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How to manage a soft launch for a free-to-play game
You are putting too many features in your soft launch.
Don’t worry, everyone else is too. But by doing so you are wasting time, spending money you don’t need to and jeopardising the long-term future of your game. Here’s why.
What is the point of a soft launch?
A soft launch exists to answer one question:
Is this game good enough for a marketed launch?
Perhaps at this point, it would be good to have some definitions. People use the phrase “soft launch” to cover a multitude of meanings. It might mean a technical test. It might be a minimum viable product. It might be a vertical slice. It might be a final “yep, we’re ready to go.”
To my mind, the purpose of the soft launch is always to test. You want to use the soft launch to (in the word of Eric Ries, the founder of The Lean Startup movement), to get out of the building. To get your product (in our case, a game) into the hands of real players, using it in a normal circumstances (i.e. not in a moderated focus group), as soon as possible.
I consider there to be three types of launch or test:
- A technical test – if you come from AAA development, you might call these a closed Beta, or even a closed Alpha. This launch tests if the technology works. It is particularly important for a game with significant online functionality, such a PvP game with matchmaking like Hearthstone or Clash of Clans.
- A commercial test – this is what is often thought of as a soft launch. The commercial test focuses on retention, FTUE (first time user experience) completion rates and monetisation metrics like conversion rates and ARPU. It is designed to answer one question: is the lifetime value of my users good enough to justify a marketed launch?
- A marketed launch – this is where you pull the trigger on whatever marketing support you have for your title. It might be a platform feature from Apple or Google. If you have a strong brand like Plants versus Zombies or Angry Birds, it is simply making the game available globally. It might mean cross-promotional support from other titles in your network, or it might mean spending a million dollars on a User Acquisition campaign. Whichever marketing tools you have at your disposal, you want to maximise the chances of a strong, marketed launch. That is the point of the soft launch.
So let’s dig into how to do each of them well.
The technical test
Not all games need a separate technical test. For many linear games with no multiplayer element, there is no need for a large-scale technical test separate to the commercial test. Games like Tiny Tower or Fallout Shelter, which are essentially single player, may not need a separate test.
Games which might need a separate technical test include:
- Multiplayer games: can the servers handle enough peak logins? How can we scale if peak concurrent users get too high? How can we fail gracefully?
- Matchmaking games: is our matchmaking system robust? What happens if we can’t find a match? How does our matchmaking algorithm work in the real world? How can we minimise the delay between pressing play and starting to play a game?
- Online games: any game where the player is required to be online at all times might need a separate technical test to prove that the servers can handle the load without creating unbearable delays for the user.
The key advantage of running a separate technical test is that it might save you lots of money. Many commercial tests take place in Denmark, New Zealand and Canada, for reasons I’ll discuss below. These are high GDP per capita nations and user acquisition costs can be high, not least because of all the soft launches in those territories.
But for a technical test, you don’t care about commercial issues like monetisation. You just want to know if your game can handle 10,000 users, or how much liquidity you need for your matchmaking algorithm. For that reason, many companies choose countries where the user acquisition cost is low for a technical test.
Countries like Indonesia and Philippines have UA costs 1/10 as high as nations with higher GDP per head. They make good candidates for a technical test. It also means that you can practice your UA skills using much smaller amounts of money than you can in, say, New Zealand.
A second advantage, particularly for Europeans, is the time zone. Peak playing time on smart devices continues to be prime time: the evening between 7 and 10 pm, after work. That means that peak playing time in Indonesia happens during the working day in, say, France. So when you are trying to test load balancing and server response times, the peak load occurs when you are working, not after hours.
So if you need to run a technical test, do it in a country where you can acquire a critical mass of users cost effectively.
The commercial test
The commercial test exists to answer the question: Is the lifetime value of my customers good enough to justify spending my scarce marketing resources on this title?
They also throw in a laundry list of features which have no place in a soft launch.
- Daily rewards
- Daily quests
- Sharing to Facebook or posting to Twitter
- Dozens of others
There are always exceptions to the rules above, but this is the principle: You want to test the fundamental retention (and, subsequently) monetisation of the game. Features like daily rewards are retention techniques that can work on any game. They are not a big element of risk in your design. You absolutely want them in your game before you spend your marketing resources, but by putting them in your soft launch, you are delaying learning whether the core of the your game has good retention.
