Creating a really good game that millions will love is only half the battle. The second half is to competently monetize the project and make it profitable. Fortunately, professionals can help with this. One of them is our current hero Javier Barnes, Senior Product Manager at Tilting Point. We talked with him about the future of mobile games, working methods of monetization and tricks that will help keep players in the project for years.
“The most important thing in our industry is learning what you find”
– You’ve been working in mobile game development since 2010. How did you get into this sphere?
– It was a lucky break. Shortly before graduating college, I did a master’s in AI design. I really wanted to develop AIs that played poker and I wanted to get rich that way. At the same time, I saw a position at Gameloft. They were looking for a Junior designer. So I went there. I had done some modding before, like really amateur stuff. During the interview they were asking if I knew more high-end stuff, and I said “Yeah, yeah, sure” and then I started studying really, really fast.
I have a degree in economics, and when I got the job, the whole free-to-play model was just starting. Thanks to my knowledge, I grasped a lot of things on the fly, many concepts were clear to me. That’s how I became specialized in this area.
– So education directly helps you in your work?
– Yes. Although, to be honest, the range of skills of a game designer changes every three to four years. The most important thing in our field is the ability to learn as you go. I remember that ten years ago, a mobile game designer did not need to understand marketing. Now I would advise everyone to study not only game design itself, but also monetization, game economics, user acquisition.
Perhaps in three years it will be impossible to imagine a game designer who does not understand blockchain or any other cool recent technology. Advice to every designer out there: learn to acquire new skills as you go.
– You have worked at large European mobile gaming companies, like Gameloft, Socialpoint, and now Tilting Point. How different is the approach to developing and publishing in those companies.
– There’s a huge difference between Socialpoint and Gameloft. Both companies are from Europe, but Gameloft is more international. I have worked on projects in Barcelona, Chengdu, and even Montreal. It is a huge organization with five thousand employees where it is impossible to know everyone by name. That is why many processes are slower there. If you need to change the workflow, create a new department, or try out an idea, there is a proper procedure for that. However, on the bright side there is an opportunity to accumulate experience and knowledge from many areas and countries.
It’s different at Socialpoint. They have kept the approach from the days when they were a startup. When I worked there the company had only 400-500 people, so I knew most of the employees personally. Thanks to this, the team is more agile and there is less red tape. Any idea can be quickly tested, you just need a couple of colleagues to try something out.
– And what about Tilting Point? As far as I know, you are collaborating with developers all over the world. At what project stage is it best to start collaborating with a developer team?
– I have been in the company for only a few months, so my opinion is only a point of view of someone from the outside. However, over the past six months I have interacted a lot with indie developers and my advice is not to wait for the release, contact Tilting Point as soon as possible. The sooner we start working together, the better. At the same time, it does not matter at what stage of development you are now. Even a very promising project may struggle on release if your market knowledge is insufficient.
Tilting Point will check your project and help you understand if there’s room for growth. Our team will assess your business prospects, and if the project is promising, we can help to promote it and invest in your team. You will get useful tips and advice on what needs to be done to make the game a success. That is why I suggest not to delay and reach out sooner. Even if your metrics and profit margins are good as is, maybe you’ll need to increase the number of downloads, and we can help.
Tilting Point has extensive experience in bringing games to market. There have been cases of a tenfold increase in profits, so come at any time, even if you are in the late stages of development. Many companies find it difficult to understand whether the metrics will grow and the investments will pay off. If you are on a tight budget or have no money at all, contact Tilting Point. We have a decent capital for investment, and we are ready to use it if your project is promising.
– What do you think the game should be for Tilting Point to want to publish it?
– You can’t tell right away. The company has a portfolio strategy, but we still work with a huge number of projects. Tilting Point has published 4X strategies, narrative-driven projects, and casual games like SpongeBob. The company’s portfolio is very diverse, so the game doesn’t have to fit into any strict genre. It is much more important that a good team is working on the project. If the game is made by professionals, then your product clearly deserves attention. I think this is the main criterion for Tilting Point.
“Computers and consoles are somewhat obsolete”
– Today mobile is one of the fastest growing segments of the gaming industry. At the same time many gamers treat mobile games with disdain and do not take them seriously. Do you think mobile games will ever be on par with larger PC or console titles?
– All this reminds me of a scenario when TV started to become more of a respected media. I’m talking about the time before HBO, Netflix, and other big quality production channels. Back then the actors from television had little chance of growing to the level of cinema, so film actors would never ruin their reputation by doing something on TV. Today, the boundaries between these areas have blurred.
