The Sticky Factor: Creating a Benchmark for Social Gaming Success

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[The following is a guest post by Eric von Coelln, a social game consultant who occasionally contributes articles for Inside Social Games. Below, he takes a deep dive into the “daily active user” metric and how it ties into game growth and monetization. Important note: DAUs are now viewable on our AppData service. So read this post then go check out your favorite game to see how it’s doing.]

The concept is straightforward: The more a user comes back and plays, the more engaged they are. And the more engaged they are, from my experience at PowerSoccer.com, the easier it is to monetize them. Why? A user who comes in and plays your game every day is much more likely to get to that point where they open their wallet, compared to someone who visits once or twice a month or plays twice and never comes back.

zynga-sticky-factor

So while Monthly Active Users (MAU) has been a metric that has been used to identify which games have been strong in getting reach (either virally or through advertising), the Daily Active Users (DAU) is the true base you should be able to monetize, weeding out the users that only come for a quick trial and don’t come back. A step further in this analysis is something I call the “social game sticky factor” (DAU/MAU) which allows you to benchmark applications’ ability to retain their users.

If your application has a 33% sticky, that means that for every new user you bring in, you have a 33% shot at turning them into a daily user. Compare that to an application with 20% Social Game Sticky Factor, and you can now compare the potential return-on-investment of a Facebook Ad campaign or further development of a game (either to make it stickier or focus your development on another game with a higher sticky factor).

A key for driving the sticky factor, besides great game play, has been the ability of the application to prompt users to reach out to their friends via the Facebook News Feed with stories and pictures. With several changes to the news feed being rolled out on Friday, including going from a real-time to algorithimic listing of top stories and a reduction in the number and size of images, there may be some significant changes in overall sticky factor metrics going forward.

I’ve looked at the top developers and their average sticky factors, but let’s break that down by game and over the last year (and prior to the newsfeed changes) to look at game-specific insights:

Zynga

Some highlights looking at the Social Game Sticky Factor for Zynga’s top games over the last 12 months:

  • You can see that all of Zynga’s older games (Mafia Wars, Texas Hold’em and YoVille) have steadily increased their Social Games Sticky Factor over the last year from the mid teens to the mid-to-lower 20s.
  • While Mafia Wars came close to 30% in early July, you can see it begin to drop off once FarmVille is cross promoted. FarmVille has sustained an incredibly high 36% Social Game Sticky Factor so far, which has helped it vault beyond the competition in total DAUs.
  • New games like FarmVille, Roller Coaster Kingdom and Café World often have very high Social Game Sticky Factors in the early weeks before settling to some sort of equilibrium
  • Roller Coaster Kingdom sunk below 15% post launch and then the game mechanic was altered (to a more “appointment gaming” model like FarmVille). When the game appeared to be approaching 20% again, Zynga began cross-promoting in their toolbar across applications, showing a quick spike in the Social Game Sticky Factor reminiscent of what we see when a game is launched.
  • We are still waiting to see where the natural Social Games Sticky Factors will lie for both Café World and Roller Coaster Kingdom, but it looks like they will be 30% and 20% respectively

playfish-sticky-factor

Playfish

Now let’s take a look at the 2nd largest Facebook game developer, Playfish:

Some key points over the last 12 moths:

  • In contrast to Zynga, Playfish started with high sticky factors in games like Pet Society and Restaurant City, but has actually seen those decline. Not included in this analysis are first generation Playfish games like Word Challenge and Who Has the Biggest Brain? which have Social Game Sticky Factors of 8% and 4% respectively.
  • For a good part of this year, Pet Society saw a Sticky Factor in the low to mid 30% range. Then Restaurant City launched in late March with a more compelling game play with early retention rates in the 40%. Pet Society almost immediately saw a drop of the Sticky Factor to the mid 20% range, which suggests some Pet Society users stopped playing consistently as their attention was focused on the new Restaurant City game. Zynga saw this same “cross-promotion-cannibalization” of its playing base with FarmVille and Mafia Wars.
  • New farm sim game Country Story looks like it’s settling into the 20% range, which is still strong, just a marked difference from the 36% FarmVille is seeing. Likewise, the other new title from Playfish, Crazy Planets, has had a difficult time building an audience (been flat around 250,000 DAU) and has been hovering around an 11% Social Game Sticky Factor.

fish-sim-sticky-factor

Fish Sim Genre

Fish Sim Games have jumped into the top 25 and a great deal of this has to do with the strong Social Game Sticky Factors across the board:

Collectively, Happy Aquarium (by CrowdStar), My Fishbowl (by TwoFishes Interactive) and Fish World (by Tall Tree Games) would be the #2 application on Facebook, with over 8.9 million Daily Active Users. All three games have launched since August and seem to have seen slow sticky-factor declines, except for My Fishbowl. This Chinese developed game has a cross-promotional toolbar (à la Zynga and Playfish) that seems to be shared with the #13 game, 開心農場 (Happy Harvest), that I first noticed around September 30th, when you can see My Fishbowl’s Social Game Sticky Factor stabilized and since has grown.

Is a 15% Social Game Sticky Factor the Tipping Point?

There undoubtedly can be a great deal more analysis, but it would seem that when your game application reaches a 15% Social Game Sticky Factor, you have an application that can maintain sustained growth. Below this, it appears harder for games to grow; when Roller Coaster Kingdom was revamped and finally passed 15%, Zynga appears to have turned on the advertising and cross-promotional muscle to push it into the top 15 by DAUs.

While there is a correlation of stickiness to monetization, I’m not suggesting that there aren’t other factors involved. You can have a game that everyone plays, but if there is no motivation for users to buy items (either through impacting game play or providing personalization), you aren’t going to make money. But I would suggest it’s improbable you’ll make money from a social game that no one continues to play.

Eric von Coelln was the vice president of marketing at Oberon Media, a leading multi-platform casual games company, and most recently the vice president of Marketing at PowerSoccer.com. He is now a New York based freelance consultant to games, e-commerce and social media companies — including some of the largest social gaming companies on Facebook. While Mr. von Coelln does write about some companies for which he has done paid consulting from time to time, this post is based on publicly available information and in our view is an unbiased analysis of the industry. You can find his blog here.