Understanding Your Players In A Privacy First World - A Fireside Chat
A full transcript of our fireside chat with Pete Williamson
Brian Larson - Director Publisher Partnership, TapResearch
Brian has extensive experience in partner development and relationships, with over a decade in the digital advertising and mobile ecosystems. As Director of Publisher Partnerships at TapResearch with a track record and technical knowledge on SDK integration, his motivations have always been to help leading mobile game developers not only increase player LTV and retention, but also better understand their motivation to help them achieve growth.
Pete Williamson - CEO, Supersonic Software Ltd.
Pete Williamson is CEO of Supersonic Software Ltd., developer and publisher of hit free-to-play mobile puzzle games including Puzzle Page, Picture Cross, Picture Cross Color and One Clue Crossword. Supersonic’s games are published under the Puzzling.com brand. The company specializes in ‘forever’ puzzle game on mobile.
Brian Larson: I'm Brian Larson. I've been in the industry a decade - some ad tech, some before there was even a mobile phone and I stumbled my way into a research company. So that's kind of me. I've been helping partners like yourself. And I think we started talking, like I said, a couple years ago. So I'd love to hear from you a little about yourself, your background. And then I guess we can kick things off and start talking about Supersonic cuz I know it's got a great long history to cover as well.
Peter Williamson: Thanks Brian. As you say, we've been talking and working together for a couple of years, but Supersonic goes back way, way back. We actually started as a sort of home computer and console developer back in the days of the nest and the game boy and the game gear. For years and years and years, that was our business doing console games. You know, we did PlayStation games and Xbox games and Nintendo games, PC games, all sorts.
We were partially a work for hire developer. We'd come up with our own IP and sell it to publishers. About maybe 10 years ago, just as smartphones were coming out, we pivoted to the mobile developer, which was a big thing for us, you know, it was going from a business that involved putting boxes on shelves for $40 to $50, to very quickly, to games being completely free.
Mobile Games - It’s A Long Term Service (01:37)
So, we got into free-to-play early on. We actually originally specialized in racing games. We did a lot of fun racing games, things like micro machines and our first developments on mobile were actually the top year games for the BBC. In parallel to that, we were doing puzzle games and that’s when we started to get traction with that and that quite quickly became the main focus of our business. Then shortly thereafter we became the only folks of our business. We're now very much only a puzzle game company.
We develop games very much as a service. We launch games and hope that they're on the app store and have an audience that measures in years. Our two most successful games, Picture Cross is actually about six and a half years old now and Puzzle Page, she's our sort of baby and I think is actually approaching four years.
We develop games as a long term service. We add new content all the time. We just try to engage the users for a long time to keep them interested.
Brian Larson: That's a huge history there going from pre-mobile and console to racing into the free-to-play. And then of course having a game for six years is huge, right? There was a big shift, I think, in the industry going from building lots of new games to building a game that you can actually sustain over the long term. And I think having a game that's (6) years old is a testament to staying ahead of the curve a little bit for Super Sonics, which is great to see.
Peter Williamson: Yeah, I think that the market there's obviously hyper casual and there's very successful hyper casual publishers who are putting out lots and lots of games and they don't necessarily have to survive on the market for very long. They shoot to the top and fall back down again. But the other side is, there are plenty of very successful long term games that have been around for longer than us, you know, decade long games.
Brian Larson: Yeah. I may play a couple of those as well. So getting into it a little bit more, what makes Super Sonic special? What, why or how have you kinda become successful with puzzle games? How have you kept a game alive for six plus years? I’d love it if you could share a little bit of the secret sauce there.
Supersonic’s Secret Sauce (04:00):
Peter Williamson: I think the app store is a wonderful place. You can do absolutely anything on it. There's a really low barrier to entry, which means there are millions of apps out there. But I think to be successful in that environment, it really pays to specialize. It really pays to know your stuff. And to know your stuff / subject, you have to stick at it for a while. You have to try things, you have to iterate, you have to study what works, what doesn't work. We've been doing that with puzzle games for maybe eight years or so now.
We launched a title called World's Biggest Word Searches, it was our first thing. And we naively thought that when we developed it, we were finished. Let’s launch it and that’s game over - you know, the sort of mindset from the old days when that's how games worked.
