A product manager at King recently published this brilliant article about some research they did to help them understand the audience for various game genres better. In essence, they laid out the top 100 grossing mobile games, coded them for genre, and looked at the degree of player overlap between each of them trying to find clusters of crossovers. The analysis yielded some interesting results, like the fact that Candy Crush is pretty much adjacent to everything because it's so darn popular, and that metagame structure and art/theme may be more important to figuring out audience overlap than mechanic.
But for me, there are two really important lessons here. First, there is real value in making your data visual rather than just doing a huge dump of numbers. Human beings can parse these kind of visual representations not only more quickly, easily, and accurately but often more deeply - gaining new levels of understanding. Second and most importantly, it's easy to develop ideas about who the audience for your game is and what they like, but it's important to actually ask - or at least query the data - rather than work off your assumptions.
From time to time, I hear developers talking about how Pokemon Go was a flash in the pan, but they are just dead wrong. Even though some of the game’s early adopters have moved on, the game remains a fixture in the top 10 grossing slots. Earlier this month at Seattle’s Geekwire Summit, a couple of Pokemon Go team members gave a great talk on how they evolved Pokemon Go to keep it relevant and interesting for a wide range of players.
One of the key directions they discuss is the addition of social features to Pokemon Go. They have added a number of social features, including raids (where groups of people gather together to bear powerful bosses and earn rewards), friend lists, and gifting. Players have really attached to and engaged with these features; I often see groups of people outside my office at nearby boss raids.
The power of this kind of social feature is not unique to Pokemon Go. Casual games like Hay Day and Pearl’s Perils have added social features to let dedicated players interact, and midcore games like Clash of Clans have relied on them from day 1.
There’s a reason that this design pattern is so widespread. Players play games to have fun, but there are many different kinds of fun. And almost all the researchers that have looked at the different kinds of enjoyment that players derive from games have recognized cooperative social interactions as one of the main drivers of player interest.
Even in single player games, the impact of social features on your game’s outcome can be huge. When well executed, they can improve not only retention but also engagement and monetization. For the health of your game, make sure to think hard about social features!
DeltaDNA recently released an article talking about the changes in payment patterns in free-to-play games. There’s lots of interesting news in there, but one exciting number really stood out to us at Mobile Game Doctor.
According to DeltaDNA, over the last 3 years the percentage of paying players in North America has increased by ⅓ (and in Europe by ⅕). This trend is incredibly healthy for mobile game developers as it shows developers are getting better at monetizing a wide base of players and reducing their dependence on whales.
As many developers can tell you from hard won experience, making your living off a small number of whales can be extremely dangerous. A few people changing their mind can significantly impact your game’s revenue stream. And if those players organize themselves, they can effectively hold your game hostage, demanding changes that may or may not be healthy for the overall game and community. Moreover, too much focus on those whales can make teams focus too much on elder game content and features, stealing resources that might be better used to improve parts of the game that more players will see.
Focusing on efforts to convert more of players to payers (gently, positively, and willingly) has some other positive impacts on your game as well. Players who pay - even a small, one-time payment - tend to engage and retain significantly better than players that don’t. And players who pay once have a much higher propensity to buy again than players who have never purchased. This comes partially from the fact that players who love your game are much more likely to buy something, and partially from certain cognitive biases (like the Sunk Cost Fallacy) that come into play once a player has spent.
So getting that first purchase can be a crucial piece of building a strong relationship with player. It’s important to present things like having a great new player offer, making sure that early purchases offer substantial value to the player, and making sure that players understand what that value will be even before they purchase. Following these kinds of best practices will help get you more payers, keep your game healthier, and get you in line with important industry trends, so make sure you implement them in your game. Doctor’s orders!
I recently got a chance to attend XDS - the External Development Summit - for the first time. It’s a fun and interesting conference for both companies that provide services to game developers and to the developers that need them. Although the primary target of the conference was AAA console developers looking to outsource art, there were some great learnings for Mobile Game Doctor and our customers as well.
In several presentations both outsourcers and their customers talked about what it takes to make an outsourcing (or co-development) arrangement work, and a clear and consistent picture emerged. In order to keep both sides happy, you need to have clarity, transparency, flexibility, and outstanding communications. At Mobile Game Doctor, we try to practice all of these things.
