“We have tons of ideas, but what should we do first?”
Having worked with over 30 game teams as a product consultant, I’ve been surprised by how often developers fail to frame the prioritization problem correctly. As a result, I’ve seen teams spend months agonizing over important product decisions as they repeatedly second-guess themselves.
A simple application of the appropriate perspective (which will sound absurdly obvious) can make short work of these problems by shining a spotlight on which initiatives deserve priority.
The key question is:
Where can we create the most value, with the least effort?
Why? At the risk of stating the obvious, it’s because:
Profit Margin = Business Success
In any enduringly-profitable business, behind the flashy headlines touting ‘exceptional leadership’ and ‘game-changing ideas’, you’ll find the relentless pursuit of a decidedly less sexy goal: how to cut costs while increasing value.
The delta between the value generated and the effort required to deliver it is a company’s profit margin.
But, in an efficient, competitive market, this margin will get squeezed from both ends, as 1) input costs to produce the product or service are driven upward, and 2) price competition decreases what customers are willing to pay.
Our hyper-competitive F2P game industry is a particularly acute example, because:
- Everyone wants in. Because the mobile games industry is massive, sexy, and highly profitable (for a fortunate few), its siren song lures many investors, who then bankroll your newest competitors.
- Competition drives up UA costs: User acquisition / ad marketplaces are real-time and hyper-efficient, quickly driving CPI to the line where profit margins disappear.
- Demand for talent increases development costs: Limitless demand for experienced developers, paired with efficient job marketplaces, empower developers to demand higher compensation.
- Customers now expect free, high-quality games: F2P business models place downward pressure on what customers expect to pay for entertainment.
If we want to survive in F2P games, these competitive realities only leave us with two viable paths:
- Create a differentiated product that can’t be easily cloned, or
- Deliver value with higher efficiency than your rivals.
In reality this is a false choice; the extreme level of competition in our industry demands that we do both. That said, strategy #1, defensibility and differentiation, is a topic for another article. The rest of this article focuses on #2: ‘Deliver value with higher efficiency than your rivals.’
Finding Efficiencies in Game Design
To survive in this competitive environment, game designers and developers must be able to create products that are 1) adequately differentiated, 2) polished and high-quality, and that 3) offer as much value (entertaining, retentive content) as possible, all while 4) tightly controlling development scope to minimize costs.
The four goals above are by no means a trade secret, but in my experience creative teams tend to focus on the first two goals (novelty and quality) and neglect the second two (highest value possible at lowest cost).
After all, to make the best choice among many options, we need to do more than compare their impact on product quality and value.
Our north star must be return on investment.
A simple rubric for prioritization:
A deliberate but simple process like the one below can help move teams in the direction of high-yield thinking.
Estimating Benefit: To arrive at a useful, apples-to-apples comparison, I recommend framing all potential improvements (whether to retention, to monetization, or otherwise) as improvements to player lifetime value (LTV).
Estimating Effort: When estimating effort, I recommend choosing one of two approaches: either an arbitrary effort scale from 1 to 10, or an estimate of the number of actual weeks of development time.
If you feel like you’re making wild guesses, don’t despair — your ability to estimate benefit and effort will improve with experience. You can also improve estimates (and fast-track learning) by sourcing independent estimates from your team, then debating the results as a group.
The final estimates needn’t be perfect, just directionally correct, to point you in the direction of the ‘right decisions’ given the information available. The result of this exercise is a simple, back-of-napkin ROI calculation per feature. And, in my experience, you’ll have a few low-effort, high-yield candidates at the top of your list.
If, on the other hand, you find yourself short of ideas, here are some to consider.
Six Common, High-Yield Design Patterns
What follows are six, low effort, high-impact design patterns from successful, contemporary F2P games.
Pattern #1: Have players replay content at higher difficulty.
Take something that already exists (e.g. Campaign or game levels), duplicate it, crank up the difficulty and add appropriate rewards.
Marvel Strike Force and RAID Shadow Legends will often simply duplicate the same content 6, 8, 10, even 20 times at increasing levels of difficulty.
Summoners War’s Campaign can be played through three times, on Normal, Hard and Hell difficulty.
RAID Shadow Legends’ dungeons re-use the same content 20 times, by ramping difficulty and rewards, and by changing the elemental affinities of the enemies.
Another common, but more casual approach to content re-use / replay is the 3-star scoring system. Two very different games, Candy Crush and Clash of Clans, both use this to get more mileage out of each game level, by incentivizing players to replay earlier levels to achieve higher scores or more difficult goals.
