Deconstructing: Nimblebit – Bit City

The latest release from Nimblebit features the Bitizens and this time they’ve used an idle/clicker/tapper crossed with a city builder in their new release of Bit City (iOS / Android). I’ve been a long time fan of the Nimblebit team, started by the brothers Dave and Ian Marsh back in 2007 but expanded to a number of other key staff. My personal favourite game of theirs was Tiny Tower, but I’ve also played and churned out from most of their newest releases. Pocket Frogs deserves a design mention as it still has one of the best collection/rarity mechanics of any game that I’ve played on mobile. Nimblebit specialises in creating a collecting or simulation experience around common everyday objects.

Bit City’s core mechanic is an endless economic growth game and the aim of the game is to progress through the 8 increasingly sprawling cities to generate the most income per second.

Clickers in General

The clicker or idle genre is one of the more recent but extremely popular free to play mechanics that we’ve seen on mobile. There are some great reasons why the mechanic itself has been present in many large successes such as Adventure Capitalist, Tap Titans or Egg Inc. At it’s core, the loop for a clicker is very simplistic. You’re trying to improve your rate of earning, in order to buy items to increase your rate of earning.

idle-games-clickers-core-loop

The simplicity of the core loop is both a blessing and a hindrance. The fact that everything you do in the game contributes to making you better at what you do (earning currency) feels very rewarding.

Every action is a positive action.

The hindrance comes when you eventually find the core interaction (tapping as fast as you can) repetitive and boring. In some clicker games, this can happen very fast. So, as a game designer, you eventually shift the player’s motivation from tapping to something that will last much longer. The clicker game genre eventually shifts into a strategy of choosing what to upgrade next. In Tap Titans 2 a player is strategically shifted from upgrading characters to gathering gear, pets or items. All of these have random drops and XP to give much more strategic depth. Upgrading anything feels good, but timing and choice matter.

No one can be expected to be active in a game forever which is where the idle aspect of most clickers come in. While you’re away your game is playing itself, constantly growing your earnings. That way when you come back, a stockpile of cash for you to quickly spend and improve to feel powerful. This happens every time you come back, whether it’s 10 minutes or 10 hours, the size of the stack changes but the feeling of reward stays the same.

The genre itself appeals to a certain type of gamer. Those obsessed with finding the most efficient and time-effective way to improve their progress (in the form of earning rate). Sometimes referred to as min/maxers finding 1-2% efficiency in upgrade choice is rewarding as you are progressing. Yet even the casual player feels good, you’re constantly making progress but at a lower rate. If you’re more interested in story and context then you will often not feel as excited about idle games. It is a game for fans of stats and numbers.

Bit City – Context provides content

Idle games began on the web with titles such as Cookie Clicker or Cow Clicker released around 2012-2014. These games were incredibly simple. They drew huge numbers of returning users every day as the objective of “having the highest number” is so clear and powerful for players.

nullnull

In more recent times games such as Adventure Capitalist, Tap Titans, Farm Away, Make it Rain have re-skinned the mechanic and given a context to the clicking. Context helps with design decisions as you immediately add more depth. Depth provides you with content and that content can better mask the simple stat progression. Player’s decide their goal is to “build the greatest city” rather than to “get the highest number” and this creates a better sales pitch if and when they tell their friends about your game. Context helps you design and it helps you sell, use it to your advantage and don’t neglect it by slapping it on at the end of development.

Bit City provides much more context to the clicking experience by using a city and it’s buildings to provide more visual substance and reference to the core loop. The City Context is a good one, used in multiple genres it’s easy to reference, has great depth and is applicable to people from all countries. Bit City uses this to great effect, but adding Building Zones, Cars, Planes, City Hall and Windmills each contributing to your currency earning.

Clicking = Building

Core Interaction of Bit City

The core mechanic of tapping furiously on the screen has been removed in favour of the idea of building. One must purchase and classify lots so that buildings of specific type are built. Buildings then fill each lot and the large Build button upgrades and refreshes the building on each lot for a small increase in coins per second earning power. The upgrading of buildings is endless and rather than getting stuck in a content farm black hole, the buildings are upgraded at random. Every upgrade levels up the block and each subsequent upgrade adds 1 second to the total time required to build the next block, leading in the later game to upgrades take minutes. Choice of which block to upgrade is removed from the player through randomisation and the player is taught very quickly that every upgrade is beneficial.

This is a very strong mechanic for a number of reasons:

  • Thematically it makes sense. Your city changes with time and you can position blocks in certain areas to make your city look beautiful
    • You may also lock in place any buildings you particularly like allowing the creatives build beautiful masterpieces of a modern renaissance!
  • Choice paralysis is removed because you don’t need to choose what to upgrade and all upgrades are beneficial.
  • Build timers slow down sessions giving people incentive to leave.

As a pacing mechanic, it continues to engage at all stages of the game. This is often one area that other clickers loose me on as in the mid-late game, I simply stop clicking…

City Planning

Simplicity and clarity are always key design decisions for mobile game developers. People spend a few minutes at a time with your game and so everything needs to be clear and make sense in an instant. The choices available to a player in Bit City always relate to upgrades. The most profitable upgrade you can do is buying a new building for your city as each building provides a larger base earning rate. A really nice design feature is the idea of city zoning. There are 3 zones, Residential, Industrial and Commercial. Within this feature is a lot of shallow depth, that is there are a very large number of options and possibilities but as a player, the way they affect the game is incredibly minor. They do not affect the core in any way, they simply provide a route to micro-optimisation, reinforcing the fun of clickers.zoning-bit-city

Each building zone is balanced by providing a 10% bonus or 10% deficit depending on the overall % of zones, this promotes people to build in an ordered manner. At certain times you may want to opt for larger investments in certain zones because both the Mission system and the City Bonus system provide bonus’ specifically based on type of building built. This is a good use of shallow depth again. Most people would not obsess over the minutiae of which building to build, but to really get the most optimisation at each minute of gameplay it might be valuable to invest in specific zones at specific times.

Missions with increasing reward

Another clever design decision is to reward ever increasing premium currency (Bux) by completing missions. Missions usually revolve around building, improving or owning some upgrade or building. mission-system-bit-city

There is only one mission available at a time and they seem to be structured to appear in a specific order. Rather than having a small payout with lots of quick missions to teach people the mechanics, Nimblebit have used missions to give players a longer term goal. The cleverest of these is the ownership of 2 of the same building types i.e (2 Baseball Fields).

Mission systems are one of the classic mid-term progression systems. They provide a steadying hand and a focus for players when options of what to do open up. The best mission systems are usually curated or at least missions are grouped and then provided based on XP level.

The Premium Currency (Bux) are gifted in 10 bux increasing increments. This is risky, as it becomes a significant source of Bux in the mid game. I think the progression is a nice touch but the size of the progression is too high, it would have worked just as well say, 10,12,14 etc. At mission 13 I’m on 130 Bux which is equivalent to $0.13. Each mission can take an hour or more, but sometimes you might complete 2 or 3 in a few minutes. Although it might not seem a lot it lessens the requirement to spend. In the mid-game, it’s most profitable to focus on and perform the mission at hand. Balancing the rewards and spend of the premium currency is definitely one area that Bit City could improve on.

Progress, Profits, Prestige

Modern clickers increase the gameplay depth over time in a number of ways. These usually either increase the speed of clicks (Faster), the value of a click (More) or automating the clicking process entirely (auto). Each of these upgrades has a clear and tangible benefit, they help you gain more currency quicker, give your players a choice: do you invest in yourself being active in the game, or invest in the time you’re inactive?

Each city comes with a set number of plots. 4 for a level 1 city, 8 for a level 2 city etc. As you build more buildings you start to max out your plots. As soon as you have maxed your plots a new city unlocks and you sacrifice all of your upgrades and buildings to start again. This creates a clear goal for gamers and eases gamers into the game via small cities. As you progress the cost of each new building starts to become prohibitively expensive which encourages you to want to sacrifice everything in order to prestige to obtain Keys which will speed up everything in your game for the entirety of your play time.