Clarity: Before we begin any project, we invest time in understanding where our customers are and what they need. We do our best to structure most of our projects around a clear, well-defined set of goals and milestones. We’re still happy to invest our time and energy into customers who aren’t quite sure what they need - above and beyond a helping hand - but then we do our utmost to start the project off by learning more about the client and project and defining a clear, agreed-upon set of goals and deliverables.
Transparency: At Mobile Game Doctor we do our best to assign a subject matter expert to every project. We are completely transparent with our clients about who is working on what, about other workload they may have, and any project-specific challenges we may face. We are proactive about communicating any issues or challenges that we may be facing on the project, and we are honest and constructive in our feedback on the products and teams.
Flexibility: We have been in the business more than long enough to know that things can change while you’re building a game. Developing and playtesting lead you to new understandings of what of it is fun in your game (and what isn’t). Market conditions evolve while you’re developing, and your business itself may change and evolve. And all of this can lead to significant changes in your game. On all of our large projects, we include a clause in our contracts that allows our customers to change their mind about what features we should be working on or how we should deliver work, so long as it doesn’t substantially change the scope of the project. This lets us keep up with the changing demands of your project in real time without needing to go back through additional rounds of negotiation.
Communication: At Mobile Game Doctor, we like to integrate with your team’s communication channels as much as humanly possible. Our Slack apps often have 6-12 different team domains down the left-hand side. We do our best to integrate with all of our customers’ communication and documentation tools to make it as easy as possible for them to integrate our work and reach us whenever they need us.
All of these things come naturally to us as part of our commitment to our customers’ success. And our commitment to clarity, transparency, flexibility, and communication helps us make our outsource design model do great things for our customers.
At Mobile Game Doctor, we love building games that reach as many people as possible. As research firm EEDAR recently discovered, 2/3 of Americans play games, and they spend as much time playing games as consuming any other media, but the truly remarkable statistic here is that 90% of gamers play games on mobile. Not only are mobile games reaching casual players that don't engage on other platforms, but a huge share of PC and console gamers are enjoying mobile games as well.
We are proud to announce that multiple Mobile Game Doctor team members had their GDC videos placed in the free section of the GDC vault, helping the conference market to future attendees and making the videos widely available to the public.
You can see our Founder and Owner Dave Rohrl discussing the year's most interesting mobile game design trends (along with Steve Meretzky of King and Juan Gril of Flowplay) here: http://www.gdcvault.com/play/1025009/The-Year-in-Mobile
And you can see Dr. Cat, one of our senior design consultants, discussing using randomness to augment fun here: https://www.gdcvault.com/play/1023562/Math-for-Game-Programmers-Random
If you have paid access to the GDC Vault, you can also find Dr. Cat's talk on managing randomness here: http://www.gdcvault.com/play/1025195/Math-for-Game-Programmers-Managing
Dave Rohrl, our founder and owner, will be doing his annual Year in Mobile Games talk at the GDC Mobile Summit at 10:00 AM on March 19 in Moscone West, Room 2016. Dave will be going in depth on two of his favorite games of the last year: HQ Trivia and Golf Clash. We hope to see you there.
And several of our Game Doctors will be at and around GDC throughout the week. If you would like to set up a meeting, please use our Contact Form and let us know when you would like to get together.
We are proud to be part of United in Action, an initiative of the Casual Games Association that helps new independent developers find business success by educating them on important aspects of the business of games. Dave Rohrl, Mobile Game Doctor's owner, was the chair of the working group on Monetization Design.
The slides he delivered at this year's Casual Connect USA conference are online at https://goo.gl/y1ZW7r We hope the information contained there will help more independent game developers create successful games and businesses. And Mobile Game Doctor is always available to help with your monetization design as well.
Trailer Park Boys: Greasy Money is an unusual idle game. The game features a very niche license and very unconventional gameplay. It defies many of the genre’s conventions, adding elements like an episodic linear narrative, very rigid ascension requirements, and an extensive gacha system that is woven deep into the game’s core. Yet the game has managed to be both a commercial and critical success, averaging at least a 4.5 star rating on every version and setting revenue records for the idle game genre. This is an insider’s view of how this unconventional design was born, and how and why it works.
Origin Story for Trailer Park Boys
My name is Dave Rohrl, and I’ve been producing and design games for almost 25 years. I currently run a small game design consulting company that helps mobile game studios all over the world solve challenging design problems. I was approached by East Side Games in early 2016 about mentoring some of their development teams and helping out on their new products.
