Game Data Analysis - Tools and Methods

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By Coupart Thibault
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About this book

Publishing video games online has been gaining in popularity for a number of years, but with the advent of social networks and the use of in-game data analysis recently, its potential profitability has skyrocketed. The power of video game analytics is immensely beneficial if done well; it can provide a lot of information with a high level of relevancy.

Game Data Analysis - Tools and Methods is a practical, hands-on guide that provides you with a large overview of the choices available performing video game data analysis. From the technical aspect of the field to its implications in terms of game design, you will be able to choose the right tools for your needs.

This book looks at the most useful key performance indicators used in video games and then highlights the strengths and weaknesses of different solutions that are available in order to collect your data. The book will finally explain the kind of analysis you need to perform according the content of your game.

You will learn how to generate content through the use of data analysis with A/B testing and multivariate testing. We will also take a look at the general rules of data visualization, and we will describe some of the typical traps that you should avoid when manipulating numbers. So, if you want to acquire all the basics of game data analysis, this book is ideal for you.

Video Game Data Analysis - Tools and Methods will teach you everything you need to know in order to make the right choice when it comes to the technical solutions and methods available in the field.

Publication date:
November 2013
Publisher
Packt
Pages
86
ISBN
9781849697903

 

Chapter 1. Context and Themes in Games

For several years now, the video game industry has experienced significant changes in its mode of distribution and content. The most important part of these changes comes from the digitization of the product, coupled with the democratization of the Internet, whereas the medium was essentially dedicated to the television through the golden age of game consoles (1990 to 2005). We can now play video games on multiple platforms, which still includes consoles and computers, but also includes mobiles and tablets.

Moreover, the acquisition of a game does not require us to buy a box from a store anymore. Instead, we can download it from the cloud. Thanks to the platforms, such as the Apple Store or Steam, we can directly play games on our Internet browsers without having to wait.

The rise of social networks, such as Facebook, has also altered the way we play games today, changing the type of content delivered to the audience exactly as mobiles have done. They directly integrate an application into the structure of the social network, and these social games may be played asynchronously and strongly promote social interactions between players.

On the other hand, mobile games are supposed to propose a short temporality where the user will have action, fun, and rewards after a few minutes; you have it in your pocket and you will play games while waiting for the bus, or anything similar.

Following the evolution of platforms, game design practices have also seen a renewal. Most of those new games rely on a business model called free-to-play. This expression means that the game is available for free and that the player will have the possibility to buy virtual goods in the game with real money. Thereby, the entire experience needs to take this virtual market in account and the implications in terms of game design; what kinds of goods are purchasable, which content might be unlocked, and what are the best prices for an item for the user as well as for the general profit of the product.

To summarize this idea, this new model has brought new challenges for the developers because the objectives today are no longer to launch the best AAA product before Christmas, but to follow and constantly improve a game whose benefit does not rely on its entry price anymore.

These evolutions had and have huge impacts on several aspects of the media and are definitely breaking the current balance of the video game industry, with new surprising successes every month and older publishers hurrying to adapt to the new digital economy. According to a study published in May 2012 from the Japanese magazine publisher Enterbrain, digital sales (including online and downloadable games) now represent 58 percent of the global video game turnover, slightly more than its retail sales, for a total amount of approximately 30 billion euros.

 

The rise of game analytics


Among all impacts, one field is particularly underrated and still growing; the use of game analytics in the creation and update process of video games. As stated previously, having a game which is always connected to the Internet allows you to make frequent updates or patches on it, such as changing some old features and adding new content, and moreover collecting data permanently about user behavior.

Far from trivial, these new tools are progressively changing the process of creating video games in depth. Back in the old days, a video game was a finished product when it went live and it has passed many usability tests and player tests, as well as technical tests (bugs identification, and so on). This statement is especially true about the old console business model and the back and forth between a video game studio and the owner of the hardware (Nintendo, Sony, or Microsoft), and a game had to respect a certain number of quality requirements before it became marketable.

However, many video games, especially in the social and mobile sphere, now go live, unfinished on purpose and are improved through user data feedbacks, weeks after weeks, months after months.

We can definitely attribute the starting point of this method with the rise of Zynga and its Farmville game, published on Facebook in 2009. As Brian Reynolds, former chief game designer, stated on VentureBeat on February 2013:

 

"The prototype-and-iterate method of game design I'd learned (…) seemed like it might fit with the completely new watch-metrics-and-tune methods that Zynga had been perfecting (…..). And the challenge of creating game experiences with "perfectly rounded edges”—smooth and friendly for the masses—has been one of the most interesting challenges of my career.”

