Forget everything else for a moment and consider that your game is just a graph of users over time. There is more than one kind of viable graph, but knowing which kind you are aiming for is important. It should affect every strategic or marketing decision that you make. This week's news that Draw Something's user numbers have already dropped by 30% is significant, for example. It makes Zynga's purchase of it look like a lot of money spent based on misunderstanding that game's graph.
Do you know which kind of graph you are creating, and are you making the right choices to improve it? Are you targeting your monetization strategy in the right way, or are you basing it on a faulty understanding of its likely graph?
The AppData graph above is a summary of many individual graphs, two for each player. The first shows tolerance, or the increasing likelihood that the player will stop playing for reasons of boredom or annoyance. The tolerance graph is asymptotic, meaning that likelihood approaches but never reaches 100%, and is measured against time. Every player has a personal tipping point where they will put the controller down, forget to play or sell their copy of your game, and once they do they usually never come back.
Tolerance looks like this:
The early sharp slope indicates players who try the game and quickly grow bored of it. That may take as little as five minutes. The following, more gentle, slope is those who stick around long enough to play for an extended period. It is reasonable to expect that at least 50% of players will drop out before hitting the gentle slope.
The second graph shows what Seth Godin might call remarkability, the degree to which the player is likely to talk about your game to other players. This graph is important for understanding growth. Whether through genuine conversation (such as players talking abut Journey) or obligation-based game loops (Facebook 'virality'), you want your game to spread. The remarkability graph tracks frequency of mentions (tweets, shares, emails, conversations, etc) by the player over time. It is also asymptotic, but toward 0% rather than 100%.
It looks like this:
Everything else hangs off of these two graphs, meaning retention, likelihood to monetize, sequel appeal and so forth. Each graph is influenced by many factors. Here are some examples:
Some demographics are far less likely to talk about games than others. Relying on pensioners to carry your marketing story is a non-starter, however for teenage boys games are a cultural activity as vital as music or movies and all that they talk about.
Another example is to be found with young children. There are many kinds of game that children play, from make-believe through to Snakes and Ladders, for which adults have no patience. The same is also true in reverse: It's not very likely that you'll be able to get 6-year olds interested in Bridge.
The newness of the game directly affects both tolerance and remarkability. Note that this means newness in relation to the player, not in absolute terms. A game targeted at a young audience often seems novel, for instance, while veteran gamers roll their eyes at seeing the same thing over and over. Your game may not be the first of its kind, but rather the first of its kind that the player has encountered.
Niche or Tribe
Niche games often have cultures that only talk on forums and not to outsiders. Those games retain players very well, but have poor remarkability. Tribes, on the other hand, want to tell everyone about the game because of a marketing story that matters to them. The first leads to a steady group of players, enough to make a company viable but not explosively grow. The second does both, but is hard to pull off.
Retail games need to rely on hooking players to buy before they get bored. Freemium games, on the other hand, don't have that problem. However the extent to which they try to oblige players to share or tweet can be off-putting. Subscription games are somewhere in the middle.
Business model, registration walls, permissions, initial costs to play and so on all affect both tolerance and remarkability. If the business model forces the game design to force players to do things that they do not want to do, their likelihood of stopping increases.
Synchrony and Temporany
Is the game single-player or multi-player? Serial or parallel? Does it require that players remember to come back and play so that others can also play, or can they just get on and play it by themselves. Remembering to play and making time to do so can seriously affect tolerance.
Probably the biggest factor is the depth of content or dynamics, especially the latter. A high-content game will attract attention for longer, but usually it's about whether the play of the game is sufficiently fun. Depth does not usually mean complication, but rather emergence. Successful sports are emergent, the time-delay rules in FarmVille are emergent, building in Minecraft is emergent and the interlocking logic of Tetris is emergent.
Sample Game Graphs
When all of these factors are combined into game graphs, what results is often one of the following shapes:
The game is new to most players, but not very deep. Everyone plays it for a short space of time but then drops away from it. Turn-based games like Draw Something are particularly vulnerable to this pattern because they rely on players to remember to come back and play again.
Me Too Bump
The game which tries to copy a novelty usually meets this fate. Even the game which tries to add a small innovation ends up in this graph. Most games are developed and published in the hope of replicating the novelty graph, but would be better off doing something else. Publishers which push me-too games often try to turn them into smash-and-grab games (see below) via marketing money.
Games which serve existing niches can generate a respectable income. They are stable because their players are passionate to the point of obsessive and rarely leave. However they also don't really talk, and outsiders often perceive the subject matter of niche games to be off-putting. Simulation games often follow this graph.
The tribal game first attracts a niche, but then the niche helps to convert it into a game of wider appeal by passionately talking about it. A tribal game needs to be both new and deep, so not every game can be one because not every game can stoke the fires of enthusiasm equally. You are unlikely to get a tribal graph from a Scrabble clone, especially in the wake of Words With Friends.
Smash and Grab Cliff
'Smash and Grab' is a term used in Hollywood to describe how movies are marketed, and it applies to most high end games. Essentially the publisher throws everything they have into stoking desire so that the customer will buy, but don't care about what happens afterward. One of the reasons why publishers are so bothered by piracy is that it permits word to get out ahead of the game about whether it is actually worth playing or not. Whereas tribal game publishers love to be pirated.
Smash and Tail
A variant on the previous graph, smash-and-tail games are often marketed much like smash-and-grabs, but also include significant back-end depth. Call of Duty games follow this pattern, with single-player action for the early player, but multi-player action for the long player. Grand Theft Auto does it with hundreds of hours of game content packed away in each city. Smash-and-tail games lose a lot of players after the initial high, but then level out.
I lied. Not all games trend toward zero. A few, called evergreens, are immortal.
Evergreens survive by being passed on. Soccer in the United Kingdom is a sport that is passed from generation to generation and has become so woven into popular culture that it will likely never fade away. On a shorter timescale, some games based on television shows (such as Who Wants to be a Millionaire) also have evergreen qualities because the show acts as a continual refresher for interest in the game. Others form such strong cultures that there is always an appetite for a refresh, like Dungeons and Dragons.
Evergreen games are very rare though, often public-domain (poker, football, chess and bingo for example) and extremely hard to just create on spec.
Ideal vs Real
There is almost always someone in the 99th percentile on the tolerance graph, regardless of game quality. However the real questions are where everyone else sits, and whether they constitute enough of an audience to function as a customer base.
Does your strategy behind releasing, publishing and monetizing your game makes sense in light of its design? A broad freemium strategy is usually a bad idea if your game is a novelty, for example. Players will mostly not stay long enough to monetize that far. A niche strategy is perfectly acceptable if you have a game whose subject matter fits, but engaging in smash-and-grab tactics will likely not work. The small audience will ultimately be disappointed at the lack of depth.
Most everyone who makes a game believes that they have an evergreen on their hands, but usually they have something else. They will often convince themselves that because a small minority of players do stay to play that this validates their efforts, but the reality is usually quite different. Of course, the above graphs are idealised forms of real behaviours but they are all based on real world experience.
Draw Something, for example, is broadly following the novelty line, although the exact slope and variations are individual to it. Angry Birds, on the other hand, largely follows the evergreen line, but is its own beast. Your game will follow its own path too, but what path will that be?