Episode 8: Social Games: What are the social must-have features that help create global hits? Featuring Teatime Games

Social Games are the hot topic for Episode 8 of the Mobile GameDev Playbook, where we delve into understanding what the must-have features that help create global game hits are. We are joined by the expertise of Teatime Games who will share the lessons learnt from their amazing success with mobile game ‘QuizUp’, which has now accumulated over 100 million downloads. 

As well as talking about feature-level specifics, Teatime Games uncovers how they reached the top of the US App Charts in only two weeks with 2 million users, as well as their recent success with their brand new game, Trivia Royale. From avatars and AR emoticons, to chat rooms and other social mechanics, this episode explores why social features in games could be the missing piece in the puzzle for developers looking to maximise their game’s success and monetisation. 

Host Jon Jordan is joined by GameRefinery’s Chief Analyst Erno Kiiski and special guest Thor Fridriksson, CEO of Teatime Games. 

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Topics we will cover in this episode:

1. Social mobile gaming trends

2. Trivia as a form of social gaming in mobile

3. Trivia Royale and how it gets its audience hooked

4. Monetizing a trivia game


Introduction

Jon Jordan: Hello and welcome to the Mobile GameDev Playbook. Thanks for tuning in for another episode. I’m Jon Jordan, your host on the podcast that provides insight into what makes a great mobile game and all the latest trends in mobile game design. Today we are going to be discussing social-mobile gaming and the features that go into making a global hit. Joining me this week is Erno Kiiski, the chief analyst US at GameRefinery. Erno, you’re arguably the person who’s played the most mobile games in the whole industry, so actually, no pressure at all.

Erno Kiiski: No pressure at all. Well, I played quite a few games at my time here analysing the market and what’s going on for sure. I’m good, thank you. How are you?

Jon: We expect nothing less from people at GameRefinery, so you play a lot of mobile games. Anyway, and our special guest this week, not that you’re not special Erno. Our special guest this week is Thor Fridriksson, CEO of Teatime games. How’s it going, Thor?

Thor Fridriksson: It’s going great. Thanks for having me.

Jon: Good.

Thor: I want to point out that even though Erno played a lot of games, I think one of the privileges of being a CEO of a mobile gaming studio is that that’s also a part of your job description. I’m not sure that I’ve played more or less than Erno but dear God, over the last 10 years, I think it’s going to be hard to beat me on that one Erno.

Erno: It’s a competition.

Jon: After the podcast, we’ll have to spend some time with you two working out who played the most. Anyway, two experts. I’m not going to get involved in who has played the most mobile games. I’ll leave that to you.

Erno: It’s one of the good things when your children are asking what you are doing, and I’m playing a mobile game somewhere. I can always say I’m just working, which is perfect.

Jon: Cool. A bit of background on Teatime Games. You’re based in Reykjavik in Iceland, and you’ve just launched a couple of weeks ago Trivia Royale, which is riding high in the app stores, particularly strong in the US. You’re doing millions of downloads already. Listeners with a bit of history in the space may remember, Thor’s been around and some of the team at Teatime Games at a company called Plain Vanilla. Back at the end of 2013, early 2014, you had a massive game called QuizUp, which I think did over 100 million downloads. You really are the social-mobile gaming expert.

Thor: Well, I don’t know if you want to call me that. I think that at least in trivia, we have a lot of experience. Publishing QuizUp at the time was a massive adventure, and we learned a lot in the process. I guess that that’s why we keep on going.

Social mobile gaming trends

Jon: We’re going to get into that. To set the scene, Erno, what’s been going on in terms of social-mobile gaming recently? What are the key trends that you’ve been picking up?

Erno: Yes, so of course, looking at the market it’s been a trend for a couple of years already that social is continually evolving and is getting a bigger and bigger part of the mobile gaming scene. Of course, we have games that are all about socialising and building around a social life, for example. The Trivia Royale game, it’s based on that, but something that we have also seen is the social increase in genres that are not or haven’t used to be so popular with the social mechanics haven’t been so popular in those genres, match-threes and so on.

If you look at the bigger trends, of course, with COVID going on, a good example is Roblox. It is basically a platform of creating social experiences and creating your own games, and so on. It’s continually rising, and it’s constantly on top of the chart. I just checked before this podcast that Roblox hasn’t dropped from top-grossing for the whole year. It’s grossing 1%, top 2% in the US, iOS constantly. It’s really, really high on there and really, really high on the downloads as well.