 

null
System Diagram of Nimblebit – Bit City

 

What’s very pleasing compared to other clicker games is that the speed of progress is managed by a multiple limiting factors. Limits by multiple sources feel elegant rather than a strong single limiting factor. First, the coins themselves slow progress as you can’t build enough buildings, then the plots limit progress on one city as you max them out and finally the cities themselves become prohibitively expensive unless the global tap multiplier is improved by prestiging.

Prestige is very important as it adds ebbs and flows to an otherwise linear progression. Every time you do prestige you suddenly feel incredibly powerful as you race through early content, this is important as rather than having to create more complexity players are re-engaging with the game and reinforcing the simple systems of the game and progressing incredibly quickly. Bit City has created “mini- prestige’s” every time you upgrade to a new city once you have maxed out your plots. With every reset there is a sense of loss but also a sense of growth, getting your players used to this feeling helps them engage with the main Prestige mode.

null

In the mid to late game idle games, prestige currencies become the main goal in Bit City these are Keys. It’s very important to get the balance and the feel of Keys right. In Bit City, Keys feel underpowered as the quantity of keys provided when you prestige is too small. A user wants to feel progress at close to double the previous rate when they sacrifice all of their upgrades. Doubling up whilst keeping a logarithmic increase in the power curve of costs equates to half the time spent getting back to where you previously were. One you reach your old position the logarithmic power curve kicks back in and really winds back a player’s progress to a snail’s pace forcing them to prestige again.

A player chooses when to jump to the next prestige level and effectively picking at the right time can jump you onto a much more powerful curve. Great game design in this area wouldn’t use perfect logarithmic numbers but would add some randomness and inconsistencies to make it a guessing game for the player to find out if they are maxed out at an inefficient area of the curve.

 

Time taken to reach a city in bit city.  Prestige levels and number of hours are representative and not factually correct.

 

UI / UX

It’s not mentioned in mobile how important the user interface is for a game. Especially in these management style games with large amounts of details, getting information across clearly and concisely is a challenge on a small screen. Nimblebit do a number of great reinforcements.

  1. bit-city-star-towerYour key measure of progress is represented as a large central number of coins per second present on every screen.
  2. The build button (the button you click the most) is larger, more centralised and stands out from the rest.
  3. The subtle nuances of the game such as plot size, or building type are reiterated to you when you need the information, such as the quest system (large service)
  4. Before you make a large choice there is always a confirmation screen ensuring you are happy with your decision.

 

This attention to detail of the user’s journey removes frustration from the game. It allows you to choose where to focus your attention on to complete one or two of the tasks at a time and speed up your progress. A nice font and simple language make it enjoyable to read.

Monetising – Keep a tight grip

I’ve spent $10 so far in Bit City. For that, I got 10,000 bux. Bux are the only premium currency and are used to speedup progress, buy city upgrades that persist through prestige mode as well as unlocking certain famous buildings that provide enhanced bonus’. I feel that this was the point where the game design suffered.

  1. Bux are not a rare currency within the game. You can get 10s if not 100s of bux by completing missions or taping on vehicles that randomly drop bux, as a free player you can often buy a few persistent upgrades. When purchasing these upgrades there is no delight, magic or drama and as a player, all you see is your bux amount slowly draining. Purchasing the unlock of rare buildings was also much the same with a simple UI transition from locked to unlocked within the building card screen.
  2. No early conversion purchase. The Builder in Clash of Clans or World Multipliers in Adventure Capitalist, which immediately are the best bang for your bux! *pun intended…
  3. Gauging the value of upgrades is difficult. For instance, Market Gains for 1000+ bux increases your Bank Savings rate by 1%. This feels minor but would have a huge effect on the earning power itself. Rather than so clearly affecting such a powerful rate, investing in 20% cheaper bank upgrades would have had a similar effect to the player but would be immediately noticeable.
  4. No sense of mystery or delight when spending bux at any point. All bux are spent with a simple click and a UI change.
  5. No random drops. With it’s huge array of buildings creating a clear building rarity scale and then having a random drop element would make every bux much more exciting to spend. Random rewards have spikes of joy, rather than a focussed

I suspect the number of people purchasing bux will be low, simply because the number given out in-game is very high and people can immediately get a sense of what it would be like to have 1000s of them by spending a few hundred that they got for free. Games with great conversion rates keep the pressure on players to want to spend by constantly showing the value of having premium currency to progress. Bit City treats bux too loosely and as such the pressure to get my wallet out is low.

Video Ads – Double Time

I suspect that the game’s primary monetization route would be video ads. There is currently only one method to engage with a video ad through the opt-in button called “Double Time”. The value proposition here is strong, for a short period of time, double everything. Directly doubling the speed of progression is the best feeling for a player because it directly contributes to that core loop. Things that feel great in-game are strongest when they contribute to your progression directly. Clickers, by their very nature, are all about progress and so the reward is clear and easy to feel.

Unlocks happen more regularly I can build more buildings and progress shows a real gain. The upgrade itself is time limited to 10 minutes but with bux can be upgraded to 15 or more minutes. This again is a clever gamble as by getting people to potentially invest in an IAP they then encourage more video views, which if you remember is a key KPI for increasing monetization from video ads.

The major issue here is that there are not more ways to engage with video to improve those views per DAU that lead to more revenue. The 10-minute bonus is strong, but what about a 4h increase in the Bank Savings rate? Watch a video ad to upgrade a building directly would provide so many more places that a user could click the Watch button, increasing its adoption. The classic Double Up bonus for all returning players could be run once every 24 hours in order to highly incentivize at least one valuable video view per day. There is huge scope for expanding video ads integration.

Conclusion – Great Core, Monetization need Tightening

Bit City is a great example of expanding clicker mechanics into new genres. City Building and Clickers make a great match because of the depth in buildings and environment that are available to the team. Nimblebit have done a really good job of pacing the game across multiple cities causing you to have clear evolutions in your progress as well as allowing you to prestige at any time, making it your own decision. The type of upgrades and the thematic choice of upgrades fit nicely, all contributing to a busy and bustling city experience. The UI and UX of the game itself is also neat, simple and clear making playing the game an enjoyable experience.

The game’s biggest weakness will be its monetization. It’s very loose usage of Bux as a reward currency and the fact that players can only interact with video once per session without enough cues from the UI. The value of that video view is high so it should see good usage, but providing your most engaged and active players with more ways to watch would see many more views per DAU.

The games a great addition for the Bitizens and well worth a play!

Understanding the value chain for Mobile Video Ads

Video ad revenue now accounts for a large proportion of most casual free to play mobile games. Companies like Hipster Whale, Futureplay and the publisher Ketchapp have built business models focussed on rewarded video ads. This shows many of the similarities of the shift from premium to freemium. As an indie developer it’s relatively simple to drop a video ad into your game, but do you understand where the money comes from? In this piece we breakdown how the flow of money gets from the advertiser to your bank account.

Disclaimer: I have no affiliation and do not work for any of the partners mentioned, this guide is meant as a reference to understand where value resides and what motivates the companies involved.

mobile-video-ad-value-chain

Making Money

Put simply, you use video ads to earn money and you earn money because advertisers pay to show videos to your players that drive installs of their app. As a rule of thumb the more videos you show the more money you will earn. With that in mind, your intention as a developer should be to increase the view count of videos shown to your users if you want to earn more money.

However, every view does not always equate to cash in the bank. The reason for this is that as an advertiser you want to pay for valuable actions. In the world of mobile, that ultimately means an install of an app. Developers only make money from the players who ultimately watch the full ad, click, then install the app. Every view should give you the best chance that a user will complete the video and are there more likely to install.

Your core KPI to maximising revenue is completed views per daily active user.

As you are unable to control a player’s behaviour after they have watched a video, you should focus on what you can control, the display and timing of the video. Within your games, your core KPI to maximising revenue is completed views per daily active user. Any number above 1 would be considered reasonable and over 4 would be considered very good! So set yourself the challenge of finding out what your current completed views per DAU is, then try to improve it.

Debunking the Myths of Video Ads

Most of the literature around video ads is unsurprisingly written by ad networks themselves. In each case, they have a mission to encourage the uptake of ads and are likely to involve selection bias to draw more positive conclusions.  On the flipside, game developers who believe that video ads break experiences, ruin gameplay and alienate users might want to change their opinion.

