How To Measure Social Games Success

PopCap's VP of social operations on why MAUs may not tell the whole story

The social gaming buzz, focused largely around the Facebook platform, has become something of a roar over the past 18 months. Debate rages on a range of subjects from how companies make money to game quality (are social games 'real' games?) to the futurespective of how the social space will evolve.

One of the most frequently asked questions is 'who will be the winner(s) in the social gaming space?' Is it as simple as looking at the plethora of data on the Facebook social game tracking sites and identifying who has the most daily or monthly players? We suggest there is more to it than that.

People often talk about the social games space as if there will only be one 'winner' but clearly the space is broad and deep enough to support multiple successes. How winners achieve their long-term success on social networks is still to be decided but what is clear today is that there won't be a single style of game that 'wins' the platform – social audiences are too vast and divergent in their needs and expectations to be satisfied by one game that meets everyone's expectations. Here I share some of the thinking behind how PopCap approaches the social space.

By the numbers

As is customary in today's market, one of the foremost authorities on social games metrics, AppData (, lists the top five games using the criterion of Monthly Average Players (MAU):

  • 1. Cityville
  • 2. Farmville
  • 3. Texas Hold Em Poker
  • 4. Frontierville
  • 5. Mafia Wars, 19th January 2011

The other frequently tracked industry criterion, also covered by AppData, is daily active users (DAU):

  • 1. Cityville
  • 2. Farmville
  • 3. Texas Hold Em Poker
  • 4. Frontierville
  • 5. Bejeweled Blitz, 19th January 2011

So which game should we consider the" fifth most popular game on Facebook" – Mafia Wars or Bejeweled Blitz? Do we go with Monthly Active Users (the most frequently cited stat in the industry) or do we dive deeper and look at Daily Active Users?

In terms of pure number volume, it would be easy to assume Mafia Wars is the fifth most popular game on Facebook with their 18.6 million MAUs – compared to Bejeweled Blitz's 11.4 million. However, if we instead ask which of these games has the best opportunity to become one of the winning game franchises on Facebook, then the analysis is arguably a lot more complicated.

Measurement by MAU

A first problem with MAUs is that we, as developers, typically share players between our games, so the idea of counting MAUs in aggregate for a particular developer "double-counts" a significant number of players who may or may not be engaged in more than one game.

While MAUs have been one of the key metrics used to measure a game's performance since the beginning of social gaming, we focus on DAUs and DAU/MAU engagement rates as a potentially greater portent of a game's staying power and long-term potential.

Bejeweled Blitz may have lower MAUs than the top five games, yet it's among the top five games in terms of DAUs. But what makes PopCap particularly excited about Bejeweled Blitz's long term potential on Facebook is its incredibly high engagement rate (i.e. the relativity of its DAUs to its MAUs). In a nutshell, while Bejeweled Blitz does not have as many players, it's doing a good job of retaining those it has. The higher DAU/MAU rating, the more engaging and 'sticky' the game.

Measurement by DAU/MAU

If you were to re-order the ten games with the most DAUs by this engagement rating, you would see a dramatic shift in the top games. In fact, by this metric, Bejeweled Blitz has considerably higher engagement rates than any other top 10 game.

  • 1. Bejeweled Blitz: 34%
  • 2. Farmville: 26%
  • 3. Millionaire City: 22%
  • 4. Frontierville: 21%
  • 5. Treasure Isle: 20%
  • 6. Texas Hold Em Poker: 19%
  • 7. Café World: 19%
  • 8. Cityville: 19%
  • 9. Pet Society: 16%
  • 10. Mafia Wars: 15%, 19th January 2011

Why engagement matters

In today's marketplace, a player can be 'obtained' for around $1.00-$2.00 and nearly any company with sufficient capital can add a million or more DAUs through a well-executed advertising campaign on Facebook. But keeping those players engaged in the game is the true key to success. Unengaged players don't spend money in the game and can be quickly churned to a non-playing app install. If a game wants to maintain its DAUs, these unengaged players must then be replaced via new players usually acquired through advertising.

A high DAU/MAU percentage means that players are actively engaged in a game, often returning several times a day to play. And engaged players are typically the highest monetising group and result in a more economically viable game.

Game development is a business after all. We believe that engaged daily players are where the majority of a game's monetisation occurs and are a key to a game's financial success. Bejeweled Blitz has nearly 4 million daily unique players playing over 4 billion games of Bejeweled Blitz each month. Spending money on virtual goods is part of the game play. In fact, 8 out of 10 of those who purchase virtual goods in our games continue to purchase on an ongoing basis.

Customer retentions

Historically we have always worked from the basis of figuring out how to make a game great – and then figuring out how to monetise it. It's similar here: start with making the player experience the best it can be - and the rest will follow.

What this means for PopCap's success is that our players return to our games because they want to and we are not over-reliant on viral gimmicks resulting in false or unsustainable user engagement.

While acknowledging that other social games developers may necessarily prioritise differently, PopCap looks to build evergreen franchises – we focus qualitatively rather than quantitatively in the immediate term. We make sure our games - regardless of platform - have the 'secret sauce'. You can't see it, smell it or taste it but if people are coming back for more, you know it's there.

Developing games that result in high engagement

At PopCap, like any social developer, we look at social viral channels for our games. However we will only exercise these channels when they make for a better user experience – and not as a gimmick to get players back to our games. The reason is simple: there's no substitute for a good game.

And great games matter. Even in social. But in social games – the social aspect should also not be overlooked – the people who play the games MAKE them social games by definition so they must be satisfied. Satisfied players are a big reason why Bejeweled Blitz's engagement rate exceeds 35%.

So we take a slow and steady approach to game design for all platforms we develop on. Great games take time to develop and we allow that process to run its course until we are sure the game is ready. Our most recent release, Zuma Blitz, spent almost 6 months in full playable mode while we were fine-tuning and building out the full game experience.

Back to the future

In the early days of the web as money, talent, and players rushed to the new medium, publishers scrambled to find metrics to quantify what was successful. At first, they looked at raw traffic numbers like page views and visits. These numbers were big, and often grew rapidly, but eventually, the better managed companies realised that most of these metrics could be artificially inflated – particularly if you were willing to spend on acquisition. These early metrics eventually gave way to more nuanced views of web businesses – unique players, visits per user, orders per user, and so on.

We believe that as Facebook games continue to evolve and mature the focus of investors, managers, and ultimately even players will shift from raw user counts to more complicated metrics. In terms of winning and losing, it will not necessarily be a case of one metric fitting all. While the social space is still nascent, it is also rapidly evolving and one thing is certain – whoever the winner or losers turn out to be, how we all play the social game is about to get a lot more interesting.

Michael Carpenter is VP of social operations, North America and EMEA, at PopCap Games.

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Latest comments (2)

Piotr Galor Studying BsC Computer Graphics, Vision and Games, Aberystwyth University7 years ago
great article. I am really following the social gaming world and some numbers and information here are very interesting.
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Tony Coles Account Manager, Peppermint P7 years ago
Awesome stuff.
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