The mobile industry is now in a transition phase and, in my opinion, the acceptance of games for smartphones is just a matter of time. Many developers are moving from AAA projects to smartphones. For example, Valve’s Dota Underlords can now be played on both PC and smartphone. It has its own range of challenges, but the developers managed to do it.
Many large companies have realized that it is possible to make money on mobile games. Thanks to their efforts, the negative attitude towards projects for smartphones is decreasing, and more and more cross-platform games are emerging. Much less often they move from mobile development to creating projects for PCs and consoles, scaling from a smartphone to a computer is much more difficult. However, Tilting Point has a couple of examples. For example, Warhammer: Chaos & Conquest is a mobile first game, although it can be purchased on Steam.
– Do you think there will be a market for mobile games ported to PC or console unchanged?
– It all depends on the game. Mobile projects have many features that make them difficult to port to other platforms. They are more focused on tactile interaction, so they are difficult to adapt for a computer. Even porting console games to a mobile device is not an easy task. Take mobile Fortnite for example, where you constantly feel like you’re missing a mouse or a controller. Likewise, I cannot imagine how to play Clash Royale on a computer with a mouse, you will have to completely change the game, your degree of precision is different, and you can make a lot more actions per minute with a mouse.
Obviously, you’ll need to change a lot of gameplay aspects when porting a mobile game to PC. On the phone, the game sessions should be shorter, and it is very difficult to lengthen them for the computer. The matches will have to stretch out for an hour or an hour and a half, which is quite normal for a computer game and too long for mobile projects. Porting mobile games has a chain of obstacles and challenges. Although I suppose it is relatively easy to port turn-based games to other platforms.
It seems to me that computers and consoles are, in a sense, the past. I don’t think the future is going to be PC and console. Many larger projects are adopting mobile game characteristics. Maybe I’m wrong, but it seems to me that we are seeing one of the last generations of consoles. In 5 or 10 years they will transform into something new, and will cease to exist the way we now know.
Stadia is a thing now, and while it is not working properly, I am confident that this technology is the future. Hardly anyone would want to spend an outrageous amount of money on building a cool gaming PC or to get a PlayStation 5 when they can have the same power of hardware on a smaller thing, or just on a cloud based service. Perhaps soon it will be enough for us to have a TV to play games.
– You’ve mentioned shorter play sessions on mobile. What helps to keep the player in a mobile game, given that we only have 5-10 minutes to immerse ourselves in the story and grab their attention?
– When it comes to mobile projects and free-to-play games in particular, you have much less time to get a new player interested. There are only a couple of minutes in which you have to do everything to make the user fall in love with the game. A very small percentage of people who have downloaded the game and played once will give it a second chance. They log in, and in case they don’t like it delete the application forever, so the first minutes of the game are the most important thing.
It is important that the game is marketable. Often, a game is advertised in a way that does not match its spirit, for example, a passive project is presented as an action game, and a role-playing game as a sports one. In this case, convincing the player to stay after the first session is even more difficult. Now you need to not only interest the person, but also take into account that they had different expectations. You don’t need to make the challenge harder than it is by bringing players who are not your target audience. Even if it’s lowering the CPI you should be very, very careful and remember that at the end of the day it must be profitable.
Also, don’t forget about emotional attachment, and I’m not talking about the narrative component. Do not force the players to read the texts from the very beginning. Many developers think, “So, we came up with this kick-ass story. As soon as the player downloads the game we will spend a couple of minutes introducing them to the plot,” but I do not recommend doing that. You can make them care about the story only if they were interested in it even before downloading the game, like if it is a project based on Game of Thrones.
In other cases, it is better to allow the player to make meaningful decisions early on, to choose the culture or civilization to play with. When the player clicks on Vikings or Samurai and enters a name, an emotional attachment is formed. Remember Pokémon, where the first thing you had to do was choose your Pokémon? Developers make such decisions for a reason, it helps to keep the players invested.
I also advise you to explain the mechanics of the game from the very beginning. It is important to remember that the players should have fun at any time. Make sure that even during the tutorial players are invested. Learning things should not make people want to quit everything. It is good if the players can explore the game themselves and gradually digest the information. Some might say, “But what about 4X games? Everything is different there!” Yet, games of such genres are usually played by people who are used to receiving detailed instructions. And here it is important to understand your audience.