“Roblox hasn’t dropped from top-grossing the whole year. It’s grossing 1%, top 2% in the US iOS constantly.”

Erno Kiiski

Then, for example, Fortnite had just introduced the party mode a couple of months ago. An area for players to hang around, spend time, not just to play the competitive shooter in the game but actually just be a place where you can hang around with your friends and so on. This is something that us at GameRefinery have seen already happening much much more in China.

In China, many, many different types of games in different genres that are utilising hang around modes where players can hang around, chat with others and play more mini-games. There are games like let’s say QQ Speed, which is basically a game where you compete against the others driving in a mini car. There’s also now this social platform mode where you can just hang around and throw off your cosmetics and stuff like that. That’s been increasing, for example, in China.

“In China many different types of games in different genres are utilizing hang around modes where players can hang around, chat with others and play more mini-games”

Erno Kiiski

Jon: It’s actually what we’ve seen, generally what we discussed in the podcast before is certain genres have very strong features, and they’re so strong as the industry is now fairly mature. It’s spreading throughout, and you see this cross-pollination mashup however you want to describe it, where the best features of all genres are spreading throughout all the other genres.

Erno: Exactly. If you look at, let’s say, for example, match-three puzzles which used to be a genre that’s there’s no social interaction. If we look at the statistics, from the match-three puzzles, for a feature goal like guilds, for example. Basically our social platform for building other social features on top of that. Match-three puzzles where you build a community, you create a guild, and then you can be like, let’s say tasks or some you can develop the guild like an RPG or so on where you get permanent boosts for the guild or so on.

What we have seen in the market is that 61% of all the top-grossing 100 games at the moment have guilds. There has been a steady increase, 10% more compared to the one year before. Then actually, if we compare it to two years before it, it has increased over 20%. Especially in the games where the social hasn’t been so big like match-three puzzles, the increase is even more. In match-three puzzles we have seen year over year increase over 20%.

Games like Candy Crush Soda Saga just introduced guilds, which is totally new for King. They haven’t had any social community features in their games before. Then, we see those in Gardenscapes and Homescapes and Matchington Mansion. And, they have built these task systems and leagues and stuff like that on top of those foundational social features.

Trivia as a form of social gaming in mobile

John: Excellent. That’s a good setting of the scene. Now Thor, let’s talk a bit more about how you’ve been approaching social over the last seven, eight years now. I guess you say you’ve become the experts in trivia. Why at the beginning was trivia such an interesting way to build social in mobile?

Thor: That’s a good question. I don’t only do trivia games, but apparently so far those have been the ones that have been the most successful, so there must be something. Originally, I think the reason why we started doing QuizUp or the inspiration for that was actually that in Iceland, believe it or not, there is a very strong trivia, pop quiz culture. It goes to the extent that in Iceland, for example, we don’t have any high school sports as you would have in the US. You have a massive sporting low of high schools competing against each other or college sports.

In Iceland, we have a college trivia tournament that is broadcasted on national TV, and it’s one of the most popular TV shows in Iceland. We have a team of three from each college or high school battling it out in quick questions on becoming the trivia king of Iceland, which is quite unique actually. In some ways, I think I was raised playing trivia.

When we launched QuizUp, I think that even though it was late 2013 and the app store was pretty early, there were still thousands of trivia games out there. The one thing that we did differently I guess is that we pit people against each other in real-time against real people. Often till that point, most trivia games for more of single-player experiences, but what we did is that we allowed people to play either friends or strangers around the world in a real-time game.

“We pit people against each other in real-time against real people. Often till that point, most trivia games were a single-player experience, but what we did is that we allowed people to play either friends or strangers around the world in a real-time game.”

Thor Fridriksson

I guess that when we launched it, there was this magical moment of being able to pick up your phone, select the category or topic that you were passionate about and be instantly matched up with a real person somewhere else in the world, playing together and competing in a topic that you were both passionate about. There was just something magical that happened, and the game got super viral.

