This article comes from a presentation at Google Playtime 2019. Watch the full talk here!
Affinity: an attraction to or liking for something
The world of mobile games is becoming increasingly competitive, with more developers looking to tap into the huge potential of this market. This increasing competition means launching a new title can be risky. To reduce this risk, developers want to leverage their success in one game into their next project, ideally without cannibalizing either product.
This is where affinity comes in — the probability a person who likes one thing will like another. There are two types of affinity that are critical to developers:
- Inter-genre affinity — Whether players of one genre are likely to play games within another specific genre.
- Intra-genre affinity — Whether players are likely to play several games within a single genre, reducing the risk of cannibalization by future titles
While developers are always encouraged to run user surveys and research to better understand the unique preferences of their audience, this article shares the patterns and best practices we have observed based on data from the Play Store.
Before we examine the data, let’s look at a couple of examples of how developers use the principle of affinity.
Playrix is one of the world’s most successful developers, with several titles in the top 50 grossing mobile games globally. Their releases serve as a great illustration of inter-genre affinity: iteratively leveraging an audience’s affinity for a second playstyle to create more successful titles.
When Playrix developed their match-3 game, Gardenscapes, they took an innovative approach by adding a compelling storyline and a quest system to the match-3 mechanics. This approach turned out to be successful. Their data showed that most Gardenscapes players engaged with the design, construction, and quest features: very few players engaged only with the match-3 elements.
These findings encouraged Playrix to come up with a new game using the same innovations — storyline plus quests plus match-3 — and continue to grow their match-3 audience. The result was Homescapes, a game based around the same main character as Gardenscapes but with more focus on the new mechanics in a new setting and with a twist on the storyline. Since its release, Homescapes has shown higher user engagement metrics compared to Gardenscapes.
The benefits of expanding beyond genre preconceptions with game mechanics can also be seen with Gamebasics, an innovative Netherlands-based developer active in the mobile games sports category.
“For Online Soccer Manager to be successful in the long run, Gamebasics aimed to adopt a more user-centered approach,” says Fabian, Acquisition Manager at Gamebasics. “The first step we took involved identifying the overarching terminal values for our user base. We identified these values through ‘gamer motivation profile’ surveys, a Quantic Foundry profile method adjusted according to our own needs. Results showed a large segment of highly engaged users with ‘achievement’ and ‘social’ as their primary motivations for Online Soccer Manager.”
From this study, Gamebasics believed there was a strong affinity between their audience and competitive game modes. To further engage this audience they added tournament-like game modes to Online Soccer Manager, such as manager the Champions League feature and also integrated features involving YouTube influencers.
The results from these changes to Online Soccer Manager have been extremely promising. Players are engaging heavily with the new tournament modes and show better retention if exposed to influencer content on YouTube and in the game. Based on this success the company acted on another interesting insight from the gamer motivation profile survey: the inter-genre affinity of their sports users to highly competitive player-versus-player (PvP) strategy games. This insight led Gamebasics to develop Dynasty Duels, a strategy tower defense game that is currently in soft launch.
Although investing in research about player behavior can be extremely powerful, it can be expensive and time consuming for developers.
So with the help of Google Play business analyst Yohann Lucas, we decided to explore how we could use Google Play data to illuminate player behavior across titles and genres.
We started by thinking about the questions we wanted to answer:
- Can we identify which genres are the most appealing to players of other genres? In other words, can we map affinity between genres?
- When people go from games in one genre to another, how does it change their playing and spending behavior?
- Are there genres that are more suitable to a multi-title portfolio strategy than others? How likely is the cannibalization between titles dependent on the genre?
Taking answers to these questions as our goal, we developed a methodology. This methodology analyzes cohorts of people playing any of the top 50 titles in each genre in the previous 30 days (August 2019 data) and examines their playing behavior on Android.