 
 --Brian Reynolds: On Zynga, games, and the future

Brian Reynolds has been the lead game designer of Zynga for years and this quote really shows how the new business models have broken the rules; neither the approach nor the design processes have been spared by the winds of change and game analytics is currently seeing an increasing popularity, which surpass the field of social gaming and conquer more and more companies every month.

Following this idea, talking about game analytics through the video game field does not mean focusing only on the tools themselves, but it also means considering these tools in a wider strategy. A strategy includes the framework of a studio, for example, which joins with the different professions that composed it and its objectives; for this, being data driven definitely requires investments and efforts.

Basically, the purpose of game analytics is to solve a very old question that has existed since the beginning of the media: why do people play a game and what do they enjoy the most while playing it?

Beside being a subjective intuition, game analytics definitely appeared to be the best way to answer this question. Considering this field covers the process of collecting and analyzing data (especially in-game data) in order to understand user behavior and support decisions about the development of a game, it has its foundation in the field of statistics, which existed before there were video games. For this reason, it already offers a very large range of methods and tools.

The following statement is an advantage and a disadvantage at the same time:

  • Many things have already been experienced, but on the other hand, we need to deal with the ocean of terms and methods that exist, and choose the best tool according to its own needs

This is the reason for this book; to propose a list of tools and methods from the data analysis field which fits the video game problem as much as possible and illustrate it with concrete examples from different products, especially from social and mobile.

The next section will be focused on user gaming appetencies, definitely a social and psychological point of view, and will be an excellent starting point before describing the tools and methods of game analytics.

 

Themes in games


Following this contextualization, we will now evaluate a typology of several themes, which are important to know before starting an analysis on video games. These themes are inspired at various levels by a part of the work made by psychologists, business consultants, and game designers over the last ten years. I would especially like to quote from Nicole Lazzaro (2004), Four keys to more emotion without story, the DGD1 model according to Chris Bateman (2005), and the Gamasutra article Five ways games appeal to players from Jason Tocci (2012).

Other references related to this topic may be found by the reader at the end of this chapter, if he wants to go further with them.

Many instances of concrete research, like those stated previously, have already been done on this topic, and we will try to innovate in the following two ways:

  • Usually, most of those studies lack one thing; rich and concrete situational examples from video games. Here we will try to avoid this default case and instead propose many video game examples.

  • Moreover, most of the chosen examples in this chapter come from the mobile and social sphere, and it will be a great occasion for the reader to discover how old research on traditional console games can be associated and highlighted with the new digitized video game industry.

This chapter should be useful for the following people:

  • Young data analysts starting a career in the video game industry who want to improve their affinity with the media; analyzing numbers is one thing, but having a good knowledge of mechanics involved by game design will definitely help to start. For the same reason, this chapter should be interesting for data analysts who apply for a job and want to avoid some typical traps asked by recruiters.

  • From another perspective, scientists and academics will find many video game references in this chapter that can help them to find suitable examples for their argumentation.

The desire for reward

For many players, the reward after completing a task is the most important thing in a game. It drives the way they play the game and while trying to achieve an objective, they will have the reward in mind. This reward can have different signification, and we can point out three subcategories or keywords: ownership, reputation, and achievement.

Ownership

The desire for ownership relies on the item that has an intrinsic value in the game and for the player. It will mostly be an item for his avatar, but considering city management games such as Farmville (Zynga, 2009), it could be a building or a decoration.

Many games rely their general experience only on this appetency that is, cash machine games (virtual or not), and in a more subtle way sandbox games such as Minecraft, where the player has total freedom and numerous tools to create and build their own valuable reward.

In the free-to-play game sphere, the way this desire is introduced into the game is a very important factor for its success; the largest income for them comes from the sale of virtual goods to the player. Moreover, this desire is used in social and mobile gaming in many situations in order to increase revenue as well as to retain players, and we are going to see the following few examples:

  • In many Facebook games, the player gets a special reward for connecting himself to the game regularly. Usually, the temporality for this reward is on a daily basis, and the reward desire is used to improve gaming frequency.

  • Some games even go further; on Galaxy Online 2 (publisher I Got Game), a player will receive a reward every 15 minutes he stays connected to the game, this is to encourage people to keep the game running on browser even if they do something else.

  • Another very typical mechanism in the social gaming is to reward the player for inviting one of his (Facebook) friends to the game. The reward desire here is used to improve the acquisition process of new players.