However, what we noticed and we didn’t really anticipate it at that time, was that we built in some very rudimentary social features into the game. You were able to add a friend, and you’re able to chat with people in between matches and so forth. We suddenly saw that there was a much bigger percentage of our users that were making friends on the platform. We discovered that, and this is crazy that we know of at least 10 marriages that happened because of people that met on QuizUp, which is crazy. I was even invited to two of those marriages. Probably the most surreal thing that ever happened in my career.

“We built in some very rudimentary social features into the game. You were able to add a friend and chat with people in between matches and so forth. We suddenly saw that there was a really much bigger percentage of our users that were actually making friends on the platform”

Thor Fridriksson

Like in QuizUp we had all these different topics, and they got very granular. You saw that the more niche a topic is, the more passionate people get about it. I was invited to a wedding of two people that met on the Game of Thrones category because they were both huge Game of Thrones fans. They sent me an email and said, “We’re getting married, we’re so grateful to your game. We got connected, we got to meet each other there. Here’s a Skype link, if you would attend our wedding, we would be very honored.” Which I did.

I’ll tell you one of those things you would never imagine you would ever do in your life, was to sit in front of a computer on Skype. Having a computer somewhere else in the world, with your face on it, and look at a Game of Thrones-themed wedding, where everyone was waving to you on the computer. 

It’s one of my top 10 surreal experiences. This got me thinking ‘people’, and the evolution of mobile games is happening now, where everything is turning more social, it doesn’t surprise me. People just crave social interaction. It’s a very deep need in us as human beings.

When QuizUp was sold to Glu Mobile three years ago or so I was looking at the data from QuizUp. We were seeing that the users that were making friends, and were chatting beside the game itself, their numbers, their metrics were way better than the average player. They would have way better retention, they would have better engagement, they would have better conversion. Every single matric was better if the player was also social if that makes sense. This just got us thinking like, “Look, every game genre on mobile can be made better if you add a social element to it. If you feel that you’re playing a real person.”

“We were seeing that the users that were making friends, and were chatting beside the game itself, their numbers, their metrics, were way better than the average player. They would have way better retention, they would have better engagement, they would have better conversion. Every single metric was better if the player was also social”

Thor Fridriksson

Historically gaming is a very social activity. Before mobile games or before video games, people would play board games. Half of the fun would be to enjoy the company of the people that you’re playing the game with. When you’re playing Monopoly with friends, the best part is not the game itself, it is the look on your friend’s face when he rolls a six, and he lands right on your hotel. The reaction and the bantering. Such a big part of the value proposition of gaming is the social element. Even if we go to video games, PlayStation, or consoles, you would have friends over, and you would be playing a FIFA or NBA game. Such a big part of the whole experience is a social part. Mobile games historically just don’t have that part, they’re missing out on a big part of the value proposition of a game.

Jon: Yes, and it’s a good point. I guess PC has generally always had that social thing because it’s a bit more of an open platform. I guess for a long time actually, it’s taking games, maybe 10-15 years to really be embedded with this social thing. When you played the first PlayStations obviously, they weren’t connected to the Internet at all. I guess generally gaming has gone through a very single-player, into multiplayer. Into now, as you point out this idea, we see a lot of this talk about multiverses, metaverses, whatever the current phrase is. Which is fascinating, but equally may be another step to the future.

Thor: Also, we’ve had, even though the first PlayStations or the first PC games weren’t multiplayer in that sense, these machines are more, they’re not as personal as your mobile phone. You would sit down and friends would sit down in front of a PC and play a multiplayer game there. People would go to the arcade, and it’s a huge social element around that. In history Pong, the first mobile game ever made was a two-player game. I’m just saying in history, social has been a big part of gaming, whether it’s in the part of the game itself or it’s just that people used to play together.

Whereas the mobile phone is such a personal device that most of the games over the last years have been more solitary. You play them to pass the time, and they’re great at that, and they’re awesome games. Then you start to add social elements to it, chat, guilds as you mentioned, and they’re great, they make the experience better. Mobile games haven’t really yet been able to recreate that you feel that you’re playing a real person in real-time. That’s what we’re trying to achieve here at Teatime with our platform at least.

