Sonja Ängeslevä, CEO and Co-founder of Phantom Gamelabs talks with Peggy about why the free to play games playbook needs to change, and how to do it. Sonja has vast experience in product management, CI and data analytics in the fields of mobile gaming and B2C product development.
Peggy: The free to play playbook has to change and soft launch is ready for a rethink. Gaming Studios don’t have the time or money to waste. That is the hard truth and here to tell it is my guest today.
And her street cred is as impressive as this actual thought grenade, I’ll call it, because she is an executive, an investor, and one of the top women in Tech.
She has vast experience in product management, AI, and data analytics in mobile games and B2C product development. She’s also the CEO of Phantom Gamelabs, a board member of Remedy Entertainment, and the recipient of several MVP and lifetime awards in the gaming space.
So with that combination she has a lot to share and she’s going to tell us about why this hard truth is the real reality.
So, welcome to The Hive, Sonja Ängeslevä, CEO and Co-founder Phantom Gamelabs.
Great to have you today.
Sonja: Thanks for having me, Peggy.
Peggy: And where are you coming from? I met you at PocketGamer Connects Helsinki, so I’d have to say Helsinki, but am I right?
Sonja: Yes, yes. Correct. Based in Helsinki, Finland.
Peggy: It’s a great place for games. Wonderful vibe up there, but let’s talk about you. You are deeply into data and AI which is really important and you’re also accomplished as a founder and an investor. Now that’s a great combination.
Now there’s always something in the mix. There’s a connection, a thread that runs through a career that is just like this, you know, all of these different areas where you are working. What is it for you? What is it that holds it all together?
Sonja: Yeah, I guess I’m just a curious person. But yeah, so actually I started my career as a contract researcher. So I was very driven to do like inventions and, you know, create patents and change the world through that.
I truly felt that I’m able to see connections between different areas or topics. Like, I see the connections better than many others. So that’s why I’ve been also pioneering in many of these areas where I can connect different areas or utilize learnings from, you know, one area to another. So yeah, I guess that’s just what drives me. I want to be a pioneer and I always ponder like how things could be better or different or where they like… for example mobile games market is going. What are the moves that you know we should be making at this point in order to again change the market.
Peggy: And also, as you said, pioneer. Sort of going your own way and that’s a great segue, because you’re self-published right. And you continue to do that and we have some recent research from Pollen VC that says it is the smart strategy for companies that want to own their destiny, you know. 85% of all acquired studios self-published their games instead of working with a traditional games publisher. Let’s talk about you. Why do you self-publish? What do you make of these findings? Do you feel that you are confirmed and validated in the choice you’ve made?
Sonja: Hmm… yeah, so we are bringing a different way of developing games so we feel that marketing and like releasing or publishing the games is a core element of the product. So it’s not just like an add-on or something to be done afterwards. It’s part of the core experience. We need to consider, you know, the design and also very early focus on the marketability of the title and that’s why the development team is the best source of information and knowledge. What are the best ways to go about when going to the market?
So, basically at the point of publishing I feel that we are, you know as a developer, we are much stronger when we are also a publisher. So we basically own the creative vision and also we can have the freedom of also deciding when to reach different milestones but also how do we want to communicate?
What are the best ways for the marketing to support the development?
Peggy: Now that is what comes through also in something that we discussed when we met and now we’re discussing it again on the show — the free to play playbook needs to change. At one level it’s an evolution but it’s also the way I’m hearing you telling it, Sonja, it’s also a revolution.
Things really need to change.
Sonja: I think one of the key drivers is changes in user acquisition. It’s just too expensive with the very lengthy development times.
So in order for game studios and now I’m talking about the broad range of like from small studios to the large ones.
In order to beat the competition or manage to even like you know break even with the titles, you really need to adjust and you know be more agile, be more efficient in ways of building and also learning about the players. So you know utilizing different sources of data to understand is there enough potential? Is there enough value for players in what we are building?
And also basically balancing with the costs.
Of course you need to acquire you know paid users in order to scale. The market is so fiercely competitive, so it’s very hard to get the reach without doing paid user acquisition or different influencer marketing activities or what have you but still that’s the question like you know.
You just need to get player feedback early and be able to adjust the user acquisition expenses and the way of delivering engaging content to the players.
Peggy: I have a bit of an advantage because as a self-publisher and you said it yourself, you own the creative, you own the concepts. If you want to switch things around you know it’s within your ability and it’s within your power to do it really. So if you say we want to prove this concept. We see that we have a commercial hit. We can dial down on UA or something, dial up rather. It’s all within what you can do.
You’ve done it, tell me about how you have changed for example the time scale, because that really needs to change, you know. It takes years to validate a game. Two years I would say is average.
What is it for you? What have you done?