Reputation

This subcategory is focused on the social recognition obtained; thanks to successful actions inside the game. After completing a task, some players enjoy sharing their success in front of their social network, and this desire drives the way they play games. This idea has been definitely highlighted by the success of Facebook as a gaming platform, because many game mechanics from Facebook games rely on the facility of social interactions between players.

Note

One of the most typical Facebook game features is to propose to a player to display his success or results in the game on his Facebook wall. This will alert his Facebook friends and may encourage them to play the game as well.

Many "reputation desire” mechanics can be found also in Massive Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game (MMORPG), for example, the equipment of an avatar shows the success and the progression of the player in the game.

Some MMORPGs go further, in World of Warcraft (Blizzard Entertainment) players have the possibility to complete special challenges in order to get a special title beside their avatar name. These titles do not really have any interests for the core progression but they show to the community that "they have completed this special challenge”, thereby they constitute a source of celebrity status for the player.

Achievement and collection

The achievement subcategory refers to the pleasure felt when a task is completed and when nothing is left behind. This is very close to the collection pleasure, which is about collecting every valuable piece of something; it can be stamps, paintings, jewelry, and so on, and from a video game's point of view, it could be cards, items, achievements, and Pokemons.

Usually, collection and achievement mechanics are quite useful in order to add some long term objectives or additional content.

Note

Many adventure games add hidden collectible bonuses among different levels of the game, with a special achievement for the player who collects them all.

Looking at social and mobile gaming, these mechanics are quite popular too and you can find special achievement bonuses in games, such as Angry Birds (having all of the five stars on each level), Rayman Jungle Run on IOS (Ubisoft).

Some games go further with this principle of collection and use it to add some fun inside their in-game items economy. In Warframe (Digital Extremes), a free-to-play third-person shooter, skills and abilities take the form of cards, which drop randomly on monsters, and they can be combined and merged in order to get even more valuable cards.

The desire for challenge

Before earning rewards, a player needs to complete a task; finishing a level and completing a mission are some of the most obvious leitmotifs in video games, but more precisely these objectives encourage the player to learn and assimilate the rules and mechanics of gameplay, and thus players are challenged by the game.

Following this idea, while the previous category was focused on the type of reward earned, this category is focused on the task itself and is directly involved in an important game-design theme, which is the flow channel. Apart from all psychological considerations, flow channel is quite simple to understand. If the game is too difficult, the player will be discouraged. On the other hand, if the game is too easy, he will be bored, and in order to keep the player involved in your game, you need to have a progression curve that fits his sensibility as well as possible.

Right now, this category is about the desire of challenge from players. What is important to notice is that some players really enjoy being challenged, and as we will see we can highlight two kinds of challenges: a challenge from the game and challenges between players (competition).

Let's consider these two subcategories in detail.

Complexity and difficulty

The promise for intellectual challenges, hard tasks, and big challenge inside the game may provoke many sensations for a player, including the production of endorphin and adrenalin, for example. Considering previous work on the subject, these emotions were easily attributed to "hardcore gamers” looking for challenge and intense action, but if we expand our view, we can notice that mobile and social gaming also offer some interesting examples close to this theme.

Note

Brain Buddies (2009), the first game of the Wooga franchise, was composed of a series of mini-games where the final score was supposed to represent the level of your Intellectual Quotient. This was definitely a good reason to introduce some difficulty in the game without frustrating the players, because the initial game promise is an intellectual challenge. Combined with the typical sharing score option on Facebook, the success was quite immediate.

Overall, the way a challenge and progress curve is introduced inside a free-to-play game is determinant because many business models include some items that can bypass or diminish the difficulty of the game, so the equation is definitely tough and not too easy because players will be bored; it should be hard enough to encourage a part of the player database to buy virtual goods to help them progress in the game, but not too hard because players might be discouraged and will stop playing. As we will see later in the book, game metrics is definitely the best way to find the best balance for that kind of problem.

Competition between players

This subcategory is related to the pleasure of competition and how some players love to measure their strength against each other. Like the previous subcategory, this theme used to be easily attributed to hardcore gamers, but the rise of mechanics, such as sharing scores on Facebook, shows that casual games also have a real interest in developing (asynchronous or not) competition inside their community.

Note

Diamond Dash, from the game publisher Wooga, motivates its community by updating a weekly tournament, where the score of a player is displayed next to his Facebook friends' scores. At the end of the week, the player with the best score receives a special reward, and a new tournament starts. The game is on Facebook as well as on mobile and scores from both platforms are harmonized.

On the other hand, games for hardcore gamers have also overcome a major step with the success of League of Legends (Riot Games), which has popularized the e-sport aspect of its game; it currently has high value tournament prizes, real time reporting during matches, and strong structure for streaming.