You put content in a game and you think, you know, there are dozens of hours of gameplay in this and that's gonna keep the audience amused and happy for a long time for months to come. You put it out there and two days later someone gets in touch to say, they've finished it. When are you doing an update?
When that stuff starts coming in, you think, well yeah, ok, we've got an audience. They clearly like it. We need to do updates. So you do more and more features and you listen to what the players are saying about the game. You look at analytics, you look at app store reviews. You just really study your market and try to understand your players and what they want.
Brian Larson: Yeah. That seems like the go to. Fire the game off and then it seems like you kind of just started listening to your users as a way to keep that ball rolling downhill, which is awesome to hear.
So it sounds like there's a couple of things you've done over that span. Which was to understand what content the users are consuming in the game. What they might like. You said a couple other things like looking at reviews and just generally hearing what that audience is saying.
It sounds like there might have been some challenges along the way. I would love to hear some more about some of the things you have done in the past to try to better understand your users and what they want. And we can maybe get a little bit more into the next steps of what Player Insights is and how that can help you as well.
Don’t Ask What. Ask Why? (06:44):
"I think the weakness of that (analytics), or what that data doesn't give you is any sense of the kind of emotion the player has as they're going through the game."
Peter Williamson: Yeah, I think as any other companies that have any success, we've done a lot of work on analytics. We put events into our games and when players get to a certain point in the game an analytic event will fire off. And that sort of stuff's really incredibly useful and valuable because you get insights into which levels are tripping people up, how many times they play a day, how long they play for, and whether they're looking at this feature or that feature. And you iterate your development based on that data. I think the weakness of that, or what that data doesn't give you is any sense of the kind of emotion the player has as they're going through the game.
The data can only tell you that on average people like this part of the game, or on average they find this part difficult, but they are quite crude averages. And so you sort of speculate that if they're perhaps slow to get through something, that maybe they're frustrated but actually that may not necessarily be true. They might actually like being challenged. But we've not had the tools to really do anything with that.
We've looked at app store reviews, but they can be quite one dimensional. For example, there can be a five star review that says fantastic game, which is wonderful to see, but it doesn't really tell you anything. Or you get a one star review - I thought it was awful. And again, it doesn't really tell you anything.
So, the Player Insight system from TapResearch has been really useful. To be able to ask our players questions and get a sense of how they're feeling.
And also, while you can see averages about how players are reacting to something, there might be a proportion of the audience that are just not interacting with it at all or are really struggling. And actually asking your users questions is a good way to get those answers.
No More Passive Feedback - Getting Proactive! (08:59):
Brian Larson: Yeah, analytics is definitely powerful. As you mentioned, it's something that every game developer can relate to having as much data about the game as possible. But it’s really about understanding the sentiment of the player, what they think and giving them a channel to verbalize. And that has always been tough, right? We've heard anecdotes from partners using Google forms and putting a million people into a Google form and crashing that, or paying a lot of money to use a survey monkey link that they then have to build into the game that pushes the user outta of the game, or TypeForm or something like that. So there's a lot of tools out there, but it's kind of left to the developer to hodgepodge it together.
That's why we built Player Insights. There were a lot of partners requesting the ability to use our survey tool that we'd already had developed to engage their users, talk to them, to understand them, to kinda go through the motions of, we built this thing, we have the analytics, what else can we learn? How else can we refine the process, maybe create specific loops for those users. There's a ton of different use cases that lend itself to Player Insights.
So I know that we've gone through a couple different use cases, but I don't know if you want to talk about them specifically. There's things like NPS (Net Promoter Score), which I think was brand new to you. And then there was the idea that we wanted to learn a specific thing and so we built a specific survey for that. I think there were a couple of good learnings we talked about in that last survey we ran. So I don’t know if maybe you want to share…
Players Don’t Buy What They Don’t Understand (10:04):
"We've been running those NPS surveys constantly. So you get a gauge of that positivity against the game, and then you iterate on the game..."
Peter Williamson: Yeah, NPS was a new concept to me until quite recently. And basically it’s taking a gauge of how your users are feeling - whether they feel positive or negative against the game. And that's been really useful. We've been running those NPS surveys constantly. So you get a gauge of that positivity against the game, and then you iterate on the game and you, you resample it. So, that's something just to do constantly.
But the other thing that we've found sort of powerful about Player Insights is just how quickly and easily it is to launch things. One example is we added some new, sort of booster power ups to our picture cross game.
