Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The freemium gaming industry is full of good people. So why are the games so bad?

I worked in freemium games for 4 years, first at Zynga, then at Red Hot Labs.  In my time at Zynga, I made a ton of friends and got to know a lot of people, many of them hardcore gamers just like me.  We had weekly board game nights, we had an internal starcraft tournament, and we would often chat about the newest PC and console games during our lunch breaks.  Even the people who weren’t hardcore gamers were still good people, and I never actually met anyone that fit the greedy fatcat stereotype.

Meanwhile, we were making games that were almost universally reviled in online communities of hardcore gamers, and we caused some nasty addiction related problems for some of the people that played our games.  

The mental conflict between my professional life and the views of just about everything I saw on Reddit and when playing games bothered me for a long time.  My thoughts about the matter didn't really crystallize until long after I’d left Zynga, but I think I now understand why the games we were making wound up so bad - as well as what the developers of future games can do to try to avoid going down the same path.

Some Background

The first thing that gamers need to realize is that freemium social and mobile games are frequently delivered as a “service”.  This really means they’re more like a TV series than a movie, where the initial game sets the tone of the entire series, but the development team delivers new gameplay and features every week.  This means that the game is constantly evolving and changing as new features are added.

Zynga’s primary method of judging the success of these added features (and thus deciding what to add in subsequent weeks) was to look at how player statistics change when they interact with the feature, and to run A/B tests where some players would see slightly different features than others.

At first, there were three key metrics that Zynga judged features on:

1) Retention: how long do people play the game before they get annoyed / tired / bored and leave
2) Virality: how good are players at bringing in other people to play the game.  Measured by how many FB posts the player would make, and how many people would click on those posts.
3) Monetization: how much does the player spend.

In the beginning...

When I first joined Zynga the Fall of 2009, I was put on the Farmville team as a programmer.   At the time, new game features were things like “support arches the player can walk through”, “make it so that the mouse picking on buildings is pixel perfect”, or “lets add a new animal”.  

A feature that moved the three key metrics upwards was a successful feature - and at first they were fairly innocent.  The ability to send gifts to other players was a huge virality hit.  Significantly improving game performance drove up retention and monetization.  Getting rid of an annoying bug in the tutorial segment significantly increased first day retention.  From the perspective of designing a normal game improvement, then judging that improvement, all of these metrics were great at distinguishing a high value improvement from a change the players didn't even notice.
Of course, that means that the people who designed features that moved those metrics a lot gained significant say in future feature designs (and bonuses / raises).  

Over time, features became more and more optimized to drive those key metrics - and disregarded all other considerations. Fun, ethics, long term player retention (which was very difficult to measure), and everything else fell by the wayside.  People still talked about it, of course, but we had improving those key metrics down to a science.  Trying to argue “but this way will be less annoying to the players” when someone can look at the data and say “well the metrics are 10% better with this” just didn't work.

We weren't completely oblivious to this, even as it was happening.  We made a number of efforts to start tracking how much the players were actually enjoying the game, including a big company push to track and optimize “Net Promoter Score” (NPS).  Unfortunately, we still had to keep the money flowing in to support the company, which meant the weekly features to prop up the 3 key metrics still had to keep going out.  I don’t know if Zynga ever managed to actually increase NPS or if they eventually gave up on them, but I do know even targeting metrics like NPS isn't a sure track to a good game - eventually someone will figure out how to easily raise NPS at the cost of other parts of the gaming experience, and it will be downhill from there.

Post Zynga

A lot of developers have left Zynga to other companies, and I’ve seen a lot of other gaming companies that have been heavily influenced by Zynga’s metrics first strategy. From a business and investor viewpoint, that strategy has been tremendously profitable, and so there’s huge pressure to adopt it.  From a hardcore gamer viewpoint, that strategy is a nightmare that’s ruining the mobile gaming market, and bleeding out into other markets.

In most Zynga spinoffs I've heard about, the three key metrics are what are tracked - not any of the harder but potentially better metrics that Zynga tried to adopt later.  

The feature sets we used at Zynga are also spread throughout the entire industry now, often poorly implemented to be even worse experiences than they were originally.  The big hubbub about the new Dragon Keeper game seemed to be largely caused by the energy mechanic and the plant/harvest mechanics being forced into the game, with prices set abusively high.

So what can people do?

I really think its time for developers to start standing up and pointing out the problems with purely metrics driven development.  I’d love to hear other people’s thoughts on problems and solutions, cause I don’t think what I’ve got so far will be enough to convince the investors and entrepreneurs that really need to be convinced for change to happen.

The problems I wish I could go back 3 years and point out would include

1) Features need to be designed for fun, then optimized for metrics.  Designing for metrics leads to gaming the system in order to drive up those metrics, and leads to sacrificing everything else.

2) The common feature set is over optimized to the key metrics - while they may move these metrics positively, they likely move most other metrics negatively.  Many of the features didn't consider player experience at all, and adding them to a game can significantly detract from the appeal of the game.

3) Optimizing for these metrics can be abusive and amoral.  Sure you can get a player to pay $1000 for your game and spend 4 hours a day playing it, but should you?  Whether by accident or design, many of these features exploit psychological tricks that higher risk players are vulnerable to.  This leads to addiction and sacrificing real life needs to pay for the game.

4) Long term retention analysis is too difficult to be practical, and short term retention doesn't really notice when you add straw to the camel’s back.  

5) Support the games that aren't using this strategy.  Flappy Bird was a random success, which I doubt can be replicated easily.  However, it showed quite clearly that the standard freemium features aren't needed for a game to become popular.  Pixel Dungeon is a great game that doesn't bother with any of the freemium mechanics, while Jet Pack Joyride does a great job of maintaining the fun of the game despite having several of the standard feature set.

