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Written by Steve P. Young on January 12, 2021, LinkedIn
Javier Barnes, Head of Design at Pixel Noire Games, is a game designer with 10+ years of experience in top-grossing mobile games. He was the Lead Game Designer at Monster Legends, and Game Economy Designer at Despicable Me: Minion Rush and Asphalt 8.
You will discover why some companies are able to release successful games over and over again, the keys to increasing your game's engagement, and key lessons from the success of Among Us and Fortnite
In this interview, you will discover:
How to launch a prototype and get early feedback?
When it comes to apps, we know that we just need to get the MVP and release it as soon as possible to gather early market feedback. But for some reason, a lot of companies do not apply this model when it comes to games.
They tend to over-architecture their games and then realize that most of the work they have done was based on wrong assumptions.
As a developer, you need to validate the engagement as soon as possible.
If you have an idea of a gameplay that can be extremely fun, do not wait until it’s complete to release it. Do an early soft launch and in that alpha stage, try to gather a small group to see how people behave with your game. This will give you the additional information that will allow you to either pivot or maybe even kill the project early.
Doing this will also allow you to generate a small community that will help you in the process of developing the product further and make sure that you're investing in the areas that produce innovation.
Even before you hit the market with an MVP, meet some people and try to excite them in order to gather information. For example, you can go to Reddit, look for a similar audience and do an anonymous poll to know what players would like to see in a game.
Pitch your ideas a bit without telling them about your game, this will allow you to get in contact with your audience even before you have developed anything.
With early engagement being a critical metric, what’s the one thing you should focus on?
I've seen a lot of companies getting bad early engagement metrics upon a game’s release and to compensate, they would add systems, release bonuses, add features, and so on but I think they have little value. This is because it's too early in the life of the game for people to understand the value that you offer.
The key thing that actually increases early engagement is making sure that people have an understanding of the game and that they have the chance to enjoy it.
Check for difficulty curves and maybe systems that are confusing to the players which prevent them from getting excited or engaging with the core gameplay itself.
It's better to have less stuff of high quality, rather than having lots of systems that players will not necessarily understand (or maybe will even be the trigger of their confusion).
One of the things that I have seen drive retention up in the early stages is the marketing mix. I've been able to do massive increments of retention that I would have not considered possible just by readapting marketing from one specific genre to another.
For games still struggling with retention after doing massive changes on the gameplay, try tweaking marketing because that might do the trick.
What is a better strategy in launching games - going after a broad market or a specific audience?
Every game is its own dish and every kind of dish is cooked in a different way but in my opinion, you would want to test a wide market in the very beginning. If your CPI is good in a wide market, you have something there, you can generate value.
If you are targeting just a specific pool, you might end up having a really small one and would have challenges making the game profitable. Even if you have a successful game, that niche of players can be depleted over the course of time.
My advice would be to do a campaign that targets a massive market, run it only in the UK or a specific country for less investment, for example, so you have a better vision of distribution on specific clusters. At the same time though, test other campaigns that are more focused so you will be able to compare if that generates any significant differences.
How are certain companies able to achieve multiple successful launches?
Every single company knows that innovation is the thing that will allow them to be successful. Even the companies that people think just release the same game over and over think that they are innovating.
In my opinion, the key difference is the way companies tackle innovation.
There are three companies that I look at as role models who have been able to release multiple super successful games targeting different genres and audiences. There are three points on how they tackle innovation:
Scopely - They have Star Trek, The Walking Dead, Yahtzee, Wheel of Fortune. They use brands that are very recognizable and not only does this bring a lot of organic traffic but lowers CPI as well.
Playrix - They have these completely out-of-the-box advertising which creates controversy but at the same time, super useful. That was the way they lower CPIs.
Supercell - They are such a household name that anything they release will drive a lot of organic downloads.
If you look at Supercell releases, they target very similar kinds of audiences. Even if you argue that Collateral has an extremely different crowd than Brawl Stars, they both are a kind of e-sports and are not that far away from each other. The games are dissimilar enough to generate meaningful differences for the audiences but not so unalike that they are not benefiting from synergy.
I've seen a lot of companies doing crazy innovation creating games that had nothing to do with each other. For example, Kabam 4X games to a drag racer in Fast and The Furious Six and then they launched a Star Wars MMO game. These games had nothing to do with each other.
Playrix reuses a lot of the content so they are not putting innovation efforts on areas that generate no value. Homescapes, Gardenscapes and Wildcapes are very similar. Even within the projects that are different from each other, Playrix reuses the innovation that has already worked. For example, Township uses the same IAP screens of Homescapes and Gardenscapes.
A lot of companies generate a massive amount of teams to develop an insane amount of projects simultaneously.
They think this maximizes their chances of success but in reality, this decreases it because this separates their best talent into multiple teams.
You never have a team that it's made out of superstars because your superstars are separated among a lot of teams. This also requires a lot of management efforts as your best hats manage a wide range of teams.
Scopely, Playrix and Supercell have vast resources and they can create an infinite amount of teams but they don’t. Supercell, especially, takes a lot of care before escalating their teams because they want teams that can be managed more easily and are composed of top people.
What are the key takeaways from the success of Among Us?
The case of Fall Guys and Among Us is similar to Fortnite and Battlegrounds.
During the lockdown, the entire gaming sphere was extremely morphed into the very hardcore games. After a few months of being in the hardcore, they needed the rest and they needed something that would allow them to interact with other people. Fall Guys and Among Us came at this moment.
Both were very good at bringing something that does not need you to be good at the game to be fun. They're very plug-and-play, not stressful and they both incorporate a strong social component.
Among Us had been around for a couple of years but somewhere around August of 2020, they just spiked up. This is something similar to Fortnite as it was running for quite a while before they'd made it big.
What is particularly interesting in both these cases is the fact that none of them were linear increments. They were not growing little by little, and then they made it overnight. In the case of Fortnite, they made a massive change within the game and that propelled it.
What I would advise companies to do is make radical changes in your games and build games in a way that would allow you to make these radical changes before you kill the games. If you kill one project, probably the next project you start should be related to the one you previously killed.
A lot of companies get demotivated when they fail and they go for something completely different and they go for another plan to get rich fast. If you fail, try to make a different thing where you can reuse the learnings, the technology and assets that you have extracted from your previous experience.
Another thing you can try is if the team making the game decides to pull the plug, try to ask two other teams in your company if they want to take it over. The team that made you start to climb the mountain will not necessarily be the team that is going to bring you to the top.
The fun with Javier doesn't have to stop here.
Join Javier Barnes course Game Analytics 101 in the UserWise Academy.
He teaches the basics of game analytics, KPIs and how to use this information to influence your game design.
Join for free.
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