Mark is a seventeen-year-old guy; he gets up every morning in a hurry to get to school. He eats breakfast standing, drinking a quick coffee, then he grabs his backpack, house keys, and smartphone and runs to catch the bus.
When the bus arrives, Mark is one of the first to get on, and he always tries to find a place at the back, away from the doors and from the morning’s noise. There, among the people close to him, he does what all teenagers of this world do in the morning: check messages on WhatsApp, read a few posts on Facebook, put two or three stars on tweets of the girl that he likes, check out friends' photos on Instagram, and quickly scroll through some Tumblr posts.
Mark is absent-mindedly going through his morning routine, when suddenly he gets a Facebook notification on his smartphone: Lucas has defeated the Fanged Megabunny that threatened the city of Grayport.
Without thinking twice, Mark taps on the notification and immediately starts to play Dungeons and Rabbits with his friend Lucas.
How Social Games Work
Here we have seen the functioning of virality in a social game—a game based on the possibility of interaction between players through social networks.
These social games have a very particular structure and they are relatively new, so I will explain briefly key definitions relating to this type of game.
Retention indicates how many players remain attached to the title over a certain period of time. It usually indicates how much the game is liked, and how much success it is having.
Monetization indicates how many players spend money in the game.
Virality is the ability of the game to spread and to attract other players, using social network-based mechanics such as invitations or requests for help.
Virality is perhaps the most overlooked of these three elements, but I consider it the most important—even if some people dismiss it as a type of spam, something unethical to avoid. Let’s find out why it is the key to success for a social game.
What is Paid User Acquisition?
Usually, to attract the attention of players for a "traditional" title (such as a boxed console game), we use advertising, on TV, in magazines, or elsewhere.
With social games, we can use a similar system, buying ad space on social networks. This is called "paid user acquisition", because you are essentially attempting to buy users. Each social network has different tariffs depending on the target chosen; age, interests, gender, and nationality determine an estimated cost to advertise.
To give you an example: in order to bring a new American player to your game on Facebook, you have to spend about $2.00. To bring a new Indonesian player to your game, you'll spend, instead, about $0.20.
Why the difference in price? The cost is estimated based on the probability of monetization. An American player is, on average, more likely to spend money in your game than an Indonesian player. And therefore it costs more to target the American market, because there are a lot of companies that will try to acquire these users, so you will have to outbid them.
Why You Should Avoid Paid User Acquisition Via Social Ads
If you do a few calculations, you'll notice that the cost of hosting a large number of users in your game (for example: a million players) can really add up. And if you are not sure that your game will be enjoyed (and therefore that players will spend money), it can be a huge gamble to invest much money in user acquisition.
In addition, you'll have to be very good at selecting your target audience, because if you target users in the wrong audience, you’re essentially throwing away money. (If I create a football game and advertise to players who are basketball fans, I risk those users opening the game, seeing what it is, and immediately closing it.) And to become good at targeting requires either relying on an expert in the field (which costs a lot of money), or gaining experience through trial and error (which probably costs even more).
What's the solution, then?
Why Virality is So Important
The solution lies in virality. If each user that you have acquired is able to attract other users to the game, what you get is user acquisition for a much lower cost than ad-based paid user acquisition.
We can then give a new definition to virality: the ability to reduce the cost of user acquisition. Seen from this point of view, virality no longer seems like something to be underestimated...
Open Graph Stories
I learned all this myself while working on a roleplaying game for Facebook. Unfortunately the game was closed a few months ago and I can not share the link. I will not go into much detail about why the project was closed; I refer you to my previous articles to understand how difficult it is to try to make video games seriously in Italy.
- BusinessSpaghetti Design: Being a Game Designer in ItalyMatteo Sciutteri
- BusinessSpaghetti Design: Learning and SurvivingMatteo Sciutteri
But I will tell you how I discovered the importance of virality.
After keeping the game in closed beta for almost a year, we decided to officially launch it worldwide. Very soon after, we came across the problem of user acquisition, and we started to think about what mechanics to insert to push users to contact their friends.
Each feature had two flaws: first, it required the user to confirm his action to send requests (for example: the call for help when your character runs out of energy); second, it ended up in the Facebook Notification Center, hidden among a thousand reports of comments, groups, events, tags, pokes, and so on.
The percentage of virality was very low: we paid to acquire 1,000 users, and these users only attracted another 100 users from their posts. We had a virality of 0.1: perhaps the worst metric the world has ever seen!
(To calculate virality, the formula is
VUsers / BUsers, where
VUsers is the number of users who enter the game via a request from a friend, and
BUsers is the number of users acquired via ads.)
Then Facebook invented Open Graph Stories, which are, perhaps, the most powerful feature for the games on the social network that has ever been introduced.
Here's an example of an Open Graph Story as it appears on Facebook:
As you can see, it looks in every way like a post by a user. And it will appear in the news feed of the user’s friends—the most visible place of all. And, most importantly, it will be published automatically.
How? Simple: when you create a game that relies on Facebook technology (this includes iOS and Android games, if you use the Facebook API), you can use an admin panel to define Stories that you want to publish, composed of a title, image, description, and link.
At this point you can just connect a Story to an action in the game, and you're done! Each time a player performs that action, a Story will be published on their wall.
What Open Graph Stories Did For Us
After implementing Open Graph Stories, the virality of our game improved a lot; we paid to acquire 1,000 users and this time they brought in 700 new users—the virality increased from 0.1 to 0.7!
Clearly this was just the beginning. We knew we had to improve that result: a really good virality is 1.0 or greater. However, with little effort, we had increased the weak point of the game in one shot, thanks to this one feature.
Improving the virality of your game by iterating on the Open Graph Stories is simple: you can do tests on images or messages published, trying to choose the most attractive or those that are more engaging. During our tests, for example, we discovered that one image in particular attracts more attention than an alternative.
We discovered this through an A/B test. In an A/B test, players are divided into two groups (the A group and the B group), and each group is given a slightly different version of the game. After a couple of days, we check the analytics to understand which of the two versions (if either) performs better.
In our case, we gave the groups two different images: one had a dark mood (a fighting scene, with blood and shadows) and the other had a light mood (a reward scene, with a treasure and a close-up on a heroine). One or other of the images was published in an Open Graph Story every time a player completed the first dungeon.
After a couple of days, the analytics showed that only 31% of friends of players from the A group had clicked on the image, but 58% of friends of players from the B group had clicked on the image. So, we discovered that our potential players preferred a positive mood to a dark mood (and this was quite a surprise, as the project was a roleplaying game).
In short, Open Graph Stories are a really powerful tool that no developer of Facebook games should underestimate. If you need more details about how you can use Open Graph, check the official documentation here: Open Graph Stories.
Now excuse me, but checking Facebook I discovered that the Black Farbunny attacked the empire of Melniboné, and I have to go!
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