At its Google Developer Day during GDC 2017 today, Google Play's games strategic lead, Jamil Moledina, outlined some of the many changes coming to the Android app store. GamesIndustry.biz took part in a pre-brief interview with Moledina to get a better understanding on what's in store for developers and players. To begin with, Moledina noted that Google Play is aiming to be more open about its plans moving forward, to give the audience a heads-up on what's to come.
"I think platforms sometimes act a little too close to the vest in terms of what they're working on, but what we want to do now is just kind if tee-up our thinking for the year," he said.
To that end, one of the biggest changes coming to Google Play for developers is a behind-the-scenes tweak to the algorithm that decides which games are visible. From this point on, engagement will be factored in, meaning games with stickiness (not just a high star rating) will get a boost.
"Classically, everyone has been looking at installs and revenue as the key metrics, but we realized - now that a lot of gamers are at Google and we've been listening to a lot of our top partners - that engagement is as important, if not more so. Engagement is what tells you how fun the game is, how much someone really wants to get back to it. So one of the first steps we're taking on this road is tuning our algorithms for what we surface to people in the store; we're tuning to optimize for user engagement and not just downloads."
In a sense, there's a parallel to what we do here on this website, or any media really. Page views are not worth nearly what they once were. It's more about engagement with our audience. "Across the entire internet, anything online has to perform, has to deliver on real impact," Moledina continued. "And for us as a store, bringing delight and wonder and happiness to our consumers, these are key goals for us.
"Classically, everyone has been looking at installs and revenue as the key metrics, but we realized that engagement is as important, if not more so"
"If we're just counting installs we're not digging deep enough to understand that we're truly delivering on our mission here. In terms of future steps, we are doubling down on engagement. We'll likely have something more to say on that by [our] I/O [event]. But the signal we want to send to developers is work on the quality of your game because you're going to get rewarded for it better now."
Another big part of rewarding developers is actually curating top apps and games that deserve to get noticed. This is something that we spoke to about with Greg Canessa recently, and Moledina agrees that there is some onus on the platform holders to curate. Google Play will be highlighting quality games through new editorial pages launching later this month. "These pages allow our editors to hand-select games exemplifying optimal gaming experiences on Android. They allow users to explore different game styles and genres with editorial reviews on themes such as epic RPGs and top racing games," the company said.
"People kind of gravitate towards human curation, the human taste-making," Moledina added. "We can highlight things that are brand-new that data can't necessarily provide signals to. So what we're doing is expanding our editorial footprint to allow our Play editors to hand select the games that are truly standout, beautiful, optimal, meaningful experiences on Android... It's something we're very excited about, because on Play it's very much about balance; it's about having the signals that are provided by human taste-making as well as the signals provided by the data that is proven."
Curation is even more important for a nascent field like virtual reality, where many experiences are simply put into VR for the novelty of it, but that's not often an optimal experience.
"VR has to be right; you cannot have a bad experience in VR because that would make you nauseous, and then you'll rage quit VR as a platform. The Daydream iteration of Google Play is heavily curated; it is almost entirely curated by hand, by our team, and this is a really powerful way to guide not only consumers, but developers to show what is it that we're aiming for in this portfolio.
"One of the things we're working hard to educate everyone about is that VR can be a place for full-length entertainment, not just demos or things that are over in five minutes. Those might be amazing 5 to 15 minute experiences, but we don't want to color the entire consumer base with the impression that VR is purely for these rushes and emotional highs that you just put down after five minutes."
"The Daydream iteration of Google Play is heavily curated; it is almost entirely curated by hand, by our team"
Moledina remarked that curation is also necessary to bring about proper diversity of content on the Play Store. "Innovation is near and dear to our hearts - a lot of great innovative app startups may not necessarily be able to reach their audience; they may not have the resources to do the user acquisition and so it really becomes incumbent upon us as a platform to highlight these moments of quality innovation and shine a spotlight on them so that they can be nourished and have that chance to be self-sustaining. Because otherwise you're there and you're gone if you don't have the support of the platform.
"This is an actual strategic initiative inside Google Play today. To share a little bit of internal jargon, it's catalog diversity. This is an incredibly important part of how the store operates. Having a rich diversity of content, having something for everyone, having something new that is fresh and exciting and gives you either fun or capabilities you didn't have before. All of the great game companies that we love were startups once. We definitely have a responsibility to shine that spotlight on the truly high quality and innovative experiences that come our way."
