The Science of Keeping You In The Game - With Kabam's Holly Liu

December 9th, 2016

Gaming is big business. Whether one plays games on a console like an X-box or a Wii, or on a mobile device like your phone or a tablet, game developers know that if they don't keep you engaged, they lose a customer. If they lose a customer, they lose the opportunity to sell updates, upgrades and in-app extras.

HUMAGNA spoke with one of the gaming industry's biggest players, Holly Liu, the co-founder of San Francisco-based entertainment-gaming company KABAM. Liu's company makes "console-quality games for mobile" for successful franchises like MARVEL and STAR WARS. She knows a thing or two about how to keep gamers coming back for more...

HUMAGNA: Keeping players engaged is key to a successful game.  At what point in the development of a game do you start working on increasing engagement with the player?

LIU: We start thinking about engagement from day-zero of game development, while the game is being conceived. At the heart of any game is fun. People won't play a game for a long time or return to the game if it is not fun. So we ask from the get-go, "Is this game fun?"

With the types of games we do, mobile in-app purchase, we can see and measure fun. Because our games are free to download and play, we assume that if people like our games the'll return the next day and the very next day, until they are players for life. We spend our time thinking about games as a service. And in service based businesses -- think restaurants, hotels, bars, etc… they focus on repeat customers -- retention -- or changing customers into “regulars”. We think about how we can build players for life, and even use a metric called regulars to measure the health of a game.

Before a game is available for players, we do not have those metrics, however, we think in terms of retention moreso than engagement as an expression of “fun”. A user discovers a game, installs it and becomes engaged. A player is born. A player returns if it is “fun”. Therefore, we think about retention features that will have people returning weekly and daily.

This impacts our design approach. We begin by thinking about experiences that are social – which you can do with your friends or other players you meet in the game. While people do solitary actions, it's the social actions that are far more engaging and stickier. We have learned that although a mobile game is with a person in the most intimate chambers of a person’s life – the bathroom, bedroom, and waiting rooms – that which has been stickiest is connecting them to people. We live in such a world dominated by technology, but the reality is that we are still people.

Creating players for life also means that we think about content more like a TV series in terms of seasons and episodes. We may not release a whole new world to conquer or a type of an arena until a year or so after the release of the game. Much like a TV series we don't want to release all the seasons at once. One always hopes that you can have longevity in your games like great TV series such as The Simpsons.

Engagement and retention starts from day-zero and hopefully continues for the player’s life.

HUMAGNA: Are there tried and true tools at your disposal to increase engagement?

LIU: There are certainly tried and true mechanics that all games employ, that would be silly if left out of games. However, the more these mechanics can tie to the core of the game, the deeper and more engaging the mechanic will be. For example, many games have a daily scratch-off bonus that will give extra in-game currency to encourage retention.

The greater games tie that daily bonus into the core mechanics of the game. The better games will give in-game items that cannot be obtained anywhere else. But, the best games may tie to a core mechanic in a game to create the habit of daily return, you will have a daily action in-game -- for example, a raid, aquest, or a crop withering that causes a player to return rather than just a pop-up scratch-off to win in-game currency.

HUMAGNA: Do the core rules change depending on age, gender, culture?

LIU: Core rules change based more on genre. Genres are a way to group gameplay – we have puzzle games, simulation games, action RPG games, RPG games, runner games, etc… And there are certain genres of games that do better in some age groups, gender and culture. For example puzzle games such as Candy Crush enjoy an audience that is more evenly split between men and women and among an older crowd. Whereas strategy games such as Clash of Clans tend to be heavier male. Empire-building games and Action RPG games are incredibly popular in China but not as popular in the US.

So, to some degree the core rules do change based on age, gender and culture – but that is because they change more based on game genre.

KABAM Co-Founder Holly Liu - Photo: Courtesy of Kabam

HUMAGNA: An understanding of psychology would seem useful, no? Is engagement itself a science? 

LIU: More importantly than an understanding of psychology is the ability to apply it. It is one thing to analyze a great story, but it is another talent to be a great story-teller. If given a choice, we would prefer the latter.

However, it is incredibly important – as a masterful entertainer does, to take in feedback from the audience and adjust accordingly. In today’s game-technology, game-makers can measure almost every action a player takes – that’s a lot of data! I always say, data can turn the lights on in a room but it cannot tell you how to move the furniture. Data informs your decisions and it’s very important to know as a guide but not driven by data. Data-led rather than data-driven.

So, a solid understanding of the science, the data and metrics of engagement is incredibly important since today’s technology can measure almost every action a player takes, and that’s a lot of data! At Kabam, we blend the art and science of games. I believe that ninety-percent science will get you there, but it is the last 10% that is the magic and the core of what breathes life into game – the art.

HUMAGNA: Do you set out quantifiable goals with respect to engagement?

LIU: We tend to set more quantifiable goals around retention - how often do people come back - more than engagement - how long people stay in our game. While a longer session time is good, too long of a session time may risk people from returning later. We prioritize retention over engagement because it is more important for us to make a player for life than to make a player for 24 hours. We don’t want players to be addicted and enjoy everything in just one sitting as we are focused on the long-term. This is the reason many games have cool "down-timers" or they simply block you from progressing all at once in the game.

HUMAGNA: Have you, yourself ever had what you would consider an unhealthy engagement with a game? If so, which one and why?

LIU: From a player’s point of view – what is considered “an unhealthy engagement” is not the same as from the game maker’s point of view. What is considered “unhealthy engagement” varies from person to person and is up to the person know their limits as well as how they prioritize what is important to them.

More than any game, I have unhealthy engagements to television and movies as well as some online social media sites that win my time more than they should. There have been times where I have dedicated most of my waking hours to a game, but the reality is it has never been sustainably as unhealthy as my other vices.