“Game development” as a term makes it sound like an event that takes months if not years to fully bring to completion, which makes it sounds like what it takes to bring new medicine to the market. Although “game development” does take time, it includes a step called “soft launch”. The soft launch is the step between development and global launch, which means that for it to be effective as a means of publishing the best possible game, the soft launch needs to be tested on a market as similar as possible to the target one. The term is similar to “early access”, which refers to PC games, in that the process allows the game developer to tweak the game with the help of feedback (there is the difference that “early access” does not launch the game in specific markets, but rather globally, and it is used as a source of funds), an important difference is that “soft launch” is usually used for free-to-play mobile games. Since the purpose of the soft launch is to define what needs to be fixed/improved/changed before the game becomes widely available, it would be good to know what to look for and what the next steps would be.
Characteristics of a soft launch
The soft launch works like an experiment where the game is available only in certain selected regions or marketplaces. This is because the stores are not the same in all countries and regions, which is why the game can be made available in only one or a few countries. Which market you will soft launch in depends on what you intend to find out, and also what CPI (Cost Per Install) is acceptable; if you want to know about potential ARPPU (average revenue per paying user) then a market where expenditure for in-app purchases is as close as possible to the target market is required. If you want to know about the gameplay then a market with a low CPI would be a good fit. Due to the small amount of data available, it is important to have the soft launch in a market that is a good fit so that the conclusions are applicable.
Given that the purpose of the soft launch is to figure out where, and if, improvement is needed, then attention should be given to the retention rate (day 1 retention, day 7 retention, and how many days someone has played after installing the game), percentage of players completing a certain level, and play sessions per day. Depending on the type of game that you are dealing with, other characteristics will be more telling of how gamers are interacting with the game and how likable it is. Paying attention to these metrics allows you to see what the progression curve is like for real players (these would be players who are not part of the game studio, or testers), and from that conclude what tweaks are needed for a smooth progression curve and more enjoyable gaming experience. This ties in with how KPIs (Key Point Indicators) act like a compass in knowing how a game is doing (a subject explored in a previous post), and what needs to changed or improved for an update. An example of a metric that is measured is the percentage of players that pass the level, as compared to the percentage that fail the level (the progression curve); for the gameplay to be enjoyable, the change towards a higher percentage failing should be a gradual and steady change. A gradual change in these values shows that the difficulty in the game is not increasing to the point where the players leave the game (this would show as a change in retention rates).
Given that the soft launch is meant to help the game developer find any flaws before the game becomes widely available, then it makes sense to also set as a goal finding any bugs that were not caught earlier. This brings us to another reason why a soft launch takes place in specific markets instead of at the target market. Notice that having the game only available in a certain market means that only a group of players (and therefore potential reviews in the app stores and social media comments) can see any bugs or issues and make comments about it, and so for the game developer this means the opportunity to make an update addressing the issues before a wider audience can play the game. Having addressed the issues, and adjusted the difficulty of the game, the game should do as well as it possibly can in the global launch.
Even though a soft launch provides the opportunity to fix any issues in a new game, it is not the end of iterating the game. The game can be improved upon continuously with new features and player suggestions, therefore in some ways a game might never be fully “finished”. Thus, a developer often might have to force themselves to declare a game to be done.