Actually, it’s worse than that. By putting in systems like login bonuses or achievements, you can obscure the true retention metrics of your game. A game like Crossy Road or Flappy Bird doesn’t focus on these retention techniques because it is just so fun. But even a game like Simpsons Tapped Out or Fallout Shelter needs to be able to draw users back just because of the intrinsic fun of playing the game, not just because of the extrinsic rewards of getting your login bonus every day.
As you prioritirise your soft launch, this is how to determine what is in or what is out, that should be left out so you get to the commercial test as fast as possible:
- Is this retention feature essential to the core loop of the game? If so, it should be IN.
- Is this feature new, either to the industry or the team? Are we nervous about it? Is it a risk? If so, it should be IN.
- Does the game function perfectly well without this? In which case it should be OUT (a daily login bonus is a great example here)
- Can we add this feature to the game at a later stage with no impact on the core experience? OUT (achievement or GameCenter integration often fit this bill)
- Do we know how to do it? Then it is a good candidate to be OUT?
- Will including it tell us nothing useful to inform our decision to market the game? OUT (this is why Facebook integration is often out at this stage. In a soft launch, you may not want your game to go viral, and with only a small pool of users, it probably won’t go viral anyway. So leave it out.)
Of course, there are exceptions to the rule. If daily quests are at the absolute heart of your game, you need them in. If your game is multiplayer only, then maybe you need Facebook to provide liquidity for your players. Maybe GameCenter leaderboards are the primary motivation for people to play your game, so put them in.
But the basic rule is that if the reason you are putting a feature in is because it’s “best practice”, or because Apple won’t feature you without it, or because everyone else does it, leave it out.
A soft launch is a process, not a moment in time
What happens the day you soft launch? Do you think you’ve gold mastered and can give the team a month’s holiday and a pat on the back for a job well done.
Of course not. A soft launch (whether technical test, commercial test or both) is the first time you get feedback at scale from ordinary users. It’s a time to work really hard to respond to data, to feedback and to tweak the trajectory of your game.
But for the first few weeks, as you wait to get data and then make sense of it, the team can be working on all those features that you are going to add eventually – the daily logins and the achievements and so on. But they are doing it while you are gathering real world data on what your game needs. Some features that seemed like Must Haves move down the priority list because data says they are not needed. Other things suddenly crop up that you hadn’t considered. The schedule gets rearranged, features added and features dropped.
This is the whole point. You shouldn’t get to the soft launch with a game you would be happy to hard launch. You’ve spent too much time, too much money and probably built lots of things that were unnecessary. Early assumptions about what would your game better have now been baked in, and it’s too late to change.
So change your thinking. In a twelve month build, launch after six months. Leave out the F2P bells and whistles that will obscure the data and stop you from knowing if you have a hit on your hands. Add that stuff in later in the process, because it carries low production risk and low design risk. Prioritise the stuff you are unsure of, or are scared of, not the stuff that is easy.
That way you will learn what you need to know faster, you will spend less money and your marketed launch product is likely to be much more successful.
The hard launch
The hard launch is when you use your scarce marketing resources. It’s the moment you open the floodgates and let hundreds of thousands or, hopefully, millions of users into your acquisition funnel.
You might spend money. You might get featured by a platform holder. You might cross-promote your game thoughout your portfolio, or that of your publisher. You might get your YouTuber partners to tweet to 10 million Twitter followers. It’s a big deal.
But if you have spent a long time in soft launch, you have a much better chance of that hard launch being successful. The purpose of this post is not to argue that you won’t need daily login rewards or achievements or social integration in your game. It’s to say that most of these features can easily be added during a six or nine month soft launch process.
So grab a red pen and your feature list, strike out every feature that is not absolutely core to the experience and move your soft launch forward by three months. You will save money and significantly improve your chances of long term success.
Nicholas Lovell is giving a masterclass on How to Make Money from F2P Games in San Francisco on March 13th, 2016, the Sunday before GDC. You can find out more at www.gamesbrief.com/masterclasses.