Desire for imagination

This category relies on the power of video games to create a universal story and immersion into the game as well as gameplay sensations. Usually dedicated to AAA games with 3D universe and advanced visual effects, we will see that this theme is also present and relevant inside the social and mobile gaming sphere.

We can highlight three subcategories here, namely discovery, universe, and emotion.

Discovery

Next to traditional console games, some very simple games from the social sphere also have their part of discovery for the player. Something very common and very simple is to propose different graphic background to the player while he progresses through the levels of the game. It might sound negligible, but a simple graphic background brings an additional reward to the player for completing a level; some players definitely enjoy this kind of attention and their interest in the game increases.

Note

Zynga Slingo (Zynga), Bubble Witch Saga (King.com), and many other games, which have a level-progression structure, proposed a large diversity of graphic background depending on the level the player is, even if gameplay mechanics do not see any major evolutions from a level to another.

The following screenshots shows two different graphic level backgrounds from Zynga Slingo, and as we can see, the gameplay framework remains the same but the atmosphere is clearly different:

Emotions and sensations

Emotion in games is a very controversial subject, and here we will consider that the word emotion refers to immediate feelings provoked by the in-game actions, a sort of immediate fun. Usually, these events imply the presence of surprise and encourage funny interpretations of game mechanics.

Note

Many successful dexterity games on Facebook or mobile use visual effects to add special events for the player according to his actions. For example, being quick enough at destroying diamonds in Diamond Dash (Wooga) may provoke a flame event for a few seconds where points earned are doubled and the whole game board inflames itself, increasing the adrenalin for the player.

The following screenshot shows the flame event on Diamond Dash (Wooga):

Immersion, story, and universe

Similar to cinema, this subcategory relates to the narrative quality of a game and to the charisma of its characters. Even if video games have the advantage of interactivity, having a good storyline and quality characters are very helpful in increasing the player's involvement in the game. Considering mobile and social gaming, the relevance of this theme will depend on the choice of game design adopted for the game. Some games do not really need a story; others will build the progression of the player through it.

Note

Hidden object games, such as Pearl's Peril (Wooga), or investigation games, such as Criminal Case (Pretty simple), are focused on the story to encourage the player to progress further.

Besides the story, characters in social games are sometimes the subject of the A/B testing, which character fits the audience of the game the best? A typical case is to propose different archetypes during the tutorial phase (usually a character helps the player to understand basics of the game) and to look at data to identify which one is the most successful.

Desire for entertainment

Very simply, this category is reliable for the stabilization of mind and the distraction that comes from the act of playing. Inherent to any kind of games, mobile is certainly the best platform for this theme because of its usage. People play games on mobile while waiting for a bus, at a metro, during a meeting, and so on. However, previous examples were mainly from Facebook, but we will use examples from mobile gaming for this category.

Distraction

Video games are sometimes a very simple and efficient way to spend time, especially when it is idle time. Moreover, it is also a way to avoid thinking about unpleasant things, and it offers a step away from reality. Putting this pleasure as a determinant factor for a mobile game implies many things in terms of game design. A game may last for a few minutes and the progress curve temporality must fit the usage of mobile.

Note

Monster World (Wooga) is a management-economic game like Farmville, which has two different versions, one on Facebook and one on mobile, and both are not harmonized, unlike Diamond Dash. The explanation is simple; mobile and Facebook usage temporalities are not the same, and growth time for plants as well as to collect rewards must be different on both platforms. This statement does not hold true for Diamond dash, where one game lasts for one minute on both platforms.

Romping

Games, sometimes, are a good way to generate an overflow of energy and pour out negative feelings and destructive desire. Many products use the mechanics of bringing games and toys closer to increase a player's affection. Mobile games offer us the best examples for this mechanics here as well.

Note

Fruit Ninja (Halfbrick Studio) and Angry Birds (Rovio) are certainly the most famous examples where players will have an obvious pleasure at destroying things. In Fruit Ninja, you will cut different kinds of fruits in pieces, whereas you will throw funny little birds on bad pigs in Angry Birds.

 

From themes to engagement


Themes that we have seen in the previous section are very important in a free-to-play environment. We must now describe this new rising model and illustrate why this kind of game design knowledge can help in many concrete cases.

