Remember Farmville?  Did you or a significant other you know play it?  Do you or they still play it?  Probably not.  Like so many other games of its ilk they fly like shooting stars and in no time turn to dust.  There are plenty of examples of stellar success games that burn hot, go supernova and simply die away.  There are even more (many many more examples) of games that simply never develop the critical mass to create a viral buzz.  We need to understand the science of why one game succeeds and another flops.  The science is not a recipe for success merely the mechanics (if I could I’d be on a beach somewhere, not writing this post).  Me, I’m interested in the dynamic that sets the trajectory of a successful game; that once a game is flying high what’s the customer dimension that keeps it going.  But I’m even more interested in the decline of the game and how this is managed.  There are hundreds of studios out there that make a hit, rake in the cash, but never repeat that success.  Why?  Is it because of the way that games developers (even the bigger studios) manage customers?  I think it is.  I think it’s because of the fundamental and profound difference between these statements:

[stextbox id=”black”]We have games that our customers like vs. We have customers that like our games[/stextbox]

One is a product centric view and the other is a customer centric one.   Firstly, have a look at this picture:

Source: Google Finance, AOL Money

Farmville was what took Zynga to IPO.  Without it the star doesn’t burn so brightly.  No Farmville and the stock just bounces along flat.  Zynga was Farmville; Farmville was Zynga.  Zynga stopped having games that their customers liked.  The people didn’t disappear of the face of the earth; they just went elsewhere.  All games, like all products have a trajectory (or a life cycle to be more precise).  Successful organisations are adept at managing these life cycles both short term and long term.  The aim is to get as high and as far as possible.  A bit like throwing a javelin if you like but unlike a javelin with a game (or any product) you can boost it as it flies.

The psychology of video games

Before we dive into the CRM or customer dimension of the video games industry let’s take a small detour to try and understand what makes a quality product with enduring appeal compared to a flop. I think developers struggle to maintain a trajectory for their games.  because there is a hit and miss element to games development.  Video games are stories.  Good stories make for good video games; but a story alone will never be enough. Have a look at the thoughts of IGN.  The narrative and the mechanisms for enabling the narrative are key.  But that narrative must be immersive and delivered in context to the customer (players or users in industry speak).

The science of addiction

More tellingly and closer to the point is the consequence of choices.  In stories the protagonist(s) makes choices that determine the trajectory of the story.  Video games and the same; but in this case it is you and I that are making the choices.  What follows choice is consequence; reward or punishment, death or honour.  In Stephen Totilo’s article the world’s of the “…ville” style games are simplistic and merely simulate choices.  They are pavlovian stimulus and response cycles that rapidly entice us and eventually bore us.  Dopamine response inducers for a screen age.  We get accustomed and tire of these if the response and reward cycles can’t keep up.  But they can’t if they are to follow the standard levelling up model in other games; where are we progress things get harder and more challenging.

Paying to win

This is where the money comes in; micropayments within these games allow us the illusion of progress yet at the same time allow the rhythm of the response and reward cycle to be maintained.  In console or platform games micropayments (which is a misnomer as some of these payments are far from micro) are quick and easy mechanisms for maintaining interest in a game.  The payments are mainly usedto customise the look of characters, a major factor in multiplayer games where the “look at me” factor is immense (look at Call of Duty, CS:GO or the Battlefield series).  For mobile device gaming micropayments are much more likely to influence levelling up and gameplay (known disparaginly as pay to win or P2W) where in exchange for money you can obtain game changing upgrades quickly (as opposed to “grinding” for them via long hours of play).  For the mobile gaming companies the customers that truly pay the large sums to achieve their goals quickly are called Whales.  A less than kind label possibly.  But these customers are estimated to bring in 50% of a games revenue.  They represent just 0.15% of a games player base.  So for a mobile or casual game to be successful it needs to hunt and catch the whales.  And where do you go to find the whales?  Facebook of course; rich in data where you can narrow down your hunt before casting a line (or ad) on to someone’s news feed.  And then once you’ve caught your whale you reward them even more if they an catch others.  Is this all familiar now where your aunt or uncle sends you an invite to play a game so they can get a stripy fish, a pink sheep or a well armored goblin?  Set aside the ethics of this for a moment.  Just because the whales spend the money doesn’t mean they have the money to spend on such frivolous things.  It’s just the mechanics of mobile gaming success.  And in my humble opinion unless the mechanics change the future of mobile gaming is bleak.  You can fool some of the people some of the time…

Coming up – Console games to the rescue…

 

[stextbox id=”alert”]I love gaming – have done since I was young.  It’s my way of passing some spare time and escaping the realities of the world.  I tend towards the swords and sorcery style games (think The Witcher, Skyrim etc.).  My passion for gaming triggers my interest in where gaming meets customer management.  More to follow in this series.  Would welcome your comments[/stextbox]