Myth 1 – Video Ads Decrease Retention

Yaniv Nizan gave an interesting report on match 3 games showed decreases in D1 retention of around 0.5% but increases in revenue of over 89% for android or 278% for iOS. In this case, the negligible loss in retention is worthwhile when compared to the revenue earned. In my experience I’ve not seen vast changes in retention due to video ads as fundamentally retention is driven by your ability to bring players back to the game and adverts don’t promote or dissuade players from starting up your app. When video ads are placed in areas where a user opts in to watch and a cooldown timer is used to limit viewing, the rewards and bonus associated with the video can even draw players to come back in order to watch more videos for the rewards!

Myth 2 – Video Ads Lower Engagement

Fuse Powered (a mediation company) analysed 6 million players to show that the 9% of users that watched a video ad were 6X more likely to make a purchase. Again this statistic may be misleading as the 9% of users who watched a video are very likely to be your most engaged users. Video views tend to aggregate at the top end of your player base as they value your in-game currency the highest. Rather than any video ad lowering engagement directly, the cohorts that watch on average remain more engaged in games in general. Don’t make the mistake that the ad itself, led to the engagement. Engagement is created by the desire for the valuable currency to spend in your game. Giving players an opportunity to progress with premium currency without buying an IAP is a strong incentive to engage and keep playing.

Don’t make the mistake that the ad itself, led to the engagement.

Myth 3 – Video Ads Decrease In-App Purchase Revenue

If you analyse the top grossing chart then many of the top grossing free games will not run rewarded video advertising. This might be considered a missed opportunity as video ads have been shown to improve ARPDAU, but in the case of a top grossing game losing highly valuable users to your competition is a bad long term strategy.

That said, there are many games that are top grossing and do have in-app-purchases and rewarded video. It’s a choice that you as a developer will need to gauge via your own data, typically you might look for:

  • If your 90 day LTV of your players is under $1 then you should be looking to increase earnings via video ads.
  • If you have a very large cohort (1 million+ MAU) of players that are actively engaged then you can increase earnings via video ads.
  • If your overall conversion rate from Player → Payer is below 1% then video ads will allow you to leverage the 99% of non-payers.

If the opposite of these statements is true for your game then consider reading the monetisation articles on improving ARPU in the Free to Play Bible. If you have the ability to either A/B test or remote configs then a common technique is to stop showing video ads to your payers or to only switch on video ad monetisation after a period of non-paying days.

The Mobile Video Value Chain

Advertisers (demand)

advertisersWithin the industry, there are many different names for the clients on this side of the value chain: demand, publishers, brands, but I like to use “advertisers” as these are the people who pay for the adverts. Within the mobile video ad space, there are actually a relatively low number of advertisers that make up the majority of spend on the platforms. This is because running effective large campaigns can cost many $100,000+ per day. Overall the number of advertisers on mobile and their total spend continue to grow each year and show no sign of slowing.

It’s important to understand that an advertiser will only run a campaign (a video ad on an advertising network) if they are going to generate more value than the cost of the campaign. In simple terms, they usually need to equate an ad campaign to an LTV > CPI to be able to continue to run the ads.

One of the reasons rewarded video ads have become so popular is their ability to actually drive views. Every video watched is opt-in from the player who has chosen to spend the next 30 seconds to watch whatever is presented to them in order to receive a valuable reward. This works well for both gamers and advertisers as people want to watch the video at that point in time. This is why rewarded video has been one of the areas where advertisers have continued to spend big.

Screen-Shot-2017-01-19-at-12.58.52-PM.png
Nanigans

Ad Networks

Ad networks can get a bad rep… but they are good for one thing… they tend to throw lavish parties with lots of free drinks! 🎉

null
You may not like Ad guys, but they’re your best bet for driving revenue from high DAU – Low LTV games.

An ad network’s role is to talk to advertisers (i.e. Machine Zone) to run a campaign to promote apps across their network. Each campaign has different targeting (French/Dutch/German, Women, over 25) and objectives (Drive installs) and the network aims to optimise against achieving that objective. Every Ad Network has positives and negatives which can be hard to find out in advance. However, unlike the old days of print or tv advertising, a number of standard convention KPI’s that all networks provide. Comparing these numbers between networks is key to choosing which network is best for your game.

Acronym eCPM CTR Fill Rate
Meaning Earnings per 1000 views shown Click-thru-rate Requests that receive a video.
Good Value (estimate) $12-20 – T1 Country

$5-10 – T2 Country

1-5% >99%

Ad networks can be private, where you receive content from a single source i.e Unity Ads or be a larger DSP (Demand Side Platforms) i.e Mobvista that aggregate lots of different ad campaigns from multiple sources.

Ad Networks tend to be very protective of their campaigns and run them exclusively on their own controlled SDKs. Demand side platforms usually allow the advertisers finer grain details of where they want to run their adverts, device, size, geo’s or even within specific apps (blacklist/whitelist). A reasonable list to check out for good ad networks from 2016 is on the Soomla site. If you’re just starting out and focussed on the US market then I would recommend Unity Ads, Applovin and AdColony as 3 networks to start with. Other smaller niche networks can work much better in other countries such as Yandex for the Russian Market. If your game starts to scale significantly, spend more time researching this field in particular.

How Do DSPs Work?

Demand Side Platforms (DSP’s) make it easier for an advertiser to buy across multiple, discrete inventory sources. The aggregate lots of different advertising channels into their single platform. DSP’s may strike a deal directly with a single large app developer for all of their views, or be working in partnership with an ad network to provide extra inventory at peak times. Due to their scale, often larger brands such as Nike or McDonlads would work with DSPs to reach the widest possible audience in the simplest way. With a single login and dashboard – running, reporting and optimising campaigns at large scales becomes much easier.

Facebook – The Biggest, Baddest Ad Network of Them All

facebook network

The largest video ad network on mobile is Facebook. Unlike the other ad networks, Facebook handles all the infrastructure and tracking that is needed from the ad network to the store and even controls the display of the advertising in the apps themselves (Facebook / Instagram). This gives Facebook a huge advantage when attracting cash-rich advertisers to spend on their network as they know much more about the user and can present the user with a more relevant video. Facebook fiercely guards this data about their users and advertisers and platforms must abide by Facebook’s rules if they want to use the platform. This helps facebook maintain high-quality ads for its users.

fb.jpg

The total mobile ad spend of 2016 is estimated to be around $40 billion and Facebook has around 1.15 billion mobile users in 2016. This huge user base is also very loyal with 66% of users logging in daily to Facebook; a metric similar to having a very high retaining game. Facebook has created its own consolidated value chain and has simplified the experience of using it from both an advertising and user perspective.

Facebook also has a lot of personal metadata about you that you willingly provide, your, age, sex and location are key pieces of data, but every like, interaction and comment can be used to guess what type of person you are. All this information allows facebook to show more relevant ads to you that you are more likely to click on and install. Inevitably this is why facebook can command higher prices for similar advertising space.

Mediation

mediation.jpgMediation companies (Fyber / Supersonic) and Supply Side platforms (SSP’s) we’re setup to help developers to optimise the delivery of advertising within their app. Their role is to switch seamlessly between ad networks in order to maximise your fill rate (the number of videos shown per request made for a video) and to show the highest paying network to your audience depending on their location or other pieces of data they have collected.

The real benefit to mediation is that as a developer you can remotely control and change your ad viewing, ad caps, network priorities and revenue reporting in one place. This benefit can save you many hours of laborious report checking and analysis to find out exactly which networks have been profitable for your game. There is no single best network or best setup: track, analyse and review on a weekly or monthly basis and adjust on what you see.

There is no single best network or best setup: track, analyse and review on a weekly or monthly basis

Mediation is usually free for developers. Although this noble endeavour of making a developer more money, most independent mediators have now been acquired or aggregated into ad networks themselves: Fyber by RNTS Media for $190 million and Supersonic by IronSource for an undisclosed fee. This allows a mediator to force a percentage of the views to their ad network of choice for which they might be reimbursed.

As a game developer adding a mediator requires a small amount of work, but it often provides you with a much more stable platform to track, analyse and review your ad networks. For that reason, I would always recommend either using a mediator or mediating SDKs yourself using a simple remote config to switch between ad network providers.

