Mobile GameDev Playbook Episode 4: How to Create Chart-Topping Casual Games with PeopleFun

Episode 4 of the Mobile GameDev Playbook takes on casual gaming. Joined by PeopleFun, we are taking a close look at the well-known free-to-play favourite, WordScapes. We delve into understanding what makes this mobile game so successful and what are the lessons learnt from generating over 5000 levels. What’s more, we will also discuss how they managed to scale up their content and what their overall business strategy is from a mobile game development perspective.

Host Jon Jordan is joined by GameRefinery’s VP of Games Joel Julkunen along with special guest Carol Miu, VP of Product & Analytics at US developer PeopleFun. PeopleFun is a US-based mobile game developer company, best known for its games such as Wordscapes, Wordstacks and Word Chums, which have over 29 million MAUs.

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Topics we will cover in this episode:

1.  Ad monetization trends

2. PeopleFun, word game success and scaling content

3. Entering new segments of the market and finding potential opportunities

4. Predictions on what we’ll see in casual over the rest of 2020


Introduction

Jon Jordan: Hello. Welcome to the Mobile GameDev Playbook, the podcast series that provides insights into what makes a great mobile game, what is and is not working for mobile game designers, and also considers the latest trends across the global mobile game market.

Thanks for tuning in for another episode. I’m your host, Jon Jordan. Joining me, once again, is Joel Julkunen, head of games analysis and a cofounder at GameRefinery. Hello Joel.

Joel Julkunen: Hi Jon, how are you doing?

Jon Jordan: I’m very well, how are you?

Joel Julkunen: I’m good, good.

Jon Jordan: Good. Also joining us this week is Carol Miu, who is the VP of product and analytics at US mobile game developer PeopleFun. Best known for its games like Wordscapes, Word Stacks, Word Chums!, other word games. Between them, they have over 29m monthly active users. Hello Carol.

Carol Miu: Hi Jon, thanks for having me.

Jon Jordan: Good, glad to have you. We’re going to put you to good use today. You are covering the overall business performance of the entire portfolio at PeopleFun. With your help, we’re going to be taking a closer look at what’s going on in the world of casual mobile games, which is obviously a massive part of the market. Particularly, we’ll look at Wordscapes, which is your biggest game, and see some of the interesting decisions you’ve made, why it’s so successful, how you’ve generated a lot of content to keep that game kind of fresh, and how you scale up content, and your business strategy, how you consider that. It’s great to have you with us.

To kick us off, Joel, you just published a report about in-app ads and some of the interesting trends that are going on there. Do you want to tell us what’s been happening with ads?

Ad monetization trends

Joel Julkunen: Yes, sure. We’re super excited in GameRefinery. As you said, we just launched, kind of, a snapshot report on in-game ad data. That’s part of us bringing in-game ads features to our service. We currently track over 13 different ad-related features, ranging from videos to offerwalls to different special types of these ads like progression rewards and gacha-based rewards. It’s an exciting time for us.

Not only do we provide the numbers, how many games are utilising certain types of ad-monetising mechanics, but also hundreds of implementation examples of how different games, across different genres, utilise the ads and how they place them into games.

Jon Jordan: Good, it sounds very interesting. Carol, what’s your view on mobile game advertising? How big a part does that play in PeopleFun’s business?

Carol Miu: It plays a huge part in our business. Our portfolio is predominantly ad-monetised. As Joel mentioned, I think that the ad-monetisation opportunities continue to grow even among our payer part of our audience.

Just to give an example. We have been looking at how payers have a cadence to their purchases. You don’t expect someone to be making a purchase, let’s say, every single day in your game. During the times in between their normal purchase frequency, we can offer them rewarded video as an opportunity.

