How to Spot a Breakout Facebook Game

It can be valuable to take a look at the early life cycle of a social game to determine whether or not a Facebook game is likely to be a success on its own merits or a flash-in-the-pan whose growth is driven through less sustainable forms of user acquisition.

Thanks to Facebook’s large userbase, it’s very easy for a new social game to gain millions or even tens of millions of players within the first few weeks of its launch. When a game gets these kinds of numbers, some triumph the explosive growth as a “breakout success.” However, if we’re to define “success” as a game with high engagement rates and revenue, appearances can be deceiving. Often, a Facebook game that garners millions of players in the first month will lose most of them in the next few — or, just as concerning, gain millions of players who fail to visit the game on a daily basis (which generally translates into lower monetization rates).

Fortunately, there are a number of factors that consistently correlate to games with strong revenue generation potential. Some pertain to monthly and daily active user growth rates and fluctuation, and can be reviewed using our AppData traffic tracking service. Beyond the numbers, however, deeper analysis requires a holistic look at a game and its performance. In the next section, we’ll characterize some of these factors and then put them in context using case studies of two older social games for Facebook. In the final section, we’ll do a case study of a recent game.

Useful Metrics-Based Signals for Potential Success

Continued Growth of MAU After Third Month of Launch
New games from leading developers often experience a large growth period during the first three months of official launch. This growth is often due to cross-promotion through the company’s other titles and targeted advertising across Facebook. However, if the game does not gain a base of users that return on a consistent, daily basis to the game, growth of monthly active users (or MAU) tends to drop off at quick pace, due in large part to attrition of one time-only users.

Steady Growth or Levels of DAU After Third Month of Launch
Daily Active Users (or DAU) are a game’s most important metric, since a game’s daily players are the most apt to monetize. For this reason, a game with a large absolute number of DAUs — say, six figures or higher — is almost always a successful one in terms of revenue, no matter its DAU-to-MAU ratio (see section below). Again, keep in mind that a game with heavy promotion will show strong DAU in the first two and three months, reflecting first-time installs. The real test is continued growth of DAU past the third month.

Relatively High DAU-to-MAU Percentages After Third Month of Launch
The most important indicator of a breakout success is a relatively strong DAU-to-MAU percentage. In general, a rate of 20% or higher suggests healthy retention and consistent monetization, as supported by data from our Inside Virtual Goods series. Once again, remember that this is an indicative metric three months after the initial launch, when the “try once” users have dropped off. Note that DAU-to-MAU percentages tend to appear low during the first month or so post-launch, as MAU climbs rapidly; it may also appear artificially high in the first month if the title is available on Facebook as a closed beta accessible by only a select pool of users. It’s far more important to have a high ratio of people playing every day, months afterward.

Broader, Subjective Measures of Early-Stage Potential

Brand Awareness, Publisher Size, News Coverage, Advertising, Etc.
A new game will often experience atypical growth rates due to a number of external factors. For instance, cross-promotion in already successful games from the same developer, preexisting brand awareness (e.g. The Smurfs & Co. or The Sims Social), targeted advertising (in particular on Facebook), and prominent coverage in the tech/gaming/mainstream media. A Google search on the game’s title will often reveal such news coverage (if any), while a scan of similar, popular Facebook games will often reveal a game’s advertising campaign (if any). As a general rule, the larger a company is, the larger its advertising campaign for a new game will be. Extenuating factors such as these may at first make a game appear more of a breakout success than it is.

Other factors can slow a game’s growth. For instance, technical or deployment issues which cause high quit rates. In principle, these issues are resolvable over time, which might then lead to a recovery of growth. Also keep in mind that some games are not developed with breakout success as a foremost goal. In particular, games that are made to promote an external property for a limited about of time, such as the small-scale Game of Thrones: Battle for the Iron Throne game available on the TV show’s Facebook page, exist to drive attention to the product rather than as standalone experiences designed to monetize.

Hands-on Review of End User Experience
While overall usage data is crucial for determining a game’s breakout potential, a hands-on review of the game itself is also recommended. Some social games launch with technical issues, are not a natural fit to the Facebook platform, or are not appealing to its intended audience. Others are not well localized, or come with a confusing/unappealing user interface that might impede growth. A short play session will often reveal such issues (if any).

In the same vein, also beware of games with excessive, mandatory virality: i.e., Facebook games which require players to add their friends to progress through primary gameplay objectives. While excessive, mandatory virality can boost install rates, it can also boost quit rates, as many players resist “spamming friends.”

Case Study: Kixeye’s Backyard Monsters

Launched in May 2010, Kixeye’s strategy game Backyard Monsters remains a relatively popular Facebook game, now with 800,000 DAU and 3 million MAU for an impressive DAU-to-MAU of 28%. In the game, players harvest resources to build a base from which to launch attacks, while warding off attack from players and non-player enemies. Could we have made an educated guess that it would be a breakout success early on in the game’s life cycle? Here’s its performance after the first three months:

As we can see, growth in MAU continues at a strong rate after the first two months of game launch, as does growth in DAU (though growth slowed toward the end of July).  Here we can see two of our factors at work — continued growth in MAU and steady or continued growth in DAU.

