Mobile Games in a Data Democracy

Apr 7, 2021 | Design, Insights

As technology advances, the role that data plays in game development, particularly for mobile games, has grown to the point where it cannot be ignored; It’s as integral to success in the current climate as any other aspect of development. It’s unsurprising, then, that at the recent GDC Showcase Event, Google chose to shine the spotlight on data analytics, both in their ‘Google for Games Global Insight Report’ as well as their ‘Keys to Next Level Game Growth’ talk.

This session unleashed a barrage of helpful tips, both Design and Marketing-related, and it aimed to answer three fundamental questions about player acquisition:

  1. Is your game ready for new players?
  2. What is the cost of acquiring new players?
  3. How can you identify the best market to acquire these new players in?

These questions are relevant to game developers of any size, and are interesting, both in the asking and the answering.

While many people’s reactions to the question ‘Should I grow my game’s audience?’ would be a quick and easy ‘Yes’, Brent Dance, Google’s Director of Global Gaming, had a very different answer to this crucial question. He argued that player base growth should only be a priority if you have a solid base of players already, who value the content in your game; it’s hard to build a cathedral on quicksand, after all.

This is a sobering take on growth, but one that makes a lot of sense in the long run. Dance then went on to discuss how developers can get their game in a good position for growth, if it’s not quite there yet; and the answer, hauntingly familiar in a time of constant reports from Covid “experts”, is ‘to follow the data’; more specifically, the analytics data. Using analytics tools like Google’s own Firebase, developers can track the actions and play patterns of their players, identifying drop-off points and strengthening their game in the areas where it’s weak.

Working out the cost of new players and identifying the best market for your game are, according to this talk, best handled via analytics data as well. It is, of course, unsurprising that a talk by Google promoting an analytics document is focused on analytics as a data solution, but it is also undeniable that player data and the use of it have become a huge part of modern game development, particularly in mobile games; more and more, players are starting to design the games they play, whether they know it or not.

The rise of analytics has huge implications on almost every conceivable axis of game development; moral, financial, artistic, technical; the list goes on. The old ideas of designing a game, developing that game and releasing that game are gone. Every game is now an ongoing creative discussion, a back and forth between player and developer, a painting where every new brush stroke is voted on by an audience of thousands, casting ballots in the form of forum comments. The game has changed, and the industry must change with it.

While it’s hard to say how this approach will affect the games industry in the long run, one area in which the impact of analytics will be near-undeniably positive is in advertising.

Advances in ad technology, such as AdInMo’s own InGamePlay brand ads, combined with advances in analytics, have created an environment that’s nearly ideal for them.

In the past, ad strategy for games consisted of putting banner ads at the top or bottom of the screen and setting up interstitial videos to play between levels. Now, though, so much more can be done. You can build your ads directly into your game on objects, seamlessly blending them with your game world; You can use analytics data to determine where best to place them, based on where players spend the most time, and where they would have the least negative experiential impact; You can look at a breakdown of your player base by geography, and use that information to hand-pick the kinds of ads those people want to see; You can track the performance of your ads, like any other element of your game, and tweak and iterate on them accordingly; as technology becomes more refined, advertising in games is becoming as much an art as it is a science.

Google’s talk concluded with a brief guest appearance from Alexandre Pelletier-Normand, CEO of Rovio who summed up in one key sentence everything discussed here. He said: “When improving monetisation, make sure you’re also bringing value to your users.”

This is a powerful message, and one which should apply to every kind of improvement on a game, from advertising to level design. When developers make creative decisions based off of analytics data, it’s easy to forget the real people behind the cold numbers and create experiences which are technically better but lacking in whatever it is that made the game special to begin with. At the risk of turning this article into a ‘Computers Bad’ sci fi parable, we have to remember that we’re designing games for human beings, with beating hearts and racing minds, and not for efficiency-crazed stat machines.

Data is a powerful tool, and it’s our responsibility to learn how to use it right.

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