Trivia Royale and how it gets its audience hooked

Jon: Should we talk a little bit more detail about Trivia Royale, which is really fascinating. I do like trivia, maybe I’m playing it for work, so maybe I fit into that category. When it came out, I did play quite a bit, and it was interesting because you use an avatar system. You’re not seeing real people, but basically, people choose their usernames, and you set your location. It’s interesting from that point of view. You do feel you’re playing a real person even if you’ve not got the real face. Given that you’ve done QuizUp, a head-to-head trivia game, Trivia Royale, how was it different more than just going, it’s a Royale game because you start with 100 players.

Thor: 1,000.

Jon: 1,000, sorry, and then you go head-to-head, and then it breaks down every round, it gets smaller as half win and half lose. Was that the main thing because that’s playing into the current trend? It’s obvious to see would Trivia Royale’s successful because Royale now is a very popular thing, but there’s more to it than just that aspect?

Thor: I think the Royale mode, it’s just a game mode, it’s fun, and it’s something we picked up because it’s current. By the way, have you become a Royale yet, it’s quite hard?

Erno: I was sixth today, so close, but not yet.

Thor: Oh, I’m sorry, actually a very small percentage achieve that.

Jon: It’s bizarre, I was quite lucky, not lucky, but the first time I started playing the best I got was I got to the final, and I lost. That was quite early on, and then I think I peaked too soon. I didn’t know, I’m not a royal.

Thor: I think the biggest difference with what we’re trying to achieve in Trivia Royale, was very connected to the avatar system, and the social element. As I told you in QuizUp, we saw that users that were social had much better matrices, much better retention, et cetera. What we did try when we built our company, and Trivia Royale on top of that, is that we have been trying to find ways to make people feel they’re playing real people. We are using avatars in Trivia Royale. The story is a little bit longer though, because three years ago, when we started the company, we didn’t start with avatars, we actually started with live video.

We thought that “Hey, live video is the most social you can get. How would it be if you could play casual games, and you would be seeing your opponent like it’s a real video? You would throw in some fun AR masks there.” We really thought that that would be the way that people would love to play social games. Actually, last year we launched a couple of games using real live video. They’re in a similar format as you would see Trivia Royale, but instead of avatars, you would just see your face. It turns out people didn’t like it at all. Our thesis that people would love to see their friends, and to be seen while playing a mobile game was just wrong.

The thing is that when we were testing those games, we would always do it in very nice scenarios. With good lighting, looking good, and you would hold your phone at the right angle, and you would be playing the game with others. It was great fun, it really worked. When we launched games, we saw that people, in general, they don’t play mobile games at their best. They don’t play it in brightly lit rooms, holding their phone in the correct angle. They usually play it in their bed, in the bathroom, lying on the sofa and holding the phone at a very unflattering angle to create a massive double chin on everyone. People just didn’t like it.

I’m not even going to go into some of the moderation problems we got into as you can probably imagine. We just thought, “Look, what we’re trying to create and we think is the key is to create a low threshold way of feeling that you’re playing a real person, but not jeopardising your anonymity because you don’t want to be seen. That’s when we came up with the face tracked avatars. We call this concept, and I think it’s going to get quite big going forward, ‘identity with anonymity’.

We allow users to create themselves in the form of avatars, have all sorts of fun customisable items, and really feel like the user is creating himself. Then we use face tracking on the phone to mimic the animation and then push people together. Then you’re able to see reactions of the other person when you get something wrong, or you can chat with them between rounds.

This worked really well. People seem to like this, especially the younger demographics. One of the results of this is that we see a much higher social participation in Trivia Royale than we ever saw in QuizUp. It seems that people like the fact that they are playing real people, they can communicate with them through chat bubbles, through reactions, through emotes, something similar to Fortnite, I guess. It just has encouraged people to become more social. That’s what we are really excited about in our future titles, is to implement this kind of social interaction while playing mobile games with other people.

Jon: I don’t know if it’s just my individual experience how all of it scales across the world. I felt that it was surprisingly maybe, very much playing into a younger demographic than perhaps I thought, an experience with QuizUp and a more female audience. Obviously, you’re presuming that people were choosing the same gender in the game, the chances are that they may not be easy. Is that backed up by any data you’ve got? Because I guess that would mean that you’re playing into much wider social interactions that people are doing on their phones, whether that’s TikTok or WhatsApp or whatever.