“Ad-monetisation opportunities continue to grow even among our payer part of our audience”

Jon Jordan: Interesting. Joel, you’re saying there are 13 different ad types now. That kind of, I guess, goes to the sophistication of how game designers and ad companies are coming together to come up with these things that are useful. I guess still, maybe, there’s a certain kind of core, certainly on the design side, that sees ads as this bad thing that- You know, they’re either cannibalising in-app purchases or just things we shouldn’t have in our lovely designed games. I guess 13 ad types suggests we’ve moved a long way from just having banner.

Joel Julkunen: Yes, yes, yes, it’s a big shift. If you look a couple of years back, that was actually how the market worked. You basically had a rough division of games utilising all the IAPs and monetising with those. Then you had those, let’s say, smaller studios or hyper-casual games monetising through banner ads or really simple ad solutions.

Now, what we have seen during 2019 and in growing numbers in 2020, even in mid-core are adapting in-game ads as part of their monetisation strategy, to support the IAPs. If you look at it from the perspective of a pure figure, at the moment in the US, about 40% of casual games have incentivised videos implemented. That’s a high number. Then if you go to mid-core, the numbers stay, still, at about 20%. So one-fifth of mid-core games that were traditionally viewed as only monetising through IAPs are using incentivised videos. That’s a huge shift in the market.

“What we have seen during 2019 and in growing numbers in 2020, even in mid-core are adapting in-game ads as part of their monetisation strategy, to support the IAPs”

Jon Jordan: Have to say… I don’t know if I’m a common or garden gamer, I don’t know how average I am, but I always quite like incentivised videos. You kind of feel, one, you’re getting something for it. Two, if you’re interested in games, most, or a lot, of the ads in games, are for other games. If you’re interested in new games then seeing videos, being paid to watch videos about a new game you might like, I’ve always thought it was quite a positive thing but I don’t know if I’m normal in that aspect.

Carol. For your audience, obviously very much more casual, do you have incentivised videos, does that fit into how you’ve designed your sessions and your engagement?

Carol Miu: Yes, we do have rewarded video ads. We’re leaning into them more heavily now that we have more of a segmentation view of our audience and are able to see what segment of our audience is most interested in that type of advertising. We are able to serve up that advertising, of course, on an optional basis for those users to opt into. We’ve found that to be quite successful.

Also, from the publishers’ view, in-app advertising and, in particular, interstitial ads are very useful to us. From our perspective, we take a look over time at what other games are advertising successfully in our game and then develop an understanding that we share an audience demographic with that other game. It’s very useful data for us.

Jon Jordan: That’s a good point. You, obviously, have good data about how your audience interacts with your experiences. That’s the point of running a game and having an audience. I guess the people who interact with ads provide you with further segmentation, another segmentation of people who are active in a different way. Obviously they play your game, but also they’re active in wanting more things. That’s like a subset of that. That helps, potentially… I don’t know if that would help you add new things into the game or think about the content that you’re adding. Obviously, you want to appeal to that active group of people as well.

Carol Miu: Absolutely. We think, all the time, about what our players find rewarding and when to offer those rewards and what type of effort our players like to put forth for certain types of rewards in certain quantities. Absolutely, that’s part of our thinking.

PeopleFun, word game success and scaling content

Jon Jordan: Good. That’s ads, we may come back to it. To, maybe, set the scene a little bit for PeopleFun, for listeners who don’t know very much about the company, can you maybe set the scene a little bit? You’re in Texas, I believe.

Carol Miu: Yes. We’re in Richardson, Texas, just north of Dallas. We’ve been in operation since 2011. Launching our first game, Word Chums!, in 2012. Wordscapes took everyone, including us, by storm. It was the brainchild of our CEO, Tony Goodman, who really has a knack for creating these zen experiences that users love and keep wanting to come back to. Wordscapes was launched in 2017 and the rest is history. It kind of took the word genre by storm. I think we’ve been very, very, pleased with this ride up.

I know that sometimes people really wonder, “How did you make a word game so successful and scale it this large?” I really think that a lot of it goes back to caring very much about the user experience and focusing on the broad market, long lifecycle, games with really, really, high retention. So creating this in-game experience that people love to play with their friends and family. It doesn’t have to be super high-stakes or stressful. You come in to relax. People, basically, come in and stay with us for a very, very, long time. We become a big part of their lives.

