The Data-Driven Path to Success
Pixels & Profits: Chapter 8
The Power of Data
In the world of indie game development, the roadmap to success may seem convoluted and unclear. Throughout this series, I’ve shared a number of strategies and tools to effectively market your games. But how do you know if you’re on the right path?
How do we measure success?
What guides our future strategies?
The answer lies in one powerful tool: Analytics.
Because our data drives our decisions.
Like using GPS to navigate, rather than some hand-drawn “map” scribbled on a napkin.
You’ve heard the phrase “numbers don’t lie,” and in the world of game marketing, this rings particularly true. As game developers, you have the unique ability to gather astounding insights about your audience through player interactions within your game.
(Assuming you’ve marketed well and are gaining players.)
There’s a reason Facebook, Google, and Amazon have all dipped their toes into the fertile, data-filled waters of game development:
Unmatched psychographic insight.
The breadth of what this fact means for you as a growing indie studio is too vast for the scope of what we’re doing right now but, you’ve learned enough at this point to help you connect the dots… so I’ll just say this:
Analytics give us the ability to measure the success of our marketing campaigns, keep track of our performance over time, and, most importantly, guide our future strategies.
In practice, you’re asking questions like:
- How do we know our marketing efforts are successful?
- Are our social media campaigns driving traffic?
- Are our email newsletters translating to downloads?
Analytics provides the answers to these questions by tracking a variety of data points often referred to as Key Performance Indicators (which we’ll delve into shortly).
The beauty of this stuff is that it offers us a clear picture of what is working and what is not. We can then use these insights to guide our decisions — tweaking and refining our approach along the way to better suit our audience’s needs and preferences.
Imagine it like you’re a space explorer, and your data is the ship’s computer thingy helping you navigate the vast and turbulent seas of Planet Marketing.
When it comes to analytics, the first main point of confusion is often about which metrics to track.
Let’s look at those…
Key Performance Indicators (KPIs)
Understanding your data starts with identifying the right metrics, often referred to as KPIs.
For game developers, we find that three KPIs are of particular relevance: User Acquisition, User Retention, and Player Engagement.
This metric tell us where our players are coming from.
If you’re working on your marketing in the ways I’ve suggested, the results of this data point isn’t likely to surprise you.
Done properly, your marketing will generate traffic that will come organically from the places your audience spends the most time, and from your paid campaigns.
Whether you get the results you expect or not, remember, you’re gaining incredibly valuable information which allows you to focus our marketing efforts on the channels that are yielding the most results.
This metric measures of how successful you are at keeping people engaged over time.
After all, you don’t just want to attract players, you want them to keep coming back.
What’s really cool about this data in gaming is the ability to pinpoint exactly when players stop playing — allowing you to reverse-engineer the cause, fix it, and improve the game’s overall quality all at once.
Engagement and retention are like two sides of the same coin. Higher engagement generally equates to higher retention rates.
For this data point, we are looking at questions like:
- Are players actively participating in your community?
- Are they sharing your content?
- Are there particular elements being shared more?
- Are they leaving reviews?
Remember what I said earlier about your unique ability to gain astounding insights?
Now we start to see why this is true.
Outside your game, player engagement metrics offer a wealth of information about the overall health and the effectiveness of your community engagement strategies.
Inside your game, engagement metrics can show you the simple things, like what elements are working, and which need attention from the player experience perspective…
It can also show you (in detail) the unique ways that each individual interacts with the world you’ve created.
Think about that for a second…
Imagine what I would know about you if I could literally see through your eyes as you experienced day to day life.
What would I discover?
The point I mean to make here is that when players are in your game, you literally have that power for as long as they are playing. You become as close to a mind-reader as is currently possible.
Before we move on, recall the piece about your 1000 True Fans. Those are the people whose datapoints you should look to first.
Making Sense of the Data Deluge
When I say “prepare for a flood,” I mean it. From the moment you start streaming data into your analytics platform, you’re in for a head-spinning ride. Thankfully, your whole discipline as a game developer revolves around computer science, which is exactly the toolkit you need when parsing massive data sets.
Bonus good news: there are loads of free tools out there which automate the process, and all the major marketing platforms (socials, search, emails, etc) give you some way to measure your efforts and results.
Interpreting analytics data can still feel like deciphering a complex code.
It can be (and often is) overwhelming.
Remember, just like developing games, data analysis is a skill that requires practice, and involves its fair share of trials and errors. It’s on you to persevere through that learning curve.
I’ll get you started but, there’s a lot to go over so, if you haven’t yet, I recommend reading our series on paid traffic if you want more content on this topic.
For now, let’s look at a few pointers:
Look for Patterns, Not Points
Your raw data will be hard to make sense of at first glance. The key here is to focus on trends rather than individual data points. Treat your analytics data as a pattern-matching game. Focus on trends rather than individual data points.
Are more people visiting your website after a recent social media campaign?
- Is there a drop in user engagement after a game update?
- What’s the cause?
- What’s the effect?
- Where can we accurately map one to the other?
A sudden increase in website visits after a social media campaign or a drop in user engagement after a game update, these are the kind of patterns you need to spot.
You won’t see these patterns if you’ve over-focused on individual data-points. Doing this work properly means looking at the system as a whole, objectively.
Avoid Confirmation Bias
Beware of interpreting data in ways that merely confirm your pre-existing beliefs. In marketing, this can quickly lead to flawed decision-making. For example, you might be convinced that Twitter is the best platform for your game, but the real-world audience data might suggest otherwise.
