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Suffering from success: How to stop your game's popularity from becoming your biggest headache

Metaplay CPO and co-founder Teemu Haila on the importance of building foundations for success before, not after the fact
Suffering from success: How to stop your game's popularity from becoming your biggest headache

This article was written by Metaplay CPO and co-founder Teemu Haila.

Having millions of engaged, active, and spending players is the ultimate goal for most mobile game developers.

The marketing spend required to achieve this goal is a huge outlay, with top-tier studios budgeting many millions for user acquisition. But what happens when a game’s success outstrips even its developer’s wildest dreams? 

While that may sound like a dream come true in the current marketing climate, large, content-hungry player bases can become a massive headache when they exceed expectations or arrive more quickly than anticipated.

Success shouldn’t mean emergency meetings, sleepless nights, or disgruntled players. Instead, developers need to be wary of the price of success, and be prepared with the foundational tech ready to power a game as it scales. 

Common pitfalls

We all know the months - if not, years - it takes to bring a quality title from conceptualisation to release.

Monopoly Go! may feel like an overnight success, but it actually took seven long years to arrive.

With so many games being killed before launch, proving a concept, finding product-market fit, and shipping a game is a massive achievement in itself. Take the launch of Squad Busters for example, which arrives more than five years since Supercell’s last global release. 

Yet there’s a reason only a handful of companies have ever shipped a long-lasting hit. Reliable server capacity, engaging gameplay updates, effective communication, and robust anti-cheating mechanisms are all essential to long-term success.

Gamers will quickly lose enthusiasm if they cannot get past the ‘connecting to server’ screen or are faced with cheaters upon arrival.

Metaplay recently conducted a survey of US mobile game developers focusing on building in-house tech
Metaplay recently conducted a survey of US mobile game developers focusing on building in-house tech

Player engagement is a long-term objective. If studios aren’t set up to push regular updates, players will quickly exhaust the initial content (and spending opportunities) available, resulting in churn.

Community and player support is equally important for a successful title. Despite facing server capacity and infrastructure issues, some of the biggest overnight successes in recent times have made sure to communicate honestly with their communities.

Twitter accounts such as the Fall Guys Server Owl provide regular updates on server statuses and technical challenges to keep players in the loop.

Failure to do so can cause players to voice their frustration online, which can ultimately dampen the reception a community has to a game. 

One size doesn’t fit all

So how can developers ensure these pitfalls are addressed and the game is prepared for success from the get-go?

“Gamers will quickly lose enthusiasm if they cannot get past the ‘connecting to server’ screen or are faced with cheaters upon arrival.”
Teemu Haila

Building a great game and great tech simultaneously is something only a vanishingly small number of global companies can make work.

Even then, the struggle to optimise Call of Duty: Warzone Mobile to mid and lower-end devices shows no developer, publisher or IP is infallible. 

For the majority of game developers, the process of choosing a backend is more of a catch-22 situation.

 The first approach is to plump for a traditional out-of-the-box backend that simply can’t scale if your game gets the success it deserves. Those who choose this approach are building a house on a floodplain; if the foundations aren’t there, a game will soon crumble under the player load.

The second option is to venture into the highly specialist process of building - and maintaining - a bespoke mobile game backend.

This requires a huge amount of resources as a tech team prepares for a scale that may never come.

Given the timeframes for custom backend development, this process needs to start before the game achieves product-market fit, which can be like using a sledgehammer to crack a walnut.

When to make the call

So how can teams choose between two admittedly problematic approaches? The sensible answer is that to avoid suffering from success, it’s best to make an informed choice on your game’s tech at the very beginning.

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This is a genuine option for established publishers or well-funded startups with experienced teams.

For most studios, it’s likely to be when you’ve strung together an MVP on flaky backend tech that’s not designed for scale. If you choose to ship as-is, there’s no technical foundation to drive and support the growth of content that has the potential to succeed. 

In both cases, a proper backend, once integrated, will not only support eventual scaling but speed up the development process too.

“Shipping mobile games is tough enough as it is without seeing promising content sink away because of shoddy foundations.”
Teemu Haila

Can it ever be ‘too late’? Well, to put it lightly, we’d advise against migrating features such as entire matchmaking servers years after launch - unless you have plans to spend months, perhaps years, refactoring your tech. 

Preparing for success

Shipping hit games isn’t easy. It’s why the charts are dominated by long-standing publishers and products with the resources to create successful games alongside reliable tech.

It’s also far from hopeless. The catch-22 most developers face when it comes to choosing their tech is gradually becoming less binary, with new tech providing solutions that give developers genuine choice and flexibility.

Scalability and extensibility should be integral to backends. The most effective backends - whether built internally or externally - must be prepared for and responsive to a game’s success.

Shipping mobile games is tough enough as it is without seeing promising content sink away because of shoddy foundations.

By thinking about tech at an early stage, game developers can save themselves future headaches, and get to revel in - instead of suffering from - their success.