The use of Game Conferences

Where to travel and what to do there.

There are quite a number of game conferences available. Why are they so popular, and should go to any of them?

At a short glance, it almost seems odd that the games industry is so keen on sharing their insights. After all, at these conferences, we are really telling our competitors how to build better products and business models. In most industries, that is not thought of as prudent business behaviour.

So why do companies do it? And why am I wasting your time with this blog, which is really about the same thing?

Most of all, it is about attracting great partners, by signalling competence. It’s really sort of the same thing as the peacock’s tail – it’s expensive for the peacock dudes to grow, and makes them easier prey for predators – hence only a really strong peacock can do that. And the peacock girls love such macho show offs.

By spilling the beans on all your business secrets at a conference (or a blog), a company can signal to investors, potential employees, publishers, etc. that they know what they are doing. They are even cocky enough about their competence that mere imitators, who only follow the advice given, will never be able to catch up with them. Therefore, they can afford to tell competitors their secrets – in exchange for a more respected position in the industry.

From my, admittedly short, experience with this blog, it seems to be working! We’re getting better people to ask for jobs at the company, and better companies to ask for potential partnerships.

Now that I’m done comparing myself to a peacock, which conferences should you go to? There’s a great list of most of them, here:

http://www.pocketgamer.biz/events/

http://www.eventsforgamers.com/calendar/

 

If you look at visitor numbers, the really huge ones are the ones aimed at consumers. There’s E3 in the US, Gamescom in Europe, China Joy in China, etc. There’s also Spiel in Essen in Germany that is about board games – the non-digital stuff.

These events have hundreds of thousands of people attending, but most of the attendees are players rather than game developers. Attached to them will, of course, also be business meetings for companies.

Among the developer events, the largest is GDC that is held every spring in San Francisco. Actually, it’s this week, and I’m here in San Francisco right now. Other, slightly smaller ones, are the Pocket Gamer Connects events (in London, Helsinki, Bangalore, Vancouver…), the Casual Connect events (Tel Aviv, Amsterdam, Singapore), Develop in Brighton, Nordic Game in Malmö, White Nights (St. Petersburg, Helsinki), Mobile Games Forum (London, and Hong Kong) and many more. GDC itself also has smaller versions in China and Europe. With all of these, how do you pick which ones to attend, and what should you do at them?

 

There are mainly three things one can do to keep busy at a games conference. You can

  • listen to the talks to learn new things
  • meet other companies to scheme about world domination
  • get drunk at somebody’s party or dinner in the evening

 

Most likely, you will pick two of these. Doing all three is likely to fail – so plan ahead which is most important to you.

Let’s start with the talks: if you are entering a new part of the business (like moving from console to mobile, from premium to F2P, becoming a VR pioneer, etc.) this is a great way to learn from other people’s mistakes and can save you a lot of money. Every year, I seem to get at least a few epiphanies by listening to some of these talks. All in all, this is pretty straightforward: figure out what is most important to you (tech talks, art talks, business models, game design, etc.) and just go listen to them.

Even more important than the talks, are usually the meetings. It is way more efficient to meet a whole series of companies at one of these events that ‘everyone’ is attending, compared to flying out for one-on-one meetings at each other’s offices around the globe. You can find potential ad networks, publishers, sub contractors, ad networks, localization agencies, investors, at networks, etc. – all in one place. Did I mention that there are likely a few ad networks there too, willing to meet with you?

Try to figure out before hand what is important for you – meet with those people – and make sure you have at least some time to catch your breath in between. I actually find it good to also meet with a few of the companies that you will likely not partner up with in the end. You get to hear more views on where this business is headed, and might find some ideas that you did not know existed.

Last, the dinners and parties. These are great for networking, and a way to get you more contacts that can help you out at some point. A lot of times, I have been at some event that I did not think was super useful, but it lead to another not-that-useful contact that led to a third – that in the end saved our asses when we really, really needed it.

These events are a sort of numbers game – every year you will get a few more contacts and get invited to a few more dinners. Slowly you become one of the insiders that everyone knows, and get invited to even more of the “exclusive” events. People you meet at these events can help out a lot. Without those contacts it’s just quite a bit harder to succeed in this business (just like in all other businesses).

 

One last word of advice:

When you’re choosing what conference to attend, pay attention to the signal to noise ratio. The larger ones are not always better – it also gets harder to find the relevant people you want to talk to at those huge events. Conferences with a few hundred people can be excellent, if everyone there is worth having a discussion with. Of course, getting on the invite list for one of the dinners attached to the larger events can also get you to a place with amazing signal to noise ratio. If you’re not already getting those invites, try holding a talk at the event – or writing a blog. I hear that can work.

