Generally, the main things a games developer is thinking about when considering what to focus on for their next title are which platforms they will target, what theme and what type or genre of game. Sure, these are incredibly important decisions but as we go into 2014, I would suggest that there are some other decisions that need to be made that will have a bigger impact on whether you succeed or fail. That’s a big claim, but things are moving so fast in our industry and competition is so intense that it is justified. We are at an interesting junction in this business and face our very own Catch-22. It is true that it has never been as easy to design, build and publish a game. There is an end-to-end ecosystem in place for this to happen offering lots of choice. However, it is also true that it might have never been so hard to make a success out of it. It is getting harder because it’s getting easier.
Don’t walk away though. Building games has got to be one of the world’s best jobs (I work for a games technology provider, rather than make games and I spend a lot of my time in envy of our customers). It is worth the struggle and you should keep at it. There are several key decisions you can make going into 2014 that will tip the odds of success in your favour.
#1: Publisher or Self-publish?
Your decision around whether or not to go down the publisher route is less about influencing whether you succeed or fail as both outcomes are equally possible, regardless, but your choice will ultimately affect all of your other decisions which is why you need to think about it right up front. It is easier to change your mind and opt to go down the publisher route later on in the process if you started off deciding to self-publish. It’s harder to go the other way because to succeed at self-publishing you need build that strategy into your game design right from the get-go. This has become such an emotive decision. 2011 – 2013 saw a LOT of developers opt to self-publish and there was some tremendous success with the likes of Temple Run, Tiny Wings, Cut the Ropes etc. but now the average cost of user acquisition has spiraled so quickly (estimated to now be between $2 – $3 per player) that it is a much tougher decision to make. I don’t think anyone can make this decision for you – it is very dependent on your circumstances and level of experience. Finance is probably the main driver which leads nicely into your next major decision.
#2: Venture Funding or Crowd Funding?
If you decide to start off your project with a view to self-publishing then your next major decision will be around financing your game. Unless you have a trust fund or access to some previously acquired wealth (lucky you!) then you are likely to require external funding and there are 2 key models that companies are following these days. The first is a more traditional venture backed model. The world of venture capital is much more approachable than one might first think. Often venture firms work closely alongside state bodies which have funds to allocate and there are many different tiers and levels at which to access that capital. There is a lot of variety in terms of the organisational structures you can encounter too ranging from individuals or syndicates of angels all the way through to the Silicon Valley types. We went down this route and we can gratefully say it has been a good experience so far.
Although not a new concept, crowdfunding has gathered a lot of momentum in recent years with Kickstarter being the most well known in gaming circles. This is a great way to source finance but there are some important things to consider if you decide to go down this route. Asking for the right amount is probably the most important because if you aim too high and don’t hit your target you end up with nothing. You have to factor in America if doing one of these campaigns as the majority of participating funders are based over there. You also have to plan your communication strategy with your potential investors and the materials you make available to them.
If there was one guiding comment to make here, I would suggest that venture funding is more likely to be awarded based on a strong business model and team credentials. Actual metrics are increasingly important. The closer you are to proving the model you have created, the easier it gets (which is pretty obvious really – the less you need the money the more of it you will be offered). Crowdfunding is probably more open to being awarded on the strength of the game concept itself. In both cases the track record of the core team is a major factor. Venture based firms may be more forgiving of previous failures as experience points can count for a lot. Whichever route you go down, research, planning and preparation are critical. Be prepared.
#3: Premium or Freemium?
If we were back at the beginning of 2013 and you were developing for mobile / tablet then this would have been an easy decision. Everything was going freemium. However, there is a reasonable amount of dis-satisfaction amongst consumers with how freemium has been implemented and in many cases it is negatively affecting game play. Freemium, or free-to-play (F2P) is hard and the majority of games companies have failed to do it as effectively as they need to. To do it correctly, it has to be baked into the game design from the beginning and it must be implemented in such a way that it can be easily changed once the game has launched and customised to different player segments. Ultimately, I see the business model trend continuing to head towards free to play, however, given its unpopularity with developers and with consumers, there will probably be many opportunity peaks or windows for premium games. Platforms play a significant role here too … AAA titles on consoles will continue to be predominantly premium while also charging more for in-app purchases. Target audience is also a critical factor – I think we (as parents) would all prefer if kid’s games were premium.
#4: Single or Multiplayer?
Given the cost of user acquisition, this becomes a no-brainer. Here is the thing to bear in mind – social mobile games are the fastest growing genre of games on the planet and are propelling the whole industry towards being a $100Bn industry by 2017 (source: DigiCapital). The more social a game is the lower the cost of user acquisition. Multiplayer is not only hugely social – it is a fundamental building block of game play in general. Games have a much clearer way of becoming more social than say, for example, TV viewing or listening to music. People like to play games with other people. Multiplayer game play has got to be the cornerstone for any player acquisition strategy. It’s like a free way to get people to invite other people to play the game giving it natural virality. Too many developers leave the multiplayer version till phase 2. In 2014, this is a backward strategy. Building an audience is the hardest thing to do in the games business so you need to deploy all of your tactics to help you succeed from the start. If you were building Solitaire today, you should start off with a multiplayer version first.
#5: Product or Service?
As we get towards the end of these key decisions, the remaining ones are governed by previous choices. Perhaps, the main factor that would drive you away from product is your choice of business model. I would maintain that it is not possible to successfully implement a freemium or free to play business model using the product paradigm. Too many have tried, I think, and that is what has lead to the current situation where there is some consumer backlash. For f2p to work, you need to consider these fundamental things:
- You need to bake the monetisation of mechanics into the core game design
- You need to optimise the economics and the core loops on an ongoing basis and personalise them for different segments of players
- You need to understand how players are playing your game in a lot of detail to optimise it effectively
- You need to find an implementation model that enables you to make these changes cost effectively because they will be ongoing and frequent
- You need to build up and manage a database of players that you can take with you from one title to another
The product approach only supports premium games.
#6: Connected or Not Connected
We have arrived at the last decision – should my game be connected or not? In case it’s not clear, by connected, we mean online or connected to backend server-side components over the end device’s internet or mobile connection. As per the last decision, I think this now becomes easy. If you are going to run a service you don’t have an option. If you are going to implement multiplayer this is the obvious way to do it. If you produce a freemium game, again, you don’t have a choice. All games will eventually be connected but admittedly to wildly varying degrees. You cannot play Clash of Clans without being online. Not all games need to go this far but at the very least all games should have:
- Content management – The ability to change game functionality on the backend without having to re-compile the game and re-publish through stores
- Segmentation – the ability to treat payers differently based on how they play the game, their preferences, their demographic, spending profile etc.
- Ability to capture analytics and use them to make informed decisions on how the game needs to be customised for different segments of players
- Player management (or CRM) – The ability to store player profiles and the tools to support your efforts to build a relationship with them
- eCommerce – The ability to easily modify the economy of the game, including mechanics
- Multiplayer support and other social integration
Hands up – I work for GameSparks – and while this post is not supposed to be an advertisement, I should mention that we provide a cloud-based Games-as-a-Service platform that allows you to do all of this and a lot more. It’s all integrated and compatible with other games tools such as Unity, Marmalade, Cocos etc – and it’s free for Indies up until you hit a certain threshold of players (10,000 MAUs)