Game Developer (Supply)

 

image2.png

You sit in the middle of the value chain. Creators of hit, fun experiences that encourage gamers to play and come back every day. Without a hit game, there would be very few people watching any of the videos.

A game developer’s primary goal is and should always be, make a fun experience that people want to come back and play again. Never lose sight of this when creating a game. Advertising slots around your experience and should not detract from it. Players are not against watching videos in order to earn valuable virtual currency. However, if there are intrusive or large un-skippable video at awkward periods within the app you are going to frustrate your user base. For videos to be effective and enjoyable you should always make them opt-in to view and allow a gamer to choose when and where to watch. This will increase engagement and video completes.

You have the audience, fundamentally that is where the value lies

You’re also the decision maker to which SDKs will be integrated. There is a lot of value to the ad companies if they can have their SDK in your game. If you have a very large audience (1 million+ DAU) then you may be able to negotiate better rates with partners. Put your business hat on and be shrewd! You have the audience, fundamentally that is where the value lies. The data of how your users play, who your users are and whether they have paid or not are all pieces of information that are highly lucrative to all parties across the value chain.

Attribution

attribution.jpgAttribution sits after the video has been shown to the user. These companies are responsible for tracking the install and reporting back to the Networks who was responsible for driving this user to install the game. They act as a 3rd party intermediary on the whole video ad value chain. They are also one of the only parties in the value chain that are able to charge directly for their service. Usually, they make money by charging advertisers a cost per install tracked and so add a layer of cost to any ad campaign.

Fraud prevention is becoming more and more important as the rate of fraud is increasing with an estimation that almost 34% of all traffic is susceptible to fraud. Fraudulent traffic, such as fake installs or click-stuffing damages the whole ecosystem as it results in bad traffic. Advertisers see less value and so stop spending money on the network. Attribution attempts to pick up on these fraudulent users quickly and ban them from the ecosystem.

Third party intermediary ad networks rely on attribution to determine which ad network served the ad that led to the last click before install. This makes a big difference if you are a large publisher who is running tens if not hundreds of campaigns on multiple sources because you only want to pay once for the install. There are a large number of legal hoops that an attribution network jumps though to ensure trust for its clicks. As a smaller developer, you may not need to add in attribution if you are running a small ad campaign on a single source. Facebook and Google and many of the other video ad networks provide valid attribution for free if you advertise on their networks and you use their SDKs.

As mobile video spend grows, fraud becomes more lucrative and this part of the value chain will become more and more important for advertisers.

Stores (Apple and Google)

All installs occur via Apple and Google and so all clicks created by videos will end with a visit to their respective stores. As neither Apple nor Google gives much information about what users do on the stores it was the black box of the mobile world. Since 2015 both stores have started to give some data back to game developers in the form of store analytics, but they don’t provide this data to ad partners directly and so the post-click journey of a user is not visible and therefore hard to optimise for.

The stores add direct value to the whole chain as installs of games drive new users who may purchase in-app purchases or create brand loyalty and awareness by apps rising up the charts. The fact that there are only two major stores left in mobile, show the power they both wield and staying on the right side of both Apple and Google is a must for any mobile developer.

Conclusion – What should I do now?

With a clearer idea of the value chain in the mobile ad space, you should understand what value companies provide and who to talk to at different stages of development. Try to take some action in your current project to improve ad implementation:

Small Game (10k MAU) – If you are not using a mediation company, find one. Get 2-3 ad networks that you know and trust and add video ads to your shop for free gems. Focus on observing the number of views and as the game grows, get better at event tracking how your users interact with video. Use this to learn what a baseline is for video views in your game.

Mid Game (100k MAU) – Now it’s about increasing video views and increasing your revenue from each view. Work with your product team to think of more innovative placements to access the video, spend time making it fit within your theme, if you can A/B test ideas do this to increase completed views per DAU. In unison set out to talk to more varied ad networks who work in different Geos, Audiences or game types, you could start making more money in non-western countries etc. Try to get 4-5 networks in.

Large Game (1M MAU+) – You are likely to have a reasonable setup here and a person who is more dedicated on marketing or revenue generation. You may be working with 5-10 networks now, avoid SDK bloat. Can you work directly with a DSP? Can you cut a direct deal with an ad network? Can you approach an advertiser or a game company directly?

If video ads start to make over 50% of your revenue, can you create new features to increase views? Remember to continually compare networks revenue and tracking numbers. Work on a bi-weekly rotation to promote or demote networks within your app based on performance in particular GEOs.

In the future, I’ll be writing more article on video ads, in particular how to optimise in-game placement and get more completed views per DAU. Stay tuned!

GDC 2017 on Monetization

As promised, here are the slides from my talk at GDC 2017 on Evaluating Monetization Early.

GDC 2017: Monetization

And here is a link to the slide share for easier sharing:
https://www.slideshare.net/AdamTelfer/gdc-2017-evaluating-monetization-early

A Quick Summary:

  • Define Your Core Monetization
    • Monetization’s root comes from a long lasting urge to progress.
    • The most successful monetization mechanics come from speeding up pacing to progress. So adding and tightening pacing systems is the key to improving monetization opportunities.
    • Pacing systems which can be monetized on usually come in 4 forms: Time, Stats, Currencies and Luck. Find where in your core loop you can add additional pacing systems which make natural sense.
  • Ensure your game can scale for years
    • To be in the top grossing you need games which take years to progress, and can withstand tens of thousands of dollars of spending
    • Watch out for red flags in your prototype that it won’t scale:
      • Map out a vision of your progress over years. Do you think it will be enough?
      • Do the mechanics break? How large is your scope of stat upgrades?
      • Do the sessions break? In the mid and end game, are you asking too much of your players?
      • Does your Content scale? Can you effectively produce enough content to retain top players?
      • Does your Economy scale? Does your tight currencies remain valuable?
  • Design & Tighten Triggers for spending
    • Record down for your game the various trigger points you see players spending. Can you add more? How can you tighten these reasons?
    • Triggers Usually come in the form of these 6 forms:
      • Loss Aversion: Protecting what players believe they’ve earned
      • Vanity: Showing off to other players in the game
      • Competitiveness: Wanting to dominate the game or other players
      • Impatience: Wanting to make progress quickly
      • Investment: Investing a small amount early which reaps greater rewards in the future
      • Social: Spending for the benefit of others
    • Which of these triggers does your game have? How do you tighten these?
  • Prototype with Monetization & Pacing
    • Prototype with your pacing & monetization included to avoid misleading fun early in prototyping

Thanks for all that attended, and I hope this is useful for everyone!

Deconstructing Fire Emblem Heroes

Nintendo is the one bright light in the mobile games industry. Finally entering the fray after years of resisting the trend, since last summer Nintendo has launched 3 top grossing titles: Pokemon Go, Super Mario Run, and now Fire Emblem Heroes. Nintendo is doing what no other free-to-play developer has done. They’ve broken into a market that many have long assumed to be completely locked up.

But each release has been marked with controversy. Pokemon GO wasn’t developed by Nintendo, and Nintendo only sees a fraction of the profits. Super Mario Run was met with mediocre reviews, and many free-to-play veterans questioned whether the “Free-to-Start” model was the effective system for driving the most revenue and enjoyment from the product. Despite this controversy, Pokemon Go generated revenues of nearly $1 billion in 2016. Super Mario Run has generated $53M, and converts 5% of its player base. No matter your opinions on their approach, these are very impressive numbers.

image01

Fire Emblem Heroes is the first game in the series that feels closest to how free-to-play games on mobile have traditionally been built. It is obvious that this game was built closely with DeNA. This game shares a lot from other DeNA products and many other Japanese F2P mobile RPGs.

So far the reviews are positive for the game, from critics, players and business analysts alike. The game has already grossed more then $5M, a week after launch  and has reached near Top 10 grossing in the US, and is the #2 Top Grossing game in Japan. No doubt it will be another major success for Nintendo.

Full disclosure: I am a massive Nintendo fan boy. Just like most game developers in the industry, I grew up playing Nintendo. I’ve owned every Nintendo console since the NES and have pre-ordered the Switch just to play Zelda on launch day. I am cheering for Nintendo with every release they do on mobile. I sincerely hope that Nintendo continues to operate as the shining star in the industry as a company that continues to deliver incredibly fun, approachable games for the next decades to come.

