Most of us entrepreneurs who are even remotely aware of their thoughts on any given day, know that the question of “What if I never make it?” can cause a lot of anxiety. Especially if it is not recognized and accepted for what it is. Usually this is a sign of anxiety towards imaginary future state where you describe yourself as a “successful entrepreneur”.
I know. I know what you think. Because I’ve had my fare share of that thought too.
Two years ago I was in executive position in a growing mobile game development company. The company had received a big chunk of money from investors since we had a VERY nice looking prototype for a mobile game in our hands which suited the current mobile gaming trends. Everyone was very excited about the product and the owners of the company put a lot of expectations on my managerial and leadership skills to make this product a major success.
It never became a financial success. During that process which lasted around 1,5 years I felt very excited and I FELT that I was doing a lot of work and making good decisions for the team and product.
In retrospect, this was far from the truth. In retrospect, all that feeling of EXCITEMENT was actually ANXIETY. The coin always has the opposite side… The anxiety arose from not wanting to wait for the moment when we actually make and release that mega-blockbuster mobile game to markets and for me to be that heroic successful entrepreneur.
That anxiety made me to overlook the current moment as a means to an end. That made me to do the following (among many other things): – work overtime – A LOT, – tighten the “managerial screw” when things were not going as planned (control) – put more pressure on subordinates (since I thought that they weren’t doing their best without it) – NOT paying attention to all those dozens of little miracles which the team did during that time while making the product
Listen, I’m ashamed to admit that I was so stupid to do those kinds of things. BUT I want to share my story so that my experiences could help people in the industry and outside of it.
So back to the topic. After discussing this with many of my friends, colleagues and stranger on dozens of websites, I can say that around 90% of entrepreneurs, business owners and “type A” people are thinking this:
“What if I never make it?”
BE AWARE – There are a lot of variations to this question. Some of them could be:
– “I can’t wait to release that mobile game/B2B app/camera application”
– “Oh my god! I can’t wait for all the glory and fame when we release that product” – “Oh fuck, I’ll be the best producer/developer/artist/writer/singer/painter in the world after this!” – “I’ve done this for twenty years and invested most of my money into this company. I DESERVE to make it big this time!”
These are signs you are waiting for the future to come before you are able to fully enjoy what you are doing now.
If you only focus to the end goal in mind, you will never be able to enjoy the present moment. You are never going to enjoy the fulfillment of writing that piece of work, code that feature, or make that piece of art. If you focus only to the future, you will never feel satisfied with what you already have. Or what you have accomplished. Or – most importantly – what you are doing right now.
If you focus only to future and wait for “making it”, then you are making means to an end. Then all that what is in front you would loose it’s magic and you would not able to enjoy it.
Moreover, if you only focus on the future, you are never going to “make it”. When you focus on the future, you are never going to have that one great idea for the new product or business. Or those dozens of small good ideas which make your life a little better. And your business a little bit more successful.
If you are only focusing on getting those hundred-thousand email subscribers to your blog, you will never be able to really enjoy the writing. Thus, you will never never make those brilliant posts that would attract that amount of people to your blog.
If you are a business owner and are anxious of making the company profitable, you are not going to fully enjoy running the business. The people working for you would then become a means to and end to that future. And you would never become a “successful entrepreneur”.
By focusing on and accepting this moment as it is, you are able to break the conditions of this moment. You can then enjoy your craft, whatever that is. If you can do this, then the future stops holding so much promise and you would be able to join whatever is that you are doing now.
Then you stop that little voice in your head which is so anxious about the future.
Have you recognized this voice in your head? What do you to make it a little bit less dramatic? Have your say in the comments below!
Okay. Okay. OKAY! I get that you don’t have time to spend on generating ideas. You have to keep focus on making games because in the end, games are all that matter. Right? After all, how many times you have been told that “ideas are worth nothing, execution is worth everything”?
I get it, I’ve been there too. And I’ve heard that same clause a hundred time. A couple of years ago, I was heading the development of mobile games in my previous company. I was so obsessed with the execution and making a “top grossing game” that there was hardly any space in generating original ideas. Every deliverable had strict deadline and Kanban board was so much full of backlog items that the team had real challenges in keeping up with a schedule we had promised to our publisher and platform holders.
In addition, we were obsessed with tracking our competitors’ (e.g. Clash of Clans and others, above top 100 grossing titles) games and their features. There was hardly any room for generating features that were NOT in those other games too. We used tools like App Annie and Gamerefinery to statistically validate that we were making games that would fit into the “magic formula” dictated by the top grossing games at that time. We did it for our investors and for the owners but also for us because we really thought that it was the right kind of process to make hit games.
