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.

Thursday, 26 November 2015

One thing your game development team doesn't need

In my career, I have managed game teams of from small indie team (4 persons) to mid-sized team of 20+ persons. I'm always looking for great articles and insights how to maximize team performance and quality of work. But I have learned from experience that there is one fundamental thing that is VERY often overlooked in the hiring process and during everyday activities in game companies. And which every person in game teams need to recognize in order to get all out of game teams.

That's the absence of ego. While that may sound very odd, let me elaborate. Ego is the thing that makes seemingly great team to perform poorly. Ego is the thing that makes a dialogue into an argument. Ego is the thing makes good people to pursuit false goals.

Because game development is so intrinsically interpersonal effort of great individuals, it is therefore really important to note what ego can do to teamwork if not attention is not practiced.

I have heard many legends of game companies and startups which have got millions of funding and who had hired the best people but who failed utterly because the rock-stars in the teams did not get a long with themselves.

Ego dominance in team can show up many ways, below few of them:
1. Conversations between different team members turns often into arguments and negative energy
2. Team members won't let of their ideas, but instead hold on to them with aggressive resistance
3. There is jealousy and talking behind the back if someone is praised for good work
4. Direct feedback cannot be given / taken without considerable resistance and negative energy

In contrast, a team / company without ego dominance can be recognized from following phenomena:
1. There is a real dialogue between team members, even though the viewpoints would be opposite
2. Team members openly encourage everyone to share ideas, and they give space for new ideas to emerge and take stand
3. All team members recognize that if someone else get praise or even raise, it is not deducted from their own assets
4. Team members openly praise, encourage, challenge each others mental models and give direct feedback to them and the feedback is taken without resistance

Please note that I said without ego dominance. In all of us ego is active in some way. With very few, aware individuals, the ego stays in the background and therefore the presence is active in most of the interactions during the day. In most of us, ego runs our lives more or less.

I think that in addition to formal skills and attitudes, we need to start recognize the level of awareness of ego of individuals working in this industry. And we need ways to develop this awareness within teams and companies so that we can harness the power of teams better in the future. And thus, make better games!

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Permia - Duels: The struggle for a good tutorial

Designing a good tutorials for our free-to-play games has proven to be one of the most challenging game design tasks we have faced. When Permia - Duels was first released as PvP-only game, the only tutorial it had was a three page rules summary, that was shown to the player before the first match.

The next step was to create a forced tutorial, which would walk players through the rules with a series of example matches. We expected to see an improved player engagement but the results were a disappointment as described in the The great tutorial mystery - post. Clearly we failed to do very good job with the tutorial.

After that we concentrated on working with Pet Shows and apply the lessons learned for the tutorial there (Tackling the tutorial mystery). Making the tutorial less forced by slicing it into smaller pieces was a clear improvement. Additionally we made some of the game content to unlock while player progresses instead of everything being accessible from the start and added new achievements to reward the player for progressing and giving objectives. Naturally we wanted to bring these elements also to the Duels tutorial. 

After getting back to developing Duels we started the planning of adding a story driven single player campaign to the game. In the process, the old tutorial was thrown away and the tutorial was integrated into the campaign. The PvP game mode is now locked at the beginning, and new players start by playing the campaign. The instructions are given as tips in the first campaign matches, without a forced tutorial. Players start with only a single unit and the first task is to collect a full deck of units by defeating the initial tutorial campaign matches, after which the PvP matches unlock.

While it's impossible to analyze the effects of adding the campaign to the effects of changing the tutorial separately, their combined effect roughly doubled our retention numbers, which was of course a huge success. So clearly we did something right. Regardless, based on the feedback, we still have a lot to do with the tutorial.

Previously players complained about being forced to play the forced tutorial (and rightly so), which felt too much like tutorial. Now some players feel that we are lacking the tutorial completely and they struggle to understand how the game is meant to be played. While being non-intrusive, the tips are also easy to ignore. Even more importantly, many players fail to identify the real depth of the game at the beginning, labeling it too simple or less skill based than it really is. By making the tutorial non-intrusive and as simple as possible, we may have managed to hide the complexity of the game too well. 

