‘I don’t really care about being right’, Steve Jobs said in an interview for Triumph of the Nerds, ‘I just care about success.’
There are infinite ways to kid yourself that a game is successful, but there are also many ways to misinterpret success as failure. Here’s what I think: If your game can attract 100,000 players who each play for 60 days then it’s a success. It might take time to realise its value, but you’re definitely onto something.
It has traction.
It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about Facebook games, train simulators, open source space trading games or iPhone mega-hits. If you can build a significant audience of players who stick around then you have something. They may already be customers, or they may be players who will become customers later, but they are still proof to a potential investor, publisher or other stakeholder that your game has value. Traction is king.
Knowing how long players will stick around is crucial to understanding lifetime value. LTV means how much money a customer is likely to spend during the time that they are actively playing the game. In social and massive multiplayer games, understanding LTV is crucial to figuring out whether a game is sustainable or not.
But not all games are about that. Retail games are usually about the sale, which can lead to a smash-and-grab strategy of building hype and then cashing out. However that tends to destroy any sequel potential.
Smart publishers are just as worried about players continuing to play after launch as they are about early sales because good intellectual property is not easy to make. They also want real fan clubs to form and for players to be motivated enough to create great user generated content, and that doesn’t happen if they only play for a weekend.
Others, like educational or social cause games, often care less about lifetime value and prefer to assess impact. Impact is very hard to directly measure, but activity over a period of time is more easily defined. Regardless of the overall objective, if a social cause game is not being played then that tends to put paid to all other ambitions.
When you consider how many big-budget games sell millions of copies, and how some iPhone apps get masses of downloads, 100,000 players sounds pretty small. On the other hand if you’re a small indie developer making a game like Panda Poet, 100,000 players is a tall order.
You might also look at that number and ask does it mean paying players, freemium players or just plain free? Some developers think that 100,000 players means 100,000 freeloaders where others consider them opportunities. 5% of 100,000 players buying 10$ of virtual goods per month is enough to fund more development at a small studio and validate that a business model works.
100,000 players tweeting regularly for a social cause could be millions of tweets, which is the sort of metric that non-profits love. They want to fund studios that can deliver that. 100,000 players continuing to play a console game after launch is a serious fan club who will talk long and loud about the next version of the game.
However I would argue that the crucial part is not the 100,000 players. It’s the 60 days. 200,000 players playing for 30 days is not the same as 100,000 playing for 60 days. It’s significantly less valuable.
The time commitment of 60 days demonstrates deep fascination. It’s enough time for communities and interest graphs to form, and for social structures to emerge. Players who play that long are the types that write help guides and wikis, form clubs and clans. Sub-cultures form around the game and when that happens then who knows just how long they will stay. Months. Years possibly.
100,000 players for 60 days is also a motivational milestone for game makers. It sounds like the start of something meaningful.
Measuring the Right Thing
Getting traction is hard. It may mean cycling through millions of players and nagging them just to find 100,000 who will return of their own accord. It might mean building an audience over a long and often bleak time. It might mean providing a great multiplayer mode with serious replayability, as first person shooters often do. It usually means figuring out your 100 hours of gameplay.
Here’s what it doesn’t mean though:
- Review scores
- Monthly Active Users
- Marketing events
- Early sales figures
These are all useful numbers in other ways but they are not a measure of traction. Review scores tell you that reviewers liked or disliked your game, but reviewers are not normal players and chasing their approval is often not productive. Monthly active users are those big numbers that Facebook games are famous for, but mean little. Budgets are a useful indicator of how much money was spent, but not a measure of return. Even early sales, whether through launches or virtual goods, certainly sound impressive but they are often deceptive as regards the true value of a franchise over the long term.
Try figuring out a way to measure 1, 2, 7, 30 and 90-day retention instead. You might be surprised at just how quickly players drop out, and it might tell you so much more about the value of your game than reviewers, vanity metrics or budgets might have you believe.
(Today’s image is courtesy of the Kheel Center at Cornell University)