It was until I had left the company that I realized how unfulfilling the whole process was. And how ashamed I felt because I was the one leading the process. I mean, it was like we wanted to people to produce nuts and bolts in the factory pipeline. And the people who were working at us reminded actually artists like van Gogh, Gauguin, Coppola etc. who were trying to make Starry Nights, The Godfather or the likes. The whole process was totally nuts!
And as you can see from the App Store with dozens of Clash of Clans clones, very similar game icons and other phenomena, it is evident that we were not the only ones who were adopting this kind of process in the industry.
Creating ideas is hard
So why we do this? I think it’s partly because coming up with ideas is hard. It’s much more easy to see what the top-performers have done and do something similar. Also, it’s probably due to undervaluation of ideas because it’s said to us over and over again that “ideas don’t matter, execution does”.
That’s why we tend to go to App Annie to look for similar games to get some inspiration and to produce similar features that are already in the existing games. Or when we Google best ways to perfect the game icon. That’s why the end result is a pile of yelling heads with similar gameplay icons topped with different visuals.
What I want to show you that ideas DO MATTER. They don’t matter to VCs if you are trying to get a funding based on your idea. Nor do they matter to potential recruiter if you try to convince her to employ you because “you have so great ideas”. You have to understand that the people who say these things, come from a different perspective than you who are making games.
Ideas matter.. to YOU
But ideas do matter when you are working your ass off in your company. Ideas start to show their power when you are short on time, money, resources – everything. Ideas matter when someone equipped with right mindset comes up with 10 great ideas for how you can get the next outsourcing gig, a month before you should pay to your employees. Ideas matter when someone comes up with a great, implementable idea for the next product for your two-man studio with low amount of resources. Ideas matter when someone came up with great, low-cost marketing ideas, day after day, to boost the launch of your product. Ideas matter to programmers who come up with clever ways to make the code more reusable.
Ideas mattered when Chris Benjaminsen – a developer of HexFRVR – who came up with awesome little game idea and generated ideas to maximize its distribution. Or when Rober Topala released his famous game Geometry Dash.
The truth is that ideas matter in every stage of game development. They matter during the early phase of concept development and they matter during the polishing stage. And beyond. You have to have an idea what kind of particle effects to use with that specific animation event. Or how you can optimize those particle effects in your game to make it run smoother on end devices. Once you have the idea, the rest is implementation and testing does the idea work. The rest is pure, hard, work.
The Ugly Truth is that ideas don’t just show up out of the blue. In order to come up with one great idea, there’s typically twenty not-so-good ideas. Every great artist had dozens if not hundreds of horrible ideas before they came up with one exceptional idea for another Clash of Clans, The Starry Night or The Birds.
But creating ideas is hard. Creating ideas is literally creating something out of nothing. And since we are lazy, comfort-seeking human beings, we usually want to avoid hard things.
In order to maximize your creative output, you have to have a system in place so that it’s more convenient for you to take the time to come up with ideas. Every day. And all that it requires is 10 minutes. 10 minutes a day to become an idea machine.
Think it like a gym program. It’s 10x harder to motivate yourself to go to a gym if you don’t have a program. When you have a program, you don’t have to think about what moves to do at that given time. Or how much weight to lift at any given time. Or how many reps you have to make. You have all that planned already. You just do it, execute it like a robot. Like a machine.
Generating ideas is just like building up a muscle. First it’s really hard to get that first set – heck, even the first rep done. But after a while it gets easier and easier. Soon you’ll notice that you actually like it and don’t wanna miss the sessions. Generating ideas is like that. At first, it’s really hard. But day after day it gets a little easier. But once you notice the benefits of generating ideas, you are hooked.
The benefits of keeping up in the schedule of coming up with ideas is that you are going to come up with better ideas. And not just better ideas to your game, but to everything.
I am in the process of creating a similar system for coming up with ideas. I do it because I want all of us come up with greater ideas, everyday. Heck, if I’m completely honest I do it because I want to play better, more interesting games. I’m sick of city builder games which all look and taste the same.
So, if you want to maximize your creative output and get your idea muscle some real work, sign up below. I will send you the system as soon as it’s ready.
In my previous entry I wrote about making the strategic decision regarding whether to publish the mobile game by yourself or use an external publisher for publishing.
This is a sequel to that previous article.
As a foreword to this entry, I’ve seen that many game developers are used to sometimes very rigorous evaluation of mobile games, and due diligence of mobile game developers when the publishers are evaluating incoming titles to them. What I’ve seen is that sometimes mobile game developers forget that they should also do a similar evaluation of publishers themselves, so that they can get the best possible publisher for their game.
The goal of this article is to provide fellow developers an actionable framework with which they can pursue and evaluate the suitability of different publishers on their business case. In the end, this should make the decision process more clear and beneficial for the developer.