– How to continue to hold attention, taking into account short play sessions?
– We must take into account that different games require different levels of attention. In projects like 4X strategy games, animal breeding games, or economic simulations, your focus will be lower because you are aiming for a long-term goal. And in Clash Royale a match lasts two minutes, and you will be completely focused on it.
My advice is to automate as many mechanical and repetitive actions as possible. For example, the player doesn’t have to tap on every building to get gold, make one button that will collect all money. During the game session, the player should only perform meaningful actions.
– Mobile games have a shorter development cycle than projects on PC and console. It’s hard to imagine a mobile game with a development cycle of 8 years. What mechanics are important to implement in mobile games within that shorter development cycle?
– I can’t agree that the mobile game development cycle is shorter. In a sense, it is much longer than for games on other devices. Of course, in mobile we don’t usually have projects that are 8 years in development, but there are projects that have been worked on for two years, and then they have lived for more than five years. If you think about it, this is a huge development cycle.
In addition, unlike for top-tier AAA projects, in mobile games, the concept of world launch does not matter as much. Games as a service live for a very long time, because they are never completely finished: something new has to be added all the time, and the game evolves over time.
For me, the primary focus should be on retention. If you have a great project and people spend a lot of time on it, but it is not monetized, it’s okay, you can do it later. It is much worse if your game is monetized and brings a lot of income, but the players do not stay in it for a long time. Over time, potential players will run out, and the business will quickly decline.
– And how do you keep the players for a long time?
– It is important to understand how much time a person spends in the game, how much the game hooked them, whether they will continue to play in the future — all these translate into retention. People are willing to pay for what they like, you just need to present them with the right offer. In free-to-play monetization it is very difficult to get people to pay for what they don’t care about.
You should not introduce any features into the game if they do not directly increase the enjoyment from the game. For example, you can’t improve player engagement by simply adding a system of daily goals to the project. It shouldn’t be like, “Come into the game every day and get a reward.” Each objective should increase the engagement. You need to give an opportunity to discover new aspects of the game that they would not have learned about otherwise. Daily goals are there to ensure that players become familiar with all the features and systems that make the game fun.
In my experience, daily objectives and similar things usually do not increase the player’s loyalty in the early stages of the game — you can add them later. In the beginning you probably want to focus on stuff that really changes the identity of the game and therefore is able to affect the engagement of people.
– You have rightly noted that the development cycle for a mobile game can be very long. What signs indicate that the project has outlived its time? Can a game as a service ever become outdated if it can be completely redone?
– I worked with both new games and projects that have been on the market for more than five years, for example, with Monster Legends. I have never seen cases when the game has completely outlived its time — it never happens. However, there are genres that are not easy to revive. Like racing games where graphics are very important, and it is almost impossible to come back if they are outdated.
Games can be divided into two groups: young and mature. New games have a fresh audience that does not know the game yet, which means a high level of organic downloads and CPI. In old projects, these metrics only decrease — the majority of potential players have already played the game at least once. These games have depleted the market’s resources and are now surviving on paid downloads because the readily available audience has run out. Now they need to dig deeper to get to the oil.
With both cases, the strategy for further work would be different. Of course, you want to invest resources in new games and increase their growth, but old projects also require attention, because the quality of the players is decreasing. By that I do not mean that these are bad people, but they no longer have a genuine interest in the product. Then you have to invest more in marketing in order to interest those who are only half interested in the project. I advise in such cases to stick to a strategy that aims to bring back old players who are already familiar with the game.
Think of cool new features to make players say, “Yeah, it’s different now, and I want to play again. This update changed everything completely. ” The World of Warcraft extensions are a great example. Most of those who are interested in this project have already played it. Of course, new users are coming, but most WoW players are people who have known the project for a long time.
With expansions, Blizzard manages to reawaken players who come back for new experiences, even if they last played a few years ago. The developers beat the record for the number of daily active users when the Shadowlands extension was released. I think part of the reason was not because they accessed a lot of new people, but rather because they were able to re-engage a lot of players that have completely forgotten about World of Warcraft.
“Advertising does not work when it interferes with the game”
– One of the most difficult aspects of developing a mobile project is creating an unobtrusive and balanced monetization system. Can you identify the basic principles of good monetization?
– I think the core idea about monetization is that people pay because they love the game. If the product has no value for the player, then they will never buy it. Of course, depending on the genre and the audience, engagement can take different shapes, but for me the key principle is that the players should be delighted with the game.
