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Sent on October 1st 2021.

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🎮  Looking for the game that works

I’ve previously talked about killing a game in soft launch, but I wanted to revisit the topic after going back to a blog post from a few years ago from a fellow Finnish game developer.

In 2019, the developers at Traplight shared details about their soft launch from the game Battle Legion and how they improved metrics during the soft launch. As shown by their data, they never pushed for improving monetization or later stage retention before they’d achieved a good-enough Day-3 and Day-3 to Day-1 ratio.

Image from Traplight’s blog post.

I work with dozens of gaming studios, with many of them in their early stages. The early-stage ones are usually in the steps of building a game that will be soft-launched soon. There are common characteristics with these companies and their experiences from soft launch.

Retention and positive ROAS

Tracing back to the successful mobile games I’ve seen, retention has always been the main indicator for success. It’s the earliest metric you can get your hands on, and it often is enough to point out if the game is worth the extra effort.

Casual hit games I’ve seen manage Day-1 of 60% or higher. Anything below that, and you’ll want to make sure that Day-3 is still keeping things in order and players are coming back. See D3/D1 ratio in Traplight’s chart, as an indication if how the long-term retention will shape up. If the ratio is too low, you won’t have a successful game.

I’ve previously written about product strategy for early-stage studios, which takes me back to thinking about ROAS, which short for return on ad spend.

If you are looking for a game that works, one thing that matters the most is when you hit positive ROAS—when you buy a player through ads, how quickly will you get that money back. In hyper-casual games, ROAS data is available for scrutiny very early since the games are lightweight on content, and you’re having players watch ads that make you money.

The more hardcore you go, the ad spend is usually higher, so more content is needed, players spending real money on things inside the game is required, which takes development time and lots of tests with longer ROAS time windows. Not days but weeks and months. That’s how you get two or three-year soft launches.

You are stuck until you find the game that works

It’s a chicken & egg problem: Often, if you are venture-backed, raising the next round is impossible before you have a game that works.

Even when you know you have limited time to find a suitable game, many developers suffer from the sunk-cost fallacy: They’ve put all that work into a game, and they believe it’s too much work to throw away.

Even when you have funding, the money doesn’t fix the game problems.

It’s not getting any easier when people say how competitive mobile game development has become, with new big-budget titles coming out every week. Mobile games are getting bigger. Building anything outside of hyper-casual can mean that you need to put a triple A’s effort into it. Just look at the merged category, dozens of games targeting the same casual audience. How do you breakthrough and make a game that works? Bigger games with more content and more bells and whistles?

As Joseph Kim wrote in his newsletter: “…in the hyper-competitive and very mature Match-3 game genre, we have yet another example that the operator and execution counts. Dream Games’ Royal Match could be the best Match-3 game on the market. They have executed ridiculously well, and they have proven no market is safe from a badass team.”

Last week I watched this talk from Paul Leydon on how to design top-grossing games. His message’s appeal is phenomenal, and I can’t recommend it enough. In the talk, Paul highlights the problem of soft launching too early.

You want to soft launch early, but you don’t want to soft launch when you know it’s too early for players to get the whole experience.

Paul says: “There’s a lot of CEOs on podcasts, and they say, “make and break your game faster” and “get to market quicker” and “Why would you build a game for a year if you don’t know what works?” Let me ask you a question: What part of this do you make and break faster? What part of a big ass expensive, crazy marketing gnarly, free to play experience, systems UI, flowing art?”

A year in development and two years in the soft launch is what you might need to do. Just look at Traplight. Their game Battle Legion was first soft-launched in mid-2018, and it was not until June 2020 that they got a global launch out.

Taking it from here

Once you’ve decided to kill the project, you want to evaluate how things went with the project. Doing a retrospective and a post-mortem on what worked, what didn’t, what you want to change, will help you understand the big picture of your work.

Then it’s time to evaluate your next project. One key question is the scope of the next project. Will it be more extensive, the same, or of a lesser degree? As a startup, you only have a limited runway to try out things, to graduate to the next level.

I found it helpful for startups to evaluate their balance between 80% proven and 20% innovation. The more innovation you take on, the more risks you are taking. Suppose you feel that your previous project had 50% proven and 50% innovation. Try to bring that ratio closer to 80/20.

I’ll end with a piece from my interview with Riku Rakkola, the CEO of Traplight from 2019.

Joakim: “Did you feel that in that year and a half [of prototyping and testing] that you were progressing?”

Riku: “I think we were progressing in a way that the ideas got more suitable over time. The projects we killed, we always had some reason for killing it. And we took learnings from it. Finding that one game that works is like a process, where you cannot predict where that comes because somebody always comes up with the original idea in some magical way. That is usually the process. So you cannot know if it’s going to take a year or two years or how long you’re going to have to use to find that working idea.”

(Photo by Andreas Haslinger on Unsplash)

🤩 Ilya Eremeev — From 3D Artist to Gaming VC

This week on the podcast, I’m talking with Ilya Eremeev, who is the Co-Founder and Managing Partner at The Games Fund.

Ilya has a really interesting story about how he started as a 3D artist in gaming and has gone through a career path in gaming that has lead him to now run an early-stage VC fund. In this episode, we also talk about VC funding for the gaming ecosystem in Eastern Europe, how the region is developing, and what Ilya has seen as drivers for success.

Can you talk about the success of Eastern European game studios? What are the characteristics on why some become successful?

We skipped the PC era and that’s why you don’t, you don’t see Triple A or Double-A titles in the top charts. At some point, the whole industry turned to the free-to-play model and to social games and standalone web games. And we had huge titles and super successful games in free-to-play.

There is no kind of backlash against a free-to-play model among developers and even among players. Take a look at Warface from MY.GAMES. It’s hugely popular in the region and it’s not that popular elsewhere, because it’s set for pay-to-win. With is OK for the region.

Listen to the full episode by going here.

🗓 In case you missed this on EGD

📃 Articles worth reading

It’s About Time: When should you pitch your game to a publisher? — “Pitching your game to a publisher remains one of the most mysterious and challenging things an indie game developer can do. Part art, part science, many resources have focused on the pitch itself: what to put into your pitch deck and how to best get across the awesomeness and commercial potential of your game.”

Here’s How You Capitalize From the Apple vs. Epic Court Ruling — “Who will this ruling benefit the most – small, mid-size or, large publishers? It benefits developers and publishers of various sizes to different degrees. But from our perspective, the common benefit relates to devs finally being able to create a bridge between their apps and their presence on the web, where they can do all the commerce, community, and marketing things PC devs have been doing for years.”

The problem with App Annie — “The SEC alleges that, between late 2014 and mid-2018, App Annie committed fraud: not only did it not exclusively use the data it harvested from Connect client accounts in an aggregated, anonymized way, but it also misled investor clients for its paid insights product about the provenance of its estimates. Because App Annie had access to actual performance data for many apps, it manually adjusted the output of its models when that output diverged materially from the real values.”

💬  Quote that I’ve been thinking about

“Progress is impossible without change and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.” — George Bernard Shaw


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Sponsored by Opera Event

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Joakim