Contrary to what many players expect, game design isn’t an entirely artistic endeavor — it’s also a science. In 2019, developers utilize data analytics to better understand players, while finding new ways of engaging and retaining them. Nowhere is this trend more clear than mobile gaming. In 2019, developers use exhaustive data sets to create data-driven game experiences that players will still enjoy as art and entertainment.
Tapjoy recently met with Kenneth Wong, director of research and monetization at Hothead Games, to discuss the trend of data-driven game development.
Hothead Games has been around for about 13 years. It started life as a traditional video game studio, producing downloadable games on XBLA, PSN and Steam. I joined the team eight years ago, just as it was making the transition to mobile platforms. Since that time, I’ve worked in UA, monetization, game consultancy, and even UX.
Right now, I manage Hothead’s advertising revenue and market research. A big part of what I do is find gaps in the industry that could be prime business opportunities. If one of these gaps seems particularly promising, Hothead can develop a game for that specific audience.
Analytics is an essential component of what I do. In a mobile setting, that’s your tool for precisely understanding what users want so you can more effectively cater to them. How much time do they play? What sorts of games do they engage with? This research is vital because you’re only as good as what you know about your users.
There’s no single recipe for bringing these elements together. Hothead’s process is to give our designers and programmers as much information as possible to make the best decisions. On the product/creative side, we do theme testing, competitive research, and user research to inform the product team on the potential of certain themes and art styles. Once a game is in its infancy phase, we build prototypes and ask users what they think. Later on, we might conduct a soft launch and gain valuable qualitative feedback.
Once we have a game with which people will engage, we can spend more time focusing on monetization strategy that tailors to the game play and meta. The monetization model is highly driven by the type of game we are building.
Competition from other studios is our biggest challenge. Most new games have a very short lifecycle because the barrier to entry is so low. It’s a real challenge to be profitable in that kind of timeframe. The flip side of this problem is that mobile gaming has matured. Gaming’s most valuable players — those investing the most time and money — don’t jump off and find another game right away. The top 20 or 100 games on app storefronts don’t move around like they used to.
That’s why advertising has become so important to game developers. Advertising lets us directly profit from ad revenue during a short lifecycle. More importantly, ads enhance the viability of your game without the necessity of being a top-grossing IAP game.
The data collection and analytics process has absolutely evolved. At first, data was primarily used to improve UA and understand the attribution cycle. Now we need it to get the CPI as low as possible, calculate engagement rates, measure the payback window, optimize ad placements, and more. If nothing else, game developers need to get sophisticated about data because the competition will overwhelm them otherwise.
Ironically, privacy is also a driver of data technology. Since we need to be careful about personal information, we use identifiers that match different cohorts. And as you scale to serve broader player bases, machine learning comes into play to track and analyze everything. These evolutions aren’t about to slow down anytime soon.
I spent time thinking about why some of our projects fail and how they fail. The worst thing anybody can do in this industry is to believe they already hit their plateau. If you’re not trying to do better, the market will pass you by. Platforms and ad networks will introduce new guidelines and features, new types of ad formats will appear; it’s continually evolving. As a developer, you need to be ready to deal with the new changes.
On the game design front, the rise of hyper-casual is fascinating. It’s a great model that frees studios to be creative and experiment instead of releasing the same type of game over and over. If you look at hyper-casual releases, you’ll see all kinds of games and genres that are doing well. You never know what the next big hit will be, and that’s very exciting.
On the marketing front, the evolution of advertising monetization models is an important trend. If handled correctly, you can have successful ad-monetized games that thrive alongside IAP-driven products.
Advertising and machine learning will combine to power the next phase of analytics and data collection. In turn, the insights we gain are going to drive in-game personalization to the point that every user will have a unique game experience. Every player can experience something different, and watching that develop will be fascinating.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of our discussion with Kenneth Wong, where we’ll take a closer look at market research in game design. For more insights from our Mobile Champion developers, check out our interview with Bryan Davis, Senior VP of Big Blue Bubble.