The company was in development on a Trailer Park Boys-based idle game. The game made a number of critical design errors. The game had three main screens, each with a different activity, in honor of the franchise’s three main characters. All three screens were of critical importance to play the game. This made it difficult to articulate and focus on the creative center of the game.
The first module screen required constant tapping to prime the pump of the economy. This is a common design mistake made by newcomers to the idle genre, who often assume that clicker games are about…well…clicking. As ample research has shown, this is not at all their core. Rather, players enjoy letting the game passively generate resources between sessions so they can spend those resources improving their economies.
The second module was an odd one. It again required tapping to convert the currency earned on the first screen into the game’s main soft currency – money. The user then navigated to a third screen, which allowed the player to spend money to upgrade the operations on the other two screens – possibly with some element of automation.
East Side brought me in to evaluate the game. And my feedback was quick, direct, and unequivocal. The game’s core design was not working, and needed a significant streamlining or a full reboot.
The team decided to restart the game using familiar core mechanics from idle games like Adventure Capitalist or Doomsday Clicker with a few enhancements supporting the IP. The player would build up businesses in the eponymous trailer park to earn money, to level up the businesses (which we referred to as acquiring customers), and occasionally fight the antagonist law enforcement officers that bedevil the boys. The existing team struggled to take the design further than this, so East Side asked me to partner with the game’s producer to lead the game’s design.
In addition to the usual requirements that come with any mobile game project, like building a fun game with good retention and monetization, the game came with some unusual requirements that we needed to accommodate in the design.
The game was, of course, based on a license. Trailer Park Boys is a faux documentary series, originally broadcast in Canada and now distributed by Netflix. It features the antics of petty felons who live in a trailer park in Nova Scotia, constantly trying to earn easy money through scams that the trailer park supervisors and local cops try to thwart. The show is a cult hit, with a small but very passionate following.
As with any licensed game, we wanted to make sure that we used the license to strongly shape not only the presentation, but also the core gameplay. We wanted the player to feel like they were running their own scams and getting their own a$$#s thrown in jail. And because the game was based on a strong character franchise, we wanted to feature the characters prominently in gameplay and to tell their stories in the show’s cheeky, hilarious tone.
In addition, the game was looking expensive on its original course, and rebooting the design certainly didn’t make it any cheaper. As a result, there was a lot of concern about the game monetizing well – particularly given that idle games are generally not high ARPDAU products. The team and East Side’s management looked around for ways to monetize the game better, and – given the fact that we were all playing quite a bit of Clash Royale at the time – it’s not too surprising that we settled in on the notion of adding a card upgrade system backed by a gacha (random reward) system to the game, supported by a secondary, non-inflationary currency – Liquor.
Stories, Seasons, and Ascension
The original design for integrating stories into the game was to make short cutscenes and associate them with selected achievements, much like Adventure Capitalist associates its event rewards with reaching certain business levels..
Unfortunately, I saw a number of issues with this approach. Players would enjoy lots of cutscenes early in the game, but as they became more established, cutscenes would inevitably drift further and further apart. As these rewarding plot interludes became less and less frequent, players could grow bored with the game and churn out.
We also couldn’t guarantee the sequence in which players would see cutscenes, so it would be impossible for us to tell real stories – just to offer one-off vignettes. This was a deal-breaker, as the franchise is heavily focused on episodic comedy storytelling.
Instead, I proposed a different approach to dispensing the story. We would break the game up into seasons, where each season would tell a single TPB story. Of course, the player moved from season to season by ascending.
We showed an intro scene at the beginning of each season, continuation scenes throughout based on the number of goals completed, and a finale scene just before the season’s final boss fight. This allowed us to implement a classic three act structure to build the kind of narrative arc that fans of the series love. It kept players playing for the concrete reward of seeing the next cutscene. Players got addicted to the end-of-season experience where they would experience a burst of fun activities – see a cutscene, play a boss fight, collect a bunch of rewards, and roll right into the next season’s intro cutscene and the fast early portion of the next season.
Of course, having decided to implement seasons, we needed a way to define for players to complete a season. We looked at other idle games that had implemented ascension requirements, like the cash requirements in Doomsday Clicker or the progress requirements in Tap Titans, but we found them pretty uninteresting. So we decided to lift a page from typical casual games and give the player a series of goals to complete. Once the player had complete enough of the goals we set before them, they could end the season, fight a boss, and ascend.