Jon Jordan: How did this kind of- PeopleFun, I think you came out of the fairly hard-core PC world, I think some of the founders, but you focused on words. Was that always the thing, to focus on word games, was that part of the plan or was that the thing that kind of stuck? Word games are, as you say, very broad in terms of their audience but they’re a particular sort of audience, aren’t they? I imagine it demographically skews certain ways.

Carol Miu: I think you’d be surprised at how broad market our games are. When you take a look at 29m MAU and, over the course of time, something like, nowadays, close to 100m installs for our games, they’re an extremely, extremely, broad market. In terms of demographics, of course, we do tend to have more women and more adult women but millions and millions of men also play our games.

I think, in terms of your question about the word game market, that’s how we started, with Word Chums! I think that we’ve basically stuck to a recipe that’s worked. However, lately, we have been branching out to different genres of games. We also have Blockscapes out on the market now. We are also working on a suite of card and puzzle games.

Jon Jordan: Okay, good, good. Joel, you play word games, is that something that… You play thousands of games for us, you play everything.

Jon Jordan: What’s your view on word games?

Joel Julkunen: Yes, I do. I do actually play. Even though I’m, of course, a native Finnish speaker, I tend to play them in English.

That’s interesting, what Carol was saying. From my perspective, if I look at word games, there is a rough differentiation between two types of word games. You have, like Carol mentioned, Wordscapes is, you chill out, you play it at your own time, the pace is mellow and nice. It’s not PvP or competition-heavy, so to speak. Then, on the other hand, you have Words With Friends Scrabble games which are more like social PvP competitive games, word games.

Those, we identify as two different groups of word games. Of course, different feature sets. What works in other game types might not work as well in the other. In terms of broad-spectrum, if you look at casual games, it’s interesting to see more and more of them embracing the social aspect of gaming like bringing in mechanics like alliance systems or teams as they are usually called in casual games. I actually believe Wordscapes did that, right Carol?

Carol Miu: Absolutely, we just launched our teams feature earlier this month on April 2nd. I think we were seeing what, some of, Joel was talking about, just that evolution doesn’t always move in a straight line. Taking a look at some of the success that we’ve had in Word Chums! as well as the success that some of our competitors have had in Words With Friends 2 and with Scrabble, looking at what social features we’ve provided for our audience. Especially at this time, wanting to increase the ability of our audience to be able to reach out to each other and communicate and enjoy their time together in our games.

In terms of PvP, we do not have direct PvP as Scrabble does. We do have weekend tournaments where users can complete Wordscapes levels. Their participation gets ranked on a leader board. We do give our prizes for that, so there is kind of an indirect competition in this way.

Jon Jordan: It’s interesting what you say, Joel, how broad that definition is… I do think competition, in general, does really change the atmosphere of a game. Certainly when I’ve been playing Wordscapes, I’m not expert at all, it does, as you say, have that very zen element. You’re just doing it at your own pace. You have these social elements and you have Facebook Connect, so you have that layer there but it’s not in your face in a way that I think, for other games, can be off-putting for people.

I guess that’s always the problem. Always finding the balance, with a lot of these mobile games, there are things you can do but it’s the context in which you place it. You have to focus on doing one thing really well, then you can add these other things to enhance that. Trying to squash everything into one single experience normally just makes a complete mess for everyone.

Focusing, still, on Wordscapes, one of the interesting things you’ve done there is you’ve generated an enormous amount of content for that game. It is level-based… You theme it very well in terms of how the player progresses through different thematic levels that look different. How do you think about adding more and more things? Obviously, I guess, now you’ve had people who’ve been playing that game since, probably, the week it came out?

Carol Miu: Yes.

Jon Jordan: And probably can consume content as fast as you can update it.

