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"Minimum viable products are dinosaurs"

Chillingo head of developer relations stresses need to respect audience from early launch to elder game

Speaking with last week in advance of his talk at the Montreal International Game Summit, Chillingo director of developer relations Levi Buchanan brought up an idea at the heart of his company's approach to publishing mobile games.

"You have to provide a good player experience," Buchanan said. "You have to show respect for the player's time. You have to show respect for the money they spend on a game, whether it's buying it up front, watching ads, or purchasing in-game content. First and foremost, that's the number one thing you have to do... Players are smart, they are savvy. They have tens of thousands of options, and they're not going to spend time on a game that doesn't show you both fun and respect."

It was an idea Buchanan returned to multiple times Tuesday over the course of his talk, "60 Secrets of Publishing Mobile Games." A publisher's level of respect for the players should be evident every step of the way, starting with the state of the game when it goes live.

"Why would players spend time in an unfinished game when the competition has planned and budgeted to launch with a maximum performing product?"

"Minimum viable products are dinosaurs," Buchanan said. "They're over. You cannot ask global players to be patient for the features you should have launched with, like multiplayer...Think about the message you're sending players, that you expect them to wait for you to finish your game. It's incredibly disrespectful. Why would players spend time in an unfinished game when the competition has planned and budgeted to launch with a maximum performing product?"

The word "global" is key in that quote, as Buchanan stressed that regional testing is still an essential tool to take advantage of.

"Soft launches are the new reality," Buchanan said. "If you're not soft-launching your free game, you're building your own gallows. Physical products when being manufactured have testing built into their production plan. Dynamic digital products now need similar real-world tests, so you really need to budget for that when starting out."

He also emphasized the importance of getting key performance indicators where you want them during the soft launch. The top publishers can run soft launches for as long as 40 weeks trying to make sure that they are converting and retaining the right amount of players before flipping the switch and opening up the game to the world.

"If you cheat your spenders with a weak elder game, you risk burning them for good, and they will absolutely tell other people."

"Going global and adding more players doesn't improve performance in the least," Buchanan said. "More players just multiplies your poor numbers. So know what to track, set those targets for success, and don't launch until you hit them."

Respect for the players can also be seen in everything the company does long after launch to keep things running. Buchanan said it was crucial to plan for the "elder game," even if most players never see it, because having good content there is another way to show respect.

"Your most loyal users, whether they never spent a dime or raced to get there deserve to feel like they're seeing new things and thoughtful gameplay," Buchanan said. "If you cheat your spenders with a weak elder game, you risk burning them for good, and they will absolutely tell other people."

Buchanan said a game's biggest spenders would likely account for 70 percent of revenue, and since those will be the most engaged players, they're going to need quality elder game content to keep them interested.

Not all of Buchanan's secrets were based on respect. He also encouraged developers to design their game to include offline modes. Beyond ensuring that players can still enjoy the game even in the case of server downtime, it's an increasingly popular feature for partners.

"I can tell you right now, platform holders like Apple and Google are very hot on offline modes," Buchanan said.

"Selling little costume changes is a dated sales mechanic that rarely works anymore."

Beyond that, Buchanan told the audience to make sure their monetization is built into their core gameplay loops and not stapled on top. He said it's not uncommon for developers to be so worried about the monetization detracting from the fun that they prevent their fans from investing in the game.

"You just cannot monetize cosmetic things or stuff on the margins. Selling little costume changes is a dated sales mechanic that rarely works anymore," Buchanan said, adding, "You want it to be free. You want it to be fun to play, but you need to allow players that are not happy with the standard rate of progression to succeed by investing time as well as money."

Similarly, many developers are worried about making their storefronts too obvious, and wind up hiding them too far out of sight.

"Show people what they can buy and when they need it," Buchanan said. "It is never bad to let players know how they can spend in your game. You never need to shamefully hide your store; in fact, it's one of the worst design decisions you can make. And we see it happening all the time in games, every single week."

Full disclosure: MIGS has a media partnership with, and paid for our travel and accommodation during the event.

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14 - 16 April 2021

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Latest comments (8)

Connor Martin Aspiring game designer/tester 5 years ago
My Issue with Splatoon and possibly what Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash will become: even if they are good a year later with free content and the like, you still tried to sell a shell of a good game that didn't have enough to keep people going. It is a practice I hope does not become a pattern, release a healthy game with some meat on it.
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Ben Gonshaw Game Design Consultant, AKQA5 years ago
I love articles based on semantics.
The MVP is not dead.
Half baked, unfinished early releases are dead. I'd question whether they were ever 'Viable' in the first place.

'Minimum' is massively important.
What kills developers is not knowing when to stop and feature creeping themselves to death.
Choose a minimal set of features, craft them, make them joyful, hone your onboarding, make something beautiful - but strip away features until it hurts, concentrate on just the core of your game. Concentrate on the MVP.
Perhaps Minimum Wonderful Product might be better, as MVP suggests a first playable, that needs a lot of work to, well, work.
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Bonnie Patterson Narrative Designer, Writer 5 years ago
Dammit, was hoping for news of a new dinosaur game.
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Show all comments (8)
Rogier Voet IT Consultant 5 years ago
Yes there is a world of difference between a good / limited game where everthing works and a game which launches in a shamefull buggy state where the features do not provide fun, but only frustration.

Some perfect examples - Planetary Annihilation, Carmageddon Reincarnation and the worst offender Jagged Alliance Flashback
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David Canela Game & Audio Designer 5 years ago
The way I read this, your game now needs at least some dinosaurs to be a viable product.
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Andrew Goodchild Studying development, Train2Game5 years ago
Yep, it needs a few dinosaurs, preferably ridden by space cowboys and pirates.
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Sandy Lobban Founder, Noise Me Up5 years ago
The T-rex was a great example of a succesful, but poorly designed MVP. Completely pointless arms, but an awesome mouth. It was never going to last.
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Nathan Richardsson Executive Producer 5 years ago
capable of working successfully; feasible.
"the proposed investment was economically viable"
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