Tuesday, 29 December 2015

Review Optimization for Mobile Games

Rating importance on App Store search
As Store search is most popular discovery avenue of mobile apps and game (Nielsen 2015), it is important to know what part user reviews play in Google Play and Apple App Store search ranking algorithms.

Inside Mobile Apps conducted a study in which they examined a random sampling of easy, medium and competitive search terms on both Google Play and App Store to see how each app ranked based on the average user rating in the search list. Based on the findings of the study, it is clear that average ratings play important part in both stores search ranking algorithms. Thus, review optimization is crucial for increasing the search rank in the app stores.
Google Play places more importance to avg user rating in search ranking.

Review optimization is a set of processes and tasks with a goal to maximize the amount of positive user reviews and ratings for the game on the Store.

There are four basic factors which the developer has to take into account when optimizing for reviews:
  1. User’s emotional state at the time when asking for an review
  2. Suitability of the state of time for user to give a review
  3. Motivation for user to give a review
  4. The ability to hide negative reviews from the Store reviews

So let’s take a deeper look of all of the different factors, one by one.

User’s emotional state at the time of asking for a review is related to feelings which the user might feel during the time when asking for a review. As games are emotionally very intense products (at least for avid gamers), it is of paramount of importance to be able to identify potential feelings of user at this time. Typical way of doing this is to use behavioral analytics. For example, usually users are feeling satisfied and positive after winning battles, leveling up or after receiving some sort of rewards in the game. So a good time for asking a review could be after user comes back to the main view after victorious battle, or after the player has leveled up his character.

Suitability of the time when asking user for a review means that is it best possible frame of time to ask for a review from the user. Even after successful battle, it might not be the best time to ask for a review since user might have got rewards or in-game items from the battle which he is planning to use to upgrade his troops in the card battler game. So asking for a review at this time just distracts and annoys the user from accomplishing his main goal at this time. So how do we know what is the best time to ask for a review?
Once again, we have to turn to analytics for help. Specifically, we are analyzing in-game events which have happened shortly after the user has left the game and stopped the session. Typical good points of time might include the time right after the energy has run out in free-to-play game or after user has started training of troops in town battler game AND when he doesn’t have full amount of troops ready. Also, it is a good idea not to ask for a review in the first sessions of the game due to user still being novice to the game so don't know much about the game. Different genre of games have different mechanics and different games have completely different optimal points of time, so best thing to do is to analyze the data and tie the user review feature to these in-game events.

Motivation for user to give a review related to Call-to-Action texts and rewards that motivate user to give a review. Usually, it is a good rule to explain shortly why it is a good thing to give a review of the game. These CTAs might be e.g. “Please give a review, it helps us to make the gaming experience better for all of us!” It is also a good idea to reward the user for giving a review with some unique reward. This is necessary to optimize the review funnel despite the fact that there is no way of getting the information from App Store that has the user actually gave a review.
Great visualization of review optimization process for Circa News app.

The ability to hide negative reviews refers to the rules within the game how the reviews are handled. One common strategy is that if users give negative review (below 4) of the game, review mechanism asks, in-game, what could be done to make the game better. After the user has typed in the feedback, then the review component can ask user to submit that to developers via in-game support-button. Note that in negative review cases, the user is not asked to leave a reply to App Store or Google Play page. In positive review cases (4-5), the user is asked to leave a review to App Store or Google Play product page after the in-game review prompt.

Tuesday, 8 December 2015

Mechanics of mobile collectible card games - an overview

Today's post deals with the mobile collectible card game (CCG) market and why we believe Permia - Duels will rise to be a winner in the future. In the western markets, the most of the notable mobile CCG:s are either manager CCG:s and so called line mechanic CCG:s. Additionally, the market has some notable games, whose mechanics differ from the main categories,  most important being of course the Hearthstone. Also worth mentioning are the mobile spin offs of the old physical CCG giants Magic the Gathering and Yo-Gi-Oh!. Lately the card mechanics have become popular also when integrated into other games, such as card based sports games.