1. Suitability of the publisher’s portfolio to your game
Let’s say that you have a mobile puzzle game targeted towards a young, casual games audience. Then, you have two mobile game publishers as prospects to reach out to. The first is a three year old mobile game publisher who has published similar puzzle games before. The second one is a mid-core online publisher who is transitioning to mobile.
By limiting your decision making criteria only to this first variable, what would be your decision? Of course it would be the the one who has more experience on publishing similar games before.
Specifically, if the publisher has already published similar games, there is a better chance that:
They will understand the target audience of your game better, which will increase the quality of live operations, customer support and user acquisition efforts.
They will understand your game and game design better, which will increase the quality of communications between you and the publisher.
They can actually come up with good ideas for your game and enhance it together with you.
My recommendation is to find a publisher who lives and breathes similar games to the ones you are making. If you are designing small puzzle game experiences, try Ketchapp. If mid-core strategy / RPG games are making your pants wet check out Flaregames. Of course, these are just a few pointers, there are many more publishers out there.
So get up off your ass and get working.. networking!
2. Ability to get featuring for the game from platform owners
This is the most obvious item in this list, as getting attention and downloads to your mobile game in the ever-more-crowded mobile gaming space has gotten more difficult and expensive every year.
You can evaluate a publisher’s ability to get featuring for the games they publish by looking at App Store / Google Play data from services such as App Annie. By typing in the publisher’s name in the search field and then selecting the “Publishers” from the right-hand side column, you will easily see all the games a publisher has published on a given platform. Then selecting a game and from there the “Featured” link from the left-hand side menu.
But, as you can see, App Annie only shows App Store ‘featurings’ on a daily basis which makes it really difficult to find all the possible featurings the platform owner has granted to the game.
Another tactic is more direct; just approach the publisher directly or the developer of the game via Twitter, email or Skype and ask what kind of featuring they obtained from the platform holder and when.
No matter what the strategy for getting the information on the ability of the publisher getting platform featuring is, it’s very important piece of the puzzle. You need to know before making the decision to jump on board with the publisher.
3. Way of working with the developer
This item relates to everything that is involved with working with the publisher together to make awesome games. These things you cannot define in deal terms since these are the “little things” that you cannot specify explicitly.
For instance, some publishers are really “friendly” towards developers in a sense that even if the next milestone would not satisfy all the criteria as defined in the project plan beforehand, they would still continue working with you and possibly even continue to fund the game development. Others will do everything to get every cent back to them during the development and after the launch.
Another really difficult issue to evaluate is the quality of communications. Some publishers I have worked with, have had a really tough time keeping all the balls in the air, which will come even from working with one development. Sometimes the ball stays in their court far too long. And I can assure you that if your own schedule is very tight, the last thing you want to waste your time on is waiting for the publisher to catch the ball in their own end.
So try to evaluate the level and quality of communication from the publisher and the ability to “juggle many balls in air”. You can do this by talking with other developers, asking them how they see the communication with the publisher. However, always take the views of other developers with a grain of salt and always try to triangulate the views of a single developer with other partners of the publisher and by asking direct questions from the publisher itself.
Remember that all this work is prep-work for you to actually make the best possible choice. You are going to spend at least many months with the publisher, in the best case many years, and the consequences of this decision will have long-term effects to your business. So you want to be really thorough with the evaluation of the publisher and later during the deal negotiation process.
4. Amount of games they are publishing
The amount of games the publisher has set to take in and publish directly affects how big the competition you are facing in later phases of co-operation with the publisher will be. It also affects what kind of attention you will get from them in your day-to-day dealings.
No matter how big the publisher is, it only has limited amount of resources to pay attention to you and your game as well as resources spend on marketing your game. So you want t maximize the chance that you are the one which they will be investing in the most.
My recommendation is simple; choose the publisher that takes in fewer amounts of titles. This will increase the chances that they actually will communicate with you better, invest time in your game and you have better chances to stand out from the crowd.
So these are the things that I’ve seen which can make or break your success with the publisher. These is the preparation work that you should do before proceeding to the negotiation phase of the deal making process. In the next article, I will share my five cents on deal terms and deal structuring.
One of the most fundamental decisions for a mobile game developer is the decision between publishing the game yourself or to use an established publisher.
On the occurrences which I’ve been witnessing, this debate can get pretty heated with strong opinions on both sides. Often times, opinions and feelings tend to take place instead of a more constructive logic-based reasoning in the debate.
This article is my humble attempt to give some thoughts about which variables mobile game developers should take into account when making a decision on whether to publish their game by themselves or use an external publisher.
DO YOU NEED A FUNDING TO COMPLETE YOUR PROJECT?
The first variable which you should take into account is the most obvious one. If you need funding to complete your game, you should consider publishing funding. Sure, there are other methods of funding, such as loans and equity funding. Equity funding is also one potential method (especially, if you happen to have a rich uncle or parents) but raising equity funding from others aside from FFF (friends, fools and family) is very hard, especially if you don’t have considerable game development experience in your team.