"They (the users) didn't know what these boosters and power ups were....of course we thought it was fairly obvious but clearly (the survey revealed) it was not."
We developed them, we put them out there and the analytics said people were interacting with them. But, as a new feature, we didn't really have any sense whether the analytics were telling us what X percentage of people were interacting with them and we didn't know whether that was good or not. Should we be expecting almost everyone to interact with it or is it something that people just opt into. So we just asked. We launched a survey very quickly. We threw together 10 questions, or so, and asked 300 people to take the survey and within a few hours we had our answers.
In the survey we were asked our players various questions around these boosters and power ups. And what was quite surprising is, some of our players simply didn't know what they were. They didn't know what these boosters and power ups were. And it told us that the way we were introducing these things was, you know, it could have been finessed. But of course we thought it was fairly obvious but clearly it was not. So that sort of thing is really useful.
Lots Of Possibilities (12:43):
Brian Larson: Yeah, it was a good little learning point that we didn't even think would be uncovered. And there's a ton of things we can do with it that I don't think we've even thought of doing yet.
There's optimizing your app store, asking your current users to help better define what the messaging or creative should be that would lead them to a click.
There's going through game persona development - just understanding who your gamers are, so that if you're gonna do UA on the other side, you know who that persona is, and it can help make targeting a little bit easier.
Or even concept testing as we talked about, right? Maybe you gotta build a new feature, like a new boost, or whatever it might be and now you can actually get that in front of your users ahead of time, before you put resources against it.
And then from there, understand, is this a good thing that the users are gonna like, or is it gonna be something that they're not gonna understand and we need to tweak. And you can do all that before it even goes out.
And then with the NPS survey, you can track how that actually resulted, right? Maybe you have a solid score, you introduce a new feature, and your score goes up or it goes down, which ultimately tells you how your users are feeling about your game.
And just a quick note, NPS is Net Promoter Score. It's a simple two question survey that’s just asking your users what they think about the game, and if they would recommend it to a fellow person to play. It's a simple, easy survey, but helps give you an idea of what they think. So sorry, Pete, I think you had something else to add…
Making Every User’s Voice Heard (14:17):
Peter Williamson: Yeah, I was gonna say that with all that stuff, you know, engaging your users and asking them questions ahead of launching a feature, it is incredibly valuable to get that sort of feedback.
"I think this is a great tool to engage your users to make them feel that their opinion on the game matters."
But I think the other thing that's possibly slightly overlooked, when you run a game as a service and your players are free-to-play users, there are millions of potential customers out there. And when you’re getting thousands, or even tens of thousands of downloads per day, there can be a sense from the user that they're not necessarily valued or that they're not listened to. And I think this is a great tool to engage your users to make them feel that their opinion on the game matters.
You know, if you've had someone who's been playing your game for three years, the game is personal to them. It’s almost certainly part of their daily routine. They'll play over breakfast or on their commute and day in and day out. And for them knowing that their opinion matters is a great way to engage people.
We have a help system in our game, where people, if they've got problems, they can get in touch. But generally they only get in touch if they've got problems. And, and of course they like to be listened to and know that there's a real person responding to them. But, being able to get ahead of that and actually ask them their opinion about features before you even launch them, is a really powerful thing.
"They said (the players), '..if I was able to give feedback, then of course, I would continue to play this game because now I'm a part of that company.'"
Brian Larson: Yeah, that’s a good point you brought up. We actually ran a survey about six months ago asking users this very same thing. Back when we were gonna put resources into building Player Insights, we thought, why not ask users if this is something that would help with retention - that is, if they (the users) were able to give their opinions and help influence the direction of the game that they love and play every day, would they stick around even more, play more, and you know, play longer, that sort of stuff. And the results were, as you mentioned, a resounding yes. They said, if I was able to give feedback, then of course, I would continue to play this game because now I'm a part of that company. It's just gonna be a thing for me forever.
So that's a great point to bring up about not being valued and not having a voice, and now drastically changing that to a platform where it's easy to let them have a voice is immensely powerful.
It’s Only Getting Better (17:05):
Brian Larson: So we got you into the beta Player Insight several months ago. We've run a bunch of different surveys. How do you see using our solution kind of moving into the next 6, 12, 18 months of Supersonic? Are there things you can already see in the future? Are there products that maybe you're testing that this tool can help you with?
