Finding your North Star

In order for your game to perform well, you need strong KPIs: LTV, Retention, Conversion, Redeposit (that KPI if too often overlooked). But when you are managing a game, “increasing conversion” is rarely an actionable solution to a real problem – it’s an uninspired and not very helpful diagnostic (at best). Increasing conversion or engagement is the output you are looking for. The main challenge is finding the particular game feature that will positively impact those KPIs. That’s why when comes time to manage your game and actually decide a course of action, you need an additional set of metrics.

There is a level of thinking at which “increase conversion” definitely has its place: at the strategic level. Say you are considering a 4x game – where retention is bound to be low and those users who do pay have a high arppu. In that case, if your goal is to increase revenues it can make a lot of sense to focus on conversion rather than retention (which is a lost cause), or arppu (which is healthy). If you are managing a portfolio or a team and your objective is increasing revenue, increasing conversion will be a valid key result for you. But when you are at the game level, and you need to implement something to effect that change, “increase conversion” won’t really help you determine the next steps. At the game level, “increase conversion” is the Objective guiding your design. The main challenge is finding what you actually need to implement in your game to increase conversion. And that’s always a very specific feature, not a generic metric.

A North Star is a metric. But it’s crucial to keep in mind that your “North Star” metric is game specific. It’s tied to a gameplay event that only makes sense in the context of your game. Metrics such as DAU, Conversion, time played, sessions per day, retention, etc. are game agnostic. By that I mean the same metrics apply the same way to any game. And I cannot stress enough how valuable such metrics are. But the problem with those kinds of metrics is they do not speak to the specificities of your game. That means it’s hard to find out what feature really matters in your game, and what you should be looking at to assess whether or not you are on track and achieving what you had set out to do. Those game-agnostic metrics cannot help you determine what you should aim for, or what kind of specific gameplay behavior you should try to encourage (or discourage).

OKRs are a good way to approach this topic. Objective refer to outcomes. Key Results are what you will rely on to guide your course of action and to track your progress towards those outcomes. The North Star is your way to specify what the relevant in-game action is. A North Star will be the gameplay metric you can turn to to ensure you are on track to achieve your high-level goal. It’s a way to tie your high-level metrics with some very specific gameplay elements. The idea of a North Star is that it is a good reflection of success. It doesn’t cause success, but it rather serves as the indicator that you are successful. It’s the thread that ties your unique game features to your higher-level product strategy.

In an OKR framework, Objectives and Key Results cascade down each level of management. A manager’s Key Results become an Objective down the next level of management. The higher-level Key Result becomes the Objective for the group implementing. The same applies here. That’s why as a manager, the best way you can help the design team is by clearly identifying what the goals of a given feature are. Defining a North Star is your way to identify the in-game lever the design team will have to play with to achieve the desired outcome. This is why having a North Star is crucial.

Say you want to increase the monetization in your game by relying more heavily on events that have a weekly cadence. Then “average number of event missions per weekly unique user” can be a relevant North Star that can guide your design process and help you measure progress against your Objectives. If your game is a shooter, “average headshots per DAU” can be a relevant North Star for you if you want to track something performance based. The idea here is that you should have some metric that reflects patterns and situations that are relevant and meaningful from the perspective of your game system and at the level of basic gameplay.

In its recent quarterly earnings Zynga  has emphasized some very interesting game specific metrics. It’s a great way to link specific in-game activities to higher-level strategic objectives. Looking at communication around Words with Friends in the last 2 earnings call is interesting in that respect. In its attempt to increase overall player engagement and monetization with the game, Zynga has focused on identifying the activities and features associated positively with daily engagement. (listen to the segment starting at 32:35 in the earnings call)

In its Q3 FY18 earnings call, Zynga argued the increase in mobile revenue in Words with Friends was the result of an “increase in average moves per DAU”. Keep in mind Words with Friends is mostly ads driven: interstitials are shown after (almost) every move. So, in this context “average interstitials per DAU” and “average moves per DAU” might be equally reflective of the same pattern. But in this case, the first one is reflective of the outcome, while the other one refers to the in-game mechanisms and user experience that helps us achieve that. By being defined in terms of in-game events, your North Star helps you anchor your high-level business objectives in your core game loop and the motivations that drive players to engage with your game.

Looking for your “North Star” also forces you to reflect on what your game is all about. Defining your North Star is a way to reflect on what characterizes your game: on what makes it unique, what drives people to install and play it, and what best characterizes it as a gameplay experience. It forces you to focus (and track) those key moments of gameplay that are the most gratifying and what makes playing your game a great experience. Think about merging a bunch of items in Merge Dragons!, doing a “Finish Him” in Mortal Kombat, or unleashing a kill streak in Call of Duty.

If you were to track “perfect start per DAU” (in the case of a drag racing game), “day 7 character upgrades per install” (in the case of a drag racing game), “taps per gameplay minute” (in the case of an idle game), then you can get a sense of how your new features and changes are impacting key aspects of the your users’ experience of the game. In that case you are not only tracking the business performance of your game. You are measuring key aspects of your user experience, and how this micro-level experience correlates to your title’s larger success.

That’s why correctly identifying the North Star that really matters is crucial. Basically, once you’ve set out to measure something, anything, you will have a number to track. But being able to measure something doesn’t mean you are tracking something relevant. The whole trick (and art) resides in identifying what will in fact matter, what in-game action or behavior pattern will lead to the desired outcome. Once you’ve found your North Star, everything else becomes easier.

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