It is also good to note that in today’s mobile gaming landscape, publishers are not very interested in other business models than free-to-play. So if you are developing a premium game to mobile platforms, I’m afraid that your chances of getting funding will be thin.
DO YOU HAVE MARKETING AND UA EXPERIENCE?
The second point to evaluate is whether you have any experience in marketing and/or user acquisition. As the competition is getting ever more fierce in mobile players’ attention, with around 500 apps and games submitted to the App Store each day, getting attention for your game is as equally an important piece of the puzzle as the art of making games.
To elaborate upon this question a little more, ask yourself these questions:
1. Do we have a reliable plan for getting attention to our game? (Sidenote: hoping for platform featuring is not a plan)
2. Do we know how to do App Store Optimization?
3. Do we know how to do user acquisition in scale? Do I know the terms DSP, SSP, CTR, CVR? Do we know how to do creative optimization?
4. Do we know how big a marketing budget we need for a soft launch? Do we know when we should transition from soft launch to global launch?
5. Do we know what attribution analytics is? Do we know how to handle possible frauds?
6. Do we have personal contacts with App Store or Google Play editorial teams? Have we ever pitched any of our games to Apple or Google representatives before? Do we know what they are looking for from awesome games?
7. If we don’t have any experience in UA or marketing – do we have any chances to hire a person who knows about these things? Do we know how much they cost? Do we know how to evaluate their skills in this matter?
These are just a few questions, but if you are able to stay objective when asking yourself these, you should pretty quickly find out the scope of things which are related under the term “marketing” and “user acquisition”.
Marketing is a HUGE set of activities and requires a lot of skills, resources, experience and connections. If you don’t have a solid plan for getting attention – and consequently – players for your game(s) then my recommendation is to use an external publisher with proven track record of getting downloads of the games they have published.
If you do have the experience and motivation to invest into marketing and user acquisition activities, then self publishing might be the best fit for you, given that you have evaluated the other factors in this article.
DO WE KNOW HOW TO DO LIVE OPERATIONS?
“The single greatest predictor of success and of sustainable competitive advantage in this business is live game operations”
– Owen Mahoney, CEO Nexon
This question applies mainly to F2P games since premium games tend to be more or less standalone games.
Live operations in this context means all the activities that are required to maintain a F2P following launch, including maintaining and deploying back-end services, doing user analytics, customer service, designing and deploying in-game events and updating content of the game and improvements to the game itself. Essentially, Live Operations means the SERVICE side of game business.
And maintaining a great live operation for your F2P game is one of the most fundamental aspects which will either hold you back or guarantee success for your game.
“We’re a technology company. We’re not really a game company.”
– Gabe Leydon, Machine Zone
Do a small test; take a look of the top grossing charts in the U.S. App Store and list how many of the top 100 grossing games have a live operations requirement in some form or another? Then, count in how many of these games would you consider there to be a considerable excellence either in gameplay, art, sound, narrative or in technology. Be strict! I can count the number of such games on one hand only.
Of course the fact that there aren’t many games with truly excellent gameplay, art or sounds doesn’t mean that there couldn’t be. But what is more clear is the need for a great live operation which is able to offer outstanding customer service. In the end, that brings in great revenues for those game publishers and developers able to master it.
So before deciding on self-publishing your game, ask yourself whether your game needs running live ops, what kind of skills you need for your live operations and what kind of resources you need to achieve that? You can make decent revenue with small a user base and with great live ops, but you first need to know what makes a good live ops for YOUR game.
If you don’t know anything about running live operations, or don’t want to invest in building one, then an established publisher with a solid history in running live ops is a far better choice.
So these are three main factors, in my point of view, which you should consider before deciding on publishing your game by yourself or with an established publisher. Hopefully I’ve offered up some new factors or new perspective that you might not have thought of before.
Next up, I’ll be expressing my viewpoints on how to best choose an external mobile game publisher for your game project. That is an important step after deciding that you want to use an external publisher.
A lot of my time goes into talking with mobile game players and trying to understand their needs, motivations, constraints and behaviors so that we here at Seepia Games could make the best games for our specific user group.
On my quest to understand mobile players, I’ve come across a set of game design dimensions through which we – the developers – can use to develop better games for a given target group. This is by no means scientifically validated set of dimensions but rather, a conceptual framework that is born out of experience.
I hope this framework helps fellow devs to better understand their users and make better games by using the framework to direct the design of the games. Also, if you feel that the framework misses any important elements, feel free to write me or leave a comment below. But for now, let’s just dive in to the first one.
1. Temporal Experience of Games
The first element revolves around how gamers devote their time to playing games.
