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Uncertainty separates the strong from the weak - Divnich

Tilting Point's Jesse Divnich weighs in on the upside to industry blind spots and the suddenly crowded indie publishing services market

Before he was Tilting Point's vice president of product strategy, Jesse Divnich was an analyst with EEDAR, using data and research to put a fast-changing industry into perspective. But speaking with GamesIndustry.biz, Divnich said on a personal level, he quite enjoys those stretches where the industry is too uncertain for any analyst to provide a clean and definitive perspective.

"Those are the most opportunistic times for publishers and developers," Divnich said. "Those that rely solely on the data will become market laggards always playing catch-up or having to pay high multiples to acquire their way into an emerging market. Those with the skill, foresight, and ability to reach beyond their grasp will see new market opportunities before others and take full advantage of them before the data agrees with them."

"The new digital publishers that are popping up have helped turn this environment into a buyer's market, which is what it should be. Developers are now in a stronger position at the negotiation table vis--vis publishers."

When the industry has real data, Divnich said, it generally does a good job sizing the market up and acting upon that knowledge.

"When that data is missing, however, that is when the industry separates the strong from the weak," Divnich said. "It's how companies like Electronic Arts came to power in the console industry, how the Nintendo Wii became the top selling platform during a time when all the consumer surveys said gamers wanted bigger and faster consoles, and how King and Supercell turned into billion dollar companies in what seemed to be overnight."

That potential of overnight success has inspired no shortage of game developers to venture into the mobile market, which has in turn created a demand for companies like Tilting Point, outfits that fill many of the roles of a traditional publisher, from funding and public relations to quality assurance and market research. The wealth of competition Tilting Point faces in the market serves primarily as confirmation that there is a healthy demand on the part of independent developers for third-party services to take some of the non-development burdens off their shoulders so they can focus on making their games the best they can be.

"The new digital publishers that are popping up have helped turn this environment into a buyer's market, which is what it should be," Divnich said. "Developers are now in a stronger position at the negotiation table vis--vis publishers. If a developer has something truly unique to offer and it has market potential, they should be in a favorable position to land the best publishing partner. That's much healthier for our industry, which used to be dominated by a handful of gatekeepers who had a stranglehold on retail distribution."

For Divnich, the key for Tilting Point to stand out from the competition is to not only offer a full suite of services, but to work with each client to adapt whatever services they provide to the specific needs of that company and that game. The company worked with Senri and 1337 on their premium-priced mobile platformer Leo's Fortune, focusing on direct-to-consumer marketing, platform relationships, and focus testing. On the other hand, developers of free-to-play titles might need more help with user acquisition, community management, and tuning the game for audience retention. Despite the success of Leo's Fortune, Divnich knows the market has a lot more of the latter type of title than the former.

"Most publishers and developers these days are allergic to premium on mobile."

"Most publishers and developers these days are allergic to premium on mobile," Divnich said. "We are not, and we respect that for some developers, the opportunity to make $300,000 to $3 million in revenue is sometimes a better and less risky proposition then trying to shoot for the stars, potentially making nothing. Leo's Fortune for example will likely do at least $6 million in gross revenue throughout its lifetime, a figure we are perfectly comfortable with given the budget and total expenditure of the game."

Consumers have embraced free-to-play games in a big way, Divnich said, but they're also becoming a lot more savvy about monetization practices, and "less enthused" for hard paywalls or energy systems that require users to pay to keep going.

"Consumers have begun to ask 'What's the catch?' when downloading a free-to-play game, and they are spotting what the 'catch is and churning before the game can hook them into the core loop," Divnich said. "We are seeing this reflected in lower retention rates across the board, especially at Day 2 and Day 7."

Among Tilting Point's other offered services, Divnich said user interface design support is simultaneously one of the most popular, but also one of the most undervalued. Most small teams aren't going to have a full-time UX/UI person on staff, and Divnich said it's a frequently requested service, once the teams are aware it exists.

"I've seen talented user acquisition managers do more with $300,000 in spending than others did with $1 million."

As for advice he would give developers weighing their publisher options, Divnich cautioned them to avoid companies with a one-size-fits-all approach, and to understand exactly what their potential partners' plans are.

"I've been in too many meetings where all the developer cared about was how much their publisher was going to spend on user acquisition (UA), without actually asking how, when, and where it was to be spent," Divnich said. "I've seen talented user acquisition managers do more with $300,000 in spending than others did with $1 million."

Going forward, Divnich said user acquisition managers need to be smarter about how they spend their money. Fortunately, the ways the industry tracks new users and their effectiveness are evolving in stride.

"UA professionals are working closer with marketing to optimize their icons, screenshots, and trailers to increase conversion rates, spending more time on optimizing their search placement," Divnich said. "And when they need to spend UA dollars, they are more targeted than ever before (e.g. specific devices, demographics, playing habits, etc.). Networks are supporting new ad formats; playable ad inventory will grow as more networks try to get in the space as they see the increasing demand from UA managers."

It's been nearly a year since Divnich jumped to Tilting Point, and he still relies on data and research just as much as he did at EEDAR, working with mobile game developers to help them bring their games to market in the most effective way possible. The biggest difference in his eyes is that now he gets a better view of the fruits of his labor.

"In third-party research, you wonder how much of your recommendations actually make it to the developers and how much of it makes an impact on the game," Divnich said. "Now, our product team has a direct impact on the games our partners are developing. We have to manage the balance between production timing, budgets, milestone deliveries, and the games' overall quality. I went from wondering how much of an impact I've made to worrying about the specific impact my team and I want to make."

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