Manager CCG:s

Image: Rage of Bahamut
Manager games are the most populous group of mobile CCG:s (For example Rage of Bahamut, Heroes Charge, MARVEL War of Heroes and Heroes of Camelot). In manager CCG:s the tactical elements have been stripped completely or are very light in the battles. As a result, the battles are very fast and can often be skipped all together directly to the end result. Such games focus on the collection, card development, deck building, story and/or social elements instead. This works well on mobile, as battles are short and can be easily played anywhere. But the lack of a real tactical skill element also means that the game is essentially the collecting and upgrading system and once that wears out, there is little replay value due the non-existing battle mechanics.

Line mechanic CCG:s

Image: Order & Chaos Duels
In line mechanic games players in turn play units into the battlefield into designated places. The units then fight automatically and if there is no defending unit in the opposing slot, the player takes the damage himself. There exists different variations of the basic system: some games have multiple battle lines, others allow movement of units etc. Some examples of line games include Lies of Astaroth, Tyrant Unleashed and Order & Chaos Duels.

I have newer been a big fan of the line mechanic, as it offers seemingly lot of tactical choices through card special abilities. With a closer look, the mechanics tend to prove rather shallow due to the line system limitations and become repetitive after a while. Even worse, games tend to drag on needlessly long when the battle grid gets filled with creatures and player runs out of tactical choices to implement. The problem is worst with equally good decks and players.

Conguer a base CCG:s

Image: Battle Decks
Conguer a base CCG:s combine card mechanics with a board, where units can be moved. Such games are more popular in PC, but a few examples exists also in mobile  such as Battle Decks, Cabals: Magic & Battle cards. While they offer both strategic and tactical depth, such games are tend to have long battles, which is not optimal as mobile experience.

Physical CCG spin offs

Image: Magic Duels
For example Magic Duels, Yo-Gi-Oh! Duel Generation, Magic 2015. While the physical games have been great successes, they have had difficulties on adapting to the electronic and especially mobile environment. The mechanics are very deep on both strategic and tactical level, but also overly complicated for mobile. Some of the mechanics do not translate well from the physical world to the mobile experience, like the interrupt concept in magic, which makes Magic Duels a sluggish experience, as one needs to wait for possible interrupts all the time. Also the battles take long time.


Image: Hearthstone
Hearthstone is the biggest electronic CCG in the market today. In essence Hearthstone resembles a
simplified version of Magic the Gathering, where the mechanics have been streamlined and modified to work well in an electronic game. The designers did a good job and the game offers enough strategic and tactical depth to make skill matter while still keeping the game easier to approach compared to the Physical CCG spin offs. In addition to the mechanics, that stand out from the mobile competitors, the monetization model of Hearthstone is rather non-aggressive for a mobile game. The battles take 10 to 30 minutes, which is a bit long in a mobile game though. Also while Hearthstone has social elements, like spectator mode and chat, its lacking  in-game cooperative interaction.

Permia - Duels

Early art concept of the new style for the upcoming grand update.
Early concept of the new art style.
So how does our Permia -Duels fit to the market? Duels shares many of the strengths that have made Hearthstone the biggest CCG around: The game stands out from the main competitors on the market. Combining depth with simplicity in the mechanical design of the game has proven to be a winning combination. Not too aggressive monetization model will be better in the long run, as players are getting more sensitive to the free-to-play tricks also in the mobile. These give a good basis to start from, but the real strength of Permia - Duels in the mobile are the short battles. While being able to offer lots of strategic and tactical depth, the battles of Permia - Duels typically take less than 3 minutes. This is less than any other CCG:s (aside from the manager games, which lack tactical battles altogether).

Another important aspect of Permia - Duels, that will be added in the upcoming grand update, will be the Guilds and related in-game cooperative integration  to keep players playing for a long time. With the updated visuals and content upgrades of the grand update, Permia - Duels will have all the elements to take over the mobile CCG market. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, 1 December 2015

Competitive advantage of a game company

In the shadow of fairly recent M&A news of Activision-Blizzard buying Candy Crush Maker King with $5,9 billion and many, many others, I've recently pondered what is the REAL competitive advantage of a game company nowadays.