In the first end, there are casual players who entertains themselves with games when time presents itself (e.g. playing when taking a dump). In my experience, for these players, games are fun hobby that is done when there is nothing else to do. In other words, they are killing time with casual games, but the game aside very easily when another opportunity comes by.
Mid-core players, on the other hand, arrange their gaming around their daily schedule. To me this means that they form playing habits around their free time around mid-core games so that they can progress in the game as efficiently as they can. Mid-core players are more involved in the game itself and when they are hooked, don’t leave so quickly from the game as the casual players do. I count myself to mid-core gamer. I’m playing currently two F2P games and I have formed playing habits around my free time so that I can meaningfully progress in the games without spending money.
Lastly, hardcore players typically arrange their schedules around their gaming. For them, playing games is a very fun and engaging activity – more so than many other activities in life. That’s why they are willing to make the arrangements so that other parts of life get less attention and games get more. For example, my brother is a hardcore gamer. He doesn’t mind if he spends 50% of his salary to buy a new equipment to his PC so that he can play the latest game with the best graphics. Also, he doesn’t mind staying up until 6am on Saturday morning to investigate the newest tactics how to get over that one really difficult end boss or whatever.
Of course in real life, the categorization is not so tight and clear as in here. There are real hardcore players of Candy Crush who play games hours and hours per day without even thinking about it. And there are not-so hardcore players of Clash of Clans who just play the game to kill time and fight boredom.
So how you can use this first lens to make informed decisions in your game design? Well, first of recognizing that there are such categorizations. If you are developing a mobile F2P game to males between 25-45 years of age, it may not be the best decision to require them to spend hours and hours of time in the game per day to make any kind of progress in the game. Or, you can of course make the decision, but then it may not be the best decision considering your business model and target platform since that demographic group don’t typically have a lot of free time to spend on gaming.
2. Habitual targeting
Second lens which you can use to examine different target groups of games is habitual targeting. In essence, this mean to take into consideration that people have ingrained habits in their daily life AND that people also form new habits all the time.
Most of us usually brush teeth twice per day; once after getting out of bed in the morning and once before going back to bed in the evening. Smartphones and other mobile devices have also created a set of tiny habits which are ingrained to our daily life, such as checking our phones all the time.
Game developers can use the habitual targeting first by understanding which triggers cause people to play games. When you understand which triggers cause people to play games, you can tailor your game to their habits.
Secondly, game developers can use the psychology of habit forming to create compelling habit creation loops inside their games. For instance, daily quests are particularly effective tools inside games for habit creation. One novel idea might be to start the “daily grind” for new players with minimal effort – maybe 1 or 2 actions to complete the daily grind – and prolong the grind as players have formed the basis of the habit in one or two weeks. The key is to think how to help players form new habits as easily as possible.
3. Bartle’s personality categorization
I’m not going to describe Bartle’s categorization since it is so fundamental categorization player types that everyone should have read it. Those who haven’t read it, you can find the original article here.
Anyways, the point to include the categorization here is to remind fellow devs that different people have different kinds of motivations and goals in games. Some give themselves clear and explicit goals which they then strive to achieve (achievers) while others want to engage into social activities in games (socializers). Again, there are no clear lines here since different people posses aspects from different kinds of types of players. Also, players tend to drift from one type to another in the course of a game.
Bartle categorization might not suit for every kind of situation and for different kinds of games, but it gives you a good overview of the broad types of players within the game. In my experience, some of these apply a little bit differently depending on what type of game you are making. For example, I have noticed that a lot of people in mobile F2P strategy games are a mix of achievers and explorers in a sense that they are constantly finding the optimal set of actions which they can use to progress as fast as possible within the free time which the game grants them to play. Term “progress” might be either collecting in-game resources, leveling up their units or buildings or going up in leaderboards. Since I haven’t personally been able to categorize these players either as achievers or explorers I’ve coined them as “optimizers”.
The key in this framework is to think how you can use this categorization of player types together with other elements in the framework. Again, if you are targeting employed males of 25-45 years old who are technology enthusiasts, you’d need to consider their daily life in your game design. First step is to understand how much free time they can devote to playing games, and how and when they do it. In my experience, I can say that typically players in this age group are playing games in the morning and after work to relax after hard work day. On the other hand, if you target younger people, aged 18-24 I would guess that they have more free time, usually play games for killing time and like to socialize in the game as well. They also tend to have a lot shorter time frame of focus, meaning that they are more likely to play more casual games than games that require more than a minute or two of focused attention.
To give you a more concrete example, think how Clash Royale and Star Wars: Galaxy of Heroes target their design so much differently. Both have similar demographic targeting; dominantly male, aged 25 or above, but when it comes to habitual and temporal targeting, the games are quite different. First of all, Galaxy of Heroes has quite long set of daily quests which takes anything from 30 minutes to 1 hours to complete them. And that’s only the daily quests. If you are a real optimizer, you want to use all free possibilities to upgrade and level up your troops which the game offers. Also, EA has different strategy in the live ops phase than Supercell since after the latest update on Feb 09, they constantly give you this extra energy called “Bonus FREE energy” on top of the already quite lofty energy.
