Product Management in Gaming

BY Jock Busuttil ON MAY 21, 2013

Healthy Lines - Deadline (Martyn Jones @ElvisBacon)Yep, we were really turning the fun factor up to 11 at ProductTank London last week.  We had three insightful and delightful speakers – Martyn Jones, Paul Croft and Catharina Lavers Mallet – all giving us the benefit of their experience as product managers in gaming.  The evening was curated with aplomb by Marc Abraham (@MAA1).

Player 1 was Martyn Jones (@ElvisBacon), product manager and game designer at Mind Candy, who spoke to us about validation and iteration during product discovery.  Using the ‘double diamond‘ design process as his guiding theme, Martyn entertained us with his unique combination of hand-crafted slides and visual puns to draw out a few great insights:

  • Finding fun is an adventure
  • You can’t have deadlines for your product without knowing what to build first
  • During discovery, you need to explore loads of ideas to spread your bets as you never know where you’ll find fun – then you can start setting deadlines
  • To find fun you need to iterate rapidly and achieve mastery, Yoda-style
  • Be honest with your ideas – after iteration, if they’re still not working, park them
  • If you’re not the target user (in this case, a kid), you’ll need to remind yourself how they think
  • The best friend of a games product manager is a designer – they can help you realise your ideas

Next, we levelled up with Paul Croft (@Bouncinglemon), production director at Mediatonic, who showed us how a data-driven approach complements the quest for fun, particularly in the world of gaming-as-a-service (GaaS).  Some of his observations:

  • When starting out on a creative cycle, a blank sheet of paper can be intimidating; constraints – or perhaps context and objectives for the game – are empowering
  • “I don’t know the key to success, but the key to failure is trying to please everyone” – Bill Cosby
  • The differences in gaming devices, their usage and user demographics have a massive bearing on the design of the products and their ARPU (average return per user)
  • Market and competitive analysis in the gaming industry is not just about now, but about predicting how the market will change
  • As with Martyn earlier, you don’t know a game will be fun until you try it – so user test your ideas and gather lots of relevant metrics to fine-tune the product
  • Pairing creativity with great product management is key to building a successful creative product

Just as we were thinking we’d lost all our lives, Catharina Lavers Mallet (@catharinamallet), head of studio at King turned up with a big bag of loose change to buy us more credits.  Catharina told us all how product management in games is different – it’s about fun, not necessarily about solving problems.

  • A difficult level in a game isn’t a problem to be solved by making the level easier – the frustration is what engages the user!
  • One of the challenges is knowing which data to measure to find problems – but retention is a key metric
  • They split product management function into technical and commercial roles that work really closely together
  • Progression through a development cycle from pre-production to launch is accompanied by a move from design to vision & metrics – in other words from qualitative to quantitative as more data becomes available
  • Game failure rate is really high, so they use approaches such as their cross-platform strategy to have lots of small risks instead of one big risk
  • The initial user experience in games is so important because the commitment to play is so low to begin with – so do lots of user testing!

As a bonus round, we also had some great questions for our speakers from the audience:

“How do you split time between optimising existing products and building new ones?”

One approach is to use future revenue models to determine whether it’s worth investing further in a game.  But if something does need to be changed, our panel was unanimous that chopping and changing during a sprint should be avoided.

“If you have one enormous hit and a few satellite games, how do you build a company strategy around that?”

Martyn described how Mind Candy is building a brand around Moshi Monsters to create other revenue streams other than the game itself.  At Mediatonic, they tend to have several irons in the fire at any one time, replied Paul, a view shared by Catharina.

“How you balance the art and science of gut-feel versus a data-driven approach in games?”

Catharina volunteered that it’s a hard balance to strike, and different in each case.  Paul suggested that useful metrics are ‘attention’ and ‘retention’, as a few percentage points difference can have a massive impact on the success of a game.

“When recruiting a product manager, how do you find people who are fun?”

“Do lots of interviews to test cultural fit,” was Catharina’s suggestion. “It’s really important to find people who can take their ego out of their judgements and empathise,” advised Martyn.  Not to forget good working knowledge of the gaming industry, game design or simply being an keen and articulate gamer, added Paul.

That wrapped up another lively and well-attended ProductTank – the next one will be at 6.30pm on Wednesday 19th June and is all about mCommerce and eCommerce (Event Details).  Do join us then!

We are indebted to eProfessionals for sponsoring the drinks for the evening.  Get in touch with us if you’re interested in curating a ProductTank, writing for our blog on MindTheProduct, or sponsoring our events.

Jock Busuttil

About

Jock Busuttil

Jock is a freelance head of product, author and startup mentor with over eighteen years' experience working in technology. He helps startups and larger organisations with digital transformation and to improve their product management practices, including Experian, BBC, University of Cambridge, and the UK's Ministry of Justice and Government Digital Service (GDS). He is the founder of Product People Limited, which provides product management consultancy and training. He is also the author of the popular book The Practitioner's Guide to Product Management and the blog I Manage Products.