The Leap from Product to Service
The past seven years of my 20+ year career in game development has been about learning all I can about building successful online game services. During the last three years as an independent consultant, I have worked with clients around the world to help experienced game development and publishing teams transition from a “product development” mindset to a “service operations” one.
Usually, the executives in charge passionately want to pivot to and take advantage of a free-to-play business model. The teams themselves are mostly experienced, established product development teams. Typically, they had some disappointing results trying to make this transition on their own, and had reached a point where everyone was at a loss as to what to do next. So they came to me.
An Observation from this Diverse Experience:
Product development experience does not generally prepare a team for success in delivering and operating a game service.
This is especially true of teams operating in the PC casual download or early in mobile premium game markets, where post-launch involvement was rarely expected or even desired. Successfully developing and operating a game service business is as different from a game product development business as being a great nature photographer is different from filming a blockbuster action movie, or as writing a compelling historic fiction novel is different from writing a serialized cable television drama.
Think About That. Deeply. For a Good, Long While.
Once that really sinks in, dramatically re-tooling your own skill-set and your team’s entire operational process to compete in this exciting marketplace becomes more straightforward. Not easy, but at least the confusion you may feel while trying to fit the “square peg” of a product-centric development team into the “round hole” of service-centric game operations falls away and allows you to concentrate on good solutions.
The Promised 10 Tips:
While there are certainly a thousand other details, below are 10 big things you should consider as you embark on this journey:
- Two years will pass before you “feel” successful – When you launch your game, you have only reached the bottom of the mountain. You will not, and should not, feel successful yet. It will take time to get players into your game, learn to make it “sticky” enough, figure out how to deliver multiple parallel workflows, work out scalability issues, establish solid channel relationships, find partnerships to increase growth, tune social interactions, identify key segments, develop a process for reliably capitalizing on profitable sources for user acquisition, develop data analysis skills, tune cross-promotional tools, and generally feel like you have a daily routine that delivers the upward curve of sustained audience and revenue growth that defines “success” for a game service.
- Play games, every day – Create a FB account. Play the top 50 games there, and on iOS and Android, too. Find 10 lesser-known free-to-play games and play the snot out of them too. Play game services every day, and make sure everyone on your team does the same thing. Why? Because this market changes fast. Best practices and expected user experiences are constantly evolving as the result of rapid iteration, experimentation, changing platform policies, and just player evolution. By staying abreast of what is hot right now, you can make sure your services stay at least competitive, and give you a foundation to innovate and delight your (and your competitor’s) players. As soon as you (or your team) stop playing games every day, your game starts to fall behind the curve.
- Learn all about “agile” development – There are so many misconceptions about Agile. If you have not researched it yourself, you probably misunderstand the process and its purpose. “Agile” development is not a technological technique. It’s a toolkit for gathering data, generating and tracking ideas, establishing goals, making decisions, managing priorities, creating accountability, habitualizing communication, predicting outcomes, and improving entire organization’s capabilities and overall engagement. Agile is a natural fit for the kind of multi-layered, iterative development necessary for positive game service evolution. It may not be impossible to effectively manage the complicated service evolution of a live game service without effectively implementing Agile methodologies – but I have never encountered a successful game service provider who didn’t. Check out the Scrumm Field Guide. It is a good starting point, especially for Producers and Project Managers with little practical experience with Agile methodologies.
- Learn all about direct marketing – A trusted colleague once told me – “If you are in the ‘Social Games’ business, you are in the ‘Direct Marketing’ business.” I did not want to look uninformed – so I nodded and agreed wholeheartedly. Then I immediately went and googled “Direct Marketing.” Direct Marketing typically refers to direct mail marketing, but I kept digging because I figured I was missing something. After making my way through the first several chapters of Commonsense Direct and Digital Marketing, it dawned on me that the ideal for “Direct Marketing” is about speaking to each individual customer with the right offer, and the right product, the right way, at the right time. For further reading, Strategic Database Marketing is a good reference for learning to use consumer demographic and behavioral data as a tool for accomplishing this. Your game service and the people and tools surrounding it are mechanisms for presenting offers about a variety of products in a variety of ways. Learning to do this effectively for each of your customers is a critical skillset. Remember – the difference between spam and a valuable offer is context and utility.