That being said, I’ve now played Fire Emblem Heroes since its launch, and despite all the praise it’s gotten since launch there’s noticeable improvements that Nintendo will need to make to ensure the game lasts for the long term.

Let’s first take a look at what they did right: How the core of the game is designed.

The Core Loop : Tried & True

image16

The Core Loop of Fire Emblem Heroes is a proven one. Players battle, to gain rewards, to upgrade & collect more heroes. Their upgraded heroes allow them access to more challenging battles which give better and better rewards.

For this game to retain and monetize at its best, the player must always have a desire to constantly collect new heroes, and upgrade as many as possible to their maximum level.

The Gacha

To collect these heroes, you have to use the gacha-based random drop system. Players collect orbs through single player campaigns to eventually start a summon. These summons feel great. Getting a famous character is rewarded with a unique animation that really captivates the feeling of getting something unique & special (Seen below). Nintendo created a great feeling gacha flow.

image19

Summons initially cost 5 orbs. Upon summoning, the player is presented with 5 options, colour coded. As you can see with the image below, the player has 1 red, 1 blue, and 3 grey options. This colour code is coordinated with the types of units the player uses in the core battle.

image00

So the player can be strategic about choosing which colour they want. If they want a player that is of the red type, they can focus their summons on red gachas. Upon summoning, the player is presented with a character, ranging from 3 to 5 stars, depending on how lucky they are.
screen-shot-2017-02-16-at-10-46-30-pm

But Nintendo also offers another aspect to summoning. Summoning gets less expensive the more you summon from the same group. See the above image. After being presented with 5 coloured stones, the 1st selection costs 5 orbs, 2nd costs 4, 3rd costs 4, etc.  So to save substantial orbs players opt-in to grinding for more. To save 5 orbs for every 5 characters you summon, you need 20 orbs initially. An interesting design decision that gives players an extra way to optimize their grind.

Each day players are in the relentless pursuit of collecting orbs so they can summon their favourite characters from the series. Player can gather orbs from regular play. Each time they complete a single player mission, they are rewarded with a single orb. Since the difficulty of the single player missions increases quickly, the rate at which players can collect orbs slows quickly. The game shifts from quick progress to having to train your heroes often to get orbs.

This is a tried and true method of free to play monetization design. Pace the free collection of characters down to a pace that players start to want to spend in order to speed their progress back up again.

The Battle : Simple, Strategic & Stats Driven

What I believe drove the praise of this game was the core battle system. Nintendo managed to take a genre that many have attempted, and make it more mobile friendly than any other turn based strategy game that I’ve played on mobile.

The game’s orientation is in portrait, and the key interaction is just dragging and dropping your unit around the field. It feels immediately intuitive, easy to play while on the go, and I rarely make a misstep with my commands.

image05On top of a core interaction that is accessible, they managed to make the entire experience of completing a battle fit into the Starbucks test . You can complete a regular battle in roughly 40 seconds, a more strategically demanding battle in easily less than 3 minutes.

The battles are usually 4 units vs 4 opposing units, really cutting down on the amount of moves you need to make per battle. Because each map is fairly small, it usually doesn’t take very long for the main action to start. Ultimately these short, punchy battles make for a great “just one more battle!” feeling.

The Strategy

All this being said : simple interaction, small maps, small armies — this game has strategic depth. Based on the fire emblem battle systems that were designed back in 1990, Intelligent Systems (the game developer who makes the Fire Emblem series) has perfected this system over the years. Fire Emblem have been always known for their simplicity & depth. Working very well on mobile through the Gameboy Advance, DS, and 3DS years with stylus touch controls.

The battle system starts with an easy to understand rock – paper – scissors-like system. With fire emblem, its red beating green, green beating blue, blue beating red.

image13

This is easy to understand, and the game gives enough in-game cues when you’re taking advantage of this system. You can expect a 20% boost to your damage when attacking a weaker element, or a 20% reduction when fighting against a stronger element.

From here, the player can start to notice other strategic advantages they can take in battle. Archer & mage units can fire from a distance. Horseback and flying units can move quickly across terrain. Walls & mountains can make being a range unit more advantageous. Units can gain abilities that buff and de-buff other characters. There is a lot of strategic depth here which keeps each battle feeling fresh and collecting heroes relevant.

The Stats

screen-shot-2017-02-16-at-10-46-40-pm

The stats and their impact are all also very easy to understand. Atk is attack damage, which is counter to HP (Hit Points). Spd is speed, which if you have 5 more speed than an opponent, you hit twice. Def is defense, which is subtracted from the opponent’s attack when you are defending. Res is magical resistance, which is similarly subtracted when you are attacked by a magical spell.

screen-shot-2017-02-16-at-10-46-44-pm

Each time a character gains a level they are rewarded with a random selection of increased stats. This allows the actual numbers themselves to stay relatively small and understandable, and means that having two of the same character could mean different stats. Great for collectors and min/maxers.

But if these stats were pure random, you could see how builds could become unpredictable. Because the battle math is so basic (it just uses addition and subtraction), calculations could easily get out of control without Nintendo “guiding” the progress of characters to ensure that the values stay within limits. As such, it is obvious that nintendo has pre-planned the progression of each character from the beginning. While each character can have different stats, they try to stay within a controlled range and by the maximum level each character has the same amount of stat points. So no matter your luck, each character will be equal in theory, but mix/max style players can try to find duplicates of characters to find the optimal build.

But what’s important with the stats is that it supports the core loop. As stated before, the core loop only works if players constantly have pressure to upgrade their characters. This system really puts pressure on the players to level up their units. Being just a few levels under another unit could mean your Defense stat being low and taking a lot of damage. It could mean your Attack stat is just a few points lower than an opponent’s defense stat and thus can’t do any damage.

This system doesn’t leave players with much space to compete at higher levels with their strategic skill alone. They need to level up every character in their team.

Smartly by Nintendo, there is a lot of strategy in choosing who to bring into each battle. You are always given a preview of the opponent’s stat level, the makeup of their team, so you can effectively plan outside the battle who you want to bring.
screen-shot-2017-02-16-at-10-46-50-pm

This level, “Prince of Mystery” has 2 red swordsmen, an archer, and a green mage all at around level 24. I can craft my team around taking advantage of this team’s weaknesses. I can ensure that my team is around level 24 before starting the battle. This feels both strategic & puts more pressure on the core loop: collecting & upgrading a large variety of heroes.

3 Improvements for Nintendo

Overall while the core game and overall progression feel great, after playing for weeks its obvious that Nintendo still needs to fill in some of the cracks to make sure this game can last on the top grossing charts. From playing I noticed 3 issues that Nintendo should consider for their future:

#1 Gacha Drop Tiers & Rates

Nintendo did a lot right with Fire Emblem Heroes’ gacha system. They have over 60 characters in the pool to pull from, adding more every few weeks and each feeling unique and strategic. They paced their orbs so that in the beginning you feel like you’re making quick progress, but as time goes by the pacing slows down substantially.

They’ve also built a system which having a 5 star character means a lot: to upgrade a character from a lower star rating to a higher star rating takes considerable time and effort. So players are more likely to convert chasing after the 5 star character in the gacha than attempt to upgrade them from a lower star level.

screen-shot-2017-02-16-at-10-46-56-pmBut this is where the simplicity of their hero progression system starts to show some issues. To upgrade a 4 star character to 5 star takes 20,000 feathers and 20 badges. To get this type of currency takes weeks of grinding. You can get feathers from competing in the PvP Arena once per week or sending your characters home. But playing for a few weeks I have gained ~4,000 feathers, mostly from sending home 4 star players I didn’t want. To get to 20,000 is a long painful grind.

Players see clearly that to manually increase a single character’s star level is insanely difficult. This system has already seen some backlash from players, enough that Nintendo gifted out 10,000 feathers as part of a social media campaign. So the only effective way to get 5 star heroes means pulling them from the gacha pool — that must be great for monetization right?

That starts to break down when you hear experiences like this:

“…After my first day of play I had assembled a formidable team of five-star heroes, with 12 heroes of varying abilities in reserve…”
– Pocket Gamer Reviews

For myself as well, I have three 5 star heroes on my team, after spending $13 USD and a few days playing the game. I got the three 5 star heroes off of summons I didn’t pay for. I had so many free summons from regular play that it was easy to collect a wide variety of heroes. From these summons, I’ve already got three 5 star characters which helps me steamroll over the single player campaign of this game.