Supercell, on the other hand, has quite a different strategy. Whereas Star Wars relies heavily on limited-time events, monthly events and different game modes, Clash Royale is solely focused on PvP matches (one game mode) and player-initiated habit formation. In Clash Royale, players can play as much as they like, but at one point, the in-game currency and card-rewards will go off, and players only gather trophies to level-up their rank. What is genius, is how the reward gathering and accumulation works. The game has different kinds of chests which grant players different kinds of rewards. To get the rewards, players first need to unlock the chest. Depending on the type of the chest, the unlocking takes 3 or 8 hours. And players can decide when to the clock starts ticking on these chests.
For me, this works like a charm. I get up from the bed in the morning, I get the rewards from nights 8-hour Gold Chest. Then, I play few rounds of the game, get chests, and unlock Silver Chest which takes 3 hours. Next time I’ll play during lunch time in work, and again start to unlock another Silver Chest. When I get home after work, another round and another Silver chest. Last time when I play the game is before going to bed, when I start the unlocking of Gold Chest, which I’ll unlock the next morning. Brilliant or what?
Going back to the framework – in the end, it’s not about throwing ideas how one user group MIGHT behave, but actually develop a solid process to identify and validate your target user group, their needs, habit and goals and what they are looking in games when they are playing those. I’m calling this process a customer development process – a term which is broadly used in technology start-up world.
I think it’s appropriate to use the term in the game business as well. Despite the fact that we are not looking for solid business model anymore. My experience shows that we – the game developers – are very good at coming up with novel ideas and the use of intuition and creativity overall. However, we have challenges to combine the creativity with a research-backed processes to uncover and validate customer needs and goals. More often than not, we tend to keep with our first great ideas and not caring about possible voices of disagreement and contradiction with our ideas. My quest is to uncover the myths around customer thinking and validation so that we could actually make better games and fully utilize the creative power of our minds.
In the end, we all are here to create and offer awesome experiences and great games to players which could be remembered years after now. I hope that this framework helps at least few of you in that adventure.
Here’s a list of useful resources for you to dig out general information on this topic.
App Annie just released a nice report of user engagement patterns based on the age groups of mobile users.
Excellent post by Justin Carroll on how to research your games target market for free, based on similar games already out there.
“I am passionate about game development and programming. I have strong passion to the strategy games and I’ve always liked to be part of the game development team to make them”
“We are looking for a passionate game developer to join our team!”
“We are group of passionate game developers trying to make our first mobile game”
“I am so passionate about my gaming company that I will work 12 hour a day and do everything to make this game see a daylight!”
and so on and so on..
I don’t know about you but I’m quite fed up with how much this industry glorifies passion. Sometimes it feels like that there’s nothing else except how passionate someone is about game development. Often it feels like passion has some intrinsic value. But it doesn’t.
I think passion is overrated. Too many people think that passion is the ultimate mark of a great game developer. But it’s not.
I have seen too many passionate job applicants to our studio that can’t communicate how they could actually provide value to our company. They are all forgotten now in the sea of other passionate applicants who couldn’t provide value to our company.
I have seen too many passionate game artists that single-mindedly want to do that specific style of art style to the game even if the rest of the team says that the art style doesn’t fit to the type of the game they make. They all are now gone from our team.
I have seen too many passionate mid-level managers that think the more they micro-manage employees and sacrifice other aspects of their life, the better the outcome of their work will be. They all have burned themselves up and are now doing something else.
I have seen too many passionate studio leaders and CEOs who are so passionate about that specific project that they have ignored the business realities of their companies. They all are now replaced by others who are able to see the reality and make decisions based on those realities.
Fuck the passion! Or put more precisely; fuck the single-minded glorification of passion. Of course passion important, but it’s only relatively important – not absolutely. Passion is the starting point. When used wisely, passion is what drives you to be 1% better version of yourself each and every day. When you don’t know how to use it, it drives you to the point of fear, jealousy and ultimately, burn you up.
Think value, not passion
In my opinion too many people are focused on passion and too few people in our industry think about creating value.
Job seekers, imagine what kind of mark you would leave to your potential employer’s mind when you would unapologetically provide ten useful idea about their products, website, community or any other aspect of their business. How many job seekers actually do that when they apply for jobs?
