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Creating a culture of analytics is key to your game's success

Hothead Games explains how mobile developers can effectively leverage data to make better games

Analytics have created an unprecedented opportunity for mobile video game publishers to gain a deep understanding of how players interact with their games. The effective deployment of analytics in your organization can have a real impact on your game KPIs and can ultimately make the difference between a hit title and a total flop.

In 2010, we made a big decision at Hothead Games to pivot to mobile. We knew the transition would open opportunities to analyze player behavior, but we had little understanding at the time how to get an analytics platform up and running, much less how to ensure we leveraged analytics to make a real impact on our results.

Over the past six years, the process of transforming our studio into an effective data-driven culture has taught us many lessons. We now know there are several areas to get right to use analytics successfully. In this article, I will outline the three key factors to our success using data.

Technology

When Hothead first transitioned to mobile, we relied on a variety of third party tools to collect and analyze our data. This helped us get going quickly, and the tools we used sparked a lot of ideas regarding analytics' ultimate potential. However, ultimately these external tools were not capable of providing the depth of analysis we needed.

"It can be tempting to stick solely with third party tools, but the potential ROI of in-house analytics tech is enormous"

Meanwhile, our company's first data scientist was experimenting with building a generalized data pipeline that processed game data. When one of our larger teams chose to use the internal system exclusively, I knew we were on to something. We doubled down our investment in this new platform (called "TUBA" for Targeted User Behavior Analytics) and made it our primary analytics tool.

TUBA has grown into a flexible, scalable pipeline that processes data from a large variety of sources. Having witnessed the capabilities this new technology has afforded us, I am convinced that at least some targeted investment in analytics tools and technology is critical to succeeding in the fast-moving free-to-play mobile games market.

It can be tempting to stick solely with third party tools, but the potential ROI of in-house analytics tech is enormous. There has never been a richer source of open source options available, so even small studios can take a stab at incrementally improving their internal tech.

Communication

Great tech alone will not ensure you benefit profitably from your data. It is equally important to think about the processes you use to communicate analytics insights. How and when does data get communicated, and who is communicating what with whom? Fundamentally, how is data flowing through the organization? Choosing the right medium, audience and level of detail on a case-by-case basis is critical to making your analytics actionable. By actionable I mean the information being communicated points to a practical decision that will improve the performance of your game.

Consider the audience, and ensure materials are at the right level of technical detail. For example, overall game health being presented to your CEO will be quite different than a detailed breakdown of player engagement that you present to game designers.

Analytics can be self-serve or full-serve. Take time to think about where to draw this line in your company. Full-serve is when a data scientist or other specialist will uncover interesting findings in the data and then share them. Self-serve tools and dashboards should be accessible enough for anyone in your organization to explore the answers to routine questions about game health and user behavior.

Equally important is pushing out data in an unsolicited way. Sometimes insights can remain buried in your data because no one even knows the right questions to ask. It is important to empower your data science team to spend some portion of their time performing exploratory analysis.

Culture

Even if you have top-notch technology and well-organized systems for communication, operating effectively in a truly data-driven way requires a fundamental shift in mindset by all members of the team. A cultural transformation is required, where people begin to reflexively think about data first: how to solve challenges by analyzing data, and how to use data to measure their results.

Some in your organization may resist the very idea of focusing on data, arguing it takes the heart and soul out of the creativity of game development. The truth is that using analytics supplements your creative intuition; it does not replace it. Analytics is very good at highlighting problems with your game, but only rarely does it point to the optimal solution. For that you will need the skill and experience you already rely on to make great games.

"Some in your organization may resist the very idea of focusing on data, arguing it takes the heart and soul out of the creativity of game development. The truth is that using analytics supplements your creative intuition; it does not replace it"

One way to create a data-driven culture is to be transparent with all information. Set specific, measurable, time-bound goals and publicize them across the company in advance. With accountability in mind, celebrate your successes but also celebrate your failures and treat them as normal opportunities to learn and improve. Make this habit of goal-setting and honest self-evaluation a part of how all teams operate.

At Hothead, one additional thing we have done to contribute to our analytics culture is to have an independent analytics team, distinct from the other teams in the company. While it is important for everyone in the studio to be thinking in a data-driven way, it is also critical to have an independent team that is specially trained to answer complex questions and is seen as an unbiased source of information and insights.

Summary

Leveraging analytics to improve the performance of your mobile titles is imperative in a space that is increasingly crowded and competitive. At Hothead, analytics has made a measurable difference in the success of our games. We've gained insights into the importance of early game difficulty, boosting our early retention and engagement metrics significantly. We've identified optimal price points for special sales offers, and the resulting segmentation of users based on early behavior boosted our monetization. We've pinpointed game stability problems on specific devices and the targeted bug fixes made a dramatic difference to our early retention metrics. And we've relied heavily on data analysis to hone our client update schedule and week-to-week content rollout and event schedule.

These changes helped us optimize the timing of giving our players what they want. These are but a few examples of the real difference analytics has made to Hothead's drive to run a successful mobile game service.

By investing in data-related technology, carefully planning how analytics insights are communicated, and building a company culture that values objectivity and data-driven decision making, you will be on your way to making sense of all that data and using it to maximize the success of your games.

Joel DeYoung is Director of Technology at Hothead Games. In his 20 years in the industry, Joel has gone from commercializing facial animation technology to producing games for consoles, but he found his true passion in the mobile space. He has co-produced three of Hothead's beloved Big Win games and now oversees all technology aspects of the company including server infrastructure, cross-platform game engine and analytics systems.

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