Sonja: Yeah, that’s a very interesting question and that’s also something that we are evaluating and iterating as we go.
When we start we were very bullish about going basically three months development followed by two to four weeks validation, so basically testing with players on on the markets and then most likely doing at least another round sort of off iteration and validation, but yeah.
There are certain things you can you know streamline and just you know get done faster. Like you can define the initial for example the initial version that you go live with. That of course you can do, but you can’t speed or you know get the data that that much faster if you actually want to get somewhat useful and relevant data from the market. So you basically just need like several data daily cohorts to even out all the discrepancies and fluctuation of the data so, we still feel that and believe and we have actually done it, so we follow the three months development period.
So basically the first version of the game is ready in three months, it will be put to the market for validation.
Peggy: That’s so different, Sonja, from what it used to be.
I remember going to conferences, well life was different back then right? And it was you need to have a statistically significant sample and it was you know it was really important to test and learn as long as possible. You know more was better but to your point we have limited budgets so we need limited time scales.
What is realistic for our audience, other publishers? How long can they afford to invest in building and validating their games? They might not get down to three months like you because you’re smart, you understand data and AI. They might not. But what should they aim for?
Sonja: Yeah, that’s the thing. It’s always a question of a studio, like a studio size and also the type of games they are developing. So of course there is no like one model fits all.
But I would say that you know our benefit is that we believe in different data and design templates. There are many things you can basically automate or utilize in forms of templates that will streamline the development and then the question like you know okay how long does that take?
It’s a question you know of the studio. Like what’s the good enough first version? And it’s of course like it depends on the company culture. The benefit for us is that we are a relatively new studio so we don’t have the pressure as some of the more known studios have. So we are not too worried about you know throwing out something that is not fully polished.
As I said we want to change also the development process.
So for us this like throwing out MVPs and iterating the MVPs is a part of our new way of working.
Peggy: That was also intriguing. Now that you bring it up I have to ask you. You know, I’ve seen awards for accomplishments but you have MVP awards. What is that?
Sonja: It’s a Most Valuable Player — MVP. It can also be like Minimum Viable Product.
Peggy: Exactly! That’s what I thought it was. This is an industry with too many acronyms.
Sonja: I know, I know. It’s quite a challenge sometimes too.
Peggy: I mean I know you’re in a league of your own, Sonja, but I thought wow, that’s really something. Okay, all right.
So I learned something too and speaking of learnings we’ll get back to our topic here.
I want to understand some of the learnings that you have to share because a template, right? You don’t get it right out of the gate. There are learnings, there are mistakes, there are those Eureka moments where you say hey you know what this is something we can scale it. This is the one.
Looking back, you’re a young company, yes, but you have vast experience. Tell me some some moments that tell you you’re getting it right.
Sonja: The first game Robobusters actually revealed us that many of our hypotheses were correct, which we were super thrilled about.
We were expecting that we are able to take learnings from the hyper casual games sort of. Going with a very broad reach of target audiences and bring that group of players into our game and then target and adjust the gameplay for different segments within the game. So that actually yeah was going as we expected.
The other thing was which was maybe like halfway there was the our approach in the MVP, so minimum viable product, we thought that you know it’s enough to have basically three days of gameplay and some retention mechanics so some replayability and enough clarity for the gameplay.
But what we learned there was that players need to perceive more value and have more retention hooks to actually get into you know creating the habits around the gameplay.
So you know we get some things right but also we learned that okay some things need to actually be developed a bit further in order to get the most out of the data. Because of course we want to find the ideal version for the game that could actually teach us you know is this a go, is this a no-go? If it’s a go like what are the things that would make the most sense to develop next?
Peggy: So of course the value in the data is understanding what is it the player values? But you can also create a feedback loop back to product and say this data can improve the product and you do something like that at Phantom Gamelabs because you’re very focused on innovation, a little bit of a hands-off approach to innovation I think, where you sort of enable your team to go with the data but also to go with their best judgment.
Tell me how that works there?
Sonja: Yeah so I think one key thing to remember is that it’s very important to go with both qualitative and quantitative data. So basically you know width and depth, to understand what people or players really think about and you know what is their feedback and use that information throughout the development process.
You always will have those top 100 mega fans or top 10 mega fans and their input is highly useful.
But when it when it comes to a better, bigger data, we will be using a tool that combines market data and behavioral data so that’s the way we are able to define the segments to better cater players needs.
So different players have different preferences and also with the more adjusted gameplay experience we can basically create a more appealing, more fitting gameplay experience for them.
Whether it’s about adjusting the monetization to better fit to certain market or geographical area or you know player type or whether it’s for example a design, design decisions. So the way the live ops is offered or what type of activities or events we offer to different segments. Just to give more depth to the gameplay experience or adjust the difficulty if you know that’s the case that for some maybe the average is too much so then you know we can make the experience better.
