Hit After Hit
A first great game is necessary, but not sufficient, to building a great game company. When games were simply packaged software, we all knew that games were projects, with a defined "end of life." Now that we think about games as a service, we build games that can hold players attention for longer periods of time. We want to retain players for months and years. But at some point a player will tire of your game and move on. At some point, you will run out of your universe of potential players. And at that point, your game will start to die.
If things go well, this might be many years and billions of dollars in revenue after the game has launched. But even games such as World of Warcraft are now showing signs of aging. League of Legends has supplanted it as the most played game in the world, but one day League of Legends will enter into its twilight years as well. To build enduring enterprise value, to build an enduring enterprise, you must build an organization that can build more than one great game. You can't just build a hit; you need to build a hit factory.
As the Chinese game publishers have shown, you can only ride on a single great game for so long. You need to have a strategy for how you can leverage your success and learnings from your first game into future games.
You need to have an unfair advantage based on your first success that you can leverage into future games. This can take the form of cross marketing to your player base, reusable code libraries to make the next games faster and cheaper to build, or even insights into what players want that you uniquely have.
But if you aren't thinking about how the success of your initial title can be leveraged into future success, you run the risk of being a one hit wonder. It could end up being a tremendous hit, like League of Legends or World of Tanks, but it is still only one.
CCP Games (EVE Online) and Jagex (RuneScape) run this risk right now, while Zynga, Kixeye, Gameforge and Bigpoint are all examples of companies that have been able to replicate their success. Both Riot and Wargaming are rumored to be working on new games to make this transition.
The good news about the game industry today is that it is easier than ever to get your game in the hands of players. Between the web, Facebook, and app stores, distribution has seemingly been solved.
The bad news is that everyone else has figured this out too. All these channels are flooded. The game marketplace is crowded and noisy. Traditionally, game developers have relied on publishers to get their games discovered. As a result, creating strategies for discovery is a new area for them, and they are often glib about how to solve the problem. "We'll just get viral." "Best game wins." "Apple will feature us, my buddy works there." All easier said than done. So while design, development and distribution are important, the real difference between a successful game and a failed one is often discovery.
In 2009, viral growth through invitations and notifications were the way that Facebook games could get discovered. As these channels became better policed, discovery moved to the feed. But today, even the feed is no longer a reliable driver of discovery. As a result, games that rely solely on viral growth will have a harder time replicating the success of Zynga.
For mobile, charting is the primary mode of discovery, and this led to widespread app store manipulation. Today, mobile game publishers use various techniques to "burst" to the charts, hoping that game quality will keep them there for a while.