The Price of Entertainment

What 1 minute of Spotify pays the artist, vs what 1 minute of mobile gaming pays the developer

It often strikes me that creative businesses have a lot in common with each other. Likely the clash of commercial demands and artistic demands often will lead to similar situations. A few weeks back, I wrote about what games can learn from storytelling in movies. Let’s expand a bit on that and have a look at several other “commercial arts”.

One thing that we will find across at least movies, music, games, books and ads (advertising counts as one of these arts!), is a tug of war between creative and analytic. (The same might apply to architecture, design, painting and sculptures as well, I have not checked.) For all of them, there is one faction arguing for making decisions based on cool data, while another faction ridicules them as unimaginative robots and praise creativity instead of conformity.

Let’s take advertising as the first example. One classic book on the art of selling stuff is Ogilvy on Advertising, where Mr. Ogilvy (founder of one of the largest ad companies in the world) explains how different ads work statistically. “People read headlines 5 times as often as they read the body. People remember ads with news 22% more than ads without news.” He also states: “If you are lucky enough to write a good advertisement, repeat it until it stops selling.”

On the other hand, you have e.g. Luke Sullivan’s “Hey, Whipple, Squeeze Thisarguing more for the creative side. The name of the book comes from an effective, but annoying ad from the -70’s, where Mr Whipple was selling toilet paper. That ad ran for a long time, as it just kept selling – exactly as Mr Ogilvy suggested. As Sullivan writes: “In 1975, a survey listed Whipple’s as the second-most-recognized face in America, right behind Richard Nixon… To those who defend the campaign based on sales, I ask, would you also spit on the table to get my attention? It would work, but would you?”

Ads are an interesting study that in a way is similar to games. Another I already wrote about is movies. There you can find long debates for and against the very formulaic script of “The Hero’s Journey” with Jungian archetypes on top. Or, have a look at how The Economist just analysed movies, here

They give a great formula for making a hit movie – but also end with the statement “ But do it for the money, not the plaudits: such a film would have just a one-in-500 chance of carrying off an Oscar for Best Picture.”

 

For music, I believe making a Billboard Top-100 hit has a lot of similarities with making a App Store Top 100 grossing hit. A team making mobile games can still be quite similar in size to the teams making billboard hits. And in both cases, the numbers guys churning out polished, but quite formulaic stuff will more often win the chart positions – with the occasional artistic rebel breaking all the rules and succeeding in spite (or because) of it.

The Swedish music producer Max Martin has the best track record in modern times. 54 of his songs have hit the Billboard top 10 chart positions! You really want to have read here on how he does it.

 

Let’s end this with an interesting comparison: what is the price of entertainment per minute for the different art forms?

Spotify claims to pay about 0.7 cents to the artist each time someone listens to a song.

With 3.5 minute songs, that’s 1 cent every 5 minutes or 0.2 cents per minute.

 

A good mobile game would follow “The Devil’s Rule” of 666, and make about 10 cents Average Revenue per Daily Active User (ARPDAU). As each player is then spending 6 times 6 minutes, or 36 minutes per day in the game, it comes down to 10/36 = 0.28 cents per minute. That’s less than 50% difference from what music pays per minute!!

Of course, not all games will have 10 cents in ARPDAU (believe me, I’ve made games with way less!), but then again, not all games will hit the 666 rule either. Less successful games not only have lower ARPDAU – they are also played less minutes per day.

According to Netflix’s quarterly report, their customers spent an average of 568 hours watching the service in 2015. That would cost the customers 12 * $7.99 or 0.28 cents per minute – exactly the same as for mobile games!

Movies and premium games still manage to ask for a much higher price per minute of entertainment provided. Apparently, the average price for a movie ticket last year in the US was $8.43. Let’s say the average movie is 2 hours long. That would make about 7 cents per minute – or about 25 times what mobile games cost.

A premium game is similar. It might cost $50 for some 10 hours of entertainment, which comes down to about 8 cents per minute – similar to movies, and much, much higher than mobile games. Of course, the variation is immense for premium games. Some people might play them a lot longer, and thus get a much lower cost per minute – but a lot of people also pay for premium games that they end up playing way less than 10 hours.

Why do premium games and movies succeed in charging so much higher prices for their entertainment compared to music and mobile games? I would suggest two things: Production costs for movies and AAA games are higher per minute of entertainment provided. A 2 hour blockbuster movie will likely cost more to make than 35 music singles (also about 2 hours).