The danger here is that the biased cannot see their biases.
We are each blind to our own.
Data interpretation must be an objective process, allowing the numbers to reveal the truth without prejudice. It is crucial to let data, not assumptions, guide your marketing decisions.
Too many indie developers are convinced that TikTok is the place to market, or that Steam is where you need to be. I’m not going to argue either point because, true or not, when budgets and dreams are on the line, those are dangerous assumptions to make without leveraging your data to confirm.
Harness Qualitative Data
I’ll point you to the traffic series again for more on this but, user reviews, feedback, and interactions on social media can provide rich insights into the player experience that numbers alone cannot capture.
Looking at reviews (especially reviews for your game) from a dispassionate, data-driven, objective mindset can also help you protect your emotions from the cruelty of the market. This stuff isn’t personal, it’s just how our particular game (i.e. marketing and commerce) happens to work.
You should know, this kind of research takes place at every stage of the product lifecycle. It never stops.
Understanding the marketer’s game like this can help you fine-tune your own game, address user concerns, and make informed decisions about future updates and marketing strategies — all things which you will definitely need to do if you want to release a great (and successful) product to the world.
Case Study: Riot Games
So far, we’ve discussed what analytics is, why it’s important, which key metrics to track, and some tips for interpreting data.
But what does all this look like in practice?
To answer that, we’ll look at a pivotal moment in the history of one of gaming’s biggest brands, Riot Games.
The Player's World Beyond the Game
Late in the 2010’s, Riot made a significant observation about their League of Legends audience — the love for their game extended far beyond the gameplay itself.
Players were deeply invested in the universe of League, demonstrating a regular and robust interest in the game’s lore, aesthetics, and narrative.
Riot’s players craved more of the League of Legends universe, Runeterra, not just through gameplay, but across diverse mediums such as comics, TV shows, and more.
This one observation alone revealed a vast field of opportunities. And there were still more to come…
Catering to the Strategists
In tandem with the previous discovery, Riot recognized that a significant segment of their player base held a deep interest in the analytical side of the game.
These players weren’t just captivated by the gameplay, they loved the intricate strategies, statistical breakdowns, and data-driven features — a compelling direction for content expansion within the existing gaming universe.
Identifying Gaps in the Market
Alongside those player-centric insights, Riot noticed an opportunity in the broader gaming market. Jordan Oloman of Fandom.com had this to say:
“The developers of Runeterra were noticing the same problems appearing again and again as the ‘card games tied to video game properties’ space has ballooned in years past. “High cost of content, stale metas and shallow deck building” being the crucial issues. The team noticed that “nobody seems interested in finding something better than this,” so they’ve been working away in secret to find ways to send their competitors to the graveyard.”
To put it plainly, the Riot team identified several recurring issues in the deck-building game industry — high cost of content, stale metas, and shallow experiences. This, they realized, was an area ripe for improvement.
Responding with Innovation
Guided by these insights, Riot Games introduced Legends of Runeterra to the deck-building game scene, aiming to break away from the recurring industry issues and offer a fresh, exciting experience.
Yet, Riot didn’t stop at birthing a new game.
In the process, they also sparked a complete reimagining of the League of Legends lore, setting the stage for franchise expansion with projects like the highly popular Netflix series Arcane.
Outcome: Growth & Expansion
While Riot’s strategic journey continues to unfold, early indicators already point towards its undeniable success.
The League of Legends universe shows no signs of slowing down in its growth trajectory, and it all began with audience data analysis.
The Impact of Analytics
If you’re going to the trouble of monitoring and interpreting your analytics, you should (at minimum) be using them to direct you on future campaigns.
After all, what’s the purpose of tracking your analytics if you’re not using them to make future campaigns better?
Stardew Valley, an indie farming simulation game, provides a relevant example:
The developers observed a high player engagement within their online community and decided to foster this engagement further by initiating fan-art contests and creating more interactive content. Implementing (and then tracking) those initiatives led to a significant boost in the game’s visibility and subsequent sales.
This is one of many ways that analytics can let you know when you’re overinvesting in one channel or activity, or underinvesting in others.
Learning to parse your data and find useful insights is not a process that you’ll pick up overnight – but over time you will be able to look at an analytics graph and confidently understand what it means for your marketing efforts.
It is a skill worth developing.
The big takeaway is this: In marketing, everything is tracked and measured.
Because being well-informed is the only way to make great decisions on razor-thin budgets and margins.
Harnessing the power of analytics in your indie game development process is like unlocking a secret weapon.
Learning to interpret your data is a disciple in itself, so be patient with yourself and remember:
When you feel lost and confused about next steps, your analytics data is your guiding star.
This data-driven approach can steer your marketing strategies, game design, and community engagement efforts towards success. But remember, the power of numbers is just one aspect of this journey.
And just like that – we’re through Volume 2!
Throughout this volume, you’ve learned about tractions channels, and how to properly leverage social media and influencer marketing.
There are many more traction channels for an indie game to explore, so make that research part of your efforts.
You’ve also learned how to monitor the data from your campaigns; turning those results into actionable insights you can use to bolster your future marketing campaigns.
As you dive deeper into the world of game development marketing, you will encounter elements that breathe life into your game, giving it personality, substance, and a unique identity.
We’re going to explore that next.
Stay tuned for our next article, where we will delve into the compelling world of branding and storytelling. Let’s unlock how they can work together to create memorable experiences, pull at heartstrings, and immerse players in your richly constructed world.