Second, people need to care, and their care has to be taxed in some way. If you do not want players to turn their backs on you, and are dramatically reducing prices, then do not be surprised that there will be no profit from monetization. The Fortnite model is not applicable to every game, as it is played all over the world, so the number of active users and the profit is huge. Developers can generate huge amounts of money with a very lenient approach to monetization, but this model is difficult to replicate in the mobile games market. Consider, for example, Riot Games, which lost money when they tried to do the same: they failed when releasing Legends of Runeterra, failed when monetizing TFT, and failed to monetize Wild Rift at all.
On the other hand, monetization cannot be too hard. If it’s so strict that it turns players away from your game or seriously affects engagement, you will get hurt. Also, you will quickly alienate players if your monetization is too much in the face, the game will simply push players away, because people will not have time to start caring. You need to understand your genre, because some of them allow you to use more aggressive monetization, and this will be accepted. With 4X you will get away with a lot of stuff that is simply unacceptable in midcore games for teenagers. Look for a middle ground: don’t hold back too much, but don’t push too hard. When it comes to balancing you need to listen to the players and test everything. Make sure you balance the income and outcome of resources.
When it comes to pricing, I suggest keeping an eye on the prices of your competitors. When you are making a racing game, the prices of cars should be comparable to cars in other projects. At the same time, you can play it smart if the game design allows you to use cars in a different way. I can think of Racing Rivals, where the cost of a supercar is much lower than in Asphalt 9, Real Racing 3, or any other game. Part of the reason is that in Racing Rivals you risk with the car itself, you can lose it to other players. Its value is not that permanent, so the price is lower. Another example is CSR 2 where the cost of car upgrades is so great that they can even give you a supercar for free. Now you have a Ferrari, but you will spend so much time and money on upgrades that it is hardly a gift at all.
– We found a mini-conference debunking myths about monetization. It was mentioned there that one of the most popular myths is that players do not tolerate a combination of in-game purchases and ads. If this is really a myth, then how to create a competent combined monetization model?
– If you use modern approaches to monetization and advertising, then the players will not perceive them negatively. Most of my career has been in games that combine advertising monetization with IAP monetization. These are projects in which most of the money comes from in-game purchases, and advertising is 20-30% extra on top of that. In these situations, at least in my experience, players are positive about advertising because it allows them to get content that is really valuable.
In Monster Legends, for example, all of our LiveOps was driven by advertising. We had what was called Monsterwood (like Hollywood) and players could watch ads to get rewards. During happy hours, all gifts at Monsterwood were doubled. Players logged in at that particular time to watch the ad, and I’ve never heard people complain about it. They actually enjoy it. I think you can get more engagement by providing players with interesting ways to interact with ads. I have always considered this to be a positive thing.
Advertising does not work when it interferes with the game and does not provide any benefits. In this case, the players think, “You’re kind of blocking me from experiencing the game.” This is not a very smart way to use ads. It is best to use them in such a way that the players feel good when they watch ads. In many clickers, you watch ads in order to double the rewards or add a timer that will increase your rewards while active. Thanks to such things, people are satisfied with the ad viewing. I think this is the proper, smart way to do advertising.
I’ve noticed that in-app purchases are perceived negatively when they hard-block certain things. For example, you create content that can only be accessed by spending real money or a lot of time. I believe that in such situations, advertising is the solution to the problem. You can use incentive rewards for viewing ads so that non-paying players can also access premium content.
So yeah, I certify, the thesis that you voiced is really a myth. I have not seen negative feedback on the combination of incentivized ads and in-app purchases. I have seen it perceived negatively when either are blocking the experience or when ads give no valuable rewards to players.
– Some people believe that the bulk of monetization mechanics is predatory. Can you tell us, do any of those really deserve this designation?
– Such mechanics definitely exist in mobile games and their criticism seems to be fair. Much of the word “predatory” comes from the fact that in the past, mobile games were indeed more aggressive than they are now — there is a tendency towards softening. However, monetization in mobile projects is still more aggressive than in games for PC and consoles.
The mechanic with the greatest ability to become predatory is loot boxes. But I would say that boosters in Magic: The Gathering are the same loot boxes, but no one comes up to me and says, “Yo man, MTG cards, you know, they’re so expensive.” This is largely due to the fact that the value of the product received is equal to the money spent, but this is not always the case in other projects. Sometimes you can invest a lot of money, open a loot box and get garbage or an item from a completely different category than you actually wanted. It is important that the value of the content is equal to the value of the loot box. Otherwise, this mechanic may get into the predatory area.