We found that the resulting insights fell broadly into 2 groups:
- What it tells us about gamers
- What it tells us about portfolio best-practice
What it tells us about gamers
Affinity analysis is an extremely powerful tool for understanding behavior, seeing users in a holistic way and even debunking myths that have developed around particular audiences. Take the example of a group of users that are often misunderstood in the gaming industry: arcade/hyper-casual gamers.
Developers often think that arcade/hyper-casual gamers don’t overlap with their current and target audience, and are unlikely to spend on IAP. However, the data for engagement across genres shows that 95% of arcade/hyper-casual gamers play games in other categories in a typical month. This figure is much higher than sports, shooter, or match-3 gamers who are more inclined to only play games within their chosen genre.
This statistic shows that arcade/hyper-casual gamers might look elsewhere to complete their gaming experience and it would be reductive to assume otherwise. So, where are they looking?
Plotting the engagement data for arcade/hyper-casual gamers by other genres played reveals a strong affinity to the runner (expected) and shooter (less expected) genres. Shooter games have been an extremely popular category in 2019, therefore we expect to see a strong affinity. However, the differences between arcade/hyper-casual games and shooter games — larger APK sizes, more complex controls, higher competition, and more PvP gameplay — makes the degree to which arcade/hyper-casual gamers have an affinity to the shooter category surprising. The data also shows how gamers’ engagement behavior changes drastically when they switch from arcade/hyper-casual to other genres, such as shooter, increasing their session length by up to 3x (something required by the nature of these games).
The analysis of engagement data shows that arcade/hyper-casual gamers are likely to adapt their behavior to the genre. However, does this behavioral change also apply to spend, as players transition from an ad monetization genre to one monetized by IAPs? The data suggests that it does. The graph below shows an impressive 20x buyer percentage increase when people move from arcade/hyper-casual games (mainly monetizing with ads) to games in the shooter genre, a genre that is better at converting casual users to IAP buyers. This observation seems to dismiss the long-standing industry myth that arcade/hyper-casual players can only be monetized with ads.
What it tells us about portfolio best-practice:
When it comes to launching a second or third game into the same genre, the biggest concern for developers is cannibalization. To assess how much of a challenge this is, we took cohorts of Core users (users who spend at least a 1/3 of their monthly gaming time in one genre) and plotted how many of them played one game in the genre, two games, or three or more games.
The data shows that, at one extreme, 87% of Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games (MMORPG) Core gamers play only 1 game in the category and only 3% of them are open to play 3 or more MMORPG games. Similar behavior is also seen for puzzle, RPG, strategy, and Multiplayer Online Battle Arena (MOBA) games. These are all games that require players to invest a lot of time and mental effort learning the complex rules and strategies needed for a satisfying victory, meaning that the “cost” of switching from one game to another is extremely high.
As the game genres become more casual, the percentage of people playing 3 or more games in the genre increases significantly. At one extreme, up to 20% of invest express (idle games) players play 3 or more titles in the genre. This makes sense because in these games players can continue to progress even when not logged in (hence ‘Idle’ games), so users are able to run multiple games without cannibalizing their progression in one title.
Two of the highest-ranking genres were sports and racing with a significant portion of the users playing multiple games in the category. This is something of an exception to the normal rule as these games are fairly complex, however it makes sense when considering the context. Both racing and sports games are hobbies that likely reflect a broader interest on the part of the user than a simple attachment to an app. Hobbyists by definition have a broad interest in their chosen field (i.e. ‘sports’ and ‘racing’ generally), and so are more likely to play several games within a genre.
When deciding which new genres to expand to, developers often take very different approaches. There are lots of factors to consider, such as:
- which genre has the most similarities to the one they are familiar with, so they can leverage their expertise
- which genre monetizes the best
- which genre has minimal competition
- whether they have a great idea that breaks normal definitions
The complexity of this problem and the lack of common best practices means that many developers struggle to expand into new genres.
To explore this challenge we joined forces with Plarium Global Ltd., to understand how the company uses affinity data and research to successfully expand from one genre to another.