Carol Miu: Absolutely. I think I could probably answer both of your questions in one. First, in terms of just how many features are in the game and then how much content is in the game. I’ll tackle the content one first. In the beginning, when we first launched Wordscapes, the end was content. All of our content was manually generated. In the beginning, we only had a couple of thousand levels.

We would watch to see how players progressed. When someone got close to reaching the end of content, we were like, “Oh wow, we have to add a couple more thousand levels right now because someone is almost at the end.”

Finally, last year, we decided, “With our user base and how much some players play Wordscapes during the day, really, 50, 60, 70 levels per day, we really need to find a better solution.” Without giving away too much secret sauce, we found a way to automatically generate levels. Now we no longer have an end of content, players can keep playing and new levels will just generate.

“We found a way to automatically generate levels. Now we no longer have an end of content, players can keep playing and new levels will just generate”

With respect to your second question, I really think that it has a lot to do with the product life cycle of the game. You see a lot of games launch very simply with very few features, very, very, peaceful, calming, experience, not too many distracting events or features popping up.

Over the lifecycle of the game, as the game matures, you have a very mature audience that has retained with you for a very, very, long time. They are looking for a more exciting experience with more features. It becomes a delicate balance to please this audience and keep them retaining, because they are your best players who’ve been with you for years, as well as creating an experience that is simple enough and not overwhelming for new installs.

Jon Jordan: Is that partly where the new product ideas come in, you kind of think you can take some of the engagement of some players and the time they spend in the games and try to siphon them off into something new where they’re starting out new? I know there’s been lots of talk about this cross pollination. I think, when it works it does brilliantly. When it doesn’t you, basically, have ended up cannibalising both your games.

Carol Miu: Yes. We do some cross promo across our word games and, thus far, have found it to be very successful. We do take a look at cannibalisation, to make sure that a user is more likely to play both games rather than just to leave one for the other and then not retain well in the second game. It is something we definitely have an eye on.

Jon Jordan: Joel, something interesting you mentioned a while back, you were saying, as a native Finnish speaker, you play in English. How much have you looked at how the different languages play out? There do seem to be some regional variations. Obviously, UK and US, English is spoken very broadly. The best-known games, I suppose, are English language. Are you seeing any differences in terms of other languages and popularities there?

Joel Julkunen: Yes. Of course the English language word games are the dominant ones, no surprises there. I’ve, of course, tested a couple of word games in Finnish whenever it has been possible, like WordBrain for example. In theory it’s quite similar, I would say, but Finnish language might not be as bendy in some ways that the English one was when it comes to Scrabble types of games. If you play Scrabble in English or in Finnish, it’s a different kind of experience I would say.

Jon Jordan: I don’t think that’s a technical definition, bendy, but I think I know what you mean.

Jon Jordan: Carol, how much language support do you do? Does that change the product a lot?

Carol Miu: Right now, our products are just in English. I think I will leave it at that for now.

Entering new segments of the market and finding potential opportunities

Jon Jordan: We’ll have to ask you back at some point in the future. You said you’re looking to branch out from specifically word games into non-word games that may appeal to the same audience. I guess that’s interesting because there are other games companies who are, maybe, a bit like… You know, PeopleFun is known for its word games. There are other companies known for their card games or other board games.

How do you think about entering a market where a competitor, a well-entrenched company, is there already? Obviously, I guess, you play all their games to try to see what they’re doing. Is the focus more on looking for gaps, looking at what GameRefinery can tell you about what the leaders are, or is it more…? Your designers have to come up with a concept that you think is going to be brilliant for card games or board games, and lead on that. How do you get that balance?

Carol Miu: I think it’s a little bit of everything. First, taking a look at a market analysis using GameRefinery or similar services. We can see whether a particular genre of card game or puzzle game- We can say Solitaire Saga or blocks is a saturated market. We can take a look at how many top competitors there are and what their performance is, to gauge whether there is room for the market to grow.

We make these assessments. Do we enter a market and fight for share and, potentially, end up fighting over scraps? Do we enter a market and, potentially, grow the market?

