Lean Startup Methodologies In Mobile Gaming

by Terrence Gong

The gaming industry has demonstrated a full range of lean startup methodologies adoption. On one end, traditional console and pc games rarely use lean methods: games are hit-driven products with large budgets and develop periods with minimum customer feedback before release (for example, the recent online game, Star Wars: The Old Republic, is rumored to have cost around $200 million to develop). On the flipside, social gaming company, Zynga, utilizes lean-start up methodologies on a daily basis to test new product features by AB testing its large existing user-base (founder Mark Pincus even talks about “ghetto testing” new game ideas in this video). But, many gaming start-ups today focus on mobile gaming (games on iOS and Android platforms, such as Angry Birds and Tiny Tower). How can mobile games benefit from lean startup practices?

A major lean startup hurdle for mobile games is the difficulty in launching quickly to hypothesis test. The Apple iOS store, the market leader for paid apps, has a stringent quality control approval system for new apps. Thus, minimum viable product (mvp) testing on iOS devices is difficult since early game models might be rejected for quality reasons, or the approval process might waste valuable time and make it difficult to pivot and reiterate. Further, less rigorous mvp tests, like surveys, might not be helpful since game mechanics are difficult to convey to users without product videos or demos.

When visiting Silicon Valley in January, one interesting idea came up: mobile game makers can leverage the Android store’s less stringent quality control measures as a means to mvp test before releasing on the more lucrative iOS store. Since developers can put up as well as remove games quickly on the Android platform, game developers can release apps that test game mechanics to see if players find the premise of the game as fun. Then, once they have received enough feedback (metrics like number of levels played, or community score boards), they can then work to invest on building a story to wrap around the proven game mechanics before releasing on both iOS and Android platforms under a new name.

For example, let’s imagine how lean startup methodologies would have worked for the popular “Where’s My Water?” game made by Disney Mobile. This game involves complex water physics where you use touch gestures to navigate streams of water to fill a bathtub for a fictional alligator called “Swampy.” To make this game efficiently, developers could have released a mvp product on the Android platform that tested if people enjoyed trying to manipulate a water stream into a bucket. Through updates that could iteratively unlock new levels (to test different obstacles), the developers could have continued to pivot until game mechanics and level design were a product-market fit. Once reaching a point where the game mechanics have been proven, they could then hire designers to create a protagonist and story that makes sense in light of the game mechanics (the “Swampy” character and his desire to be clean). Then, finally they can submit the game through the iOS quality control pipeline and re-release their new game on the Android marketplace under a new branded title.

Overall, mobile gaming may not be as easy as social games for mvp testing and iteration since the go-to-market channels for the tests are less open, but current loopholes in the app store eco-system provide effective means to make lean startup methodologies economical and practical.

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