Another big initiative that Google Play is kicking off is strike-through pricing, which allows developers to run their own price promotions on paid apps and games leading to greater awareness and conversion. Moledina said that during Google's pilot phase, developers saw a 3x to 20x lift in installs during their promotions; beyond that, they also maintained a lift once the sales ended.
"It's about introducing the ability for your sales to have visibility and impact. So developers could already manage the prices of their games but the challenge was the discovery of that sale. Discovery is something we work very hard to improve for developers.
"Many of us are former developers and have been challenged by the minimal information that you get while swiping through a mobile store. We've been playing very close attention to what kind of signals we could provide to consumers in a glimpse, in an instant. That strike-through pricing is largely intended as a way to get better impact for practices already in place.
"Many of us are former developers and have been challenged by the minimal information that you get while swiping through a mobile store"
"We want to make sure that developers are able to see that their content has value... We are very cognisant of that concept of value so we are very careful on how that's perceived, but at the same time developers need to have that freedom to market their business as they see fit and reap the full rewards of the decisions they make."
Strikethrough pricing gives premium developers a way to compete with the free-to-play side as well. "We do recognize that, comparing mobile to PC and console, free-to-play is a strong business model relative to premium, so that's why we're putting additional effort behind premium and having a change to the store that supports premium," Moledina said. "It's important to the store to have that diversity of content. Some people like to pay upfront and not have to worry about the monetization aspect. That is a sizable percentage of our consumers.
"A premium game developer can have his cake and eat it by taking advantage of that zero friction, free-to-download experience. You can say they've just given their game away, but there's this massive marketing benefit because that activity has huge impact when a game has spiked its installs; then algorithmically it gets presented to so many more people and that is when developers see a huge lift even after the promotion ends. It goes back up to the price of whatever it was and there's a wonderful long, fat tail of revenue that comes in off that after having that huge spike in visibility."
Other notable changes Google Play is making is opening up its Firebase toolset - which includes real-time analytics, push notifications, storage, and ads - to C++ and Unity developers. Furthermore, Google is aiming to better build hype for upcoming high-profile mobile games with more pre-registrations. The company announced today that it will be offering Kabam's Transformers: Forged to Fight, Chair Entertainment's Battle Breakers and a mobile version of Injustice 2 from NetherRealm Studios for pre-registration. Then, coming soon, Google Play will be offering pre-registration for VR titles - Virtual Rabbids from Ubisoft and a unique indie title from Spry Fox called Beartopia.
"Google Play has in many cases the lead on installs [over iOS], and we're seeing the revenue come up as well"
"Indies have this ability, like with [Ink Studios'] 1979 Revolution, to put players in the shoes of other people so there's this extraordinary sense of empathy that is amplified by the presence of VR. We have a lot of extraordinary experiences and emotions that come from testing this particular game in prototype," said Moledina. Regarding Ubisoft's Rabbids, he added, "for Daydream we're really glad to be able to bring games that have broad appeal, and high accessibility and high engagement. These are the three main elements that we're looking for in the portfolio."
While some would argue that iOS still has the upper hand in terms of mobile app stores, Google feels that its Play Store has momentum. In 2016, nearly 300 million new (30-day active) users adopted Android devices from emerging markets such as India, Brazil, and Indonesia. Also, the company stressed that, last year, more than 100 million new users were able to access locally relevant forms of payment (such as direct carrier billing or gift cards) which has helped to broaden the reach of apps on Google Play around the world. And while iOS is often cited for having users who spend more on apps or in-apps, Moledina doesn't believe that's a notable trend anymore.
"When I was at Funzio, maybe six years ago, we did see that more of our revenue was coming from iOS than from other sources, but a lot of the issues that I encountered at Funzio I presented to the then head of games business development at Google Play... and they took a lot of that feedback to heart. They took it back to the product team and worked on those things that were causing that result - over time, I think that's become a bit of a zombie meme, because it was true once but we're seeing many of our partners achieving parity between Google Play and iOS.
"Google Play has in many cases the lead on installs, and we're seeing the revenue come up as well. It actually makes more business sense to launch on both platforms at once, especially when you have a pre-existing community. If you don't launch on both at the same time you create this massive outcry of negative feedback from the half of the market that doesn't have your game."
Moledina drove home the point with an example of one of the most popular games of 2016, Pokemon Go. "When a developer is used to iOS we do work hard to give them the resources. They can reach out to us and say 'we're having a little bit of trouble with this,' and we do listen and we can support you with the resources you need. For example, Pokemon Go, even though Niantic was spun out from Google, they were still very much an indie, very much a startup.
"They had limited resources to be able to launch on two platforms simultaneously, so we helped them by providing them some resources to be able to ship."