Mid-level managers, think about what’s the ONE most-valuable thing what you could today to provide value to your team and to your company? Sometimes it’s just giving feedback on the game your team is making. Other times it’s making those hard decisions on the project which the team cannot do. But to keep yourself sane, focus on making that ONE highest value action from your to-do list per day. If you are able to make more, GREAT! But don’t plan to do more than one item per day. This is how I have myself actually increased my efficiency tenfold and also increased the quality of life tremendously. It’s counter-intuitive but trust me, it works!
CEOs and studio leaders – I have the same advice that I gave to other managers. You see, the difference between the tasks of employees and managers/leaders is that managers must do tasks that have tremendous leverage to whole team and company, POTENTIALLY. By limiting your thought and decision making process to that one thing a day focuses you to actually select the tasks that have the biggest leverage.
So, dear CEO, think about that one idea how you could today advance the implementation of your strategy, provide value to your shareholders and create an environment for your team to succeed in their job!
Lastly, I write these articles because I have myself experienced a lot of different things during my (relatively short) career in game industry. I have been that passionate mid-level manager that burned himself up. I have failed many times, but I have always got back up stronger and wiser than I was before. I am still passionate about games and game development. But I have also seen that to be able to effectively use that passion, you have to take care of your mental, physical and spiritual sides as well.
I used to work 12-14 hours a day (which included 3 hours of driving a car to my workplace) and my mental model during those times were that I can only provide value by working hard. Nothing can be further from the truth. Now I work around 5 hours a day and I’m so much more effective! Less is truly more.
I have been involved in (mobile) f2p game development for the whole of my game industry career. I’ve experienced and seen a lot of mistakes which young and/or inexperienced developers do. Some of them are mistakes that you cannot avoid; you just have to face them and learn from them. Others are mistakes that could – with good mentoring or consultation – be avoided.
The motivation of this article is to describe these mistakes and how to avoid them so that fellow developers could skip few mistakes, accelerate their career and make better games for all of us.
1. Assuming you know what players want or like
This is by far the greatest mistake which I’ve seen rookie developers to make. Somehow the industry standard logic goes something like this “because I play these kinds of games myself, I am competent enough to know what all other players like”. That is quite far from the truth in my experience.
I’m not saying that it wouldn’t work; there are some notable exceptions of games where the developers have just executed their vision and the game has become huge success. But those really are exceptions – few and far between. And we, as game developers, should make our best to increase the chances of success with our games, not just hoping to be the next exception. Hope is not a strategy.
Best way to avoid this mistake is to describe who is the potential customer of our game (describing the target customer). I’m not talking only about describing the customer by terms of demographics, but using more actionable parameters such as occupation, marital statuses, psychological motivations, typical day in the life of the target customer, habits, likes and dislikes. Better yet, don’t just make them up, actually try to learn from the customers. Best developers don’t just think this in their cubicles, but actually make findings based on the conversations with customers or from customer reviews of similar games, for example.
Imagine that if you would actually design your game based on the daily habits, available free time to gaming, sources where YOUR players look for games and perhaps, what they are currently missing in games. Imagine that you would KNOW all of this before you would code one single line of code of your game. What kinds of decisions would that allow you to make?
Knowing your customer is by far the most effective way to start the development of your next game.
2. Not limiting your scope
This is the second most popular mistakes I see young developers to do. In plain English this means that you are making too big game in relation to your skills, experience and resources.
The mental pattern behind this mistake goes something like that “the bigger the game, the better it must be”. What’s more peculiar, the neediness to expand the scope usually revolves around non-essential gameplay features that add little to no value to playing experience. And as we have seen, most popular mobile f2p games are very focused on few gameplay features so that the core gameplay stays clean.
I thought a lot about whether to categorize this as “avoidable” or “non-avoidable” mistakes since the mental pattern behind this mistake is so ingrained that it’s very hard to overcome the momentum of it. But as I’m quite optimistic about human ability to learn, I think that this really is avoidable mistake. It of course requires that the person(s) is really willing to change his behavior.
Best way to overcome is to think yourself as ROOKIE you are, in the bottom of game industry food chain and you need to make yourself up. In order to do that you need to learn fast, learn like hell, learn faster than anyone else! And the best point of learning is achieved when the game is published and the players are playing it.
So, in the beginning of your journey as a game entrepreneur, you need to ship the game as fast possible without actually making another kinds of foolish mistakes such as no. 3, publishing the game to soon.
Another good reminder is that when it seems that the game is 90% done, there’s still 90% left to be done.
3. Publishing the game too soon
This mistake is another way of saying “publishing crap”, which revolves around the fact that there is still considerable amount of polish or actual needed gameplay features to be done.
By shipping the game before it’s done, is the result usually either of following two things:
Understanding that the game is not finished, but due to panicking about schedules and budgets, you still decide to publish it.
Not seeing that the game isn’t finished yet and deciding to publish it.
If you fit into first category, then you just need to grow a pair of balls (sorry ladies for the unfitting analogy) and not give in to the deceptive allure of calling the game done. If the panic is caused by not having enough money in the bank to pay the costs of developing the game, then you need to make some sales.
