October 4, 2013

Lessons learned from two of iTunes's most successful games

It's not easy to make money from an app. According to Forbes, the average life-time revenue of an app in iTunes is $4000. While the same number for Google's app store is $1125, the same number for Microsoft's app store is only $625. But don't expect to make $4000 by developing an app. According to research by Adeven, 60 percent of the apps in iTunes have never been downloaded even once. To make it even worse, research by Gartner revealed how 90 percent of the downloaded apps are free apps. On the other hand, the developer of the free app may make money from it by having a so called F2P (Free 2 Play) monetization. For example, the popular game Candy Crush Saga is a F2P/freemium app where the customer is given the option to pay for certain parts of the game. Another popular game in iTunes is Angry Birds - which is not a free game so you have to pay for it if you want to download it.

Games like Candy Crush Saga and Angry Birds are not difficult games to make from a programming point of view, but there are some tricks the developers of the games have used to increase the probability of success. The basic mechanics behind a game like Angry Birds is not new, a similar game called Gorillas arrived in 1991. As in Angry Birds, the player in Gorilla chooses and angle and a force - the only major difference between the games is that the player fling bananas at the other player (it's a two player game). In Angry Birds, the player fling birds against pigs.

Gorillas. Source: Wikipedia

The questions is why Angry Birds players are spending a total of 1.2 billion hours in the game? According to an article by MauroNewMedia, there are are number of reasons to why Angry Birds became a success. One of the reasons include the game's interaction model which is easy to learn because it allows the user to quickly develop a mental model of the game's interaction methodology, core strategy and scoring processes. Another reason is the fact that the game is not realistically fast. If you had launched a bird in real-time, the bird would have traveled faster, but in Angry Birds you can see how the bird travels towards the target in a way to help the player become better. This is a bit related to trading software:
"This problem is a vast and complex issue for screen-based trading systems where error correction is not only essential, but also career threatening."
Other points include the use of short-term memory management, the added mystery to the game, and the sound. The audio in Angry Birds was developed to enhance the player's experience by mapping tightly to the player's simple mental model of the game's main conflict between the birds and the pigs. A voice in Candy Crush Saga had a French accent, but the developers had to change it because the players didn't like it.

The colorful puzzle game Candy Crush Saga is played by 45 million people each month and generates $633 000 each day despite the fact that you can download it for free. A game like Candy Crush Saga is not hard to develop - there's no complicated three-dimensional graphics - the basic idea behind the game is to drag candy across the screen. If at least three of the same types of candy is on the same row/column, the candy disappears and the player is rewarded with points. The number of levels is almost unlimited since they are added continuously by the developer.

One of the key points to why Candy Crush Saga became so successful can be described by the partial reinforcement effect. The game is random so you never know if there's an reward arriving soon so people keep playing. To motivate people to play even more, you can compare your score with your friends. With a gameplay based on pattern recognition, Candy Crush Saga taps into our brain since humans are trained to search for patterns. If we find a pattern, we do not only get happy about it, the game will also give us a reward.

While you have to pay to download the full version of Angry Birds, Candy Crush Saga is free and the developers hope that you will pay money in the game. I'm not saying that Candy Crush Saga uses all techniques - it's impossible to find out - but there are several ways to convince players to purchase items in a free game:
  • You can use an in-game currency in a way so the players don't think of it as real money. These games often use another exchange rate - 1 USD should not be the same as 1 game-currency-dollar. Also make sure the player doesn't have to leave the game when buying this new currency
  • The player can skip a level or get help on a level when the player really need it and think it's a good idea to pay for it. In Candy Crush Saga, the player has the option to buy an extra life for real money or wait 30 minutes to get a new life for free
  • You can design the game where the first part of the game is based on the player's skills, but then it becomes harder and harder so the player is almost forced to pay money for help so the player can continue until the end - if there's an end?
  • The overall skills of the paying player can improve compared with the non-paying player - like in an aircraft where you may pay a little more to get a better seat
  • When the game notices that you are willing to pay money to get an advantage, the game can become more difficult so you have to pay even more money
  • You can add "useful" hints that tricks the unaware player to believe these are really helping the player to become better - but they are helping the player to screw up so the player is forced to pay more money 
  • Give the player a free reward after an achievement - then threaten to take the reward away if the player doesn't pay for it. The player is now more motivated to pay money to keep the reward compared with if the player had not been given the reward for free

Source: Forbes, phone Arena, Helsingborgs Dagblad, MauroNewMedia, Yahoo Finance, Financial Post, Valleywag, Gamasutra

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