3 Things I Learned From Developing Mobile Games
The first software product I built was a game.
The game was a word puzzler called W.E.L.D.E.R. The game did pretty well – it has twice received the top feature placement in the iOS App Store, and as a (mostly) paid download game (until 2018, when we made it free to download) it was downloaded over a million times. It plays as a grid of letters that you can swap with each other to form words. When words form, new letters drop in. A key distinction of the game was you never had to “submit” a potential word, the game dynamically “extracted” the words whenever it found one on the board.
Over the last decade of building software products, I have regularly appreciated the value of starting my product career building games. The obvious connection people like to draw is that building games makes you better at adding gamification to non-gaming products. And while that may be true, this article is not about gamification (there are plenty of those).
Games serve little functional use in your life. They are not going to add two numbers together, or track your bike rides, or check your email. Games are a form of content, like a series you stream or a classic movie. But where most content aggregating apps act as a discovery layer between the user and said content, a game app is the content, and the discovery layer is the App Store or some equivalent distribution layer. Content naturally depends on deep and ongoing user engagement, which is the critical part of the experience you are building when making a game.
So with all that said, here are my 3 takeaways from building mobile games:
When developing mobile games, always create an immersive experience
Games are all about capturing a player’s attention and keeping them engaged for a long period of time. The best games tell a story through an immersive experience. Ideally, that story creates an emotional connection with its user. I like to think of every game as having its own brand. That brand has its own language, its own look and feel, and its own story that resonates with its players. The core product — the gameplay itself — needs to be addicting, but the “brand” language the game creates is critical for deepening that engagement. When making games, you need to overly invest in these details, and you need to be thoughtful and intentional about the decisions around the brand language. The same is true when building non-gaming products. The more consistently you can tell a story through your messaging, look and feel, and branded elements, the deeper the connection you can make with your users.
W.E.L.D.E.R. started off as a simple black and white prototype with no artwork. As we tuned the gameplay and game features to be fun and addicting, we gradually started creating a story around it. We came up with our own language that was a little different than what other word games used, that could help further define the game’s brand. As we approached naming the game, we quickly discovered that every word game name in the world was taken, and most ideas we had were not very original. We came up with a ridiculous acronym, W.E.L.D.E.R., which stands for Word Examination Laboratory for Dynamic Extraction and Reassessment. Ridiculous, right? But no one could ever copy that. The name was very much in character for the game. We also used an innovative game trailer to extend the story of the game further. Creating a distinctive brand in the word game landscape helped the game stand out to new players as something different. It also kept players deeply immersed in the game once they became hooked. Brand is an investment. It is something your team is always defining and adding to. In our case, we build that brand so deeply into the product, once you were hooked on it, you couldn’t tear yourself away.
Build reusable systems
Games have dozens of systems working together as one. Any game has a myriad of systems to drive the core gameplay, a layer of systems to interact with the game, and a meta layer of systems above it. In the case of W.E.L.D.E.R., we had game systems to handle board creation, word detection, scoring, and user interactions, dialog systems to show the user messages during the game, and the meta layer kept your high scores and best words, or awarded you in-game rewards for your progress. The more reusable the systems were, the more flexibility we had to create new levels with new challenges based on mostly existing parts. The systems were critical tools for us as game designers to architect unique and challenging experiences. These tools were not principley different than the systems any product owner manages as they build and operate their product, but I have found that design and abstraction of these systems is absolutely critical in games. They can end up being quite complex, more complex than many of the non-game systems I have encountered. When you are forced to think of your product in terms of systems, you can communicate and collaborate with engineers more effectively, and you can be both creative and realistic about coming up with new features for your product. Given we are always iterating on the brand, this becomes even more important.
Your biggest competitor is free content
When developing mobile games, many businesses have had to contend with the reality of free content since the mobile app boom. Entrenched products in fitness, health, media, and education have all had to face heavy competition from apps offering some kernel of their core paid product for free. But with many non-gaming products, as a product manager you can work to build a moat around your product. Users can become highly dependent on your product, driving up switching costs. But the landscape is different with games. The App Store has created an economic environment where there is a glut of gaming content that costs zero dollars. And with no functional utility to users (like non-gaming apps have), game producers have to employ a different set of tactics to build that moat.
Game developers have to focus a significant amount of time on interactive tutorials. In some games we spent over 25% of the budget just on the tutorial. All product managers invest heavily in the first time user experience to their product, but with games we get to take it to an extreme. With W.E.L.D.E.R. we also invested heavily in deepening an existing player’s experience. More levels, more game modes, a meta-game, and social features were all designed to keep engaged users engaged for longer. These features were rolled out over several years, but they have resulted in the core user based churning at a rate of only 5% per year. Once you get a new player hooked through a highly tuned interactive tutorial, you have to double down on what is working to engage those core users.
A crash course in gaming is a great experience for any new product manager. You are by nature forced to invest heavily in the retention and engagement aspect of your product, since your product has no real utility. Real growth only comes from this investment, which can sometimes be overlooked. The unique nature of games puts a microscope over critical areas of product development, and succeeding in these regards with games can give you a great toolset with your product work moving forward. Oh, and yes, you will know how to gamify a signup funnel!