Peggy: If you look at a couple of things and you have for you begun to change that playbook. It’s been about reducing time scales, that’s what you’re doing. Increasing innovation in the process, that’s what you’re focused on doing.
Share with me the one thing you have done that has contributed the most to this effort.
Sonja: So I said like we don’t believe in like one hit wonder development but working on a portfolio of games and for that reason utilizing data and design templates have been really good and you know supporting and driving the development as we can adjust and utilize different learnings from you know different types of games. Same structures or same models or ways the UI has been built or the data models or currency conversion is you know works you know under hood. All of that is applicable to different types of games, so I think yeah my number one answer at this point is yeah the templates.
Those really you know streamline the development and for the future I would… well my biggest guess actually goes to the reach adaptivity of the gameplay experience. But we are still you know on the path of developing and in iterating and testing what are the best ways to deliver that through games?
Peggy: I just want to unpack that for a moment because there’s a difference between a template and skinning which is what we were doing not long ago particularly in hyper casual.
Defined for me just to be very clear — template — what that means in a practical sense?
Sonja: Templates for us are structures for example how the data is you know built under the you know hood. They are for example the analytics — taxonomy is shared across different titles. There are some custom analytics events but the core is shared so we don’t have to redo the same thing. Same with the currencies like or how do we utilize energy systems in the games? We have a model for that. Or how items have been upgraded? We have a model for that or template for that.
So we can just adjust the same or use the same model or use the same template in different games, but the outcome is very different. So it’s not just skinning. It’s just like using the same structure or design or you know way of providing things but in a very different setting. So you don’t necessarily as a player you don’t see that you know we’re talking about the same thing
Peggy: That makes a lot of sense particularly with the currency and those mechanics because that’s core. That’s something that we can have a lot of other things going on in the game but that is something that’s like a reusable asset.
Sonja: Yes and there actually are quite a lot of things that are reusable but some are more actively in use but there’s still a lot of things developers could utilize and that’s why of course we want to be the pioneers and torch bearers in that area.
Peggy: We’re going to continue with a couple of rapid fire questions to wrap up here.
I’ll kick it off with MVP which we now know means two things. I’m talking about the MVP — minimum viable product. When is MVP far enough along to validate the potential of your game?
Sonja: So it has to have three days of gameplay. It has to have retention hook. It has to create value for the players. That’s it.
Peggy: That is it. That is right to the point which is not the case with data. Incomplete data as we said it is the new normal. Now the time scales are short as well. How can studios best validate their games and what’s a sure fire sign of commercial success?
Sonja: So yeah my recommendation is go with both quantitative and qualitative data and use them in parallel or you know sort of concurrently.
Utilize what we know. There’s a lot of information already on the market so even though you are not collecting all the data yourself, you should be relying on the data that’s available on the market and then what’s enough, it’s more about continuous iteration and you know gathering of data. Not just you know getting a big like amount of data for a short period of time and then believe that you know that gives you the all the right answers.
Peggy: You said it yourself, it’s continuous, which means yeah ongoing, which means there are moments when it feels like drudge work but if you had a billboard that you could put up — we’ll be analog for a moment — where you could post your business mantra for all of us to read and hopefully also inspire us, what would it be, Sonja?
Sonja: Business mantra… that’s tough.
To take risks and lean forward. That’s the way to you know create new things. Be bold.
Peggy: And finally we talked about it — learning, learning all the time. That’s what you need to do in this industry. Now aside from The Hive, what do you read or watch or do to keep up on the industry or just get inspiration for your work you know to be bold to take those risks?
Sonja: One of my favorite things about games industry is that people are really willing to share their learnings and thanks to the sort of end of covid-19 we have had also more industry gatherings and different events where also I have been able to meet the other bright minds of games industry. So I think yeah, just sharing and learning from each other that’s super super important. And when it comes to you know if you are not able to meet anyone of course there are like fantastic resources, for example Pocket Gamer. That’s one of my favorite source.
Peggy: Excellent and also connecting with people at those conferences. Which is what we did and which my audience would probably love to do. So how do they connect with you? How do they continue the conversation with you, Sonja?
Sonja: So LinkedIn is super easy way to get in touch. I’m also on Twitter as @souplala and you know on all channels. So I’m really easy to approach.
Peggy: Well I have that in the show notes and Sonja it has been a real pleasure to have this time with you. Thanks for sharing and above all thanks for also challenging us to break the playbook. It’s been delightful thanks so much.
Sonja: Thank you, Peggy.
Peggy: And of course if you are a UA marketer, a marketer, someone who just helps gaming companies literally up their game, then hook up with me or with Pollen VC on Twitter or LinkedIn and let’s get you set up with a show of your own.
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