This could just be luck, but it seems to be happening to many players of the game. So I did some calculations:

image11

The drop rate of a 5 star hero is 6%. So every time you spend 20 orbs, you have a 26.6% chance of getting at least one 5 star hero in the pack of 5. After spending 40 orbs, there is a 50% chance you will have at least one 5 star character. Not to mention Nintendo even increases the % chance of getting a 5 star character each time you fail to get one in a summon. Nintendo is specifically designing the gacha around players getting 5 star characters fast.

Getting multiple 5 star characters on your team would be fine if Fire Emblem Heroes had enough pressure built into the core loop around collecting a large variety of heroes, but since the game is so early, this isn’t the case. After you’ve collected four 5 star heroes, you can rip through content and walk away happy from the game. Only the die hard fans — the ones who are here just to collect for the sake of collecting — will engage in the gacha.

image07
5 Gold Stars don’t matter if they happen all the time.

In the effort by Nintendo to make a player friendly feeling gacha, they’ve built a system where 5 star characters are so common that I can reach a optimal team within a week of play.

Compare this to the competition

  • In Clash Royale, it takes months to raise to the arenas necessary to get access to the legendary cards, and from there they drop at such a low percent that it takes months to get the legendary cards levelled up fully
  • In Contest of Champions it takes weeks to collect enough shards for a single 5 star hero crystal that you can redeem in game. 5 star heroes rarely ever drop in crystals collected from regular play.

So for Nintendo, for Fire Emblem to last they have to take a page from Puzzles and Dragons, Brave Frontier and other JRPGs. Introduce more star tiers with increasingly difficult gacha odds. Adjust the balancing for feathers and star progress so that it is feasible to reach a higher tier. From this, a player’s pursuit of the optimal team will take more than a week of play and a small amount of money.

#2 More Interesting Upgrade Path

Layering on top of the issue from the gacha, comes to the Upgrade system. After you’ve gotten the top 5 star character, the effort it takes to build it to its optimal level is too simple and short.

To reach the optimal build of a character:

  • The character must be 5 stars
  • Reach Level 40 by collecting XP or using shards
  • Merging a Duplicate 5 Star for an Enhancement

Each unit has a level cap of 40, which can be reached by collecting enough XP, or spending your crystals and shards. The XP required to level up gets exponentially higher, but for the most part can be completed in less than a week if you’re playing against high enough level opponents.

But to build the absolute best version of a character, you have to take one last step, merge a copy with the same star level.

screen-shot-2017-02-16-at-10-47-07-pm

So to have the highest level 5 star Marth (pictured above), you need two 5 star Marths. This is a very small chance in the Gacha (0.001% per summon), and will obviously take a long long time to do.

screen-shot-2017-02-16-at-10-47-12-pm

However, this gives only +1 level on the character. As pictured above, the character now can have a maximum level of 40+1, rather than 40. This means that the benefit of spending all the time & effort in the gacha to get the duplicate is all for a maximum of +1 to +5 battle stat points. The single level boost is just too low for too much grind.

Compare this to Galaxy of Heroes, Summoner’s War and Heroes Charge. Their upgrade systems have more systems running in parallel and typically have far more requirements to reach the optimal build:

image03

Outlined far more in detail in an older deconstruction, most F2P RPG games have 4 paths to upgrade your character to the maximum. Usually including a random drop gear system at least to make the long path to fully upgrade interesting throughout the development.

The key element that Fire Emblem is missing: If I’m lucky enough to land a 5 star character, this needs to feel like just the beginning. I should want to invest a lot of time to get this hero to their maximum potential.

This is how you ultimately craft strong long term retention in a game which drives long term success on the mobile top grossing charts.

#3 Lack of Content & Social End-Game

Free-to-play, at its foundation, is about retaining players for as long as possible. Long term retention decides your ultimate success, as I’ve spoken about at GDC, and written on this blog.

But just a week after launch, and there are many reports of players reaching the end of content. Many of these players have been moderately engaged and only spent a small amount of money. Below the player spent $40, only on summoning, and reportedly did not even get their final hero team from any of the summons they paid for.

screen-shot-2017-02-16-at-10-47-19-pm

This is a result of generous gacha drops and quick upgrade pathing. Players being able to upgrade and progress through all the content much faster than Nintendo intended.

If Nintendo wants Fire Emblem to continue to deliver million dollar per day revenues for months and years to come, they need to ensure their most engaged players are staying in the game. They can only do that if there is enough content in the game.

The easiest way for a game to lose its audience is for its most engaged players to leave because they feel like they finished all the game had to offer.

Fire Emblem has 9 Chapters + a Prologue containing just under 150 missions. With the pace that fire emblem lets you get through these missions though, these 150 missions, each lasting between 40 seconds and 3 minutes makes for a very fast progressing game.

The side-effects of this fast progression is that Nintendo needed to add very aggressive pacing blocks to their single player campaign. The majority of complaints from players have to do with the stamina cost of levels skyrocketing early. By the mid-game, each battle costs roughly 10 stamina, and your stamina meter remains at 50. With battles being so short and most battles being fairly trivial to win (since you’re grinding), this feels frustrating by the end game. Nintendo had to do this to prevent players from training & beating the campaign missions too early. If they had created enough content however, this wouldn’t be the case. If they added additional modes to the end-game to pressure players into collecting & upgrading more heroes, this wouldn’t be the case.

Comparing this to Galaxy of Heroes, Contest of Champions, Summoner’s War and Brave Frontier is completely different. Each of these games offer more modes, more content, and their pacing is structured around playing rather than waiting. On top of this, these games slowly introduce a more and more engaging social end-game that takes the pressure off of producing more content. This way even if a big spending highly engaged player reaches the end of content early, they are actively engaged in guild wars or reaching the top of a leaderboard.

Fire Emblem heroes has the tools to do this. With the success of Fire Emblem Heroes, they plan to release 2 chapters (10 levels) each month. They plan to introduce a new PvP mode in the near future. They have an arena mode, but it is paced too slowly (3 attempts maximum per day). They can create a guild-based meta-game that drives players to use their friend lists. Adding more additional modes which ask the player to have a larger collection of level up heroes would be the key to driving stronger long term retention.

As it stands, players can progress through content too fast, leaving players with too few reasons to come back to the game.

How Fire Emblem can Last

Overall this game is a massive financial success for Nintendo. Based on the rabid fan base so far, Nintendo has proven that based on the brand loyalty alone their fan base can reach the top of the mobile gaming charts. They have an impressively approachable and addictive core battle that has the strategic depth to last for years.

That being said, Nintendo have an opportunity here not just to make a quick buck off their IP. They have the opportunity to build a long standing success that will pass Super Mario Run in revenue, potentially even Pokemon Go in the future.

For this game to stay on top, Nintendo needs to act quickly to ensure this game can retain its top players.

  1. Add more star tiers to their Gacha pool, so there’s a reason for players to summon new characters for years
  2. Add more scale and depth to their upgrade system, so it takes longer than a week for my top characters to grow to their optimal forms
  3. Add significantly more content to challenge players to collect more heroes and upgrade their team to the highest level.
  4. Work towards a deeper, social end-game which keeps players collaborating and playing for years.

These 4 things are possible within a short amount of time. While the audience is still engaged in the game Nintendo can increase the scale of the systems and add significant content. Galaxy of Heroes and others took months after global launch before they launched a social end-game. Puzzles and Dragons added star tiers long after launch.  Many of the JRPGs in the genre have interesting modes and competitions that push players to collect & upgrade a large set of heroes.

Nintendo has the time & ability to turn Fire Emblem from a million dollar release to a billion dollar mobile hit.

Mobile Monetization 101: The First Steps

“We should have thought of monetization from the start”

Countless free to play games have launched and failed, and this is a constant regret many game teams have. They should have done more in the beginning to think about monetization. They should’ve been thinking a lot deeper about how their game was going to make money instead of just making a good game.

