Glu’s Tap Sports Baseball ’18: sports in mobile

Glu’s Q2 and Tap Sports Baseball

Last week Glu published it’s Q2FY18 quarterly results. Bookings were up 20% YoY and 15% QoQ at $99.4m, mainly driven by the company’s 3 “growth titles”: Design Home, Covet Fashion and Tap Sports Baseball ’18. Those 3 titles represented 76% of bookings. One line of thought could be that having such a large portion of the company’s bookings depend on a small number of titles is a bad thing – the idea being the more diversified the sources of bookings the less vulnerable the company to potential contingencies in Live Ops and fluctuations in game performance. Of course, in order for that to be a potential problem, you need to be working with a portfolio of titles to begin with – and that´s not always the case for a number of companies with a top grossing title.

In the Q&A period (listen at 36:00 here), Eric Ludwig the COO and CFO of Glu argued that having a high percent of revenue coming from those growth titles is a “healthy metric”. A high percent of revenue coming from growth titles means the company is not so much dependent on a group of declining titles. Rather it’s a sign the company is successful at releasing new titles that generate revenue and help the company grow (while also compensating for the declining performance of older titles). I feel like that line of reasoning does make sense and having those 3 titles account for a high percent of the company’s bookings is not necessarily a problem.

Having 76% of the company’s bookings coming from growth titles is not a problem – the fact that historically those titles haven’t stayed “growth” for long is. I would argue that in Glu’s case, the main problem might not be so much that a high percent of revenue comes from a select group of titles, as much as historically the contributions of those select titles have declined quickly and sharply. It feels like Glu might have churned through those flagship titles quickly in the past – but that trend might be changing with Design Home and Tap Sports Baseball (TSB).

glu_titles_absolute

glu_titles_relative
The above graphs illustrate how historically Glu’s flagship titles have struggled to sustain bookings after launch. I’ve compiled those graphs from Glu’s IR data and SEC filings (some earning presentations were missing from Glu’s IR website). Please note in Q2FY16 Glu switched its operating metric from net revenue to bookings.

Design Home (of which I’m a huge fan – but that’s for another post) has consistently remained Glu’s top performer since the acquisition of Crowdstar. Games in the TSB franchise follow a much more cyclical trend. The first quarter of the year is the weakest (the world series ends in October/November and there is no baseball in the first quarter) and the second quarter of the year is the strongest (baseball season usually starts early April). Both Design Home and TSB games seem to display signs of growth that contrast with previous flagship titles. What’s interesting about TSB is that it had it’s strongest quarter ever in Q2FY18. It was also a key driver for GLU’s growth this quarter. If the game keeps on improving (which is one of Glu’s stated priorities), then it will be very interesting to see what things look like next year at Q2FY19.

QoQ

The strengths of Tap Sport Baseball

The overall economy and the offers TSB puts in front of users are very strong. There is a deep consumable economy, the game leverages the IP and its superstars well, and the integration of video ads is relevant for users. The “forever” gold drop is something I haven’t come across elsewhere (would love to know if the decision to implement this was the result of an AB test), and the “franchise player” feature feels like something that offers deep and sustained monetization over time.

gold_drop_forever.png
TSB’s forever gold drop

Where TSB shines in my opinion is the way it builds upon the baseball IP and provides a genuinely mobile experience. There are other examples out there of games with a good economy that monetize well – I feel there aren’t as many examples of mobile games that leverage a sports IP as well as TSB. Specifically in 2 ways. First TSB has a few interesting features that tie-in the game well with what’s actually going on in the MLB – making it part of an expanded MLB experience for fans. Second TSB adapts baseball to the mobile format very well.

1) Leveraging a sports IP: tie-in with real events in baseball

I’m going to go on a limb and assume that people playing TSB are more likely than the average person to follow baseball. What TSB does really well is find ways to tie-in the game with what’s actually happening in the world of baseball. So, the game is not so much a closed system – in a sense the mobile gaming experience actually becomes part of the wider MLB experience for fans playing the game.