We take a look at these factors, then we take a look at the dominant players in the market, try out their games, figure out what the feature set needs to be for a new title to be successful.

Then, of course, we need to make sure that is the type of game, the genre of game, that our team wants to work on. We do meet, typically, every other week, as a studio, to talk about new game development and what we are excited about trying. It’s really a factor of market data, whether our team is psyched about working on that kind of game, as well as whether we feel like that game is in our wheelhouse. Is this something that we can learn to do and master in a reasonable amount of time?

“It’s really a factor of market data, whether our team is psyched about working on that kind of game, as well as whether we feel like that game is in our wheelhouse”

Jon Jordan: That’s a good point. If it’s just done for pure business reasons, and no one in the company has much of a passion for it, you kind of think… You could have to operate that game, maybe, for a couple of years with everyone going, “Oh, I wish we hadn’t launched that game.” That, obviously, clearly comes through to the players, that this is a by-the-numbers sort of game.

Joel. The whole point of GameRefinery is to build up this big picture of the whole mobile game sector and what’s going on there. One of the big things we’ve seen, over the last few years, is these ideas of mashing up genres. How can you help developers think creatively about mashing up genres to create these new types of games?

Joel Julkunen: That’s a good question. This is a big trend, mashing up genres to create hybrid ones. Also, I will say that genres are borrowing ideas across other genres. If you think about word games or casual games in general, they have adopted guild mechanics or meta elements like collection albums, collecting elements, from other more mid-core genres.

GameRefinery, we… Of course, with our genre taxonomy and vast feature set database, we’re able to offer our users the view on the market and the features as to which features and feature combinations, for instance, differentiate the best-performing games in any genre. If you’re just interested about how… Like Carol mentioned, if you’re studying a new genre to enter, you can see the top titles. Also, what should you do in order to penetrate that market.

If you are creating a hybrid, trying to find a blue ocean by combining two interesting genres, there is a lot of data we can provide to help you in doing that.

“This is a big trend, mashing up genres to create hybrid ones. Also, I will say that genres are borrowing ideas across other genres”

Jon Jordan: Carol, are there any mashup features that, in a dream world, you’d like to do? Sometimes, with mashup things, the more crazy mashup things they are the kind of… The weirder they are, the more they stand out. Although, probably, not so easy to operate on a commercial level.

Carol Miu: In a word game space, it tends to be a little bit difficult to do these types of mashup features. We’re certainly looking at different types of game modes in our Wordscapes Search, so our word search title, taking a look at timed levels, taking a look at levels with different types of rewards. I think, in terms of what the broad market might want in a word game, we can’t go too crazy.

Jon Jordan: No. I guess that’s always the interesting thing for those mashups. Mashups work really well, I guess, in that game jam community where there are no wrong answers. Actually getting to a stage where people outside the studio are interested in it, other than as some sort of innovation curiosity, is interesting.

I guess that’s, kind of, where… It’s not really casual. The whole hyper-casual thing has actually been quite interesting for the mobile games industry because those games are so short, in every respect, that you can just have more opportunity to try things for the sake of it.
Joel, how do you try to keep up to date with the hyper-casual thing? It seems like, every week there is a new hyper-casual hit. Then there are 10 copycats of it. Then, next week, they all move onto something else.

Joel Julkunen: Yes, that’s right, that’s right. Actually, we just… With my team, we were looking at hyper-casual games especially and what kind of games are now popping up in the top download ones. It seems to be that now they’re… If you look at two or three months ago, it was tapping games like hopping or, then, some kind of fast-paced reaction-based games. Now there are a lot of sculpting games, whether it’s soap sculpting or you are chiselling wood or you are chopping vegetables.

Carol Miu: I’m just going to laugh because those ASMR games make my stomach churn, I can’t stand them. I see the appeal for other people, my kids love them.

