In Charlie Brooker’s 2009 article in the Guardian, ‘Why I Love Video Games’, the UK satirist argued, ’If you don't play games, you're not just missing out, you're wilfully ignoring the most rapidly evolving creative medium in human history.’ These days though, few are missing out. According to Newzoo's quarterly update of its Global Games Market Report earlier this year, 2.2 billion gamers across the globe are expected to generate $108.9 billion in game revenues in 2017. This represents an increase of $7.8 billion, or 7.8%, on the year before.
However, while it may seem like this means more are embracing the creative artistry Brooker and many others wax lyrical about, it does not paint the whole picture. Of the $108.9 billion revenue, mobile games account for 42%, or $46.1 billion of the total - up 19% year-on-year. The majority of these games are dross. The smartphone's meteoric rise has released a sluice of so-called 'freemium games', manipulative drivel designed with the sole intention of extracting as much money from users as possible. And, unfortunately, the responsibility for this lies, in no small part, with data analytics.
Under the Freemium model, the game is provided free of charge. It is the additional features, services, and virtual goods brought in-app that provide the revenue. While this may sound stupid, the model works. In fact, free titles are actually more profitable than their paid-for counterparts. The Apple App Store now makes 90% of its revenue from freemium games, but only 10% from paid games. It's so profitable, in fact, that tech investment giant Tencent spent $8.6 billion on 84% of Supercell, the Finnish firm behind leading freemium title Clash of Clans, valuing the firm at over $10 billion - reportedly twice as much as the combined purchase price of LucasFilms and YouTube.
In order to make the Freemium model work, developers need to ensure that people pay for premium content. They need to keep players in the game for as long as possible and to understand the psychological triggers that will drive them to purchase. To do this, they rely on real-time analytics. They are constantly streaming user information that details every touch a player makes during their time in the game, blending it with their personal information to understand the habits and tendencies of different segments in intimate detail. From this, developers gain insights that they can leverage to effect the amount of money spent, prompt to purchase at the point they believe will be most impactful, and target ads optimally, instead of the current system which most free-to-play games adhere to - spamming out arbitrary messages for new weapons and extra lives. As an article on psychguides.com noted, 'They have enough data on gameplay that they can pinpoint precisely when players are about to become bored and issue new items and challenges at just the right moment. By using this aggregation of users’ gaming habits, they know exactly how to keep them playing as long as possible. It’s like looking inside players’ heads and crafting the perfect drug for them.'
The amount of data that they collect to do this is astounding. In an article on Touch Arcade last year, an anonymous source described only as ‘a senior producer at a free-to-play games company’, described how much developers stored about players and the lengths they would go to to get it: ’This is about how we can target you, because we (and our partners) know everything about you. We know where you live, we know your income level, we know your relationships, your favorite sports teams, your political preferences. We know when you go to work, and where you work. We can target an event to start for you when we know you have a long weekend coming up. We own you.’
The piece goes on to detail occasions on which companies the writer has worked for have added their bigger spending customers on Facebook using fake accounts, purely so they could collect more private data to target them with certain products. This is morally dubious on a number of levels. It is also likely a good reason freemium games are so uninspiring, yet still so highly addictive. It used to be that providing entertainment was the primary objective in game design. Game developers had an artistic vision - they developed a story and artwork, and tried to thrill the gamer, to ensure an onslaught of visual and narrative surprises. When the process is data-led, users have control. The shock and awe of old is replaced by repetition and predictability more akin to gambling websites. The main objective is driving profit, with titles built with micro-transactions and live services at the fore. Essentially, every game is just a slot machine that never pays out.
Developers are, however, realizing this. CEO of Take-Two - developer of lucrative sites including Grand Theft Auto and NBA 2k - Strauss Zelnick recently noted at a conference that, 'The entertainment business is not data, analytics, and monetization driving content creation. The entertainment business is content creation based in passion and genius that leads to financial rewards. Developers have a wealth of data available to them, but they need to start using it in the right way.'
Ultimately, focusing on data analytics to manipulate the user at the expense of creating a good game experience is a short term strategy. If a product is good then people will be willing to spend on it. As Zelnick notes, 'It's sort of axiomatic, but the better the product, the more people will be willing to spend on it. Recurrent consumer spending is not a panacea; if we put out something that doesn't work, we can't get people to buy more of it. And they don't even want more of it for free if it really doesn't work.' Data analytics has the potential to do wonderful things for gaming. When used for the right purposes it can drive better gameplay as opposed to simply more revenue streams. A/B testing and predictive modeling are brilliant tools. Game developers who have forgotten that they started out with the aim of making great games and now simply want to turn a profit need to rethink, because what they're doing won't work.