Peter Williamson: Yeah, I think so. I think the early test we did on the beta, there were some features that weren't in the product that weren’t there that would've been good to have. For instance, branches within the surveys where you would ask a question and then based on a given answer, it would be, the survey is finished. Now we can branch and ask different questions depending on those answers. So it makes it more powerful. I think all of those things that we've spoken about, we absolutely will be sampling our audience for new features going forward. We'll be sampling our audience on new features and how they react to them, their sort of motive state around those features. I think it's a tool that we'll just use more and more going forward.
Brian Larson: That's great. Yeah, branching. That was a huge one. Basically just logic to help the flow of a user inside of a survey, as you mentioned, instead of just ending it for a specific person, maybe that person can give you feedback on something else in a survey. And we definitely took a lot of feedback during that beta period, especially some that you had given to refine and add those new features to our survey tool. And we're gonna continue to do that.
We've got a crack team back here working on the Player Insights tool. And we've got a lot of things to still build into it. But as a core, I think it works very, very well. And that was a fundamental piece of it.
One of the things I had talked to you about, I think a few months ago, was also using it to understand, or augment some of those analytics that we talked about. You get analytics to see what people like in the game, but one of the questions was, do people like the hard puzzles, right?
As you mentioned, it might take more time. And so we had fired up a quick survey, or we were talking about firing up a quick survey just to understand that. I was wondering if there's any other little points like that or anything new, maybe that you have coming down the pipe that we could maybe use our survey tool to help you with?
Giving The Users What They Want (19:45):
Peter Williamson: Yeah, that survey was really useful. I think with mobile, they'll come in and they'll do a quick five minute session as they're sitting on the bus or whatever. And I think we've at times thought the way to better serve that audience is making simpler things - things that don't necessarily push you.
"..we were worried during development that because the game's just naturally harder, is this going to adversely affect it? And actually having service to say, no, users are saying they want harder puzzles was a real sort of relief."
So we did some surveys on the kind of puzzles people wanted. And it was quite surprising that there was quite a positive reaction to the harder puzzles. So that was definitely something to take away from it. And in fact we've recently launched a follow up to our Picture Cross product Picture Cross Color, and it features harder puzzles. And we were worried during development that because the game's just naturally harder, is this going to adversely affect it? And actually having service to say, no, users are saying they want harder puzzles was a real sort of relief. And it's actually bearing out. The game's doing well with these harder puzzles.
Brian Larson: It's funny. My wife loves those color ones. She beat the game and then she's like, uh, these color ones, tell them we need more. I'm like, don't worry. We'll get there.
Peter Williamson: Tell her, more’s coming.
Supersizing Supersonic With Miniclip? (21:10):
Brian Larson: Yeah. That's great. Um, I think that was it for some of the questions, unless you had anything else you kind of wanted to share. I know we, we kind of glazed over some of the other things. You specifically, I think there was a big event for you guys where Miniclip came in and made an investment. I don't know if you wanted to talk about that a little bit or how that's changing things at Supersonic?
Peter Williamson: Yeah. I mean, we were independent for a long, long time, and you know, quite fiercely independent in that we were getting successful and getting bigger and making good profits. And it really gives you a sort of confidence boost that you're doing the right thing. But we've known Miniclip for maybe five or six years and we spoke to them on and off over that time. And we got into discussions about them acquiring as about a year ago or actually slightly more about maybe 14 months ago. And the time seemed right for us. It seemed that we'd reached a level of success that we were really, really pleased with and really proud of, but we had ambitions to go on further.
And so we thought being part of a bigger group with all the expertise that a larger group brings, could really spur us on. It's exciting, we've become part of Miniclip. We rebranded to Puzzling.com where operating as a sort of semi-independent subsidiary within Miniclip. We sort of do our own thing, but obviously work very, very closely with them and lean on their resources and expertise. And I think it's going really well. We’ve got big ambitions and they're absolutely gonna help us realize them. So, it's great.
Brian Larson: That's awesome. We work pretty closely with Miniclip as well. One of the big things they'd asked of us was getting in on the brand sales side and understanding brand affinity and that sort of stuff. So who knows, maybe some of that might make it to your side of the business as well with things moving forward. So appreciate you sharing.
I don't know if we have any questions from our audience. Would love to take a couple minutes and go through those if there are any.