Also, they require more focus from the consumer. Both mobile games and music is something that people do a bit on the side, with less than their full attention. Playing a match-3 while watching TV, or listening to music while working. In contrast, movies and AAA console games are immersive and will demand your full attention during several hours. They’re a more intense form of entertainment, and thus the price can also be more intense.

Chain reactions of Luck

Why match3 is a really really good core game.

You might have noticed that the match-3 mechanic is really popular on the top grossing charts of the App Store and Google Play. Why is that? It just happens to be a really good core mechanic.

Before we dive into why match-3 is such a good mechanic, let’s look at something that isn’t a good core for a mobile F2P game. Let’s actually look at something that is a terrible idea: a traditional puzzle game.

As an example, let’s take Tribeflame’s own game from 2012 called Light the Flower. In this, we invented a cute mechanic where you moved mirrors around to guide sunlight onto flowers that were languishing in the dark. Here’s the trailer for that game:

This was still a premium game, and we could not convert it to F2P in any sane way even if we wanted to. Why? Think about the progression – we’re going from easy puzzles to harder and harder puzzles. Puzzles where there is only one or two correct answers.

Either we have a smart player that is just going to breeze through these challenges until they get bored, or we have a… umm… less smart… player that is going to get stuck in one of them. And when they are stuck, there’s not much we can do apart from telling them the answer, which will likely just make them feel “less smart”.

In short: the progression here just sucks!

 

If you enter some luck into the game, we will be able to fix this. Now, the less smart players are actually just unlucky (or so they keep telling themselves), while the lucky players are smart (or so they keep telling themselves).

There are actually surprisingly few games on the top charts that combine luck with skill. Some 20% of the games on the top charts are variants of match-3, and have such a combination. Then there are about 25% that are casino games where there is basically no skill involved at all. The rest (little more than half) are really deterministic games at their core. That is, if I were to replay an attack in Clash of Clans with exactly the same army and deployment strategy, I would get the same result.

For the level based puzzle games, the balance of luck and skill is crucial, however. With the match-3 mechanic there is an extra bonus: chain reactions of luck.

In a game like Bejeweled, I can make one move somewhere on the field – trigger an explosion that triggers another explosion that triggers a third and a fourth one – and eventually the entire field blows up. This serves two purposes: it’s the jackpot that players crave to make them feel really, really good, and it is what gives them enough hope to keep playing a session that started badly. Even the very last move can turn my luck when there are chain reactions involved!

Just how much luck the player has in a match-3 can actually be completely decided by the game engine. In this way, the game can help a weak player advance, and give some extra challenge to a good player. The jewels/candy/fruit/what have you that fall down from above can be calculated to give a certain result.

To catch the games doing this, try playing a match-3 daily for some time, and then stop for about two weeks. If the company did their analytics correctly, they will assume that you are about to churn out of their game, and cease being among their valued customers. To stop you from doing that, they will want you to have a great session that makes you feel good if you decide to give the game one last chance. Which means that the first session after the two week pause will likely be an amazingly lucky one where everything is going your way!

 

There might be an optimal difficulty curve for one individual in a puzzle game. The problem is that it is different for all individuals. In a game with a component of “luck”, it is possible to adjust the game to the individual, and that’s what a lot of the match-3 games are doing.

 

To sum up, match-3 is a great core mechanic because of these reasons:

-The UI is a very simple and direct one swipe

-There are Chain Reactions of Luck that the player craves

-The player can win with the very last move, there’s always hope

-When the player lost, and bought an upgrade to continue, it is unclear how many extra moves are required to finish and win. That is, the player can feel close to winning even though he/she is actually more than 10 moves away from it

-The game engine can control the luck with what drops down

-The game can be interrupted at any time without the player losing

-The game is suitable for one handed play in portrait orientation (you can play standing on the bus)

-The game has quite small footprint (size, loading time, device requirements)

 

Nothing is quite perfect, however. These are the main weaknesses that I can see in most match-3 games:

-There is nothing permanent built by the player. Only the level progression gives the feeling of accomplishment, rather than e.g. a village the would likely give the player stronger emotional ties to the game.

-There are no stats that can be upgraded by 10% at a time. This is why Puzzle and Dragons pairs match-3 with the dragons that can be upgraded in this way. That’s a way stronger meta game.

-There is no Player vs. Player (PvP) to drive competition and spending by the most competitive players.

-They are somewhat weak when it comes to being brandable. Most match-3 games look the same with a quick glance.