Originally posted on the GameAnalytics blog.
In one of the largest supermarket outlets in the whole of the UK, just down the road from where your humble blogger lives, sits a kitchen. Built in plain sight, this bizarre little pantry feels a somewhat curious companion to the seemingly endless run of aisles selling all the goods you'd expect a supermarket to sell.
Resembling something of a greenhouse – with windows looking out to the rest of the store so those inside can view all and sundry in the midst of their weekly shopping – said kitchen is actually an especially important facet of this supermarket chain's national operations. The customers may not know it, but in this kitchen, unreleased dishes – radical new ready meals, loaves of bread, cakes, soups, drinks, or indeed any foodstuff you can think of – are put through their paces.
Carefully comprised focus groups are brought into the store, sat down in the kitchen, and tasked with trying out these fresh recipes in a controlled environment. The feedback these groups give can make or break these products – most will never make it to market, relegated to the kitchen bin of history, simply because the group of people designed to be representative of the meal's target market weren't bowled over by it.
The concept of consumer testing is by no means one limited to the supermarkets or even food industry, nor is it in any way a new approach. For mobile developers, however, the idea that you could get a mass of players from a select market to give you valuable data in regard to the likely performance of your game worldwide ahead of release is something that's only come around in a practical fashion since the rise of the App Store in 2008. Apple and Google offer no official 'soft launch' programs, but the region by region nature of their stores means there's nothing to stop you launching in select territories ahead of a global debut in order to find out what works and what doesn't.
It's also something all the cool kids are doing. Think of any major free-to-play developer or publisher from the last 3-4 years, and almost every one of them will have mastered the soft launch along the way. Want to know what Supercell's most recent project is, for instance? Then you might want to hop over to Canada or down to Australia and download Smash Land. (But do it quick, because the game has already been canned, such is the harsh world of the soft launch).
As with any process, however, there's no point in rolling out you game in Australia, Canada, Ireland or New Zealand if you simply do it as a matter of course. The art of a successful soft launch requires careful planning, and the results you generate from it are only as good as the parameters you set for your game before you set out. Parameters such as:
1. Know what questions you want answeredIs there a particular question you want to find out the answer to? Is there a distinct game mode, level, or even small facet of the game that you're not sure if it works or not? As well as any base question – which you need to set out pre-soft launch – there are other basic areas you need to measure during the soft launch to get the most out of it:
User interaction – How are players moving through your game? How often are they playing, how are they moving through the gameplay, and where are they leaving the game?
Retention – How much of the audience is staying on board, and how far into play are they leaving the action?
Monetisation – Are people spending money in play? Does spending cash unlock too much of the game, or is it too easy to play on without spending anything at all? Are the objects for sale of any value to the player, or are you pushing the wrong component of play?
Virality – Are players talking about your game of their own volition? Is it gaining a following on Twitter or Facebook? What are people saying? Have you got all the tools in place to make virality easy?
Retention - How many people come back to your game over a period of 1,7 or even 30 days? Are there any posts or notifications that perform better than others?
2. Be prepared to change
Indeed, in the current Games as a Service era, your game is never finished.
It sounds obvious but, even with all the data in the world from the soft launch telling them something is wrong with their game, many developers are stubborn so and sos, dismissing anything negative that comes up and simply viewing the soft launch as the first bastion of a staggered roll out instead of a test designed to help them iron out the dips and troughs.
If the data from your soft launch tells you something isn't working, that isn't going to magically change once you roll the game out in other territories. Part of this comes from accepting that your game isn't finished when you soft launch. Indeed, in the current Games as a Service era, your game is never finished. Either way, a soft launch is only any use if, once the questions above have been answered, you take steps to ensure that any highlighted problems are rectified. It may even be that the soft launch highlights such fundamental issues that the game never actually sees the light of day worldwide.
This is by no means rare. German giant Wooga has built a name for itself by canning projects that data shows just aren't up to scratch using the aptly termed, "Hit Filter". The worldwide release of Supercell's Smash Land, polished though it was, has actually been pulled during the writing of this article. But why? The damage a bad game does for your brand can be immeasurable, and you can't guarantee that you'll have a Rovio-like revival even if you have your Angry Birds waiting in the wings.
Successful games development means learning from your mistakes and the soft launch is an early warning system - it can tell you just what's wrong with your game before you suffer the indignity of finding out in front of the glare of the world's gamers.
This is not a beta test – this is consumer ready launch
3. Make sure the game is ready
This might sound like a contradiction, but while you should be prepared to make changes to your game, likewise don't send it off to soft launch with known issues.
If you launch it in a region with bugs, unfinished elements or half-baked gameplay, all your data will do is prove you correct, causing you to overlook other issues you might not be aware of. You have to launch the game in a state that you would be comfortable launching it in globally, but at the same time prepared to be flexible and make changes should it highlight problems.
This is not a beta test – this is consumer ready launch, but one that negates the risk of showcasing your game's problems to a massive audience. It's a little window into how the game would play out if you launched now, but for that to work, the game has to be in a retail ready state to the best of your knowledge, even if the data you amass afterwards proves otherwise.
In short, don't soft launch with any known faults. Every pitfall should be a surprise.
Aside from aligning yourself with the right partners – study your chosen soft launch region carefully, and if you need to, pick a partner who has a handle on the procedure – that, in broad strokes, is all you need to know. The long and short of it is, if you want a soft launch to be of any use at all, you need to treat it with respect and take it seriously. The digital nature of mobile means we have the ability to gather essential player data that can make or break a game ahead of time. Don't waste that.
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