Video game as a service

Thanks to the arrival of new technologies, such as the cloud gaming, social network, and mobile platform, the ways to provide entertainment are now very large and diffuse. In the current state of the industry, video game should now be considered as a service and not as a finished product anymore. Through regular updates and the use of data, an average game can become good and meet a certain amount of success. Thus, the player will be profitable, not just after it has been published. And as you want your service to be the best for your audience in order to increase your income, you would want to identify the category of themes your game belongs to. Ask the following questions to yourself:

  • Which theme does your game design contain?

  • Do players prefer the challenge over the exploration in your game? (this question needs to be answered according to your themes)

  • Considering your data and the answers to the previous questions, do you think the service you deliver to your player base is relevant?

Following this reasoning, we will review in detail why this question of themes becomes even more important in a free-to-play context.

Free-to-play and engagement

In a free-to-play game, the main source of income is provided by the sale of virtual items to the players. While other sources of income, such as advertising, should not be forgotten, this one remains the most important. Talking about the notion of service again, virtual items that you are selling in the game are supposed to increase the quality of the service. They can provide help, facilities, or additional content to their buyer. This is where the notion of gaming appetencies becomes interesting again, because a virtual item can definitely improve a particular theme of your product.

As a studio, if you have online games based on the free-to-play model, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do purchasable items present in my game facilitate every kind of theme improvements? For example, may a player have more content to explore if he chooses to spend money? May a player have more chances to find treasures if he chooses to spend money? The list goes on according to the themes we have studied previously.

  • According to the data, which sort of virtual item is the most successful? Is the answer what you expected it to be according to your original game design? If not, what could be the reason for that?

In order to help you answering the preceding questions, the following is a typology of saleable items that fit the gaming themes we have studied before:

  • Desire for ownership: Game items available for purchase with real money boosts the resources, increasing the player's ability to buy new game items.

  • Desire for reputation: Social sharing and additional social features could be unlocked with real money. Note that this sort of feature is usually free in order to improve the vitality of a game.

  • Desire for collection: If your game proposes collectable items, you can sell items that will increase the chances of finding rare items. Note that this might be better than just selling the rare items because it adds the pleasure of the random factor and preserves the value of the items in the eyes of players.

  • Desire for complexity and difficulty: A hard mode of your game dedicated to expert players could be unlocked with money.

  • Desire for competition: Player versus player mode could be unlocked with real money. Note that, as for the social features, letting this mode for free can help your game conquer its audience.

  • Desire for discovery: We can link this theme to any purchasable items that allows more content to be played. Additional levels are certainly the best example.

  • Desire for emotions: Special visual effects, such as a shader that makes the screen shake when the player is hit or additional particles effects, could be purchasable with money. It can also be a new look for the avatar of the player.

  • Desire for immersion: Additional content related to the background and the storyline of the game could be purchasable with money.

  • Desire for distraction: Purchasable items tend to decrease the difficulty of the game; generally, this helps when a player just wants to progress and discover the game without facing any friction.

  • Desire for romping: Similar items as for the emotion theme.

As you may notice, a large choice of items and areas of your game can be purchasable with money, and it is up to the data to guide you to find the best balance.

 

References


More information on gaming themes can be found in the following references:

  • The Hearts, Clubs, Diamonds, Spades: Players who suit MUDS series, Richard Bartle, 1996

  • The Why we play games: Four keys to more emotion without story, Nicole Lazzaro article, 2004

  • The 21st century game design book, Chris Bateman, 2005

  • The Five ways games appeal to players article, Jason Tocci, 2012, on the Gamasutra website

  • Motivations of Play in MMORPGs – Results from a Factor Analytic Approach by Nick Yee

 

Summary


We have seen a wide range of topics in this chapter, but it was an important starting point because it can avoid some mistakes when analyzing the data. Imagine a situation where your game proposes a player versus player mode and a solo mode against artificial intelligence, and you wanted to evaluate which area of the game is more successful. You have collected information on the games made in each category and you might want to orient the development of your game according to the results. But as an analyst, you need to consider all of the possible meanings for the player; maybe your players play more in the solo area because they like it (desire for simple entertainment) but maybe they play it because the average gain of rewards is more appealing than in the player versus player mode (desire for reward). Thus, in order to avoid misinterpretations, you need to have a general understanding of game design and knowing situations described in this chapter will be definitely helpful.

In the next chapter, we will study the use of KPIs and evaluate which ones are the most important for the success of your game.

About the Author

  • Coupart Thibault

    Coupart Thibault had been studying town planning and statistics for years before he developed an in in-game data analysis. Switching from the real world to the virtual world, he studied game design and completed his transformation with his first professional experience at Corexpert. Working on a database of more than 20,000 players, he has experience with the study and analysis of data in order to deliver various insights for the company.

    Browse publications by this author

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