A Bit Lucky's latest title was released at the end of last month and is aimed squarely at the hardcore gaming market, so much so that its developers describe it as "complex and overwhelming". The difference here is Lucky Space is a Facebook game, a format associated with farming simulations and casual play.
Here, CEO Frederic Descamps discusses the challenges, the early response and the search for hardcore gamers on Facebook, how to engage them, why he's prepared to target a niche, and the problems with inflated data.
Q: What type of feedback have you been receiving from the first players of Lucky Space?
Frederic Descamps: There are two types of feedback that we're getting. Probably the most important is what we've had from users and gamers. We did a two and half week closed beta which went really well. We had a high level of engagement for the game across all metrics, things like the average time for the first session which was 26 minutes, which is huge for a social game. With the closed beta anybody could get in and we were rated 4.8 stars out of 5. The second type of reception we've had is from the press, the consumer press and the hardcore gaming press - a group that we've specifically targeted with Lucky Space - the reception has been really, really good. With hardcore PC gamers we didn't know what reception we'd get. Our intention was to make them see that there is a future for hardcore PC games in the social space. The first reviews have been positive. So far so good.
Q: Do you think that hardcore gaming audience really exists on Facebook, and if so, what's been holding growth back?
Frederic Descamps: Yes, I think that audience does exist. On an anecdotal level I have a lot of friends who are hardcore players, professional Counter-Strike and professional StarCraft players, and they are on Facebook, they play social games. Some of them went from a career in professional gaming to social games. The other thing is these people are on Facebook but they may not be necessarily playing games, they are sharing pictures and chatting. What we need is the right bait, the right mousetrap in the form of games to get them in. We've seen a few that have done that, then all of a sudden there will be talk that the hardcore gamer is back. But they've always been around, these people are playing for lots of hours and spending lots of money but it's just that the right products haven't been presented to them. With A Bit Lucky, our roots are in hardcore games development and we play way too much League of Legends and Counter-Strike, and board and card games, so that's the type of game we're going to make. With Lucky Space we're trying a number of things. The first is super-high production quality. And depth of gameplay, and also the sci-fi theme helps as well.
What we need is the right bait, the right mousetrap in the form of games to get hardcore players
Q: Is part of the problem the perception of social games as farm management and grinding gameplay?
Frederic Descamps: The first generation of social games was dominated by low quality, simple, cutesy games targeting the female demographic. To the point that when we started A Bit Lucky in November 2009 some people expected us to fail because of we had absolutely no idea how to target the older female demographic. But we could see all our friends on Facebook, we know they were are all gamers, and if they are already there what would it take to get them to play? And we looked at the games on offer, realised they were pretty terrible and they were not the games we wanted to make. There was no way to sugar coat it, these games were terrible. We didn't look at the social games market from a cynical perspective saying "these games suck", we saw opportunities. We were looking at a young, immature market but once it matures we will begin to see niche audiences. We looked at the numbers in terms of retention, monetisation and engagement and we found them to be much, much closer to free-to-play, very high. So we wanted to bridge the gap with very high quality games and production values. And to make them truly social like a board game or a card game with your friends.
Q: How do you find working on Facebook as a platform? Because features and services can change very quickly from one day to the next.
Frederic Deschamps: Like any platform there are plusses and minuses. Between us we have 250 years of game development experience working on all consoles, PC, mobile, with Apple, with Microsoft… and I would say working with Facebook is actually quite a breeze. Yes, they make changes and sometimes things are tricky but on the plus side it's fairly transparent. It's a very large platform. You don't have this processes that you have with the consoles or with Apple - we love them all but Facebook is so much easier to deal with.
The platform tax, the 30 per cent, is heavy. I get why they do and it and they can do it, if you're not happy you can move to another platform. But I think they really need to improve it in helping small independent developers to make money. It would be good if they had more ways to drive relevant traffic to the small guys with less means.
Q: Are you saying the 30 per cent tax is too much?
Frederic Deschamps: Like any rational individual I would much prefer 5 per cent [laughs]. But it's 30 per cent so we deal with that. It's all relative to what the platform gives you back. What I really want for my 30 per cent is for Facebook to be more of a publisher in some ways. I know this is contradictory, but I want them to help me promote my games and drive relevant traffic to me through app discovery and stuff like that. With the new ticker feed and timeline there's a hope that it levels the playing field for people like us with the big guys in the space.
Q: Can you give us a feel for the MAUs and DAUs that you're targeting for the first couple of months for Lucky Space?
Lucky Space is a hardcore game that is quite complex and it's a bit overwhelming, so it's not for the average Facebook demographic
Frederic Deschamps: The beauty of social games is that you don't really know how your game is going to be received until you've launched it. Is that the same for any game launch? Probably, but the good thing is that you have very deep analytics and you can do something about it on the fly. Over the next months we're going to be focused on improving internal analytics of the game and also pushing new content. With the type of games we're making we're not looking at the masses. Lucky Space is a hardcore game that is quite complex and it's a bit overwhelming, so it's not for the average Facebook demographic. We'll have to see what the numbers tell us.
Q: MAUs and DAUs seems to have become the standard of measuring success on Facebook, but I'm not sure that's right for a game that you're openly admitting is not for the masses.
Frederic Deschamps: Of course they are very interesting, they are pretty much the only public numbers you can get about a game. But on the other side when you look at internal metrics there are so many different stats that we look at. The most important for us is engagement, defined by average time per session, number of sessions per day and per week, number of days played per week. We look at that because we assume if someone spends 25 minutes on their first session in Lucky Space, without doing any more research on numbers we have to assume they have had a good time - especially when we see that 85 per cent of people who have played the first day have come back the second day. And the second session is averaging 18 minutes. This is great engagement already and people are enjoying exploring the product.
So the first generation of Facebook games, the key success factor was how many free users can you get, how can you abuse the system and the platform. The second was more about retention, and the third is more about engagement and monetisation. We need to see that they players are having fun and coming back first - are they playing for long? And then the rest is going to take care of itself.
Q: There some talk that bigger publishers are releasing their games in parts of Asia to boost their monthly active user numbers - because they have such huge Facebook audiences in those regions - but they don't necessarily spend any money, compared to Europe and the US.
Frederic Deschamps: It's absolutely true. To put it more bluntly in our case - we are targeting North America and Europe because those are the audiences that retain the best and monetise the best. We've had a pretty terrible time, like most developers, in South East Asia - Indonesia, Malaysia, India. These regions only inflate your numbers and they muddy the water on the analytics side because you'll see an influx of 20,000 people, but right away we know most of them won't come back the next day. And most of them are on a pretty terrible connection so they are not going to be able to enjoy the game. And they absolutely do not monetise. So in some ways we're not spending any effort marketing to those countries. There are some companies that are doing a great job of monetising those markets but that's not our goal. But Korea and China and the other Asian countries they do monetise well but you have to make an extra effort to translate and localise your games.