Cardfight Coalition

[The Other Side] – Why all Games are Starting to Feel the Same

Hey everyone,

It’s been a while since I posted to my blog, “The Other Side”.

For those of you with no idea what that was, I used to keep a blog focused on how business and game design overlap, containing some of my insights on how to approach things in the industry. To take a step further back and explain who I am, I used to work on the Yu-Gi-Oh! TCG.

Working as a Product Manager at Konami Europe for nearly 10 years, I worked on a lot of products, my favourite being the Speed Duel lines and, specifically, the Battle City Box. I have since moved on to digital games (PC and Mobile), but I do enjoy writing about the games industry. Ultimately, I wanted to start writing again.

To answer the question of why I stopped, I had trouble sharing the link to my blog via Facebook and it made it difficult for me to get it out there for people to find, which impacted my motivation to write. The kind folks at the YGOrganization have allowed me to move my blog over to their website. For them, they get exclusive unique content and, for me, I get an established platform to share some articles. Overall, it’s a win-win.

However, there is a catch. I won’t be talking about the Yu-Gi-Oh! TCG in my articles besides some passing mentions. Ultimately, anything I worked on with KDE is still protected by NDAs. As the YGOrganization is a news resource, there’s a bit of a conflict of interest, and, as a result, I won’t be talking about Yu-Gi-Oh!.

Over the coming weeks, I’ll repost my older articles here, along with posting my new articles. My hope is that the stuff I post helps some of you realize a career in the games industry, if that’s what you want, or it’s at least an interesting read for you.

With the intro out of the way, for my first topic, I want to look into why all games feel the same these days. That’s not to say innovation doesn’t still happen, but if you’re scrolling through a mobile app store or your Steam Discovery queue, you may find that everything starts to look simmilar.

Personalized stores and ads are no new thing; after a platform gets an understanding of what you like, it makes sense to push those things in front of you to get you to convert (the term used for getting you to go from a free user to a spending customer). How these platforms build your profile is both fascinating and also, on a deeper level, really disturbing.

When we build games as a live service, it’s important to know that when you use that service, someone like me is sitting on the back end with data scientists analyzing your data, adjusting our game to make you more likely to stick around or convert. Now, while services such as Apple have made it much harder for users and data to be shared, we still have access to a ton of data from everything you do in game. Some examples of what we look at:

First play session length
Number of logins per day
What features did you interact with
How much you spent
What you bought
What you were doing before you made the purchase
What time did you make that purchase
Where did you change your mind and cancel out of that purchase
Player data, such as level
Did you use any social features
How many days did you come back
Did you complete the FTUE (First Time User Experience)
What device are you playing on

I could go on, but the answer is anything you can do in game, I can see (sorry random guy getting a “private” dance from a night elf in Stormwind…).

We take this data and can actually use it to create tailored experiences for you as an individual. I can also use this data to manipulate the in game store to make you more likely to convert at the right price point. I can, for example, look at the device you are playing on. If I see that you have the latest iPhone, I can assume that you are more affluent or more likely to make luxury purchases. As such those bundles that you see in the store will be tilted to show you more expensive options, rather than cheaper bundles that I would show to someone playing on a lower end device.

I can change up the push notifications you see to pop up before your usual log in times, I can give random bonuses to you when I feel that you’re getting stuck at a choke point and won’t convert. From a ‘games as a service’ perspective, this gives me so much control over exactly how my product is being experienced.

If you think about a traditional TCG, say you go into a store and buy 3 booster packs of the latest Pokémon set, then go home and never play in a tournament. From my perspective, you are invisible to my data and it’s a lot harder for me to learn about you. I remember the first time I had access to deep player data and I remember saying to one of my colleagues, “with this kind of data, it’s almost impossible to fail”. I was a little naive at the time because, of course, you can have data and make bad decisions. The difference between how I could strategize a road map and product releases was like going from the dark ages to having the internet overnight.

There is a problem with all of this data though. One of my favorite quotes about it came from a Riot Games Gameplay Director on Team Fight Tactics (TFT) Stephen ‘Mortdog’ Mortimer. To paraphrase what he said; data will only tell what is, not what’s good. In this context, he was referring to how if they used player data to make balancing decisions over one of the units in TFT. The unit was underperforming significantly and Riot would have buffed it. As it so happened while this was being discussed, Chinese players had figured out how to make this unit one of the most ridiculous in the set that ultimately ended up getting nerfed. His point of view is 100% correct and can be extrapolated way beyond a single game. Data can only show you what people are doing, are not doing or what’s popular. It doesn’t mean that the raw numbers on their own are, in fact, correct; you have to use them as a guide to make correct decisions, not as the sole indicator of them.

To loop this back to the beginning, with all this kind of data on players you can start to see why games are all starting to go the same way. We can test and test different creatives for the stores (icons, screen shots, game text) and keep iterating on what appears to be working to get users to install our games. Over time, the data keeps pulling everyone in the same direction, so games start to feel all the same. For you as a developer, I want you to walk away from this understanding that 1 – data is incredibly powerful, and 2 – what the data isn’t saying is sometimes way more important.

The best way to think about what data you choose to share with people should be along the lines of: How uncomfortable would I be if my search history was shown on the Jumbotron at a sportsball game. If you would blush at that, maybe pass on that “Private Dance” the next time you’re saving Azeroth from the villain of the week.

To wrap this one up, I wanted to let you know that I’ve started a mailing list. My goal is to share the things I’m working on, what articles are in the pipeline, and even offer some beta keys for projects I’m involved with in the future. Over time, I would like to create things more relevant for you guys, and it would be good to hear from you.

Cheers!

Matt Bell

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