No Playing Around on Analytics for Game Developers

The video game market is bigger than ever, bringing in more each year than the movie and music industries combined. However, as development costs rise and more developers vie for a place in the gaming scene, some industry watchers predict a bust could be coming... unless, perhaps, analytics can save the day.

Analytics has been present in gaming for some time, starting with Valve's consideration of metrics like how long a player took to complete a puzzle in Half-Life 2. Valve applied that insight when developing later games. Game-playing analysis helped it become perhaps the most successful developer and trend setter in the industry -- a company others emulated.

Game developers like Zynga and King took the player analytics Valve pioneered in a different direction: monetization. They looked at aspects of play from all different angles and used these simple mechanics with an eye toward getting players to plunk down money to keep on playing.

Candy Crush app logo
Candy Crush app logo

Take King's most famous game, Candy Crush, which at its best brings in more than $1 million a day for the developer, despite being free to play. After analyzing the average skillset of players and the average time they have to play, King developers devised a way to let gamers play Candy Crush for almost as long as they want before prompting them to pay a small amount to keep going. Critics have called it addiction pandering and worse, but no one can argue it's not effective.

But just as companies like King and Zynga emulated and expanded what Valve did with analytics, other developers must now do the same.

Around the bend
The gaming industry is changing. At the top end, AAA studios are producing games bigger and faster than ever before to maintain their audience and continue to drive sales. Publishers and rights holders are throwing money at game development, sending production budgets skyrocketing. This means developers have to sell more copies of their games to break even, and they rely on internal analytics to help get them there.

Indie developers are looking much healthier, with plenty of innovation and a lot of interest from consumers. This segment is starting to get a little saturated, but it's far less volatile than at the top -- and if it's only you and a buddy developing, you need to sell only a few thousand copies to break even.

That said, indie developers don't use analytics very often, because teams of this size typically don't have the budget to hire out for analytics help. Ironically, the indie scene pioneered the early access model that allows gamers to play a title before development is finished. Were indies able to afford analytics, this would be the time when that'd be of the most use, since it could allow them to tailor the experience to the gamer more than they could by considering voluntary opinions alone.

The real trouble in the industry comes for those in the middle -- teams that are large enough to need reasonable sales to make a profit but not large enough to have the marketing funds to help make that happen. These are companies with budgets in the high thousands or low millions of dollars. They have money for extraneous research and features, and that's where I think analytics could come into play. These developers need to nail gameplay and character design in ways that compete directly with the indies and AAAs while still making a profit.

They need to be careful of going down the King/Zynga route and building entire experiences around this sort of numbers game. These are artists, after all, and creating an experience for fans to enjoy should be the focus of their development. But with that in mind, analytics could help make something that's easier to monetize and, through early access, alpha, and beta schemes, could even help balance a game's features before release.

In this sector, future game analytics should combine the two examples of data tracking we've seen in the past. These developers should take Valve's approach of examining gameplay to see what's popular, dabble in the monetization-related analytics work done by King, and make something that will keep the company afloat.

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Jon Martindale, Technology Journalist

Jon Martindale is a technology journalist and hardware reviewer, having been covering new developments in the field for most of his professional career. In that time he's tested the latest and greatest releases from the big hardware companies of the world, as well as writing about new software releases, industry movements,and Internet activism.

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Re: No Man's Sky
  • 8/27/2014 1:42:10 PM

An excellent find. The visuals for this game look quite impressive. It appears they went deep into what how a red moon would affect the lighting of a planet, what colors eveyrthing would be. It's these type of intricacies and research decisions that I've really grown to appreciate.

No Man's Sky
  • 7/25/2014 8:53:07 AM

Hi Jon, I just came across this MIT Techology Review piece on how Hello Games used algorithms in developing No Man's Sky, and thought of you. Sounds pretty cool.

Re: The King/Zynga Route
  • 7/21/2014 2:04:18 PM

With the Wii, we saw an influx of gaming consumers enter the market, pick up their Wii Sports machine, and never power it on past Christmas morning. But a fraction of those got a couple more games, and a fraction of those became dedicated fans. No matter how small the impact, people having access to "trashy" cell phone games at the very least leads to more potential gamers.

Re: The King/Zynga Route
  • 7/21/2014 4:10:07 AM


Yeah, the quaility of the most popular games right now is not good at all, but perhaps for sume it offers an entry point to the market, though I assume most have no interest of moving past. 

Re: The King/Zynga Route
  • 7/21/2014 2:22:55 AM

No effort required! Everybody wins!

With the world having much easier access and exposure to gaming, it saddens me to consider the calibur of gaming at the forefront.

Re: The King/Zynga Route
  • 7/20/2014 4:54:04 AM

@CandidonNick, I feel the same way about the game structure of the pay to win type of games, just keep hitting the in game purchase and fund your way to victory. 

The King/Zynga Route
  • 7/19/2014 3:45:16 PM

If it's one thing that has honestly done the most damage to the gaming industry, it's the structure of games from King/Zynga. Money-grabbing, pay-to-win. I distain it. It ruins the droves of lore and the intricacy of gameplay that AAA titles have in the public eye.

It damages the "videogame" name as entertainment and as an art form.

The Business is Thriving!
  • 7/19/2014 3:42:35 PM

You're absolutely right that Indie developers are making quite the splash lately. Now that its much easier to get your name out, thanks to social media and such, small groups can have their games present on hubs suchs as Steam and the Nintendo eShop.

I'm sure they consider analytics when developing, but for these smaller groups, I think simply generating the game and having it published on a platform is success enough.

Rabid fans
  • 7/18/2014 8:10:38 AM

Hi Jon. I'm not a gamer, so don't know the mentaility involved. But the one thing that I wonder is how much the players care or don't about the types of analytics the game developers are using. Might they potentially feel manipulated and be more inclined to play the games coming from the indies, who as you suggest don't use much by the way of analytics? Or is the experience all that matters, no matter how the developers have arrived at it?