just 200k daily active users, so it’s safe to assume that all the heavy hitters are represented in the top 40 list.) Facebook’s total population has supposedly been growing by leaps and bounds over the past several months — it jumped from 350m “active” to 400m in the three months leading up to February 2010) so theoretically daily active users for the top 40 game developers should be growing as well, if for no other reason than there are more potential customers on the platform. However, it turns out the DAU count is down slightly since March.
How about Zynga, the king of Facebook?
How about EA+Playfish, Crowdstar & Playdom (2nd, 3rd and 4th place behind Zynga, respectively)?
All flat-to-slightly-negative, with the exception of EA+Playfish which experienced a small increase in DAU over the same time period. Coincidentally, Gamasutra and Inside Social Games jumped on this story on Friday (two days ago), identifying the falling active user numbers and blaming the drop entirely on “recent changes in the way Facebook manages notifications.” You should be skeptical about that assertion. While changes to FB notifications may well be having a significant impact, the larger issue is simply that Facebook has clearly entered the inevitable misery phase, which I predicted just a few months ago.
The Facebook game development scene has become crowded. Facebook’s platform managers are making decisions that are unpopular with many of their developers and looking to monetize developer activity more aggressively. And the average “hit game” has yet to shift from the “early glory” stereotype to the Facebook game of the future (whatever that might be.) To use a historical example, Facebook is like the MMO market when it was all about Everquest — just waiting for a World of Warcraft to show people what a truly successful social game actually looks like. Of course, Facebook’s WoW won’t look anything like WoW itself, and may not even have a higher development budget than the games launching on Facebook today. It will definitely have a better retention rate, better monetization, and better (less spam-like) viral functionality.
Remember all those VCs and pundits saying it’s too late to become a top dog on Facebook? The guys currently choking the halls of one-too-many social gaming summits? To heck with those guys. The next several months (and perhaps longer) are going to be very ugly for the Facebook game development community. Lots of small developers are going to lose money. We may even see a big Facebook developer collapse under the ungainly weight that they have packed on while attempting to bloat their revenues pre-acquisition/pre-IPO. But this phase will end, and when it does, Facebook’s “triumphant return” is going to make XBLA’s triumphant return look like peanuts by comparison. The only question is: who will ride that wave and who will drown before it arrives?
PS. If anyone has access to the complete DAU data for Facebook — i.e. all 200 pages of it — I’d be curious to know if there’s any meaningful evidence of Long Tail activity over the past several months. If there’s anywhere the Long Tail should be manifesting itself, it’s Facebook IMO.
PPS. If you’d like to download the data I used for those charts, please feel free to grab it here. It took a while to get the data in useable form so I’ll be glad if someone else finds use for it. :-)
Update: interesting to note that on May 7th, around the same time as Gamasutra’s article, Techcrunch revealed that Zynga and Facebook are currently in the midst of a very ugly war and Wired published an article labeling Facebook “rogue” and advocating for a new social standard. Last Friday was truly a nasty start to Facebook’s inevitable misery phase.
For a trip down memory lane, check out this old TV commercial for Super Mario Bros 2:
What I find interesting about this commercial (aside from the cheesiness) is how pure it is. Unlike its predecessor, Super Mario Bros 2 was a game about defeating your enemies by throwing stuff at them as opposed to jumping on them. So Nintendo focused their commercial almost exclusively on that aspect of the game.
If the first Super Mario game was all about “amazing jumping” (as Miyamoto has supposedly said), then the sequel added and focused on “amazing throwing.” The developers got it. The marketers got it. And not surprisingly, the rest of us got it, too.
What’s the essence of your game? Can you say it in a few words? Can everyone else you’re working with say it in a few words?
If not, why not?