Now let’s review the two holistic factors that cannot be checked with AppData. At the time of launch, Kixeye (then named Casual Collective) did not have other large social games to cross-promote Backyard Monsters, and was not based on a preexisting brand. The developer did cross-promote Backyard Monsters through its external website and had some brand awareness, in great part through its popular Flash game Desktop Tower Defense. Based on a Google search, however, we can see that the game did not get much prominent coverage on major tech/gaming blogs at launch.

Hands-on review of end user experience: We can say, based on our own gameplay experience during the first three months, that Backyard Monsters proved itself innovative and engaging. Even without features added over the past five months, the game was a well-made resource-management strategy title with special appeal for “hardcore gamers.” Backyard Monsters also supported short gameplay sessions and player-vs-player competition that fit well with the Facebook platform. The proof of its appeal is suggested in Backyard Monster’s DAU-to-MAU percentage three months after launch:

As is the case for most games in the early days, Backyard Monsters’ DAU-to-MAU ratio was extremely high for the first month. Going into the third month, however, the game maintained a retention rate of just under 25% DAU-to-MAU. This illustrates one of our five factors for success: A relatively high DAU-to-MAU percentage three months after launch.

Based on this case study, we can see that an assessment of Backyard Monster as a “breakout success” made after three months on Facebook would be accurate in this case.

Case Study: Mob Science’s inFamous Anarchy

A social game tie-in for PlayStation 3 console game inFamous 2, inFamous Anarchy is a combat-heavy role-playing game in which the player explores a post-apocalyptic city to earn resources and defeat monsters. Launched last June, the game also includes a player-versus-player component as well as farming simulation elements in the resource-gathering portion of the game. While it was developed in great part to promote the PS3 game, it was also intended to be a social game that could be played and monetized as an independent product.

However, while the game enjoyed very strong MAU growth in its first two months, a strong dropoff rate began soon afterward, with DAU falling even before the first month. As a result, DAU-to-MAU fell even faster in that first month:

Reviewing our holistic factors, inFamous Anarchy received some press coverage ahead of launch while Sony promoted it to existing fans of the franchise on its websites. This included an offer of special content for the inFamous 2 PS3 game, obtainable by playing the Facebook game and leveling up.

As of today, the game has just 2,000 DAU and 40,000 MAU. Based on a review of its Facebook page, developer activity around inFamous Anarchy is currently sparse: The latest updates are promotions related to the PS3 game, and the last update pertaining to the actual Facebook game is from September (the only update for that month), following frequent Facebook game-related promotional/new content updates in August and July. Again, going by the five factors we’ve identified, it would’ve been clear early on that inFamous Anarchy wasn’t a breakout success.

While the developer did intend for inFamous Anarchy to succeed on its own, bear in mind that its main intent was primarily as a cross-promotion for the console title. Its life cycle is directly tied to the fate of the console game, which can work out if the console game is well received and supported by frequent updates. Take for example EA’s Facebook game Dragon Age Legends, another tie-in for a console franchise that officially launched in March 2011. This game saw a resurgence in traffic after its first three months, thanks in part to connectivity with the console game, its expansions, and an open web tie-in game with cross-promotion for the Facebook title. Today, the game maintains a steady 13% DAU-to-MAU ratio with a user base at 20,000 DAU and 150,000 MAU.

Predicting the Success in Atari’s Heroes of Neverwinter

Heroes of Neverwinter is a Facebook game tied to one of gaming’s most well-known brands: Dungeons & Dragons, which rose to fame decades ago as a table-and-dice role-playing game. It has some brand awareness due to the bestselling PC-based game franchise, Neverwinter Nights 1 and 2, and is expected to have some cross-compatibility with the upcoming online game, Neverwinter (set to launch in 2012). Heroes of Neverwinter entered open beta in September 2011, and while it didn’t have the benefit of strong cross-promotion on Facebook on account of Atari’s light presence on Facebook (the company’s page has less than 80,000 fans), it received positive media coverage on consumer-oriented video game publications, thus attracting potential interest from an audience loyal to the Dungeons & Dragons franchise. Taking into account these extenuating variables (one of our five factors), it’s probable that the game enjoyed at least some additional growth due to publicity and existing brand awareness.

Monthly active growth of Heroes of Neverwinter since September has trended upward, for the most part, but at a slower rate compared to leading social games:

At the same time, DAU for Heroes reached a peak less than a month after launch, and started trending more or less downward since then. More concerning, DAU as a percentage of MAU has within a month of launch dropped from a high of 50% to under 15% now:

This data puts Heroes of Neverwinter at a disadvantage in three of our five factors, even with brand awareness working for it.

In hands-on review of the product, Heroes of Neverwinter reveals some design and execution challenges which may be contributing to its slow growth. The user-interface is cluttered and more complex than most Facebook games, making retention of non-RPG gamers difficult; the game’s dark and violent artwork, which may appeal to male gamers, are barriers to reaching Facebook’s broader audience. Further, the game doesn’t seem to be a natural fit to the Facebook platform as it fails to fully leverage the social graph and does not support short play sessions usually associated with social games.

As it stands, there’s no evidence that Heroes of Neverwinter is a breakout hit. Even so, the beauty of social games is rapid iterative design that empowers Atari to improve upon the existing game for a higher trafficking product. It may be that the developer introduces updates in the next month that drive growth.