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Last update: April 2020

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PGC Digital Conference: Pocket Gamer Connects During COVID-19

As the global coronavirus pandemic has brought the world to a standstill, the highly anticipated Pocket Gamer Connects conference has gone digital. We at OpenBack were very lucky to attend from the comfort of our separate homes. Over the four days, we got some great insights on the state of the mobile games industry, and the potential for push notifications to maximize user engagement and app revenue in the long-term.

The conference took place over a multi-channel Zoom conference, so it was possible for viewers to participate from home with their questions and perspectives. To shake up the long itinerary of panels and keynotes, PGC Digital included their Big Indie Pitch competition for PC/Console games on Tuesday and mobile games on Wednesday. There were also digital matchmaking sessions for publishers and developing teams to connect. What’s more, every day had a time slot for attendees to participate in wellness activities, with yoga and personal trainer sessions.

Pocket Gamer Connects Digital: The Growth Track

Chris James, CEO of Steel Media, gave the opening ceremony of the conference. He observed how this digital conference is taking place in light of an unprecedented surge in mobile games. As many in the industry have noticed, since COVID-19 has driven the entire globe indoors, the demand for digital content is higher than ever. Mobile platforms have seen the largest ever number of downloads, as people find themselves with more time to fill.

In China, downloads spiked by 25% in January-February 2020. Similarly, in Italy mobile downloads spiked an astonishing 60% during the week of March 22nd, two weeks after the country’s initial lockdown.

According to James, the World Health Organization (WHO) is

“championing the mobile games industry as a great way to keep people connected.”

More than that, the mobile games industry is actively keeping people indoors during the lockdown, which could save lives in the long-run. With this in mind, the world of gaming apps suddenly takes on a new importance, as does our united goal of making them as engaging as possible.

LiveOps in the Player Life Cycle

Over the course of the conference, one key theme explored by many of PGC’s speakers was that of LiveOps. Tabitha Graves from Amazon Web Services (AWS) took a look at LiveOps as playing a central role in managing a game’s player life cycle. In her model, player engagement is at the center of everything the development team does, and the very reason for the game’s existence. She called LiveOps the bridge between players and developers, and it’s all fueled by data. The developers collect user data, which undergoes analysis and then goes on to inform design improvements.

LiveOps then enter this cycle as tactics based on the data collected. They can take the form of community building, which can include live events, on-premise servers, or auto-scaling. Ultimately, LiveOps is a strategy for engaging users and keeping them interested, and to target in-game content on a user-by-user level, data can be leveraged to personalize their experience of the game.

Following in gaming phenomenon Fortnite’s footsteps, a lot of companies are venturing into the “battle pass” market. This is where players pay a monthly fee to receive bonus content, no ads, and other benefits. LiveOps serve as an optimal trial run for developers to test out battle pass subscriptions.

Global Trends and Game Maker Insights

The second day of PGC Digital saw a further exploration of LiveOps as the relationship between devs and gamers. Oscar Clark, the Chief of Curiosity at Fundamentally Games, hosted various sessions over the course of the day and also provided some key insights on how gamers are the ones driving the industry:

“Putting the player at the heart of the experience is absolutely critical.”

LiveOps use data and player feedback as key resources to improve UX. But the question then is, what do players value? How do we engage the audience in the decision-making process? For Clark, the process can be illustrated in a flowchart:

  • Audience input (in the form of gameplay/technical/community feedback)
  • Triage
  • First-line response (in the form of FAQs/direct response/escalating response)
  • Second-line response
  • Data (i.e. behavioral gameplay information)
  • Prioritization (assessed against the developers’ vision)
  • Allocation
  • Production (in the form of artwork/design/code/network)

According to Clark, enjoyment of the game should come from the gameplay itself, rather than solely from completion of the game. It’s the developers’ job to create that enjoyment, as well as anticipation, desire, and FOMO to keep players coming back for more.

Art Versus Science – Finding the Right Balance

On Tuesday, many speakers explored the artistic side of mobile games. This includes artwork, storyline, musical score, voice acting, and other design aspects not included in the code. Tara Mustapha and Latoya Peterson of Glow Up Games both contributed to the session “Storytelling & Design” in which they spoke about how to find the “soul” of the game. It’s key to create a gripping narrative to keep your players hooked, while finding the perfect balance between that and the technical side. True, there are soothingly addictive games with zero plot (think Candy Crush, or Angry Birds). However, to win your players’ hearts, a smart script and engaging storyline is a must.

Later that afternoon, Nick Murray from GamesConsulting.net moderated a panel that attacked the similar theme of Creativity and Business. Zaair Hussein from FRAG Games and Joshua Galloway both discussed how to find the sweet spot between treating your game as a work of art versus as a company, how much of your budget to devote to which side, and how feedback from gamers can contribute to both UX and profits. Ultimately, this led to a fascinating discussion on the philosophy of games theory, and how to bridge the gap between games purists and entrepreneurs who have a realistic view of the current market.

mobile games liveops
Image Source: https://www.tpbgame.com/

Pocket Gamer Connects Digital: LiveOps Landscape

Wednesday saw a variety of panels and discussions that did a deep-dive into LiveOps and how they can heighten the effect and UX of your game. In fact, as Oscar Clark pointed out, 80% of the work that goes into a mobile game occurs post-launch. This may involve wooing players, maintaining the community, and then retaining that community long-term.

Josh Nilson, the CEO and co-founder of East Side Games, gave his insights on how to leverage user data to hyperpersonalize a game’s LiveOps. He described how the dry humor of his “misfit games” – such as the Trailer Park Boys – meant they could take a lot of creative leeway in making personal connections with players. For example, user data such as Instagram posts, Facebook stories, interests and groups followed, all influence the tone and content of how to engage with those users.

LiveOps can take the form of push notifications, unique game content, interviews with the developing team, live events… the list is endless. Nilson points out that, with perpetually renewing caches of user data, the methods of using that data to connect with users is as limitless as the devs’ imaginations. As you engage new fans, the same LiveOps techniques can then go on to strengthen your game’s community. He points out that weekly events are crucial, although live events should be planned out 6 months in advance.

Analytics from a LiveOps Perspective

Peitsa Hynninen of Small Giant Games then walked listeners through strategies for performing analytics from a LiveOps perspective. Specifically, he explored how to do analytics on a game before the hard data is in place (for example, pre-launch). In this case, you would build a simulation framework for the game and run simulation data – e.g., simulate a long-term rewards distribution. This then acts as a benchmark against actual data once you have it.

Once you have real-time data, you can then determine what your players value in a game:

  •  What content resonates?
  • iWhat offers (e.g. content, pricepoints) are they passing by?
  •  What community behavior gets pushback?

It’s important to take personal and cultural factors into your analytics. As Hynninen pointed out, behaviors are not always rational. They can sometimes be the result of a glaringly obvious oversight on the developers’ or marketing team’s part. He tells of a game pricepoint- 490 yen – that proved problematic for the Japanese market. It turned out the numbers 4  and 9 are unlucky numbers in Japan, as they are homonyms for the Japanese words for death and suffering.

Overall, Pocket Gamer Connects’ digital conference had more content and insights than we could process. We had a fantastic few days attending. We also had plenty of opportunities to connect with other attendees and participate in Thursday’s workshops and round tables. We’re looking forward to attending their next event, and would love to hear back from your experiences as well!

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