Being a PM is often equated to being the “CEO of a product” and requires a multi-disciplined skill set including design, business, analytics and leadership all in one person. The complexity and relative youth of this discipline means that PM and other product leaders rarely get the mentorship they need and I see many PMs making the same mistakes that I made. Yet these common mistake are 100% correctable. Here’s how.
1. Ignoring the Triangle
The development of any product falls within a time-cost-quality triangle: Some games are cheap and quick to make but lack quality (think Voodoo’s output), whereas high quality titles are slow and expensive (think Blizzard’s output). A game can be successful no matter where they are within the triangle, but not knowing your game’s place risks catastrophe.
A PM’s primary job is to steer the decisions of a product and the triangle is the first part of context you will need. By ignoring the triangle you’re making your decisions outside the realities of production. Inevitably the triangle will be defined for you by external pressures (budget, deadlines or a stakeholder quality call) causing misaligned decisions, broken product identity and team confusion.
Fast, cheap and good is impossible, so set out your triangle early and make sure all your key stakeholders are aligned.
2. Not Starting With Why
While the triangle gives strong identity to your production, a why gives identity to the product itself. From a good solid reason of why to build your product comes a clear, communicable vision which begins to define the how and eventually a what. Additionally a why leads to more aligned decision making and autonomy in your team as well as a clearer proposition in the market.
Commonly inexperienced PMs get caught up in what they’re making and find themselves (and their teams) lost in the wilderness. Yet teams led with a defined statement on the reason they’re working find their paths much easier: They know where they want to go, even if they don’t know how.
And “it will be cool” is not a convincing why. Nor is “it will make money”. Instead focus on the experience you want to give, the innovation you want to bring, the need you are filling and what your product will mean to people.
You can read more about the power of why in this post.
3. Death by 1,000 Experiments
Back in the early 2010s when Zynga were riding high, the company claimed they were running “thousands of experiments a week”.
This is the biggest misdirection in the history of game dev, sending thousands off to waste their time testing button colours and a thousand tiny variations of marketing asset. While there’s definitely a place for multivariate testing, the tests need to be backed up by a solid hypothesis and the time to build and run them properly. So a handful a month at most.
Yet many PMs still get bogged down with AB testing, expecting big results from a series of small tweaks. These PMs, dejected and depressed, write off a perfectly salvageable product as beyond redemption because their 10 daily free gems didn’t increase their retention.
Movement in the top grossing charts are normally attributed to new features or some kind of bold liveops strategy. If you day 30 retention is 2% then no small balance change or IAP sale is going to save you. Instead you need to understanding the real problems you face and start ripping your product apart to fix them.
So while smart tests might increase your KPIs, 80% of real gains in F2P products come from hard work doing the big things.
4. Quitting the Hit
We all know that making a hit game is hard. It requires a lot of things to go right at the right time. But when things come together it’s easy to chalk up the success to the quality of the team or your own talents. Beware this belief as it is born in confirmation bias and creates false confidence.
Quitting a hit to move on to “bigger and better things” is a mistake I’ve seen frequently in studios. Meanwhile leaders of consistent studios build from their success by as thoroughly dissecting the wins as they do their failures. This analysis of success allows for insight in to strengths and weaknesses that can inform product teams as they build new products on shoulders, rather than in the shadow of, their previous success.
Look at how Supercell have leveraged the Clash brand or how King have applied the Saga formula. Both these studios know their strength and when they’ve ventured too far from it have failed to replicate success.
5. Don’t Understand Your Problems
A PM with a game going live is a PM bombarded with data: From the hard statistic of analytics to player feedback and your whims of opinion from the dev team. Navigating through this is like unpicking a knot and don’t envy anyone in that position.
However, the biggest mistake I see PMs committing is jumping to solutions way before they’ve processed the problems. I advocate the use of a problem statements, a concise description of a problem which is refined and agreed upon by the team. In order to build your problem statements, follow the below steps:
- Gather: Gather qualitative and quantitative data from as many sources as possible, including analytics, team members, stakeholders and your players.
