Dr. Isaac Roseboom heads up deltaDNA’s Insight Team.
Making good games used to be relatively simple.
You came up with a good idea and then executed competently on that vision during development.
Give or take some focus and bug testing, you had a game ready for release.
Now, however, a good idea and competent development will only take you so far.
Instead, the most important part of the process is how and when you introduce your game to its potential audience. Of course, this can be done in many ways; from internal concept testing to friends and family, closed alphas and betas etc.
Most critical now, however, is soft launch.
What used to be a quick 'month in Canada' to bug check, has now in some cases become a year-long iterative process in half a dozen countries, including in Asia and the Middle East, to carve out the game that players actually want from the designers' initial concept.
Get them in
Crucial to this process is the ability of the developer to be flexible, open and humble to criticism; and hard-nosed when it comes to testing everything with actionable data.
What used to be a quick month in Canada, has now in some cases become a year-long iterative process.
One company that provides both the tools and best practice advice on how to handle the soft launch process is deltaDNA.
It offers its game analytics and player marketing tools free for developers up to the level of 10,000 monthly active users to ensure even the smallest outfits can build their games into profitable businesses.
Step 1: Onboarding
"The most obvious and important thing to focus on during soft launch is your game's onboarding funnel," says Head of Insight Isaac Roseboom.
That's because onboarding, the process whereby people download and open your game and play through the tutorial, is something everyone experiences and any problems at this stage will effectively kill your game stone-cold-dead in the long run.
"You need to test everything. Who's dropping out during the download? Why? Are you seeing lots of people quitting during the tutorial? How about post-tutorial?" Roseboom questions.
Often the problem for developers is that having spent so much time and enthusiasm getting to soft launch, they're too close to their game, and too engaged with it, to see glaring issues.
But if the data is showing terrible Day-1 or Day-3 retention rates, your clever monetisation loop, which kicks in after seven days, is useless.
Conversely, Roseboom says that sometimes developers polish their onboarding and tutorial process so much that, as soon as they stop holding players’ hands and let them loose in the game, players don't know what to do and quit at that point.
The difference it makes
So much for good advice. How about some numbers?
While every game is different, having worked across thousands of titles, deltaDNA is happy to release some 'average figures' in terms of what it sees from its clients.
The median time (that is the period of time in the exact middle of the data) a mobile game is in soft launch is 40 days.
Games that spend more than 1 month in soft launch increase Day-1 retention by between 5-10%.
In fact, 68 percent of mobile game spend more than one month in soft launch.
And as you'd expect, the length of time a game is in soft launch does have an impact.
- Games that spend less than one month in soft launch have median Day-1 retention of 27%.
- But games that spend more than one month in soft launch have median Day-1 retention of 32%.
More specifically, games that spend more than 1 month in soft launch increase Day-1 retention by 5-10%, leading to a relative boost in terms of in-game spending of 16-33%.
In this way, it's clear that spending time in soft launch is crucial to improving your game's commercial chances.
Retention over monetisation
As for advice about how to structure the soft launch process, Roseboom says it should be split into two main stages.
The first thing to test is retention; that is the onboarding process and then keeping players engaged for a day, a week and a month, and longer.
This might involve around 100 daily active players or 1,000 monthly active players, for example.
What's harder - but equally important - is testing monetisation.
Of course, given that only 1-2% of a game's player base will monetise, you need to increase your soft launch audiences by at least 100 times to test this. Even then, you'll only have a small numbers of players to draw conclusions from.
For this reason, it's best to focus on just testing your basic IAP economy and the main pinch points.
"Sometimes people can worry too much about their KPIs, especially when it comes to soft launch monetisation," says Roseboom.
You can always monetise a fun game.Isaac Roseboom
"In reality, there is a grace period once you've launched your game globally when you can tweak monetization, but this doesn’t apply to retention, as you risk turning-off your most loyal fans in the early days with bad gameplay."
Equally, the current focus for the top grossing games is generating revenue from in-game events and associated retailing offers; things that can't be replicated in soft launch.
Either way, Roseboom's fundamental advice is use the soft launch to ensure your game is rock-solid when it comes to retention.
"You can always monetise a fun game," he says.
Dr. Isaac Roseboom heads up deltaDNA’s Insight Team, which has provided consultancy on thousands of games, advising on collecting data, player insight and game design.
If you would like to read more of Isaac’s and deltaDNA’s insight, visit their blog.