If you are in the second category, it’s a little bit harder. It’s hard especially in those kinds of cases where there are no people who could actually say that the game is not ready yet. I will talk more about this (recruitment and culture building) in later posts, but for the purposes of this article it’s sufficient to say that you need to accept the fact that you are not the next Jobs of games industry. So find a person who can actually steer the game to correct path.
In either way, the worst case is to release the game when it’s done yet and worst still, pour a lot of marketing money for it. So be diligent and honest with yourself and your team about the state of the game.
I often get asked by other entrepreneurs and developers about advice and best practices how to succeed in (mobile) games market. I think there are a lot of ways to succeed in games business like in any other business, so I don’t think that there are any one set of rules, advises or practices which would guarantee anyone to succeed in business.
Instead, I think that often it is more effective to analyze how to fail in business so that business owners wouldn’t make the same mistakes that other entrepreneurs have done in the past.
What follows is a set of behaviors which, from my experience, have been major drivers for businesses to go bankrupt and fail. I hope that this list will help fellow developers to think about their businesses and change the behaviors to make better games and entertain the world.
1. DON’T PLAN AHEAD “A goal without a plan is just a wish” – Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
This is by far the most common behavior mistake which I have seen game developers to make. It is not so much a plan itself, but the planning. You can survive without a plan, but not without planning.
Usually this revolves around not thinking strategically, not planning for mistakes or not planning how much time or resources making a game will require. Often, especially newbie entrepreneurs have that one great idea for a game and they want to make that happen, no matter what. Other times, people just want to get busy and start making a game. Any game. Without thinking or planning a bit.
Don’t get me wrong; I admire believing to your own idea and in the will to make it happen. But usually it is beneficial to think about how you can make that happen without burning yourself up, crashing your business or making your team leave in the process.
2. DON’T PAY ANY REGARD TO CUSTOMER “Everything starts with the CUSTOMER” -June Martin
The second most important behavior is not thinking about the customer of your game. This line of thinking can often be seen from phrases like “We just make games to ourselves”.
This usually results in games that are:
too innovative or different compared to audience tastes (I call them artistic games);
games that appeal too many different customers (I call them “me-too games”);
games that no-one wants to pay (premium games on mobile market without notable following or big brand)
Again, there is nothing wrong to make games which the developers themselves like. This usually ensures that people have the vision and motivation to make the game as good as they can. BUT, usually it is good to listen to actual players of similar games, talk with them and try to understand their behaviors, unmet needs and desires about the games. Only by listening and understanding target customers, developers can validate the basic assumptions behind the game and make breakthrough innovations to the game.
Most effective ideas to games come from the insights that come from understanding you customers and your experience in making games.
3. DON’T THINK ABOUT THE MONEY “Money flows in the direction of value” -Warren Buffet
Money should not be the only objective of your business, but not thinking about the money in the end is a guaranteed failure. Without thinking the money, you will surely start projects and endeavors that you are not able to accomplish or finalizing a game that doesn’t result in positive income to your company.
I have seen many examples of companies where after some injection of money into the company (either in a form of loans, grants, awards or investments), executives of the company have started to hire a lot of staff and executing all sorts of plans without ever thinking how much runway those actions take away from them. These decisions have cause the companies to go bankrupt because the costs of business have risen a lot without adding relative speed in execution.
YOU are the CEO, the Founder or the executive! If you are working in a company, you are in the BUSINESS of making games and the end result of business is to make money. So think about how you can survive the next month and live to be able to fight the next fight. Also, think about how you can ACTUALLY contribute value to your customers with your game (relates of course to customer understanding).
4. BLAME EVERYONE AND EVERYTHING ELSE FROM YOUR MISTAKES “When you blame others, you give up your power to grow” – a wise man
For all of you with this mindset; stop blaming others and take responsibility to your own hands!
Listen, customers don’t want to buy a premium mobile game from someone they’ve never heard because there are A LOT of good free choices to pick from. Don’t blame other developers for actually counting in that fact and making F2P games that have even a chance for break-even.
Also, there are currently over 500 games submitted to App Store every day. There is no way that such amount of games can fairly be discoverable, so YOU have to make sure that the game is seen by editorial teams of App Store well before it’s launched. Apple is in the business of selling games and apps, so OF COURSE they will feature games that makes their devices look good and generate money because by doing that, also they make more money. So don’t blame Apple, Google or anyone else for running their business. YOU are responsible for the marketing strategy for your game so make sure that it has one and that is well executed! (Side note: hoping for platform featuring is NOT a viable marketing strategy).
If you can evaluate your own behavior against these ones and tick one or more behaviors, it is time pause and think of how you can get rid of these and maximize your chances for business success.