- Process: Sit, think and understand all of these problems before you do anything else.
- Consolidate: The same problems will be expressed in various different ways, so you need to consolidate these by getting to the root cause. Players saying they’re bored, the team saying the characters are too samey and the ARPPU being lower than expected may all be a single problem: Not enough variety in your gacha.
- Refine: Once you have a something of a problem statement, begin to talk it through with stakeholders and the team. This will help to focus the statement but also build buy-in.
- Prioritise: Pick out three to five of the most important problem statements to tackle first.
- Share: Once you’re happy then share the statement with the team. If you’ve done a good job they’ll be thankful of the clarity and start thinking and working on fixes.
Well defined and actionable problem statements will give more focus and clarity to your team and yourself. In my experience implementing them they’ve been invaluable.
6. Being the Voice of the Players
Whenever a PM says they’re “the voice of the players” I get nervous. Because from my experience product leaders that believe they’re advocating for players are only doing so for a vocal minority. While this one might be very specific, I’ve seen it multiple times in different studios across the world.
The real player advocate PMs (which is all the good ones) are serving the biggest majority of their player base and not just those on the forums or social media. They seek out data from multiple sources to understand their problems (see point 5, above) and build out a more holistic understanding of what players truly want and not just what they say they want.
This isn’t to say that good PMs ignore their community, in fact the opposite is very true. It’s just that they apply the correct checks and balances in interpreting feedback, considering the bias in the source. Like Henry Ford, they don’t build faster horses.
7. Working KPIs Backwards
A common approach in F2P development is to build something and then see what KPIs come from it. Then when when the numbers are less than make sense in the market everyone scratches their head and tries to work out why. This approach is totally backwards. If you build from a KPI goal, instead, you’ll end up more likely to hit them. For example, one approach I’ve utilised is:
- Estimate eCPI: What eCPI is needed for the scale I’d like in the genre I’m in. Being accurate is impossible, of course, but you can get close.
- Derive Recoup: From eCPI we can calculate the required recoup. For example, 120% eCPI by day 365.
- Model: Model out your expected conversion as well as the breakdown of player spend from very top to very bottom using the data of previous games as a basis.
- Plan: Using your model, plan out your content and the related player spend to backout to your target recoup.
This approach, while time consuming, complicated and inaccurate, will give you benchmark in the amount of content and features required to hit your goals. Without it, you’re guessing and end up with a game that under monetises and no direction to fix it. After all, plans are useless but a plan is invaluable.
8. Adding Risk By Reducing Risk
Much of a PMs job is managing risk and I’ve seen lots of PMs pour risk on to their product in an attempt to remove it using market evaluation. While looking outside of your game to other products is smart, fast following them is nearly always a step towards disaster. Ultimately we are building entertainment products that live or die by their novelty, so over-borrowing becomes a risk much larger than any innovation.
Great PMs have one eye on the market but exercise constant creativity to build amazing products. They understand not only what worked elsewhere, but why it worked and use that to create new solutions that push their product forward.
9. Small Sample Extrapolation
Data is inherent noisy and trends tend to move much slower than a PM’s evaluation of them, leading bad PMs to panic on KPI drops and claim credit on spikes. This small sample extrapolation is dangerous because it attributes causality where none might exist or, worse yet, completely miss underlying problems.
This also extends to those PMs who chase the trends of the top grossing chart. Is success instigated by some underlying, latent demand in the market or is it simple coincidental?
10. Avoiding Making Mistakes
Failure is good! It means that you’re pushing your knowledge and if you do it often enough then you too can write a listicle about it.
Great PMs are better at failing than anything else, because they are constantly learning from their mistakes. Ask yourself: What did I learn from this failure? Can I correlate the input and the output? Is this thing I learned always true? Will it be true in the future? How else can I apply this knowledge?
Beware the PM who knows how it is. The F2P market, like any digital market, is moving fast and success has proven to be elusive even for the best. So stay curious and keep pushing yourself to furthest end of Dunning-Kruger graph with strong opinions weakly held.