As soon as we added this feature to the game, the gameplay started to feel much more interesting. Rather than always buying the cheapest or highest yield business available to you, having player specific goals forces the player to focus on different aspects of the game at different times. This made the game feel more structured and gave players more opportunities to feel smart and strategic.
Our original system gave the player only one goal at a time. Although this was still fun, it led to real problems when the player was making slow progress toward their one and only goal. This was especially painful when the goal required some random rewards or other random elements. Jason Bailey, East Side’s Chairman, came up with the idea of having 3 goals available at all times, similar to Halfbrick’s Jetpack Joyride. After a bit of experimentation, we settled into the final structure, giving the player three tracks of goals – one linked to earning and spending soft currency, one linked to earning secondary currency and gacha items, and the third related to spending secondary currency and gacha. This led to a robust system that allowed non-payers to progress at their own pace while giving payers an obvious way to accelerate.
The Trouble With Ascension
Ascension systems are core to idle game design. After the player has played for a while, their progress slows down a crawl because of the structure of the underlying math. The player then decides to restart the game (often called ascending, prestiging, restarting, or a variety of other names). When they restart, they earn a special currency that tweaks the game math in some way, generally allowing them to progress faster.
This well-worn system has a number of issues. Deciding when to ascend can be very awkward for casual players, as it requires a good understanding of the game’s math and ascension system. And ascension currencies tend to be a bit abstract and weird. And the story behind why the player is restarting the game from the beginning is thin or altogether missing.
In TPB, our season and gacha systems solved major problems with the ascension system. Because the player cannot ascend until they complete enough goals, the game gives them a clear signal on when they should ascend. Of course some of our more engaged players play on long after we let them move on to the next season, but at least our most casual players don’t have to sweat the decision.
Likewise, rather than having an ascension currency, we simply carry the player’s character and business levels forward. Since the player has built up those bonuses during gameplay, it’s only natural that those levels should be maintained and carried forward.
And the story of ascension fits the license like a glove. On the TV show, the boys are constantly getting thrown into jail for one reason or another, usually for their ridiculous scams and petty crimes. In Trailer Park Boys: Greasy Money, we used that trope from the show to explain our ascension mechanic. When the player resets the game, it’s because the boys lost their fight with the police and got thrown in jail once again. And with the boys gone, their business empire falls apart and needs to be rebuilt. This perfect alignment of mechanic and narrative has been one of the most beloved features of the game.
Although all these design elements helped make the game into a success, they all created significant challenges on the design and production side – each in their own special way.
The gacha system added great monetization, but also added a lot of randomness to the player’s state. It would be very possible for two players who have progressed equally quickly to suddenly diverge over the course of a season because one had the right characters upgraded for that season while the other did not. This meant that accurately forecasting how long players would take to complete seasons and goals was very tricky and our estimates were often off by a good bit.
We also did very well at engaging players with the character upgrade gacha system, but never found the right mechanic to generate similar levels of engagement with building upgrades. We had a few ideas, but none of them have made their way into the game yet.
Trailer Park Boys: Greasy Money release on April 20th (4/20 – get it?) and shot up the download and grossing charts. It set records for daily gross revenues for a mobile idle game and drew rave reviews from critics and users (still over 4.5 stars on the Apple and Google app stores). Now nearly six months old, the game continues to generate great revenue and goodwill as we continue to roll out linear content, new events, new features, and new platforms.
There were a number of critical design decisions that contributed to this success, but in my view the three most critical were:
About the Author
Dave Rohrl is the Owner of Mobile Game Doctor, a boutique game design consultancy that works with game developers worldwide to improve their games, teams, and processes. Dave is an industry veteran with nearly 25 years of experience who has held senior roles at Pogo, PopCap, and Playdom, among others. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his two daughters and 600 board games.
NOTE: This post originally appeared on MobileFreeToPlay.com, an excellent blog on mobile game design, monetization, and marketing. The author would like to thank Adam Telfer and Tom Kinniburgh for all their hard work editing this article.
Mobile Game Doctor is a boutique game design and production consultancy that partners with game developers worldwide to help improve games, teams, and processes. Dave Rohrl is its Founder and one of its Principal Consultants