Kontagent's Josh Williams on why analytics matter in Facebook games [Interview]


Analyta-what? Is that even a real word? Well, not according to the New Oxford Dictionary, but it's nevertheless become terribly important to how the games hundreds of millions of us play daily are made and distributed. Noticing the increasing trend in analytics, or the use of measurable data to crowd source design decisions, we sat down and talked with Josh Williams (pictured below) to learn more.

Josh is President of Kontagent, a San Francisco-based firm that provides analytics tracking services to major social and mobile app companies, namely game makers. The service has been officially tracking 150 million monthly players worldwide across a variety of social games, so we figured Josh would know a bit about what analytics has uncovered regarding our social gaming habits. We also learned that, frankly, this stuff is pretty darn important to how our favorite games are made.

For the uninformed, can you explain what analytics is, exactly?

Analytics help developers look at what players are doing in their games, and then figure out what's working and what's not. The best analytics are sort of a mechanism for players to vote on what they like and don't like inside of a game.

Now that Kontagent tracks about 150 million monthly players worldwide, what would you say are the most interesting numbers relating to how social gamers play?

On the mobile side, there was a bunch of change in the last three to six months. Freemium games have just taken over on mobile over the last several months. So that's changed the way--developers are used to putting out one-time payment games [on the Apple App Store]--developers structure their apps to better track what players are doing.

Generally, people are spending more and more time, but there are more gamers on Facebook than in mobile. But the time is increasing per player a lot, too. From six months ago, [people are playing] 20 percent more time per person between mobile games and social games. It's really changing quickly.

For how long do social gamers play their games? And what are players buying most frequently while playing?

There's a huge range, but on average--the average gamer that plays mobile and social games--is about 20 minutes a day or more now playing. But the range is huge. Of course, you have people who average just a minute per day but for some it's in the hours now. It's really become a major method of consumption for games.

It really depends on the game, but overall we're seeing a shift. Early on, micro-transactions were a lot about the cosmetic items. That has definitely shifted now to items that have use in the game. There are two classifications for those: durable goods, or things that you buy and last forever, and the consumable stuff. The consumable goods are taking a larger and larger portion of micro-transactions spent both in social and mobile games. Right now, it's roughly split between [the two]. Mobile games are a little bit behind, but they're rapidly evolving.

More specifically, what are the numbers showing about how "social" social gamers are (i.e. how and what are they sharing through updates)?

These games are designed to be that way, but there are a few different numbers to look at, one being the number of users coming in via social channels--the virality of the app. Another is how many social messages get sent, and then also how many responses happen to those. Or, when you see a friend posting about [a social game] how often do you respond to those posts. All three of those numbers for social games are high, but for mobile it's actually really, really low.

When it comes to new users entering a game when their friends post a message about it, you can get as much as 15 percent--some games do a lot better, but that's a typical number--from the messages being sent out. [It's huge,] but that number actually used to be a little higher back in the days when Facebook used to just spam everybody. Facebook has toned that down a lot, which is a good thing for gamers, I think.


Recently, Kontagent CEO Jeff Tseng said that social games are more like casinos than we think. Could you speak to that, and how are social gamers' habits supporting that ideology?

There's a lot of the same psychology at play in a lot of the social games. In the social games now, you have a lot of them designed around simple mechanics that's kind of the gambling psychology and structure. But I'd say there is a lot more quality wrapped around [them].

What would you say is most useful about analytics to a game designer?

I'd say analytics are pretty vital to mobile and social game development. Think about it: This is the first time in the last few years that you could have a direct connection with players. Back in the days of retail games, you were basically building in the dark. Maybe you did some play testing and even had a beta. But after shipment they're hoping they did a good job, waiting until the reviews and sales numbers to come in.

Now, designers really change reviews--a lot of times they'll shift something within the first patch. And a lot of times that works, so from there the numbers that are most important to a designer are engagement metrics. So, you're looking at how much time people are spending in the game, how frequently are they coming back. If you have a sharing mechanism, how often are they sharing. You're looking for the numbers that tell how much they like the game.

Josh Williams
Josh Williams

Would you say that monetization becomes more of a priority later down the line for developers?

Yeah, that's right, so monetization becomes a priority later. It's not like you don't think about it up until that point. It's partly retrofitted, but the real optimization doesn't come until later.

Many traditional game developers have gotten into using analytics to inform their game's creation (take Bioware with Mass Effect 2, for instance). Why do you think analytics is slowly becoming a norm in game design across the board?

It's so powerful to have that insight. Analytics are kind of a voting mechanism for the players, so if you can get that feedback on what players really like, why wouldn't you want it? And I think traditional game developers are seeing how well it works in social games and mobile. I think it's going to be more and more [prevalent].

Thanks for taking the time to school us in this pseudo-real, but terribly important word, Josh.

Based on Joshs' words, do you think analytics could become the way all games are made? How do you feel about you voting toward a game's future without even knowing it? Sound off in the comments. Add Comment.