Joel Julkunen: Yes, it’s like… You can’t fail those levels in some of the games. It’s like passing time and… I’ve heard it’s surprisingly addictive. Yes, hyper-casual is coming up with new kinds of core game mechanics all the time. I think it’s really good, kind of like you said, for the whole industry because it’s a cauldron where you can innovate. Then, let’s say, some casual games and even mid-core games can find ideas from that pot of new innovative things.

Of course hyper-casual games are, by themselves, also shifting more towards casual games by adding more depth and adding more meta layers, collectables, decorative items, so more progressive elements from session to session in those games as well. So it’s not only that mid-core and casual games are learning from hyper-casual, but also hyper-casual being pulled towards the traditionally IAP monetising casual and mid-core games.

Jon Jordan: I guess, as everything becomes more competitive, those hyper-casual games need to work out ways of monetising beyond just what you can get from a large scale advertising audience. That means bringing in more long-term retention.

Really, I guess, at the end of the day, mobile games are, kind of, all about retention. That’s the key metric. Is it, Carol, is that the key metric you look at?

Carol Miu: I believe so, it is definitely… When we’re doing new product development, before we decide to greenlight a project for actual development, retention is one of the biggest KPIs that we look at. I think that in terms of hyper-casual… What hyper-casual is typically seen as is low retention, very short lifecycle, very low CPI.

I think that they’re trying to borrow, definitely, some features and best practices from casual and mid-core to make sure that their products are no longer short lifecycle. That longer lifecycle also means that, of course, the product is profitable for much longer and you don’t have to go back to the drawing board to develop a new one so quickly. I definitely see the need there.

Predictions on what we’ll see in casual over the rest of 2020

Jon Jordan: Okay. We’re coming to the end of this episode, focused on casual. Shall we have final thoughts about throwing open where the rest of the year is going to go? Are there any obvious trends that we think are going to be happening in word casual games or more generally in casual games, is there anything obvious Joel?

Joel Julkunen: I think the trends that we’ve been seeing the past year are going to continue pretty strong. If you think about casual games, my bet is that it will be adding more social content. Building the social structure, whether that is through guild mechanics or teams or co-op playing modes, that’s going to be a big one. So not only people playing games alone, but also together.

“I think the trends that we’ve been seeing the past year are going to continue pretty strong. If you think about casual games, my bet is that it will be adding more social content”

The other one I think, I’m betting, is more horizontal content will find its ways to casual games. Meaning that there might be special playing modes inside… Inside a word game, for example, if you have 1,000 levels then you might have some side levels of side playing modes or live, recurring, looping events that bring more beef to the experience. Those two, I would say in casual games, will be the big ones.

Of course, turning to the in-game ads, I think they will continue trending upwards.

Carol Miu: I definitely agree with everything Joel just said. A lot more social, of course, Wordscapes just launched teams. Looking at different ways for teams to interact with each other, looking for more social experiences, both competitive and cooperative, finding a feature that can delight players in terms of what they might be able to collect and show off to their friends.

Right now, in Wordscapes, we have crowns and we have crown season where users can win tournaments and level up their crown and have this beautiful crown that they can wear on their head when other players see them on the leaderboard and when they look at their own profile. We’re leaning into that and creating a whole new suite of crowns for the summer and fall seasons. Winter development will be coming up soon as well so, yes, absolutely.
Jon Jordan: It’s always ironic, we’ve not started summer yet and already people are talking about what’s going on in winter. I guess it goes to show how complex even, what look like, very simple mobile games are these days.

Thank you Joel and thank you Carol for giving us your expertise today.

Joel Julkunen: Thank you.

Carol Miu: Thanks so much, Jon and Joel, for having me, I really enjoyed our discussion.

Jon Jordan: Good, yes. Thank you, listeners, for making it through another episode. We are doing podcasts about what’s going on in the world of mobile games, and the key trends, every month. Please do subscribe to the Mobile GameDev Playbook on your podcast subscription of choice. Thank you for listening. Come back next month to find out what we’re talking about in the world of mobile games then. Goodbye.

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