Learning how to evaluate monetization early is difficult. Most resources talk about clever monetization mechanics (ex. Pricing of in-app purchases, limited time offers, VIP systems, sales, etc.) but rarely is there much information about how to tell if your early prototype has what’s necessary to eventually monetize. The common remark to monetization is that good monetization can only come from good retention, as if just making a fun game will inherently make your game monetize. Anyone that’s launched a free to play game knows this isn’t completely correct.

The truth is that monetization and retention are strongly interconnected and you need to think about both as early as possible within your game. Monetization is not something that you can stumble into if you want to compete on the AppStore. 

But before you start obsessing over your in-app purchase prices and before you start obsessing over sneaky monetization mechanics  — you need to figure out how your game is going to survive as a free to play game. The best way to set up monetization in your game is to ensure that your game has 3 things:

  1. A clear definition of what you are primarily selling
  2. Assurances that your systems will last for years
  3. Ways of pulling the player to the end game

Completing these 3 steps will allow you to set up your game to monetize to its full potential.

Step 1: What are you Selling?

Every top grossing free to play game primarily sells the means to progress.

Progress is the strongest driver of monetization. The top grossing games don’t sell content (ex. DLCs), they sell progress towards an end game.

Progress comes in many forms and sizes. It could mean moving forward on a map. Progress could mean building up a farm. Progress could mean collecting and upgrading characters. To start, you need to define what progress means for your game.

Let’s take a look at 2 games, and what progress means for them:

Candy Crush

pasted image 0

Candy Crush’s core progress is to move forward on a map. Candy Crush focuses all of their monetization mechanics to help progress on the map. They sell boosts, extra moves or charms which all help you progress.

Star Wars Galaxy of Heroes

pasted image 0 (1)

Galaxy of heroes is all about upgrading & collecting heroes. Each game mode promotes the need to have a large collection of characters. As the game progresses, it demands an increasing upgrade level of your characters, requiring you to progress. They sell the means to progress faster: currencies to train your characters, the ability to fight battles instantaneously, and loot cards to unlock characters faster than your normally can.

Every top grossing game has a long path of progress which is the main focus of their monetization.

You must define the core progress for your game. What do you see players building over a long period of time?

Just to give more examples, here are some of the Top Grossing games’ Core Progress:

pasted image 0 (2)

For each of these games, this core progress is the central focus of their monetization strategy. All monetization mechanics give options for the players to speed up their progress.

When you’ve discovered what your core progress is — what the key central point you are going to be selling — then you can start designing monetization mechanics that speed up the player’s progress in interesting ways. You can start designing mechanics that pace the player’s progress giving you opportunities to monetize.

But there is one important step you need to do before you can start creating monetization mechanics: you need to ensure this core progress will actually last. Otherwise you won’t be selling progress for very long.

Step 2: How long will it last?

What you are selling must be able to scale for years.

It doesn’t matter how many monetization tricks you’ve got in your game. If what you’re selling won’t last, you won’t be successful.

This is usually where systems begin to show weakness. Not many systems can last for years. Many of the games that we all loved growing up were great games, but only lasted 10 or 20 hours before the system would crack. These games aren’t well suited for free to play.

An example of this happened when I was working on a racing game prototype. The core of the game was to race against an opponent to the finish while avoiding obstacles.

Our core progress was upgrading your car (similar to CSR Racing). The player collected loot from races to purchase upgrades which would improve their car’s stats. To progress in the game, the player needed higher and higher stats. The key stats to progress were: Speed, Handling, Acceleration and Boost/Nitro. As we tested out the game, we noticed: the more you improved the Speed stat, the harder the game became. The player’s cars were moving faster, which meant that the obstacles were becoming harder to avoid. We had a very limited cap that the speed could be upgraded to without demanding way too much skill from players.

With this cap in mind, we tried many things to avoid the issue. We made all obstacles travel with the player based on the player’s speed to make high speeds more manageable (instead of stationary obstacles, we switched to cars driving with the player on a highway). We adjusted the opposing AI’s speed based on your upgrade level to ensure that each upgrade was necessary. We tried many weird tricks to get the system to work, but all of them fell apart and were making the gameplay feel confusing.

In the end, the cap on our speed stat wasn’t high enough. In order for the game to be successful we needed the cars from the beginning of the game to be much, much slower than the cars at the end of the game. If we wanted the end of the game to take a months to reach, yet each upgrade along the way to feel meaningful to progress, the “Speed” stat was just not going to work.

This was a signal that our system wasn’t going to scale, and our game was not going to work as free to play.

Compare this Speed stat problem to a regular RPG system with Health and Attack. This system can scale almost infinitely.  A 200 HP monster when you have 20 attack is the same as a  200,000 HP monster when you have 20,000 attack. Attack and Health counter each other, allowing both to grow infinitely large. Speed had no counter stat, which made its growth eventually constrained. This is why many free to play games rely on an RPG system of Health vs Attack (ex. Clash Royale, Clash of Clans, Best Fiends, Puzzles and Dragons, Summoner’s War) this simple system can scale.

Look at your base gameplay — do the stats scale?

pasted image 0 (3)
Health vs Attack: The infinitely scalable system that many of the top free to play games use.

So how do you apply this to an early prototype? How do you ensure that your system will last?

2 basic tools you can use to evaluate your scalability:

  • Model your economy
  • Test your game in the Beginning, Mid and Endgame

Model your Progression

Modelling your game’s economy and progress early is an easy way to give you a sense of just how much content you need and how to pace your game.

Exactly how to do this is a very deep topic that I’d love to cover some day. If you don’t have the skillset on your team to model your economy with a tool like Excel, then you need to get someone who can. Without modelling, it is impossible to see just how you’re going to get your game to last.

But what should the goal be? How long should your game’s progress last?

10,000 hours or $10,000 dollars: that’s how long your system should last.

This of course is just a high level estimate (and easy to remember) but this is a good goal to have if your looking to reach the top grossing charts. Looking at the top games today, they easily go beyond these numbers. Games like Clash of Clans support purchases larger than $10,000 in their games. In comparison to Game Of War, this economy can support a purchases by a single user of over $120,000. These are insane values, but to give you a sense of just how long lasting and resilient these economies are. There is a lot of room in these economies to monetize.

With this model, you have a great tool to show what it will take to last. Compare your model against the models of your competitors in your genre and you’ll have even greater benchmarks for how much content you will need. If you want to beat the competition, your game has to last longer.

Test your Beginning Game, Mid Game, and End Game

When you’ve modelled your game’s economy, you will have a sense of what the beginning game, mid game and end game’s content will be. From this, you can build a prototype which can showcase how the game will feel in the beginning, in the middle and in the end. With this prototype you can ask questions like:

In the beginning, do player progress quickly?
Is each progress step desirable and felt as required by the player?
Is this beginning of the game still engaging or have you taken away too much of the depth?
Is the gameplay easy to get into?

In the midgame, has it sufficiently changed from the beginning game? Does it feel like the game is getting deeper?

In the end game, does the game still work?
Is the amount of skill required to succeed still feel achievable to all of your player types?
Is the end game sufficiently complex and deep? How does my end game depth compare to my competitors?
Is there a dominant strategy, or do you see your end game players debating over best choices?

There are many more questions to ask to ensure the depth of gameplay is there at each stage, but these 3 prototypes can give you a better sense that progress is happening and that your game will work at these 3 stages. This will ensure that the progress that you will be selling is desirable, and that the end game is worth reaching.

Using a model and effectively testing your game at multiple stages in the game is the basics of how to prove your game can last. When your game can last, then you now have the necessary base of a game that can monetize. Now it is time to start driving desire to spend.

Step 3: Why do I care?

You’ve got a core system that can last for years, and a clear definition of what you are selling. All that doesn’t matter if players have no desire to progress.

As free to play games, we are selling virtual items. In reality these things have no value. Our job as game designers is to create systems which create value for our virtual items. When our virtual items have value, we are much more likely to monetize.

Making virtual items valuable is not easy, but thus far most free to play games have focused on 2 ways to do this:

  • Visual progress & teasing a long term vision of the end game
  • Social Pressure

Visual Progress & Tease Long Term Vision

The majority of free to play games use visual progress cues to create a sense of value as you progress through the game. Visual progress can come in many forms, but it must showcase your progress thus far as well as tease future progress. Showcasing your previous progress gives value to your work so far. Gives you real value for your playing time or payments in the past. Teasing the future content gives the “carrot on the stick”. Shows players that there is lots more to come, and hopefully entices them to discover the new content still awaiting them.