- Design and build a data warehouse, and learn SQL – Designing a data warehouse forces a thought process around what data should be collected, how to get that data, and how you can organize it in a scalable, extensible way. Even moderately successful games can generate a great deal of data, and no matter how future-looking you are, you will not be able to predict everything you might want to know. After all, the data that is critical at the start of your service lifecycle will be different than data that will be critical later in the lifecycle. SQL skills will give you the tools you need to get your hands dirty and dig in the data. Feel free get some really good technical help assist you in doing this right, but beware of “packaged” services like Kontagent, Game Analytics, Swrve, Honeytracks, Flurry, and others. These are fantastic tools – but until you’ve thought through and answered the questions you need to in order to design, dig, and analyze your own data, you are unlikely to understand where these tools fit productively (and profitably) within the context of your service development and product management processes.
- Launch on the “closed” networks first – Facebook is an “open” platform. Anyone can launch there. You are (mostly) on your own to pursue an effective UA strategy, and use social integration points and other tools in effective ways. There are tons of documentation, best practices, and consultants to help you succeed on an open platform – but – these are all skills that take time and effort to develop. “Closed” networks, like Big Fish Games or Odnoklassniki, have a vested interest in the success of your game: they curate their own catalog, and they manage many of these “outside the game” functions for you. You can reach a real, qualified player-base and focus optimizing features, in-game messaging, and your update pipeline. You can generate actionable data and significant revenue while you build the skill-set your organization needs to compete effectively in the larger but more effort-intensive “open” networks.
- Develop and maintain a true customer-first mentality in yourself and your team – Forget what you think you know about gamers and gameplay. Unlearn any preconception about player preferences you have absorbed over the years. Eschew rules of thumb, best practices, or generalizations others have told you about what free-to-play gamers like or don’t like. Clear your mind. Once you launch, what matters is what your players are telling you about the game. What they say, what they do, and the behavior they exhibit while playing is far more accurate an indication of what they want than any book or lecture from an expert. Cultivate a deep desire to make the best possible experience for each player and an honest curiosity for what would surprise and delight them. When this mindset becomes reflexive, removed of ego and preconceptions, you will use community communication and data analysis to optimize your service for the benefit of your players.
- Make data-informed, agile, rapid-iteration service evolution a religion – When you bring your game live (we used to say “launch” it), you begin the process of building a successful service business around that game. To capitalize on that business, speed matters more than efficiency. Every moment you are not updating your service is a missed opportunity to either grow or learn. Optimize your software development and deployment processes around rapid iterations, daily service updates, and widespread service data availability to inform both the direction and effectiveness of your development efforts. Many teams turn to Agile methodologies for a process framework designed for this environment, and it works well. But beware: Agile only works if it’s implemented end-to-end. Do it all the way, or don’t do it at all.
- Focus on retention first, then virality, then monetization – This concept was presented a number of times at Casual Connect by Jens Begemann from Wooga, and then later by one of his Product Leads, Stephanie Kaiser. It seems self-evident, but I’m often confronted with Product Leads that want to do this in a different order. Don’t do it. Build in the foundation for monetization (a stable, scalable, value-driven economy) from the start, but concentrate on retention and engagement first. If players do not like your game and stop playing, then virality and monetization are moot. If players like your game and play it, they will want mechanisms to engage their friends. Virality and social promotion decrease your effective cost of acquisition and optimize the cost side of your ROI equation. When your game has high player retention and good social promotion mechanisms, only then look to optimize monetization. Focusing attention on monetization too early is ineffective and can severely damage the fragile ecosystem of a new free-to-play game.
- Make two key hires – You will need 1) a great Product Manager who loves “live ops” and 2) a great Community Director who really enjoys building, managing, and marketing to online communities. Since most of the success of your game service depends upon the ability to make the right decisions AFTER release, your “live” Product Manager will have a tremendous amount of influence on ongoing service performance. Not surprisingly, proven free-to-play Product Managers are the rarest resource in the game industry right now. A Community Director is sometimes referred to as “Community Manager”. This is not customer service, though CS sometimes reports to a good Community Director. Your Community Director is primarily responsible for maximizing player engagement within the community of players, even when they are not actively playing the game. The Community Directory is responsible for all outbound “positive” messaging to your players such as: page posts, forums, chat moderation, community event planning and execution, email promotions for engagement or resurrection, and many other positive activities that improve community engagement and awareness. The Product Manager is the brain behind the game service. The Community Manager is its eyes, ears, and mouth and should be directly involved in the evolution of the game and, particularly, the design, messaging, and content at all the places where the game itself drives value into the community or extracts value from it.
As I said above, there are a thousand details to get right when running a global, or even regional game service. The tips above are intended for guidance, and also as an illustration of the depth of commitment required to make this transition successfully. To counterbalance the hard work, investment, and commitment are the tremendous rewards for successfully operating game services, not just in financial terms, but also in the satisfaction of a direct and meaningful connection to your players. Good luck!!