Audience Q&A (23:36):
Ellie Soleymani: Thank you, Brian and Pete. We will go ahead and take some time for questions now. For those of you who have not yet submitted your questions, just as a reminder, be sure to type them into the question box now. It looks like we have a few that just came in. The first one is for Pete.
Question: Are there any other insights you discovered about your players using Player Insights by TapResearch that might have surprised you or that you would've never been able to normally get to?
Peter Williamson: Yeah. I mean, we were surprised that people were leaning towards more difficult puzzles. That was definitely not what we expected. We were also surprised that a significant part of our audience just didn't understand those new boosters and power apps. We thought it was obvious from our years of game design and experience. We thought we'd design something that was obvious but for a significant part of our audience, it wasn't.
Brian Larson: Yeah, that is pretty funny. I feel like I do that all the time, too, where I'm like, no, that's completely obvious. And then it's not for some people.
Peter Williamson: I mean, I think as a game designer, you use all your experience and your intuition on things, but I think sometimes you can be too close to things, you know. You can work with things for months and because you've worked with them for months, you just think it's obvious. But then your players tell you it's not.
It's one of the reasons I like mobile so much. In my sort of old life, back when we made console games, you would develop the game, publish it, and that would be it. There was no going back. There'd be no tweaking it. But with mobile, you can constantly tweak it and constantly make it better. And we've been largely guided by analytics so far to do that. And analytics are fantastic, but I think Player Insights really augments that and gives you another sort of nuanced slant on it.
Ellie Soleymani: Thank you, Pete. It looks like we have a second question for you.
Question: Pete, are there any other tips or recommendations you have for other game developers who are looking to acquire and retain new players?
Peter Williamson: So we've launched a lot of games over the years, maybe 15, maybe even approaching 20 games. One of the things you find is it could actually be quite a fine line between success and failure.
For instance, if your player does XX many puzzles a day, or spends XX many minutes in the game and their propensity to turn up again tomorrow is YY, and you do all those sums and it adds up to a certain level of retention - that can be a fine line between that sum being enough to sustain the game or it not being enough, and your game fizzles out.
The other thing about mobile business is that you can get downloads from organic discovery, or social media or for us, and I think for many publishers, increasingly paid user acquisition. And if you're paying to run adverts, which result in people downloading your game, and that cost to download (to acquire a user) outweighs what you earn from them, obviously you don't have a business. And that fine line can be a really, really fine line.
So I think regarding tips, I would say, is to develop and launch and analyze and repeat endlessly. And when you get something that looks like it's got some traction that your users like and are enjoying it, try to learn from that and try to work out how to make them play more - an extra 30 seconds every session or an extra five minutes every day. Or how to make them want to come back tomorrow. Use your skill and your intuition and your creativity to make something wonderful, but look at the numbers and the feedback as well. Get feedback from wherever you can because it will surprise you, I think.
Ellie Soleymani: Thank you. That was great. And looks like we have one last question. This one is for Brian.
Question: Brian, is there a particular type of game developer that Player Insight is tailored for, or that will benefit from using it?
Brian Larson: Yeah, it's a good question. And I think it's, uh, I think it's all games. There is no specific game type that can benefit from Player Insights. I think it's a tool designed for everyone. It’s meant to be easy to use where you can elicit feedback. In fact, it might even be great for non-game. Anybody in the mobile space I think can benefit from feedback because to Pete's example, these apps and games in the space operate on similar models where it might be a very, very thin line, but they're acquiring users to do a thing, whether it's edit a photo or, do a puzzle. And if you can get feedback from them and help refine your product and service, I think everyone can benefit from it. The tool set is meant to be open and easy to use and through multiple different, use case scenarios too.
Ellie Soleymani: Thank you, Brian, for that. It looks like we've covered all of our questions at this point. I want to thank everyone again for attending our session today. We appreciate you being here. If you have not already done so please be sure to visit TapResearch.com for more information about our PlayerInsight solution and follow us on LinkedIn to stay up to date about our upcoming releases and events. We also have Pete and Brian's contact information now displayed on the screen.
If you have any specific questions for either of them, please feel free to reach out to them using the contact information on your screen. And if you would like to speak with one of our insights experts to learn more about our Player Insight solution, be sure to contact us here on our website. Thank you again for joining us today and we'll see you next time.