Plarium is best known for making massively multiplayer online (MMO) strategy games: games where you build your base, amass your troops, attack other players, join plans, join alliances, and play together. However, in recent years Plarium has started expanding into new genres.
Traditionally, games have been classified using a top-down definition of genres: racing games, action games, role-playing games, simulation games, and the rest. This classification is further divided into sub-genres, until you reach a point where it becomes somewhat confusing: is my racing simulator game a racing game or simulation game?
This approach to game classification isn’t always useful when looking to cross genres with a new project — developers may struggle to neatly fit their own games into groups, let alone identifying which other groups would be appealing to the same audience!
In an attempt to avoid this issue Plarium took a bottom-up, user-focused approach to game genre classification. This approach involves focusing closer on what the user experiences were in the game — specifically the duration of play, the complexity of play, and skills required.
Plarium researched over 500 of the most successful games from the Play Store to build their bottom-up genre map. At the end of this process they had defined 3 arch genres:
- Casual, where players can commit time but don’t have to.
- Action and arcade, where players generally have to commit time if they want to play successfully: sharpen reflexes and become a more skillful player.
- Simulation, strategy, and RPG, where complex systems in the games mean that players have to invest time to learn rules and strategies.
This provided Plarium with a clear understanding of the game styles that were in each arch category.
The next step might be to decide which genres to focus on for the next game by determining the size of the potential market.
However, there are potential pitfalls in determining the size of the market. The most common of these is the assumption that by mashing 2 or more genres you capture an audience equal to both audiences added together.
However, if creating a game that combines shooter and puzzle elements the market or revenue base is not the set of people who like shooters plus those who like puzzles, it’s more like this:
Therefore, the potential audience is much smaller than the net sum. The key question is how small this new market is: crucially it’s not necessarily bigger than tapping into one genre.
Plarium had now identified which of their games occupied the same arch genre and were aware of the pitfalls in estimating market size for mashup apps. Therefore, they concluded that it was better to look for opportunities closer to the games they make than trying to create new mashup genres. They started by breaking down the elements of their MMO strategy games to figure out what they did well:
They then applied the mechanics that succeeded to other genres. For example, Plarium applied social mechanics from their strategy games to their collection RPG game Raid: Shadow Legends. This includes enabling players to form clans, share game heroes ratings, and engage in social chat. This cooperative play contributed to the great success of Raids in the genre.
It’s not possible to apply all of your successful mechanics across all genres. When Plarium developed the more casual focused Lost Island: Blast Adventure they couldn’t apply clan mechanics: casual game players don’t group up with other players to play cooperatively. However, they could still apply their skills and knowledge to create an appealing narrative and vibrant design that would carry a solo player through the game.
Conclusion: Drive change with affinity
Information about player affinity is a powerful tool for guiding decisions about both your existing games and expanding your games portfolio. Individuals cannot be defined by their use of a single app and understanding what your audience is interested in can help shape a portfolio and development strategy at three main points:
- When looking at the future of an existing game, introducing new features drawn from other genres with high inter-genre affinity is often a good move (particularly if the new mechanics or features contain a new and more profitable monetization avenue) as we saw with Gamebasics.
- When launching a new title in the same genre be aware of cannibalization and ensure you have high intra-genre affinity especially if you want to leverage your existing audience in the new title. Genres that require an investment of time, money, or mental effort by players (such as MMORPG, puzzle, RPG, strategy, and MOBA) present a barrier to switching games or playing multiple games within the genre.
- When expanding your portfolio use your expertise from past games to innovate in new genres that have high inter-genre affinity to your areas of expertise, as Plarium did by applying learnings from their MMO strategy to innovate in their collection RPG game Raid: Shadow Legends. Evaluate which genres correlate well with your market position and don’t overestimate the size of the potential market when mashing 2 or more genres, as 1 plus 1 doesn’t always equal 2.
Want to know more?
This article is part of a series coming from the Google Play Playtime 2019 event. You can watch the full list of recorded sessions from the event here.