Cie Games’s Justin Choi says good data is key to Facebook game development success

Cie Games co-founder Justin Choi says good data is the secret to success on Facebook. His company is still thriving two years later, despite the platform’s reputation as a difficult place for independent developers to find their footing.

Choi maintains that Facebook is still a viable platform for game developers, despite recent stories like CrowdStar no longer developing for the platform and Digital Chocolate being hit with layoffs and studio closures.

“It’s not all dire straits on Facebook,” he says. “You can make games and be successful.”

As a result, he’s willing to go on record and talk about what his company learned with its long-running title, Car Town.

Car Town launched in August 2010 and peaked two different times: once that November with 1.4 million daily active users and then in May 2011 with 9.2 million monthly active users.  Since these milestones were met, the game’s traffic fell off, dropping as low as 4.3 million MAU and 660,000 DAU in September 2011, but it’s still the top car racing game on the social network.

Choi maintains that one of the biggest obstacles for a new developer is what he calls “bad data.” This was a problem for Cie Games when it launched Car Town. The company wanted to grow the game quickly and reach a large audience, something that was initially accomplished by maintaining an aggressive advertising budget. Although more was being spent on ads, they weren’t as effective as today because the studio wasn’t using good information to target profitable users. As a result, the company wasn’t spending money on users who stayed with the game or spent much money before they left.

“The problem was that our analytics platform didn’t perform as ours does now,” Choi tells us. “We made assumptions going in to acquire users, assuming they would become profitable by creating projections and such that turned out to be wrong.”

Choi says the studio couldn’t find an analytics platform that let it find the data it wanted, so the developer built its own, “not because an external one wasn’t better, but because it wasn’t an option at the time.”

The company uses the data it gathers beyond user acquisition. Choi says the data is necessary for tracking a game’s stickiness, whether monetization is working properly and what elements of a game are more appealing than others. “Many developers really underestimate how important it is to be an analytics-driven company,” he explains, “they tend to overestimate the impact of creative execution and underestimate the impact of data-driven development.”

Even though Cie Games built its own analytics platform, Choi knows this isn’t an option for many developers due to the resource commitment necessary to do so. Third-party analytics platforms like Kontagent, Swrve and Mopapp have become prominent among social game developers over the past few years, and Choi acknowledges these kinds of services can be of immense use to a fledgling studio.

“It can take a lot of time and energy to build your own platform, so each developer has to choose between cost and time,” he says. “If we were a new company, I would be hard pressed to say it’d be worthwhile to create our own analytics platform.”

Many developers are currently moving away from the Facebook canvas and developing for mobile devices. Cie Games is bringing Car Town to iOS within the next 60 days. Choi says the game will be completely different from the Facebook version and doesn’t sound like it will use Facebook single sign-on or the network’s Open Graph at all. In addition to this, Cie Games has two more games in the works, both of which are new intellectual properties. Choi can’t tell us much about these titles right now, but one is a mobile-exclusive  game that will launch later this year. The other doesn’t have a launch date yet but will playable on both Facebook and mobile devices.

Choi says bringing games to multiple platforms needs to be considered from both a business and a game development perspective. As a business decision, creating a cross-platform game is a reasonable idea, but if a developer only has limited resources, they should pursue the platform that will provide the best opportunity for success. Cross-platform development can certainly increase one’s chance for discovery and success, but Choi notes mobile app stores can be just as difficult to thrive on as Facebook is. Meanwhile, from a game development perspective, Choi tells us that a developer should focus building a quality game before trying to launch it on as many platforms as possible.

“If your angle is the platform and not building a good game,” he says, “you’re only going to have a certain shelf-life and mobile will sustain you for a little while. But you ultimately need to be able to produce great IP.”

Likewise, merchandising is another tool for a game developer to reach a wider audience, as Rovio has proven with its wide-ranging Angry Birds gear. Zynga is working with Hasbro on some unannounced projects, and Electronic Arts is working with Insomniac Games to create plush toys for the upcoming Outernauts. In fact, Cie Games recently announced it was working with Green Light Toys to create licensed collectible toys based on Car Town (a prototype of one is pictured above). Choi agrees merchandising can do much to expand an IP’s public presence, but also says “the decision’s not up to the game developer to embrace.” Instead, Choi tells us the best approach is for a developer to be approached by an external group because “it’s a sign that the company’s built something that people really love.”

Choi also believes it’s still possible for new developers to succeed on Facebook, but has this advice to offer: Make sure your game can scale, know what data you’re tracking, how to get your analytics in order, and consider all user acquisition options, including third-party publishers.