According to many regulations, it is no longer possible to hide the probability of items dropping from the players, but the problem is that the probabilities themselves can be used in different ways. When something drops with a 10% probability, there are two scenarios: an item drops every 10 rolls, or you get a 10% chance with each roll — that is, you will have to make way more attempts. The impression you give to the players in these two cases is different. So my advice is to try to adjust the randomness so that there is a mandatory good roll every once in a while.
It is also important that there is no garbage in the loot boxes. And there should be a system in the game that allows you to transform an unnecessary item into one that is of value — like in Hearthstone. Even if you come across useless cards, you can turn them into Dust, which will allow you to craft a more valuable item. These mechanics help balance the loot boxes and make them less predatory. However, each case should be looked at individually.
– How to correctly determine the price and value of the most affordable in-game purchase? Does it depend on the genre and setting or something else?
– I have an article about this in my blog, and I recommend everyone to read it. If you are unsure about the cost of an in-game purchase, I would suggest that you analyze your competitors. You just go and see what your main competitors are putting at the lower price, and then you try to use your head. But as a tip: you probably shouldn’t set too low of a price. I think the optimal range is $1.99 to $4.99 depending on how aggressive your game is.
The lowest prices should be reserved for special offers that can be limited in time. It will work better here and will help out players who are not ready to spend a lot of money.
And yes, another way is to do A / B tests. If your game is Fortnite, then you probably won’t be able to use this trick, because people will notice it, but in less known casual projects it will work. Of course, there is no need to lower or increase prices for players who have already seen the older ones. But you can check prices on new people. Key tip: keep an eye on what your competitors are doing and try to find a better option.
– What do you think about discounts on IAP purchases in free games? How to reduce the cost so that it does not seem random?
– First of all, you can’t have a game without discounts. But the real quest is to introduce them without destroying the in-game economy. Organize everything in a way that players don’t say, “Okay, I will only spend money when there are discounts.” And to do this it is important to know the real value of every item in the game.
If something costs, say, $100 and you make a 25% discount, then players will think that this item is actually worth $75. It is important not to make this huge 75% discounts even during the hottest sale, it will ruin everything. My advice would be to keep track of all the discounts that you give on items, what is a good one, what is a very good one, and where is the point where you should never go.
On the other hand, discount should be associated with exclusivity, and that can be achieved in three ways. First: maybe you don’t need to make a discount for everyone, select a specific user group. For example, I want less paying users to invest in the game, which means that I will reduce the price of a 1.99 item to 0.99 for example. This will not affect revenue from users who pay a lot, so this discount needs to be targeted.
The second way to establish exclusivity is to tie discounts to specific moments. For example, every time a player reaches a new level you offer something new that will come in handy at this specific moment. It is important that this discount is displayed only once — this will create a sense of exclusivity.
And the third way: tie the discount to things that happen in real time like holidays or seasons. For example, if today is St. Patrick’s Day, make a unique offer for this day. Players will understand that the offer is limited, and it will work. Conversely, if you don’t make an offer on, say, New Year’s Eve or Black Friday, it will piss players off. So you have an unwritten agreement with players that discounts come at a specific time and have a specific value that players can count on.
– Why do companies usually offer 6-packs of IAPs?
– It is time-tested and people are satisfied. And, probably, if you remove some of them there will be no great benefit. In addition, you can compare the cost of six different packs with each other, it’s convenient.
Six is a good number because you can set up a convenient pattern. Usually there is a starting item for $4.99, then something in between and finally the most valuable one. If you remove some of the packs, the jumps between them become very aggressive, you go from $9.99 to $100. This difference will encourage players to choose a cheaper option.
And if you have too many packs, it will be more difficult for players to compare them with each other. Lots of choices disincentivize players because the decision becomes too complex, this has been tested. Six packs is kind of a sweet spot: there are enough for meaningful comparison, but there are not enough to make the decisions too hard.
– How much time do you spend playing games every day?
– Three to four hours.
–What’s your top 3 video game platforms of all time?
– Mobile devices, PC and Super Nintendo.
– Android or iOS?
– What’s your favorite gaming media resource?
– I read a lot, but if you need to highlight one — probably Reddit.