Mobile game designers feel like the mad scientists of the development world. They work fast and are constantly adjusting formulas based on the tiniest changes in player data. And when one experiment blows up in their face, they’re ready to move on to whatever is next. On this week’s episode of How Games Make Money, host Jeff Grubb speaks with Metamoki game design director Mitch Zamara about what it’s like to create games like Weed Inc. and Wiz Khalifa’s Weed Farm in that kind of environment. Join us, won’t you?

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Developers have refined mobile games into a science. Studios use performance marketing to acquire players. This is where a developer only pays for an ad when it leads to an install. And as long as the cost of that install is significantly less than what the average player is going to spend, then a game can just keep rolling forever.

This data-driven approach means that mobile gaming is much leaner and more limber than traditional studios.

“The notion of spending many years on a game and trying to get featured and putting all these efforts into a high-production product, it creates a huge amount of risk,” said Zamara. “That’s versus the ability to create a free-to-play game in a matter of months with a much smaller team. You can explore how viable that is as a business in a much cheaper and quicker manner.”

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But while that might sound like it reduces games to a cold equation, it’s not really how Zamara looks at it. As a designer, he’s never thinking about the monetization first. Instead, it’s all about creating a game that is fun and players will want to come back to. That’s what determines if a game lives or dies.

“For the most part, your early validation is to make sure that your retention is strong so that your players stick around,” he said. “That’s really more important than even how good your monetization is or how good your other business metrics are. If you’re able to get create an experience that’s compelling and fun and engaging and people stick around, then figuring out how to make money from those players is a lot easier than having to figure out ways to make people stay.”

The mobile game graveyard

Zamara says that he has had experiences where his team spent two months trying to get a game from low 30% retention up closer to 50%. But no matter what they did, the needle wouldn’t budge more than 5% higher. At that point, the team moves on to something new.

But this doesn’t just happen to new, untested games. Eventually, even most profitable games reach the end of their lives. And this is something that Zamara thinks comes with the territory.

“This has been happening since 2009 when Farmville was a thing,” he said. “I worked at Zynga, and they killed a dozen games while I was there, games that were eventually taken offline. Some of those were games that I even worked on.”

But none of that changes how to make a game fun. For Zamara, it doesn’t matter that the business is so obsessed with data.

“I turn spreadsheets into fun and into a player experience,” he said. “I can look at a spreadsheet and feel what that experience is like for a player. So for me I don’t lose that emotional touch because I start first as an advocate for the player and never leave that that perch. I’ve always fought for the experience of the player because I know, at the end of the day, that’s what will drive the business.”