In order to understand what is the real competitive advantage of a gaming company, you have to first study the market dynamics of the games industry. In this analysis, I'll review the game industry based on Michael Porter's Competitive Advantage -theory and 5 competitive forces that play crucial role in determining the competitive advantage of a company in any industry.

Pace of Change

This factor is actually not in Porter's Five Forces model, but I wanted to add this here, because it makes a world of difference when thinking
As most of us know, games industry is one of the most fast changing industries in the world. Eight years ago, no-one would have bet their money on the mobile gaming landscape due to the shortcomings of Java-games on earlier smartphones.

The Entry of New Competitors
The democratization of game development with free or low-cost such as Unity, Game Studio and alike, it is much, much more easier to start making products to gaming in gaming industry than it is to do e.g. restaurant business.

In addition to lowered costs of production tools, the costs of distributing the products to customers have lowered substantially with new distribution channels that have come along with internet and smartphones.

So it is good to say that game industry is one of the most competitive industries in the world that puts a lot of pressure to new and existing game companies.

Threat of a Substitute Product

Threat of a substitute product means the extent of threat of substitute product from a different industry that can substitute the value of the industry's product.

Reflecting this into a games industry, it is very clear that the value of game industry product (=entertainment value, escapism value) can be substituted with e.g. a book industry product, a sports industry product or a movie industry product, to name just a few.

Hence, it is clear that the threat of a substitute product is very high in game industry.

Buyer's Bargaining Power

Buyer's bargaining is the level of leverage the buyers can use to alter the price, quality and customer service of a product. There are many factors which affect buyer's bargaining power: buyer concentration, switching costs of a product, level of backward integration of a product and purchasing volumes of a buyer of the product.

Relating these to games industry, we can conclude that there are more buyers than there are sellers (despite that it doesn't always seem like this within the industry, with more than 450k games on App Store alone). Also, switching costs of a product is fairly low due to the high amount of competitive products on any given platform these days. Level of backward integration and purchasing volumes are not factors in games industry since we are B2C industry and selling digital products mainly.

My conclusion is that because of very low switching costs, buyer (player) has a significant bargaining power in games industry.

The Bargaining Power of Suppliers

The supplier's bargaining power in Porter's theory means the extent to which suppliers can put pressure to businesses by raising prices, lowering quality or reducing the availability of their products.

In games industry, suppliers don't really have that much bargaining power since most of the outsourced work (namely, quality assurance, localization and graphic production) have so many suppliers worldwide that they really don't have that much leverage to game developers or publishers.

So, what gives?

In porter's original theory, company would have choose strategy based on two basic types of competitive advantage; cost leadership, differentiation. In cost leadership, you would select a strategy that focuses on cost-aware consumers and reducing the production costs of a product. In differentiation strategy, you would pick up a niché in selected vertical and differentiate your product based on the attributes of competitive products so that the product satisfies a (unidentified) market need.

Either of these strategies are not applicable per se to a game company, due to marginal costs approaching zero and due to high competitive landscape in the games industry.

So what to do in an industry where in four out of five forces, there is high pressures and there is no seemingly clear strategies for sustaining growth and increase your position in the market?

In my view - and strictly hypothetically speaking - learning, and in particular, organizational learning is an aspect of corporate strategy that is too often neglected. The importance of learning comes very clear when you reflect the speed of change of games industry. In order to create a long-term profitable businesses, you have to focus on not only the core competencies of your employees, but also the meta-competencies of your whole firm. This can also be viewed as a rate of learning of an organization. 

Not only it is required that individuals learn, but it is fundamental that teams, departments and whole organizations learn at the same time when doing the day-to-day business.

I will cover more how organization learning translates to games industry, and how game companies are able to implement organizational learning in the operations in following articles.