Common Mistakes in AAA Game Development

Common Mistakes in AAA Game Development

Warning: deep holes, dangerous current, slippery rocks.
Five common pitfalls and malpractices in triple A game development — a best practice guide on competing in live service markets.

1) Focus on retention, not acquisition

It’s a common misconception to believe that marketing’s primary function is to drive sales. In a forgetful industry like this, companies that over-promise but under-deliver will lose out on business. This has become especially clear for titles that gained a lot of traction promoting a final product, but failed to temper expectations as they transitioned into early access.

Nobody likes to be misled by advertising campaigns that set false expectations. And the short-term prospect of mass pre-orders and initial sales revenue doesn’t outweigh the long-term impact of negative reviews, refunds, or a tainted image.

Instead, marketing should set realistic expectations that will be met, if not outdone. Focus should lie on good product design and transparently communicating that design to its respective audience. Emphasize strengths that resonate with your audience and advertise unique selling points that set your game apart from competition.

After all, happy customers are your best marketeers. Slow growth generally proves more sustainable. And word-of-mouth is the most effective form of advertising.

2) Avoid highly contested markets through original design

When a new formula for success opens up a profitable market, investors are quick to claim a slice of the pie—aiming to launch a superior product, or an alternative that shares similar successful features of design. As a result, the market splits and the fight over customers intensifies.

This leaves little room for success, particularly when aiming for a lion’s share. Since the pioneer – the first to establish the market – usually remains among its key players. And, given that most (live service) markets are dominated by just one or two larger brands.

And although success stories like those of Fortnite and League of Legends show clear advantages of coming in second, they are set apart by a more important characteristic in strategic differentiation. Targeting non-customers helps developers design original value propositions to create new markets. Even established brands in competitive markets can sometimes benefit from strategic re-positioning to focus on new or specific target segments, rather than fighting over the same share.

The three tiers of non-customers as defined by Kim & Mauborgne’s Blue Ocean Strategy are:

  1. Soon-to-be non-customers on the edge of your market waiting to jump ship.
  2. Refusing non-customers who consciously choose against your market.
  3. Unexplored non-customers in distant markets that are unfamiliar with your market.

Total Mayhem Games' We Were Here series differentiates from the puzzle genre by offering a unique take on cooperative gameplay.

3) Address consumer barriers

Address hurdles that uphold player retention or new player acquisition without compromising on the original design’s intent. All games have inherent weaknesses that prevent new players from entering, and that can frustrate current players to the point of leaving. While most barriers cannot be eliminated without changing core aspects of design, often, certain solutions can be implemented to help alleviate the pain.

Live service games in particular tend to suffer from ‘new player gaps’ that only get wider as new updates roll out. Think of a skill or knowledge gap that new players need to bridge when installing an older game. Or the amount of time (and money) that new players need to spent to be on par with others.

For some problems, solutions could be as simple as subtle UI improvements. Others require larger, more complicated solutions, such as for example, a matchmaking algorithm to even out the playing-field, or a coaching system that helps players understand complicated game mechanics.

Combined however, these barriers tell a lot about your product and audience. Addressing consumer barriers without modifying the core gameplay experience (through modular features, quality of life improvements, etc.) helps retain, grow and diversify your audience.

Various types of consumer barriers in a video game.

4) Don’t forget about the eighty percent

Most free-to-play business models are built around the Pareto principle, the law of the vital few, thriving off an approximate twenty percent of customers who are generating a vast majority of the overall revenue—the so-called whales, a casino term in reference of high stakes gamblers.

However, to ensure a healthy consumer base, it’s important that regular users don’t feel left out. A preferential treatment based on exclusive offerings catered to the wealthy few doesn’t accomplish that.

Instead, live service developers could take a page out of society, modelling revenue models after real world economics—a (more or less) balanced system, in where luxury products are rare but inessential, while essential products are abundant and cheap (and sometimes even free).

5) Monetize with integrity

From pay-to-win mechanics, to overpriced content that should’ve been part of the base game—anti-consumerism is a term often used to describe corporate greed that continues to tarnish the reputation of major and minor brands to date. Here are eight principles of fair monetization that can help build customer loyalty:

  1. Add value without taking away from the base game.
  2. Avoid the principle of loss aversion—don’t fabricate hurdles to sell a solution.
  3. Avoid instant-gratification practices by offering arbitrary rewards.
  4. Don’t prey on sensitive customers: offer time and refund opportunities to make a balanced purchase decision.
  5. Test price-elasticity, without increasing prices.
  6. Give away stuff for free, and offer generous deals.
  7. Cater to different customer segments, consider geo-pricing.
  8. Don’t offer pay-to-win solutions in a competitive setting.