Want to Boost User Acquisition? Focus on Player Experience

Insights & Best Practices

March 4, 2016


min read

Don't throw money at user acquisition until you've truly tested your game.It's a simple message, but it's one that could prevent developers blowing their UA budget on a game that no wants to play. That's according to Graham McAllister, the founder of Player Research, a U.K.-based playtesting and research company that's worked with the likes of Sony, Electronic Arts and Mind Candy (the group behind Moshi Monsters).McAllister says when a mobile game fails, it's common for developers to take a reactionary approach, blaming things like a lack of UA spend, poor marketing or even a broken business model. Instead, he suggests that, more often than not, the failure is rooted in something a lot more basic: player experience.[caption id="attachment_16463" align="aligncenter" width="1999"]

Image via Juhan Sonin/Flickr

Image via Juhan Sonin/Flickr[/caption]

The 'Swiss cheese' model

With almost 500 new games hitting the iOS store every day, and around 250 hitting Google Play, it's tempting to spend big on user acquisition to help rise above the noise. But if these players don't enjoy (or even understand) the game, that UA spend is a total waste.?One studio said they had zero players playing their game today," says McAllister. ?Zero. After spending a substantial sum of money on UA."Player Research takes a scientific approach to analyzing such problems, using the same 'Swiss cheese' model as psychologists in the aftermath of major accidents. Put simply, it says that things go wrong due to multiple failures, including latent, hidden problems. When these failures (the holes in the swiss cheese) align, you get a disaster, which could be a plane crash?or in this case, a mobile game flopping.?Most, if not all, of the games we look at where companies say, 'We didn't make enough money,' 'Our review score wasn't high enough' or 'We didn't get enough downloads'?the problem is not their business model," says McAllister. ?Their problem almost certainly is something [around understanding and player experience]. And the problem with these layers is they're invisible."

Fix things early

So how do you identify invisible problems? Ask ? and ask early.Ironing out potential problems before a game gets soft launched (and way before any UA spend) is key, says McAllister, because the cost of fixing mistakes later in development is astronomical. This is why big companies like Destiny creator Bungie show concepts of new characters and items to players really early on, asking them things like, "What kind of gun do you think this is?"

The longer you wait to fix your mistakes, the more it will cost you.

?If they get [the answer] wrong, the developers fix it right away," says McAllister. ?No money's been spent putting it into the game; no money's been spent on 3D models. The longer you wait to fix your mistakes, the more it will cost you."The same goes for the images, icons and description that form a game's presence in the app stores. Often, there's a big discrepancy between the images and the actuality of a game. Some players will immediately bounce elsewhere, and some will download the game and play for less than a minute before deleting it?because trust is broken.?We test [app store pages] long before they go on the store," says McAllister. ?We actually show people?'What do you think the game is?' 'What do you think you do?' 'Why would you play this game?' 'Who would play this game?' If we get it wrong ... if the developers get it wrong ... we do it again."

Show them the good stuff

McAllister explains how Player Research worked with Hutch Games on MMX Racing, watching and talking to players across days and weeks, all before soft launch.?You're interested in retention," says McAllister. ?You're paying for someone to play your game?you need them to get engaged and play long enough to make the money back. The interesting thing is how they feel about your game two weeks in, a month in. It's not about where they leave?it's not analytics?it's about why."The Player Research team found that players doubted the longevity of MMX Racing when they first started out, only seeing its full potential after about day seven. That's because a lot of the good stuff was either held back or not signposted properly early on. Thanks to comprehensive testing, the developers could rectify those problems before soft launch.[caption id="attachment_16464" align="aligncenter" width="1280"]

Image via Google Play

Image via Google Play[/caption]And post-launch, three major updates led to a massive 52 percent increase in the lifetime value of MMX Racing players. Hutch Games added more content, rebalanced the in-game economy and redesigned the tutorial. The one update that made the most money? Reworking the tutorial to better demonstrate the game to new players.

A tip from the top

McAllister points out that Supercell, the studio behind the chart-dominating Clash of Clans, doesn't spend any money on UA until exactly the right time. When's that? Well, it's after the studio knows that a game is engaging and that players are going to be retained.?If you're going to put money into UA, you really need to make sure these lower layers [understanding and player experience] are very, very polished," says McAllister. ?Otherwise the money you pour in is not going to be as effective as it could be, and in some cases you're going to lose it all?every single last drop?because enough players will bounce off these lower layers."