The world of free-to-play games is a sort of Bizarro World reflection of the traditional games industry, with things working directly opposite the way they used to. Most obviously, the games are being given away instead of sold for $50 or $60 a pop. On top of that, a free-to-play game's launch typically represents the beginning of the hard work, not the end. And perhaps most surprisingly, developers now want more input from their publishing partners, not less.
That last change could be key for a company like Scopely, the publisher behind mobile games like Wordly and MiniGolf MatchUp. Speaking with GamesIndustry International last week, Scopely CEO Walter Driver explained that the games-as-a-service model has led to publishing partners filling different needs than they had in the past. With a game's business model now inextricable from its gameplay, developers understand that simply making a compelling experience isn't enough to create a successful product.
"They're not just marketing partners," Driver said. "They're partners in helping you optimize and tune the game experience...There's starting to be a clearer functional divide between data-driven marketing, analytics, large-scale server infrastructure, advertising optimization, direct ad sales... These are functions that are quite different from building great games. And to build a large-scale globally successful business, you kind of need those functions. What we're seeing is there are a lot of great game developers out there who don't want to build those functions in-house, and would like to focus on building great games."
"They're not just marketing partners. They're partners in helping you optimize and tune the game experience."
Walter Driver, on the new role of publishers
Driver pointed to MiniGolf MatchUp as one of Scopely's big success stories. Developed by New Zealand-based Rocket Jump Games, MiniGolf MatchUp was the number one game on iOS in 49 countries within 24 hours of launch. While he didn't downplay the importance of the developers, Driver wasn't about to shy away from sharing credit for the success, either.
"I don't think there's any doubt they wouldn't have been able to achieve that scale working independently," Driver said.
If the success of MiniGolf MatchUp isn't enough to convince developers that Scopely knows its business, perhaps the firm's recent hiring of Michail Katkoff as its new director of product management will help. Katkoff worked at Rovio as executive producer on Angry Birds Rio, and spent much of 2013 at Supercell as product manager for Clash of Clans. Driver said that having that sort of first-hand experience with mobile blockbusters is invaluable to developers.
"Part of the reason developers are so excited to have input on their games from guys like Michail is that he's had experience working on very successful games," Driver said. "He's got a broader experience of what works and what doesn't, and why. He's seen under the hood and understood which metrics are actually critical to driving success. It's very hard to get a free-to-play game right. There are lots of moving parts that you can tweak. Having outside input from people who've seen things you haven't seen and have a different perspective is extraordinarily helpful."
As for those critical metrics, the most important one may be the one with the least tangible monetary benefit.
"Instead of looking at [average-revenue-per-user] or conversion rate, I usually like to look at retention," Katkoff said. "The longer time players actually spend in one specific game, the more likely they are to convert, either by watching ads, making in-app purchases, or inviting their friends to play along."
"Instead of looking at ARPU or conversion rate, I usually like to look at retention."
Katkoff views all three of those as effective forms of monetization. And while he acknowledges that competition in the free-to-play market has become increasingly fierce, the accompanying growth of the audience has ensured it's still a good place to turn a profit.
"When you're talking about services and f2p, you're talking about bigger audiences," Katkoff explained. "With bigger audiences, you have much more leverage to create revenue. Because now not only can you create revenue through in-app purchases, you can also create a lot of revenue through advertisements because you have that much traffic. We're not talking about doubling; we're talking about 10 times bigger audience sizes."
Selling those eyeballs to advertisers is also becoming easier for a few reasons, Katkoff said. For one, user analytics have made considerable advances in recent years. On top of that, advertisers are more interested in mobile because they've realized that's where people are increasingly spending their time. And even though the ads seen on free-to-play games aren't necessarily coming from the same giant brands that dominate TV commercial breaks, Katkoff expects that to change in the future.
"The brands are not ready to do anything radical at the moment, but they're moving slowly and steadily to increase their ad budgets in the mobile space," he said. "So they're not going all-in, but they're increasing steadily."