Guidelines to navigate your soft launch (especially when data is not helping)

Not all games need a business case to decide to launch worldwide. Some games are meant to tie into a movie release. In that case the main product is the movie, the game is just an addition. And the movie studios (who maybe even paid for part of the development costs) are not postponing the release date of the movie to accommodate the game. In that case, the game launches no matter what at the determined date. In other cases, the mobile game will be part of a wider marketing campaign. Its primary function is not to be profitable – the game’s purpose is to raise awareness of another product, like a TV show or a sporting event. But in most cases the raison d’être of a mobile game is to be profitable. In those cases, the soft launch period is crucial. And there are 4 main goals to every soft launch process of that type.

  1. Leverage user data to assess the viability of the title
  2. Leverage user data to optimize LTV for WW
  3. Continue developing features and finish the game
  4. Optimize UA performance

I’m going to focus on the first one today.

If your game is the companion app to the latest hit kids’ show, then it’s released worldwide no matter what. If the point of your game is to be profitable, then there is a very real possibility your game doesn’t launch. And that’s the main reason why you have a soft launch period: to assess the viability of the title.

I think technically the real decision is not about the game, but about the team working on the game. The real question is not “do I release the game or not”. Rather, it’s “does the team keep working on the game or not” (and/or “is there something with more potential the team could be working on”). That’s maybe why decisions to kill a game can be sometimes even harder. Because you can’t just consider the game’s and its performance in a vacuum.

Another point – probably the biggest – that adds to the difficulty to greenlight or redlight a title has to do with the uncertainty that accompanies the data. There are some cases where things are straightforward, and you don’t need to dig into the data very much. If your game is a megahit or an unredeemable failure, then things are very straightforward. If you have $5.00 d30 LTV in Australia on a mid-core game, then it’s pretty clear where you stand. The same is true if you have $0.05 d30 LTV in Australia in that same genre (but in that case you’re not standing in the same place). Most of the times your game performance could be good enough to be profitable (not stellar, but not terrible), but the uncertainty that accompanies the metrics you are looking at could make things swing either way. By swing either way, I mean either the metrics are good enough and you go worldwide and are profitable, or the metrics aren’t good enough and you have to kill the game. In those situations, it’s difficult to decide, and you can’t escape the need to make a judgment call.

Obviously, everybody aspires to the safe bet. But if you only wait for the sure thing to commit to launching a game, then you are missing out on a world of opportunities. There is still a lot of room to run a profitable game below the threshold of a top grossing game. More importantly, if you are not able to take the calculated bets on the games that can make the cut, you are missing out on the opportunity to optimize, improve and grow a game to high levels of success. Some games have been in the top grossing since the moment they world launched.

fortnite

But not all titles in the top grossing make it there from the start. Other titles have grown into a position of success gradually after launching worldwide.

emandpwordscapes

 

So, the soft launch process shouldn’t be looking only for the sure thing (sure hit or sure failure). You need to navigate uncertainty to make the best decision with partial and uncertain knowledge.

There are a few main factors that contribute to messy soft launch data. For example, not picking the right countries or the right metrics. But those problems can be avoided easily. You want to look at countries that are representative of some pattern you are interested in: engagement or monetization. Specifically, if you soft launch in a tier 2 or 3 country, it will be very difficult to get a good reading on what your monetization will look like. As far as looking at the right metric, you want to be looking as much as possible at “binary metrics”. Binary metrics are usually the metrics you can read with the greatest reliability. Examples of those metrics are retention (did the user come back or not), conversion (did the user do an IAP or not), redeposit (did the user make 2 or more IAP purchases or not) or even gameplay engagement and progression (did the user reach region 2 or not). Metrics such as LTV on the other hand are a different beast. I cannot refer enough the blog of my great friend Gavin Steininger.

Of course, any metric can be assessed with a high level of confidence provided you are looking at a large enough pool of users. And getting large volumes of users can be challenging (and/or expensive depending on the country). That’s where UA and its impact on the soft launch process come into play.

If your users in soft launch are mostly coming from marketing, then you run the risk of measuring your marketing performance rather than your game’s performance. Having an erratic UA performance can greatly distort game metrics. That’s because you are measuring the performance of your game on a given audience. If your audience is composed at 80 or 90% of paid users, then you are measuring your marketing performance at least as much as you are measuring your game.

Some soft launch strategies involve looking at organic users rather than paid users. That can be beneficial to the soft launch strategy because it removes any potential issues deriving from UA performance. You can try to grow your soft launch user base by purchasing incentivized users to go up the top download ranks in the hopes it drives organic users (in that case, you don’t look at the metric of your incentivized users). But changes to the app stores might mean that’s not as effective a strategy now as it was 2-3 years ago.

So, what do you do when data cannot tell you without the shadow of a doubt your game is good to go, or it should be cancelled? This is where Descartes’ provisional moral code can be of guidance.

Specifically, Descartes’ second maxim guides the subject in search of truth when there is no certainty. He writes his second maxim enjoins him

to be as firm and decisive in my actions as I could, and to follow even the most doubtful opinions, once I had adopted them, with no less constancy than if they had been quite certain

Rephrased with less panache, this means that when in doubt, you have to stick to your initial intention and move forward. If there is uncertain data, then that means there is no data validating your initial intuition. But it also means there isn’t any data invalidating it. So, there is no reason to deviate from your initial course of action – provided you believed in it in the first place and had a vision.

Does this mean you need to ignore data, just cherry-pick the data that suits you, or bypass the soft-launch process altogether? Of course not. But it does mean if despite all your best efforts you can’t get a clear reading on your game and its potential, the absence of confirmation shouldn’t be taken as a disavowal.

It’s hard enough to make any game. It’s almost impossible to take an average game – where the data is too fuzzy to indubitably tell whether or not you have a business case – and make something out of it if you don’t have convictions and don’t trust yourself and your vision. Ultimately, making games is not conducting a chemistry experiment. There are no universal laws of success, or no recipe you can follow and expect to generate the same results. There are even less features totally reproducible. What worked 4 years ago probably won’t work the same way today. Making games is making an entertainment product. I’ll be the first one to say there are some key elements and some key dynamics at play regardless of the game. There are some best practices you need to follow. But each successful game probably also requires a unique spark that cannot be quantified.

If your game is a super hit, it will be clearly reflected in the data – same thing if it’s a super dud. But there is a large grey area in the middle where you might not walk away with any clear reading of the data. The safe bet is to not move forward unless you have the guarantee the game will be a success. But that is closing the door on a world of opportunities. And from an organizational point of view you probably want to have an alternative you believe in if you close that door.

It’s easy to move ahead with a game when you know it’s a hit or kill it when you know it’s not working. The unclear data is the moment of truth when you need to be testing your gamemaker’s mettle. Do you still believe in your game and your vision despite not having any confirmation in data? If data is fuzzy and you have no beliefs, then it’s probably better to move on to something else. If you believe in the game you are making, you have a vision and have a reason for the game and the features you are putting together, then you have to push forward. That’s what Descartes would do.

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