6) If you work at a place that’s drifting down this path, speak up.  Talk to the analysts and designers about what their features are actually doing to the enjoyability of the game, and point out to them what can happen if people get too addicted.  I succeeded in preventing a real money gambling game from gaining social addiction mechanics just by pointing out how dangerous it was (although that eventually made Red Hot Labs stop making games at all, which meant I was out of a job…)

Going Forward

I’m now getting away from the freemium market altogether to focus on making a fun game (which you can learn more about here).  I fully expect that part of the mobile games market will still be miserable and abusive for years to come, since it’s seen as the easy route to stupidly large amounts of money.  It will probably never go away completely, but I’m hopeful that the modern 3-key-metrics strategy will fall away from the mainstream relatively quickly - as a combination of players getting sick of it, and developers either abandoning or refining the strategy to focus on fun and quality.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Vote for us on Steam Greenlight!

We're live on Steam Greenlight! Please help support us by voting yes. Every vote counts. Also, please share this link with any friends you think might like it as well. We appreciate your support :).

Monday, February 24, 2014

The Ball Keeps Rolling

I realize it has been a little while since our last game development update. This is just a small note, but things are moving along. We are currently working on the school level, which we will be demoing at SXSW. Still a bit rough and a work in progress, but we will definitely finish in time for the show. Agatha is the enemy for this level. I will share some images of her shortly.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Glowstick Games at SXSW 2014

It's official! We will be heading down to Austin to show Dark Deception at SXSW March 7-9. We are planning to expand the demo that we showed at Apps World and setup multiple displays to accommodate the larger crowd. I'm personally looking forward to some Texas heat and BBQ :).

Meeting the gamers is probably the best part of exhibiting at conventions. We tend to feed off of their excitement and energy, similar to a sports team. We had a business woman at Apps World tell us that our energy level was a refreshing change from what she was used to seeing. I'll take that as a compliment :).

This will be our first time attending SXSW. I've heard a lot of good things about it. I'm looking forward to seeing some of the cool new mobile apps at the Interactive Festival. Unfortunately, attending SXSW was a last minute decision and, of course, I found out that pretty much every hotel in the vicinity of downtown Austin is booked. We will have to make a 20 mile commute from our hotel in Round Rock. Not too bad, but would have loved to have been able to walk to the show. I'm hoping to hit up some of the much talked about SXSW parties after the expo hall closes.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Apps World Recap

Apps World North America 2014 is officially over! Overall, the show was a big success for us! The feedback we received was extremely helpful and overwhelmingly positive. We even raffled off a free copy of our game, which was won by Aaron Cripps :). Demoing our game with the Oculus Rift definitely got the better of everyone's curiosity. We had a constant crowd of people around our booth. For a small show, it was much more than I was expecting. We got so caught up in it that I forgot to eat lunch.

Regardless, it was a great show and I'm looking forward to bigger shows in the near future (E3 and PAX Prime). Interacting with other developers and gamers was an awesome experience!

Friday, January 31, 2014

Apps World Press Release


February 2014


Glowstick Games is to exhibit within Apps World North America’s start-up village at the San Francisco show from February 5-6, in a unique opportunity offered by the show’s organisers who are supporting start-ups with complimentary exhibition space designed to encourage innovation and new businesses.

Glowstick Games will be exhibiting in the Indie Game Zone, where they will be showcasing the new cross-platform horror game, Dark Deception. Dark Deception features the voice of Carolyn Seymour (Mass Effect, Gears of War, Star Trek) as Helen Bierce and the game will be demonstrated using the Oculus Rift. Dark Deception is being developed for PC, mobile devices, and consoles (Wii-U, Xbox One).

"Apps World is a great opportunity to demonstrate how our first game works with new VR technology to some of the most influential people in the industry. This will be our first time at Apps World North America and we feel very fortunate to be able to participate and add to the event." - Vince Livings, CEO/Co-Founder of Glowstick Games.

"Apps World is a chance to get the kind of feedback that is essential to creating fun games.  We look forward to having a lot of industry experts play our game and tell us what they like, what they think customers will like, and what could be better." - Mark Henderson, CTO/Co-Founder of Glowstick Games

Ian Johnson, founder of Apps World, said: “Apps World North America is a key event for anyone in the apps and mobile industry but it is also a chance to support and promote the exciting new talent that is coming through the industry too, especially as they will evolve into the market leaders of tomorrow. We are pleased to be able to support the start-ups with dedicated areas at the show and wish them every success at the event.”

Apps World North America, which runs from February 5-6 in San Francisco, will include more than 300 speakers, attracting more than 8,000 attendees.


 For further information contact:

Glowstick Games

Vince Livings

Mark Henderson

Glowstick Games was founded in October 2013 by two game industry veterans : Mark Henderson and Vince Livings. Both have spent the past 9 years working with various companies such as EA, Microsoft, Zynga, Red Hot Labs, and Riot Games. During that time they developed some of the key technology and visual styles used for several successful social and mobile games at Zynga and Red Hot Labs. The focus at Glowstick Games is to be a positive influence on the game industry, not a negative one. That means the core of the company culture is innovative thinking and fun game design. Glowstick Games is not utilizing reactionary data driven design or designing hardcore monetizing games. The mission is, simply, to deliver great games that people will genuinely enjoy playing and want to share.

Apps World North America

Kate Williams
Senior Marketing Manager / +44 (0) 117 973 2353


Apps World

Now in its fifth year, the Apps World event series has grown to be one of the leading global multi-platform events in the mobile industry with annual events held in both San Francisco and London. Read more at,  via the blog Twitter: @apps_world

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Apps World Preparation

Just submitted our sign design for the show! It's going to print 24" x 84". Might do a few concept art prints as well.