Thor: No, you’re absolutely right. We have seen that our demographic skew quite largely to younger females. I would think, when you do UI tests, we did a couple of different ads when testing out how different types of ads would work with different demographics. We saw that, traditionally, trivia games, lean a little bit more to males. In our case, over 70% of our user base is females. We saw that when we did ads that highlighted the avatar part, we were able to customise your avatar, be able to communicate, that scored really high with younger females. Your assumptions are absolutely correct.

“We have seen that our demographics skew quite largely to younger females – over 70% of our user base is females”

Thor Fridriksson

Jon: Erno, have you been finding- playing the game? What are your impressions?

Erno: Yes. I really like it. I find the execution is super polished. It feels so good to play. Everything happens so quickly. I really enjoy the game. Actually, when we were talking about this Royale thing and so on, it fits the game perfectly to me because it brings another level of intensity. For example, when I today got to the semifinals, and I was almost there, it’s a different type of feeling playing a trivia game that I have ever had. 

At least for me personally, this is a trend, but still, it’s a bit underutilised. We see, for example, at the moment on PC console sites, there’s this huge viral hit called Fall Guys. If you haven’t heard about that game, it’s basically an indie game, but it’s now a huge viral hit on social media. Everybody’s talking about it. It’s basically a simple platform or a game where 100 players start and it’s like a battle royale mechanic, you go further and further and further. That’s like a casual game, casual approach. I feel there are the same elements in that game as there is in the Trivia Royale, for example.

Monetizing a trivia game

Jon: Absolutely. Thor, one question I’m going to bring up here and I guess it’s the main. For me looking at the outside, but playing a bit of the games and seeing how they’re going to be two companies, how their trajectories have gone. QuizUp was a massive phenomenon, did 100 million downloads, in the US, you were having an enormous amount of media attention at the time. Monetisation seemed to be the main stumbling block for taking that massive download and that massive user base and making a business that scaled in a similar way.

How have you thought about monetisation? Because I guess it is one of the things that on the casual side people do struggle with. You’ve seen it with hyper-casual. Again, enormous millions, billions of people downloading these games but very hard to actually get any money out of them. Obviously, it is difficult because you don’t necessarily have these very deep features as you would have in an RPG or a strategy game. How have you rethought that to do that in a way that means you can build a successful company, but also doesn’t alienate the audience that you have?

Thor: That’s a really good question. I don’t think that anyone has thought as much about how to monetise trivia games as I have in the last 10 years or so, or seven years. You’re right, QuizUp was an enormous success, but we never really monetised it properly. I think that was a trend back in those days, not only on apps. It was with all these insanely popular apps like Tinder, Snapchat, whatever it is. First, they got the traction, and then they tried to monetise. We never made it on QuizUp. We were basically forced to sell the company off in 2016. I’ve thought a lot about this.

I think that trivia, in general, has challenges in monetising. We have added a lot of different ways to monetise Trivia Royale. We have a throttling system with tickets, we have a power-up system, and then we have the avatars, and they’re different kinds of vanity items that you can buy before them. Those are actually monetising pretty well better than QuizUp, though.

I think the main difference in strategy now is that when we did QuizUp, that was like the game that will do. We’ve spent the last three years not creating Trivia Royale, but instead, creating this social platform that Trivia Royale lives on top of. This makes it very easy and cheap for us to create additional titles using the avatars using the same avatar login. Users in our future games are going to be able to take their progress, their avatar with them to other casual games, and especially in other casual games that have a higher monetisation potential than Trivia Royale.

That said, we are, of course, trying to use all the best practices on how to monetise games and utilise GameRefinery for that, of course, seeing the trends of what monetises is the best. I’m happy to announce that we are going to be implementing live events into Trivia Royale in the coming weeks, which we are very excited about. I think it’s going to be both a great user experience and a great monetisation element for us.

Jon: Going back to what we’ve talked about at the start, maybe it’s almost like, I get like a casual metaverse that you’re going to end up with.

Thor: Now, that’s what we are trying to do because we’re seeing that people actually make friends on the platform. The majority of friends made in Trivia Royale are new friends. They’re not friends that you already have in life. We can see that from where people are adding friends. If users get invested in creating their persona, their avatar, and they create a friend scrap and an intro scrap within the game, that’s quite valuable that we can then use and utilise to transfer people into other casual games.