Essentially we have two somewhat conflicting objectives: The first encounter with the game should be as easy and welcoming as possible, to prevent frustration for needing to learn many rules at once. On the other hand, the tutorial should convey the feeling of depth to come. A frustrated player will likely quit playing early on as well as a player who does not see enough depth to make it worth investing time into the game.

In order to help the players struggling with the rules, we could add more interactive components to the tutorial: keep the it simple and non-intrusive normally, but when a player seems to be doing poor decision and losing games, the tutorial should become more intrusive and give detailed instructions to improve the situation.

The strategic elements of Duels include the unit development system and the selection of units to the deck. At the beginning it's mostly selecting the most powerful units to the deck, but as the collection grows, the options increase and one should build a deck with units whose numbers work well together. Similarly when upgrading the units, selection of sacrificed units has an effect on the outcome and can be used to direct the process to get desired kind of units. 

On the Tactical side, understanding that it's sometimes better to concentrate on creating a good defensive position or building a trap to allow capturing many units with one move, is sometimes better than simply trying to capture units with every move, separates veteran players from the beginners. Also the starting player shapes the game a lot with the selection of the first unit and it's placement. With a wise placement, one can use a well designed deck with maximum effect. 

These are all aspects of the game, which are not obvious to a new player and not easily communicated through the normal tutorial flow. One possible way to convey the depth at the beginning could be through adding special puzzle missions, where the player is forced to play in an non-straightforward way in order to win. In addition to the tutorial tuning, we could also add new content to the game, which would create the feeling of depth in a more straightforward way, like new unit special abilities and game modes. Again with these we need to be careful not to introduce them too rapidly to overwhelm a new player, but fast enough that he will not get bored.

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Tackling the tutorial mystery

One area we have been struggling with all of our games is the tutorial for new players. It's so easy to concentrate making the actual game and then add a tutorial as afterthought. When one knows the game inside out, it becomes hard to design the tutorial for players who see the game for the first time.

We are just beginning to grasp the importance of a good tutorial and all the challenges included in making one. The tutorial is the first thing a new player sees. Especially for free-to-play games, poor tutorial can easily kill even a good game. People generally hate learning rules and if the process is not fluent and fun, they simply quit and find something else to play. Optimally the tutorial feels like a natural part of the game flow and progresses by creating objectives to the player instead of a forced step by step process. The biggest challenge is that players often don't read the instructions. A good tutorial should be intuitive enough to direct the player to do right things without relying on text.

In the great tutorial mystery I was wondering why adding a tutorial to Permia - Duels did not improve our numbers. Looking back now, it's evident we did not do that good job with the tutorial: It is too long, feels forced and partly concentrates on teaching irrelevant details too early for a new player. In Pet Shows we improved by slicing the tutorial into pieces which are activated as the player progresses. Regardless, the first tutorial is too long and contains too much information by trying to teach all the mini games at once. Additionally it is lacking clear objectives.So how are we planning to solve these problems?

The answer for Pet Shows lies in understanding that the player does not need to have access to all of the mini games at once. While for a veteran player it might feel limiting to have only a couple to choose from, it's enough for first time player for whom everything is new. Locking some of the mini games at the beginning also creates natural objectives for the player to continue playing to get them unlocked. As added bonus the new flow allows easy way to add more mini games in the future. 

Another thing we have been underestimating are the achievements. By designing the flow correctly, the achievements can be powerful tools for teaching the game flow without a forced tutorial. For player they form objectives with a promise for rewards. Game instructions can be hidden inside the achievement descriptions and by fulfilling achievements players learn the game flow as a side product. Additionally the achievement rewards work as a feedback for the player for doing the right things. Conversely poorly designed achievements can distract the player and thus both the achievements and their presentation needs to be designed carefully to support the desired game flow.