The first interesting feature has to do with in-game boosts that occur when “real” games are actually taking place. In TSB users are prompted to pick their favorite team. When my favorite team is playing an actual MLB game, my team in TSB gets a stat boost. What’s great about this feature is that it provides an incentive to come and play when users are likely to be available. If I’m a baseball fan, and I’m rooting for the Washington Nationals (until they come back to Montreal), then there’s a higher chance I’m available to play TSB when the match is on-going (because I might be watching it). And baseball is probably one of the better sports to multitask to.

push

The second great feature for any baseball fan is the “pick em” feature. Basically, users get to predict the outcome of actual baseball games – which team will win, will a given payer will get an extra base hit, etc. Users choose the outcome for 3 different events (users say if the event will happen or not). After voting the user needs to wait for the games to end. If the user gets all 3 right s/he gets a reward – which in some cases can be relatively valuable. Once the game is over the results section doesn’t only say what the correct answer was, it also provides the specific stats for the game. In the example below not only do you know Harper didn’t get a walk in game 2 – the in-game message specifies he went 0-4. This is a low commitment, low effort, no cost (users don’t need to spend energy or currency to make their predictionsdelighter for fans that allows them to prolong their passion of baseball via the game. It also creates reward and appointments mechanics that are grounded in events in the world of baseball (as opposed to in-game events).

nationals_pick_em

Most users will download TSB because they love baseball and the MLB. The 2 above features are great because they effectively capitalize on users’ passion for baseball. More importantly, they don’t just passively piggy back off a user’s engagement of MLB. These 2 features allow users to extend their experience of MLB through the game. It means the game doesn’t offer a self-contained and isolated experience. Tap Sports sustains an experience that is bigger than the game itself. It almost becomes a gamified companion-app for the baseball fan.

2) Leveraging a sports IP: adapting to the mobile format

I’m probably not the target audience for TSB – I like the idea of the Expos in the Olympic stadium more than I am a fan of baseball. But I feel there is one thing this game does better than other games based on professional sports leagues. If playing a sports game on console is the gaming equivalent of watching an entire game, then playing a sports game on mobile should be the gaming equivalent of watching the highlights. Sports highlights only show the best, action-packed moments. There is no downtime – usually it’s just about the final score and scoring moments. In soccer (or football if you prefer) it will be mainly goals scored, sometimes a great save by the keeper. You’ll never see a throw in – unless it’s as part of a blooper – running up the pitch or passes that don’t lead to a goal. Baseball perhaps lends itself better than other sports to a game that only focuses on punctual highlights. But what’s certain is that TSB adapts baseball to the mobile format very well.

What characterizes the mobile platform (as usual, in my opinion) is that it’s all about immediate gratification. That has gameplay implications – there should be no down time or dull moments – as well as usability implications – it should be easy and intuitive to use. A mobile screen can be tapped or swiped – I feel like if a game has a virtual D-pad it’s thinking more in terms of what the game is rather than how the mobile experience feels. [There are of course successful counter-examples out there, but they are more the exception tan the rule. Also, it’s pretty clear to me at this point that Fortnite has become a cultural phenomenon in its own right – its success is due to much more than just what the mobile experience is]

The gameplay in TSB does a great job at capitalizing on what makes baseball fun to watch and play – and only that. In TSB there are very few functions the user can play – it’s just about batting. Users don’t pitch, run to catch a ball up the wall or throw the ball at first base. Users can choose to steal a base or bunt – but that’s a choice that doesn’t have gameplay implications (and is entertaining to watch). There is no down time in TSB: users don’t have to invest time into creating an action situation. Users just focus on the most fun and iconic part of the game, the only part that racks up points and wins games: bating. Pitching – which could potentially have a fun gameplay – is relegated to the stats/metagame part. From a usability point of view – and as the name indicates – Tap Sports Baseball only uses one tap for the main action phase. One tap means usability is as good as it gets – users don’t have to coordinate between different actions or movements, there is no dexterity required. It’s just about a single tap and the timing of that tapping.

All this is critical because it means TSB only provides users with the gratifying and entertaining parts of the sport. And that to me that’s what a sports game on mobile should focus on: identify the most entertaining aspect of the sport and build the game around that. That’s something TSB does better than others. Not only does TSB adapt baseball to the mobile experience well, it also finds a way to integrate the game into the user’s larger experience of baseball. That’s why I think TSB is a great example for any game based on a sports league with its own schedule and events.

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