Jon: Erno, what do you reckon to that? Is that something, maybe not the target audience, but is that something you could consider that by playing when you finally become a Royale? And, you think you’ve conquered Trivia Royale, that you want to go into another game because you’ll have this kind of avatar history?

Erno: Definitely. That’s my first thought when playing that game. Well, what would I personally add to the game, the first feelings because there is already a great avatar system on top of that. Then, of course, events and specific rewards from those specific vanity items will get that super cool santa hat or whatever, for Christmas or stuff like that. Then, of course, I don’t know if you guys, for example, thought about a similar way as the Fall Guys the game I was talking about before is using battle pass also, the vanity item battle pass on top of the super, super casual, simple gameplay.

Thor: Yes, absolutely. We looked at battle pass and subscription models, but the only problem with battle passes and any gacha mechanics is that– I know that Fortnite only does vanity items and that’s the road we’re going with in Trivia Royale, but when you look at games that. Let’s look at Golf Clash or Archero or whatever it is, is that when you have the equipment, that you can update, you can upgrade, and it makes you better. It’s just when you play trivia games, the only problem is it’s really hard to buy items that make you better in trivia.

That’s a bit of a hurdle when it comes to implementing all of these battle pass gacha features that a lot of mid-core games implement. You’re absolutely right, live events, I think is something that we’re working on right now. We are looking into implementing our version of a battle pass that we’re quite excited about. Trivia Royale is only one month old. We are seeing pretty good numbers on all fronts, and now it is the time to adjust and integrate new features that will emphasise monetisation, and that’s what we’re doing right now.

John: Can you think a bit more into how you’re approaching live events? One of the interesting things with trivia is the different subject matters, but because trivia is to a degree living in the real world, you can do stuff that’s happening in the real world. You can build topics around that if Game of Thrones is over. You’re building around entertainment products as well. You do require a lot of latitude to build, to ride on just general marketing hype around some of these other things happening in the real world and then funnel that in, which will be much harder to do in other types of games.

Thor: Absolutely. That’s one of the strengths of trivia actually. That it’s relatively easy to create content and it’s fast, so we can basically just look at what’s current. We could have, I don’t know, a COVID-19 trivia– No, we’re not going to do that. Like a new movie premiere, a popular TV show.

On top of that, we can customise all sorts of vanity items that are themed to that, so imagine just for an example, fourth of May there’s a Star Wars Day. We’ll have a live event on who knows the most about Star Wars, and we’ll have a separate tournament about that. The winners, they will get a cool Darth Vader mask, although we probably couldn’t do that because of IP rights, but you get the general idea?

Jon: Yes. Absolutely. Good. Is there anything you can say about your future other products yet? Will the platform be open to other developers in the future? Or is it all a bit too secret at the moment?

Thor: We are building our platform as an SDK basically. We are just using our own SDK at the moment. Right now, we’ve been testing out with a ton of different genres. Still, our general feeling is that almost all mobile games, all genres of them can be made better if you are playing with a real person and you sense that you’re playing a real person, whether it’s card games, whether it’s even more mid-core games.

Just that, we just know that if you get social, and if you play with real persons, all the metrics will go up. You will have better engagement, better retention. Our task now is to map out the different genres of games that we think will fit with our platform and work on our own, with developers and creating titles that use our avatar and our social system.

Jon: Excellent. Good. Well, I think on that point, we’ll wrap it up. Thank you very much for your time Erno.

Erno: Thank you.

John: Thank you very much for your expertise, Thor.

Thor: Thank you.

John: I guess to round up, the casual Metaverse is coming, so mobile game developers need to start thinking about how to implement that whether that is with yourselves or talk to Thor and see if you can start using his expertise, but thanks for listening. Listeners, if this is your first taste of the Mobile GameDev Playbook, we’re creating episodes every month, so please subscribe. We’re on iTunes or any other of your podcast services of choice, so keep up to date with us.

We’re starting to build up a nice back catalogue now, so if you haven’t listened to all our episodes, please delve back where we cover lots of different genres on what’s going on, and maybe you can give us some review feedback as well. That always helps if you can give us some nice stars. Anyway, thanks for listening to this episode, and I hope to see you next time.

Did you like the episode? If you haven’t listened our previous one yet, you can find it here: Mobile GameDev Playbook Episode 7: Getting to Grips with the RPG Genre with Facebook Gaming

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