So that's the plan and we have already started implementing the new tutorial flow for Pet Shows. Duels will follow later, after we finish the current graphics upgrade. I will get back to the subject later, when we know were we able to improve the new player experience for Pet Shows through these changes or not. If you have any ideas for the tutorials, please let us know!

Friday, 9 January 2015

Clarity's the word

We have, in the past, made some absolutely terrible design decisions. We have even been told by a number of people that they are terrible ideas and yet we have gone forward with them. Looking back at these decisions, I cannot believe how thick we have been at times.

During the past month or so, we have been working on a Permia – Duels facelift. Most of the feedback we have received from players (in terms of the game’s appearances) has been positive but we still felt that we could do better now than when we first designed the game. We also felt that we could make the game more accessible to a wider player base by addressing some of the usability/design issues, which is why the update goes beyond being just a facelift.

By far, the most problematic part for us has been the actual game board and specifically the hexagonal tile design. Our game unit tiles carry a lot of information which we have to fit into a very small space and still ensure that it is legible on a small mobile display. Unit type, special attributes, unit rarity etc. are all emblazoned on the small hexagonal tile.

Possibly the most grotesque design mistake in the old design is the unit’s border we use to mark the card’s rarity level. What possessed us to think that it was a good idea to have a “blue player” and a blue border that denotes something completely different, I do not know. We have even used a different shade of blue in different parts of the UI. Fantastically confusing but not very player friendly.

After the update, the unit’s border finally stands for what it should’ve stood for from day one: whose unit it is. Unit rarity, an attribute with no intrinsic gameplay value, will now take a step back and assume a smaller role in the unit’s design. It will still be visible, but far less dominant. Because of these changes, we can drop the gradient we have previously used to indicate “ownership” and make more room for the actual unit illustrations. These changes should make the situation in the game much easier to read.

Unit design evolution (left old, right new. Not necesarily final graphics)
This is not the only change we have made but it is possibly the most important one and we hope that it will help new players get a grasp of the game quicker than before. We still have many other areas of the game to address (the tutorial comes to mind). The update should go live within a couple weeks. Once again, we would then love to hear what you think of the update? Are we headed in the right direction or has it all gone horribly wrong?

Friday, 2 January 2015

Happy 2015! And happy birthday, Seepia Games!

I figured that I’d be in a better position to write this if I read my “happy new year” post from 2014. Luckily I did not make too many promises we could not keep.

Quite a few things have changed since the 2014 post. Habbo Hotel’s Game Centre, once an important channel for us, is no more. While I would not go as far as describing it as a shock, the game centre’s closure still came as a surprise to us. As a result, we had to shut down Tetrablok servers and effectively kill off our first game. A very cathartic experience that I recommend every developer goes through. If you are interested in our rationale for letting Tetrablok go, have a look at our press release.

On a more positive note, Pet Shows is finally out!  It took us much, much longer than we ever expected it would. We are only now starting to get some actual feedback and metrics from the game. We’ve already implemented a few changes based on early player data and more changes are in the pipeline. If you haven’t given it a try yet, head to Windows Phone Store and download it! We’d love to hear your thoughts.

Going back to our 2014 plans, perhaps surprisingly, we still have not made a single Android/iOS release. There are a number of reasons why it is so. Maybe more on those later on.

2014 also saw us move into a new office. We blogged about the pros and cons of the change before but the move has since also meant that we have been, for a lack of a better word, reunited with Headnought. Working alongside them is always a blast and I cannot emphasise the value added by having a team to bounce ideas off.

Our team has also grown in size. We have more people working on our games than ever before.  With two games to support, we are still stretched thin but it’s not quite as bad as it used to be. We are fantastically pleased with our new recruits and their great talent beautifully complements our team.

2015 is set to become another busy year. In just a couple of weeks we are heading to London for Pocket Gamer Connects, a Steel Media event where we can meet press and investors. The Permia – Duels facelift we have been working on is well underway (some of the changes are already in the game, the rest will follow soon). Pet Shows is still in its infancy. We have even started work on the prototype of our next game.

Thank you very much everyone for sticking with us and let’s all have a fabulous 2015!