Does failing fast really work in the mobile gaming space?

by Jeff Hilimire on September 20, 2013

Failing fast is an almost universally accepted mantra in startup world. We talk about failing fast and failing often. And I’m one of the biggest cheerleaders of this concept (case in point: searching “fail fast” on this blog produces a ton of results).

The concept is simple enough. If you spend a massive amount of time building something before you get any user feedback, you won’t have time to either change direction or pull the plug if your idea isn’t going to work. Sometimes just getting things in people’s hands quickly allows you to see that the idea you had isn’t going to be successful. Startups must embrace the idea that they might build several versions of their product that they have to kill in order to finally get it right.

The “fast” part of the expression implies that you need to find out if your idea is successful before too much was invested into it. As we embark on this new adventure at Dragon Army, a large focus of our mobile apps will be in the gaming space. I’ve been studying mobile games for some time trying to figure out the mechanics of what makes one game a runaway hit and what makes another a complete dud. That seems to be a very fine line.

There’s a good chance that you’re either obsessed with Candy Crush or Dots, or both. These are two of the most successful mobile games of all time and almost everyone I know plays at least one of them daily.

Candy Crush uses “social gaming” better than any app I’ve seen. It lures people into connecting the game to their Facebook account and then finds ways to get your friends to help you out and vice versa. It’s genius and I’ve learned a lot from studying it.

Techcrunch calls Dots the most beautiful mobile game they’ve ever seen. It’s both one of the simplest mobile games on the market and one of the most aesthetically stunning. I asked a friend a few weekends ago why she played Dots and she literally said, “Because its so beautiful”. And its just a bunch of dots on the screen, but somehow, it looks amazing.

If you had used a focus group to explain these two games before they were created, I’m quite certain people would have been confused about why they would ever use them. There would have been no way to predict that they would emerge in the very crowded mobile gaming space.

In fact, both of these apps had to be fully developed before you could really “test” them. Dots is loved because of how beautiful it is, which is not something you can show someone in minor beta releases. And Candy Crush’s big hook is the social aspect, which you also can’t test until the entire game is baked and working.

So I wonder, how do you both embrace the idea that failing fast is the right methodology for startup success yet at the same time attempt to make games that probably need to be fully baked before you know if they are going to work or not?

  • Mr. Poon

    You have officially freaked me out. I won’t be able to sleep tonight with this weighing on my brain. Darn you!

  • TS

    I think it depends on what you call “fully” baked.

    Obviously, you need to complete the critical aspects of the app (for Dots, it’s the “beauty” of it, as you said; for CC, it’s the social aspect), but there are many other, time consuming items that fall outside of the critical aspects, which you could choose to ignore/delay/avoid while you are testing/failing your initial concepts.

    Things like help content, branding, less critical functionality, etc. – those could all be addressed after the primary concept has been tested and I guess, for you – has failed quickly. ;)

    So “fully baked”? Critical elements yes. Fully fully? No.

  • Jeff Hilimire

    Sugar? No, never, never.

  • Jeff Hilimire

    Nice work, TS.

  • davideckoff

    I don’t think you can ask people in focus groups if they would play a game. (Well, you could. But what they tell you won’t be that useful.) They’ve got to actually play the game for real.

    The game apps business is a “hits business”, similar to movies or books. Either you have a hit, or you don’t (most games). Hopefully the hits in your portfolio will far outweigh the cost of development and marketing of all the games in your portfolio that aren’t hits.

    Also, mobile apps don’t necessarily allow for the rapid test/iterate cycle that web-based content has.

    What do you think?

  • Chris Haire

    Lots of useful strategies like testing geolocked or doing play testing with friends and family. In this space, game development doesn’t end when you ship, so you need to have a good setup of data collection and analysis to iterate and improve. Machine learning is also really useful way to adjust and react to user experience.

  • Jeff Hilimire

    Appreciate the insight, Chris!

  • Jeff Hilimire

    Interesting because I think you’re right, in some cases mobile games are indeed a “hits” business. However, they’re also not ever a fully baked hit, such as movies or books. So I suppose you have to get a great product out at the beginning (after testing w/ friends, etc) and then be ready to iterate based on people’s reaction and usage patterns. Either way, should be an interesting adventure!

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