Science Friction - how friction can break social games
December 2010 - January 2011
How many steps does it take for an average customer to choose, buy and consume a retail game? 5? 10? 15? With so many opportunities to be put off or distracted by other games, entertainment or activities, it’s a tough job steering players towards purchase. This month, I’m going to graze the surface of a vast new discipline for self-publishing games companies: managing friction. Friction means anything that gets between your game’s promotion and its purchase and enjoyment by your customers. Over decades, retail marketers have honed their skills at smoothing this inherently high friction path towards the till. Managing friction is a very different science for network businesses, and one which today defines some of the industry’s most successful companies.
Selling games direct to players over networks clearly reduces some kinds of friction but certainly does not eliminate them all. In fact, our sensitivity to friction is amplified online. Whether it’s a download delay, a registration process, a poorly-crafted marketing message or a credit card form, friction can dramatically reduce your sales. Friction = lost customers and thus revenues. Many online gaming companies invest significantly in processes to guide players from initial interest to spending money as smoothly as possible. Optimising that funnel is a highly granular, iterative and data-heavy process aimed at converting players to the next stage of their engagement with a game.
Friction has long been an environmental hazard for online marketers – the venerable click-through rate is just one friction metric. Every budding online marketer soon discovers you need to test which “call to action” works best. Social games companies reduce friction by testing phrasing, landing pages and all graphical aspects of their marketing, homing in from multiple variations to those that work best. Each call to action is optimised for different kinds of target customer and marketing channel. Trial and error will reveal what works for AdWords may fail as copy for an affiliate promotion, for example. Analytics underpin this discipline, allowing practitioners to dice marketing, customers and on-site activity into segments which are then analysed for return on investment. Each of the many channels and campaigns will perform at different levels depending on the target audience and one major driver behind the success of social networks is that they can dramatically reduce the friction of shopping from a catalogue of multiple products by getting players to recruit friends. However, finding staff skilled at the continual process of evaluating the data is challenging.
The friction generated by people’s stunning impatience online requires a range of technical solutions. Amazon reportedly discovered that a 100 microsecond increase in load time decreased sales by 1%. Google is said to have found that a half second delay in loading a page resulted in a 20% fall in traffic. With load speed fundamentally affecting sales of all online products, most online games companies dealing with high traffic volumes have turned to the cloud to decrease response time. Streaming games services are built on technology designed to reduce the friction of low bandwidths and slow game downloads. Flash’s 95%+ (i.e. low friction) installed base is today driving a significant proportion of online gaming whereas games dependent on plug-ins can force 99% of web users to download and install clients over multiple clicks which most will fail to complete. Plug-in and other download-based online games clearly can work but they do so only for the most motivated players, often the hard-core minority who will tolerate the higher friction.
The bad news is that your work is not finished once someone arrives on your site and accesses your game. In fact, your work’s only just started. We’ve seen data from companies that have won or purchased massive traffic only to lose almost all of it before people even start playing. Some are basic errors in design. How many people clicking on a ‘Play Now’ button are actually forced to endure multiple screens and forms before getting to the Fun? Canny operators manage this by delaying the necessary points of highest friction. Although SOE’s Free Realms requires a client download, new players can immediately start creating and customising their characters in browser, initiating but subsequently hiding the download process. Thus the friction of the installation process is delayed until players are incentivised to continue only after they have made something of value to them in the game. Each individual game will have points of high and low friction. Identifying and subsequently fixing them will require solid analytics to monitor most interactions between player and game for the entire customer lifetime, as well as design flexibility to provide solutions.
There are many other types of friction, some of them more deadly but others that are, counter-intuitively, beneficial; but here we can only scratch the surface of the data and knowledge we have accumulated on this huge subject. The bottom line is that minimising friction means increasing revenues for many types of game service, and companies that successfully manage friction are being snapped up. One good example is Playdom, whose expertise in the many ways to reduce friction was a driver behind its acquisition by Disney. Another is ngmoco, whose development methodology using analytics to guide continuous game improvements has resulted in one of the highest valuation multiples of recent years. However, failing to manage friction can kill network games businesses just as easily as failing to get customers in the first place.