The 3 most used examples of visual progress are:

  • The Saga Map
  • Base Expansion
  • Character Collection

#1 The Saga Map

pasted image 0 (4)

The Saga map in puzzle games clearly shows the visual progress of the player. Each time you complete a level, you progress on the map. At any time in the future you can scroll through the map and feel good about the progress you’ve made.

At the same time it clouds over the future worlds and hints at the mountain of content yet to come, giving you a reason to continue playing to discover the content.

#2 Base Expansion & Building Progress in Clash of Clans

pasted image 0 (5)

Clash of Clans and almost every game like it with a city/base-building component has this to create greater visual progress to the user. Looking at an early level base in Clash of Clans to a late base really shows just how far a player has come. Each time they enter the game they are reminded of their progress. Each base also feels completely customizable and your own. You decide where each piece of wall goes. This creates more attachment to the visual progress — this is your own base.

On top of this, players are teased each time they preview a greater opponent. They can look at the top of the leaderboards and be tempted by how amazing the bases look near the end game.

#3 Characters in Star Wars Galaxy of Heroes

pasted image 0 (6)

Looking at your character list in Galaxy of Heroes is the best way to see your progress and be teased of the future content.

You can see each of your characters and how amazing they are. This showcases their value. Just below your characters, you can see transparent versions of the characters you have yet to unlock, enticing you of the future progress pulling you along.

These 3 examples show how the top grossing games use visual progress to create value and desire. Each are also tightly tied to what the core progress is for the game itself.

When your core progress is visual, players are much more likely to feel like it is valuable and worth playing or paying for.  When progress is teased, players are much more likely to stick around to see what happens.

Social Pressure

pasted image 0 (7)
Want your game to monetize? Then make sure players are engaged socially within your game!

Deep Social mechanics is the key to building a game that retains the longest and monetizes the strongest. When a player is actively engaged in a lively community of players, then the content in the game is far more valuable. As a player, I am far more likely to spend . We’ve already written a lot about how strong community features in your game will heavily influence how well you can monetize:

  • Dawn of the Dragons (5th Planet Games): conversion rate for non guild members: 3.2% vs. guild members: 23%
  • Tyrant Unleashed (Synapse Games): ARPU for non guild members: $36.59, vs. guild members: $91.60

It is not a coincidence that MMOs like Habbo Hotel (pictured above) monetize so strongly with a core interactions that are quite simple. The deep social interactions that are possible in Habbo Hotel pull players in over a long period of time. Because of this strong social connection, players put a much higher value on looking good, showing off their progress and helping others. As a result players play longer and pay more money.

So when you’re thinking about monetization, make sure that you have truly defined what is going to be pulling players through the game on the long haul. Ensure you have strong visual progress mechanics that show off the player’s progress and tease the late game. Ensure that you have social mechanics which give real value to the content that you’re creating. If players have minimal desire to progress, then it doesn’t matter what monetization tricks you have — they won’t play long enough to spend.

The Last Step: Capitalize

You can see that Steps 1, 2 and 3 don’t really talk directly about monetization. There’s not much about skipping timers, VIP programs, limited time offers or designing virtual currencies. It’s because all that doesn’t matter unless you’ve got a long lasting game.

This is really why many monetization topics usually say “think about Retention before you think about Monetization”. What the real crux of it this statement is: don’t think about monetization unless you’ve got a system that can last. Obsessing over monetization mechanics before you’ve got a long lasting system is futile. However if you’ve nailed a long lasting system that can keep players engaged for a long time, the remaining steps to monetize become significantly easier.

When you’ve got a long lasting system, you can start creating mechanics that pull the player faster forward in that progression by paying or playing the way that you want them to. With enough desire to reach the end game, you can drive players to spend repeatedly to reach it. This is where true monetization begins.

More on the ways to capitalize on your long lasting systems coming soon!

Further Reading:

Mid Core Success: Monetization, Michail Katkoff :
http://www.deconstructoroffun.com/2013/11/mid-core-success-part-4-monetization.html?q=monetization

Dimitar Dragonov, Freemium Mobile Games
https://www.amazon.com/Freemium-Mobile-Games-Design-Monetization/dp/1512322172

Critical Mobile Monetization Concepts, Joseph Kim
http://quarterview.com/?p=774

The Tower of Want, Ethan Levy
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tBG2G-9vl-M

Deconstructor Of Fun: Galaxy of Heroes

Over the last few weeks I’ve been working with Miska Katkoff of Deconstructor of Fun to put together a deep deconstruction of Star Wars Galaxy of Heroes. It’s now posted on Deconstructor of Fun:

http://www.deconstructoroffun.com/2016/04/galaxy-of-heroes-full-deconstruction-of.html

Galaxy of Heroes is a deep game that took strong reference from Heroes Charge. I go into a detailed analysis into all the systems in the game in this article. Some takeaways:

  • Every system in the game is built around supporting their core loop of upgrading and collecting heroes
  • Their deep, complex upgrade system allows players to have strong short-term and long-term goals
  • Galaxy of Heroes supports incredibly long session lengths. You can play this game for hours each day without the game forcing you to leave and without making a dent in its content

For further details, check out the article!

P.S.

Also, some good news about those interested in my GDC Presentation on Soft Launches: it’s available in the GDC Vault (Vault Access is required)
http://www.gdcvault.com/play/1023238/What-to-Expect-When-You

Soft Launches in 2016

This year at GDC I spoke about soft launching games. A deep dive into how Wooga looks at soft launches, and specifically what you can expect in terms of Cost, Learning and Growth.

Click Here to Download the Slides and watch here if you have GDC Vault Access

Summary & Takeaways:

  • Soft Launches have changed significantly
    • Soft Launching in 2011 was much easier — especially because of the free traffic through facebook virality
  • Soft Launches are more important than ever
    • Wooga learned this the hard way with Agent Alice. You have to validate your LTV & CPI before launching if you want to launch with an effective marketing budget.
  • Soft Launches aren’t cheap
    • Futurama and Max Ammo’s costs were around $250,000 for 5 months of soft launch. This is user acquisition costs only.
    • Wooga Soft launches now typically take 4-6 months, this is mainly to give time for both Validation (ensure LTV > CPI) and Growth (attempt to improve metrics before launch).
  • You can use Low CPI Countries, but only to test, not to validate
    • Don’t use the KPIs ( LTV, Retention ) in your Low CPI test markets to validate your game. Wooga has found that these KPIs change unpredictably from country to country. You can only predict a hit in your key markets (usually Sweden and Canada)
  • Retention is more influenced by Marketing User Quality than Features
    • Don’t just look at your day-to-day or week-to-week retention to see the impact of your changes. It’s very easy to inflate or deflate your retention profile by adjusting your marketing mix (what % of your users come from which acquisition source).
  • The only way to see real impact of your changes in Soft Launch is to A/B test
    • If you NEED to see the real impact of features you need to A/B test. But because Soft Launches have such low DAU, the time needed to get real results from this will drag your soft launch timeline out.
  • Growth of Retention is SLOW
    • We at Wooga typically see an average growth of our retention numbers by 0.5 to 1.5 percentage points per month (1d/3d/7d). So if your retention numbers are far off your target, its going to take a long time to get them up.
  • Large Retention Jumps are usually improved with: Funnel Optimization, Tutorials and Difficulty Adjustments
    • Large Retention jumps don’t typically happen, unless your game is fundamentally broken.
    • The largest bumps in retention that Wooga has seen have come from 3 things:
      • Funnel Optimization: looking for where users drop out
      • Tutorials: optimizing and paring down the tutorial
      • Difficulty Adjustments: looking for frustrations and smoothening progression
  • Growth of Monetization can be done
    • We at Wooga have seen that monetization can grow, especially during post-launch.
    • So if you’re LTV CPI equation is not working only because of monetization, you can still grow monetization during post-launch

Overall:
Soft Launches will not save your game.

If you don’t see strong metrics during Soft Launch, then don’t expect the Soft Launch to give you the clear learnings of how to fix and grow your game to be a hit. Costs are high, Learnings are difficult, and Growth is slow.