Across many F2P genres, games with Single Player Campaigns use 1–3 Star Scoring to incentivize replay of existing level content. Above: Candy Crush, Clash of Clans
Combining both patterns: RAID’s PVE Campaign levels have 1–3 star scoring, and the entire campaign can be played through 4 times (escalating difficulty).
Pattern #2: Reuse content, with different rules / restrictions.
Content can also be duplicated and repurposed simply by changing the rules or requirements, in a manner that forces the player to make fundamental changes to their strategy.
My favorite example, due to its effectiveness and, frankly, brashness, comes (again) from RAID Shadow Legends.
RAID’s Faction Wars Feature re-purposes the same Campaign sixteen times, with each instance limiting hero selection to one of the game’s 16 factions.
RAID created a new, 21-level campaign, then duplicated it sixteen times. Sixteen campaigns for the price of one!
Pattern #3: Build an endless runway of ‘meta’ goals that leverage, stretch and re-use existing content.
Once built, an achievements or progressive quest system is very high-leverage, allowing designers to churn out content with very little effort.
When looking for high-ROI content ideas, data-driven content (i.e. content that can be authored in a spreadsheet, without additional art or code) is a great place to look!
Fortnite’s Battle Pass is a glorified Achievements System:
Merge Dragons (above) has three independent, linear quest vectors (hundreds of quests each) that guide players through, and extend, the base content.
RAID’s progressive quest system (above) uses both immediate and longer-term rewards to drive players to progress through, and re-engage with (i.e. farm), existing content.
Pattern #4: Create incentives for players to repeatedly play (or ‘farm’) existing content.
The grind is real.
Games that structure core gameplay and metagame incentives such that players are willing to play the same content over and over have a massive advantage.
Pokemon GO players spend hours, weeks, months happily repeating the same behaviors, over and over, without the need for additional content.
In the typical Slots progression arc, players repeatedly spin on the same slot machines, over and over, to slowly gain XP and unlock later machines.
In RAID, players repeat the same battles tens, hundreds, thousands of times to farm the XP, currencies, or equipment that they need to reach that next milestone.
Pattern #5: Collection, Fusion Pyramids
The fusion pyramid is a mechanic first popularized by eastern, core-leaning character collector RPGs like Summoners War, Epic Seven, RAID, and Idle Heroes.
In the popular RPG, Summoners War, a 1-star character must be fully leveled-up, then fused with 3 other 1-star characters to create a 2-star character, which then must be leveled-up and fused with two 2-star characters to create a 3-star character, and so on. This inverted pyramid shape creates an exponential number of tasks for players to complete, and does so with very few game assets.
Recently, fusion pyramids have undergone a casual rebrand, by replacing complex inventory systems with more casual merge mechanics.
Merge Dragons is the quintessential example, in which merge chains require that players generate and merge three of an item to create an item one step higher on the chain. Thus, creating the 10th item on the chain requires performing 3 to the 10th power (59,000!) merges.
Above, one of many merge chains in Merge Dragons. With just 10 art assets, the chain pictured generates 3¹⁰ or 59,000 tasks for players to perform.
Pattern #6: Extend existing level-up vectors, or add new ones!
As detailed in my previous article on Free-To-Play Economy Spend Depth, if your game has characters, weapons, or other collectables that can be leveled-up individually, increasing their level caps is an incredibly efficient way to increase your content runway and spend depth.
Similarly, adding new level-up vectors to collectable items produces exponentially higher numbers of goals for players to chase.
In recent work with a client, I compared their game’s goal (and spend) depth to that of Empires & Puzzles:
The client’s game (above/left) has an economy suffering from too little dimensionality. Rather than adding any more incremental cards or abilities (expensive), we could instead double the level cap on cards (to 60) and add a new level-up vector (30 levels) to each of the 3 abilities per card.
This gives each of the 100 cards 60 level-ups (100 * 60 = 6000 goals), and 90 ability levels (9000 goals), for a total of 15,000 goals to pursue, all for a relatively modest development effort.
Note that these are mostly data and tuning changes only, which, while certainly requiring time, thought and testing, are orders of magnitude less costly than the addition of new incremental content (e.g. brand new cards or game modes).
So, while substantially lower effort than the development of 50 new cards, the proposal above could have seven times greater impact (11,700 vs. 1,650) in terms of improving goal depth and LTV.
Depending on your F2P product’s genre, the examples above may or may not directly apply to your game. If they don’t, how can you apply these ideas right away? At your next roadmap review, just ask:
“How can we multiply what we already have, before building something brand new?”
What can we do that could produce big results, but costs very little to try?”