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.
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.