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GDC 2012: PopCap's big lessons from freemium social Bejeweled

PopCap's Giordano Bruno Contestabile takes GDC attendees inside Bejeweled's journey to iOS freemium -- revealing fascinating implications for Facebook Connect.

Leigh Alexander, Contributor

March 6, 2012

7 Min Read

We last spoke to PopCap’s Giordano Bruno Contestabile alongside the company’s announcement that it would spin off its popular Bejeweled Blitz into a separate, cross-platform iOS and Facebook product (previously, it came as a mode within Bejeweled 2 on the App Store, and separately on Facebook). With that move, Blitz went free-to-play, and Contestabile – who, incidentally, claims emphatically to “really, really suck” at Bejeweled despite being the franchise's business manager -- spoke at GDC about the game's transition. Bejeweled was PopCap’s first game, launching in 2000. Its history is fairly well-documented, and it’s sold a total 55 million units across all platforms to date, with a total of 200 million installs, 25 million monthly active users across its online platforms, and over 500 million users – and growing year over year, according to Contestabile. Bejeweled Blitz is among the very first games to fully integrate its iOS and Facebook versions, as mobile connectivity to Facebook quickly becomes the standard in social play. Two years from the game’s initial launch on iOS, it’s still “consistently popular,” Contestabile notes: with over 3 million daily active users, Blitz is one of Facebook’s top 10 games by that measure, and it’s in the App Store’s top 10 highest-grossing games. PopCap spun Blitz off as a freemium game in order to reach a wider audience and to remove the barrier for players who wanted to play Blitz on both Facebook and iOS, but who hadn’t purchased Bejeweled 2 on the App Store. Instead of keeping Bejeweled 2 on the App Store, PopCap ditched the version number and got behind it as a premium product, a service it plans to continually operate and update. A Complex Proposition “The launch was really complicated,” admits Contestabile. “We were retiring a premium game that included a mode, and at the same time launching the mode as a freemium game, and at the same time launching a premium game called Bejeweled that was taking the place of Bejeweled 2. …we were confused! Apple was confused.” A test launch in Canada was successful, followed by a worldwide launch with the goal of reaching high ratings and top 10 rankings. Blitz on iOS saw 6 million freemium downloads in its first month – but the interesting thing for Contestabile is not how the game outperformed its launch expectations, but how its performance compared to previous benchmarks for the brand. The switch to freemium visibly grew the Bejeweled business: “Every day, we see nine times the number of downloads, five times the number of users, and five times the revenue that we were seeing before,” according to Contestabile. And it’s still growing week over week, he notes. Further, the launch on iOS increased user activity on Facebook, a positive cross-pollination. But how does it perfrom on iOS versus Facebook? “Every single important metric on iOS is performing two [times] what it does on Facebook,” he says. And daily average revenue per user is double. People spend on average an hour a day playing Blitz on their iPhones, which Contestabile calls “pretty stunning.” “They play on the toilet,” he says. “You laugh, but toilet gaming is a ‘thing.’ You heard it here first… 25 percent of iPhone gaming happens on the toilet. Freemium versus Paid But PopCap is still giving away much more than it’s selling; freemium downloads are nine times higher than premium buys. The company expected, therefore, the ARPU to decline. It’s still higher than Facebook, but is now closer. “However, volume more than made up for it; as I said before, we’ve seen a five [times] increase in revenue.” But there are some caveats to the positive story: Facebook Connect is extremely complicated and difficult to integrate with the iOS version, and it seems to take some heavy campaigning on behalf of the developer to get people to use it. Only about 20 percent of Blitz iOS downloads have activated Facebook Connect, which is required to unlock the game’s full features. That means most of the audience doesn’t use the function, even though they would get enhanced features for it. “Without Facebook Connect, the core of the game would not really exist… so for this particular game, this is an issue that we’re working through,” he says. “Bejeweled Blitz is a game that people play with their real social graph. We need to cross-promote… and managing a game on Facebook and iOS at the same time is a lot of work.” Launch Troubles Not everything went right with the launch. The company expected excellent reviews, and was surprised by the “thousands” of one-star reviews in the first few days. Users can react very strongly when they observe something different in a beloved product. “When we launched Bejeweled Blitz on iPhone, we decided to change the perceived speed of the gem match to match the Facebook version,” Contestabile explains. “The iPhone version always felt faster… it wasn’t faster, it was just the feeling of the gems moving on the screen. But people perceived it as different, and they were pissed.” People complained the speed change affected their scores, even though PopCap’s own data showed that wasn’t the case. It’s an important lesson in how powerful is audience perception, and the company needed to intervene with messaging immediately to show their customers they understood the complaints and were working to rectify them. And they stopped forcing players to transition from the old Bejeweled 2 bundled app to the new one, able to resubmit and launch the new version with the rectified gem speed and the optional update within just a few days. The result? An increase in rankings to about four and a half stars. Still, he warns it’s important to keep in mind that it’s the unhappiest players who will be the quickest to comment and leave ratings, and to factor that in when gathering initial feedback. Happy players are often silent. How It Makes Money So how does the freemium game actually make money, and how does the business model work? First, it’s boosted with low-priced in-game consumables that are meant to be used regularly. These are balanced not to grant excessive advantages; better players will still have a higher average score. Rare gems have higher-impact bonuses, appear randomly, and require skill to create the most benefit. Finally, there’s a “daily spin” feature, a slot mechanic that grants in-game currency. Players can play once a day, and can purchase more chances to win. There are some underlying factors that are key: “Bejeweled Blitz< is one of the few games on Facebook that you can play forever without paying,”Contestabile emphasizes. “We don’t ask you to spam your friends… we never ask you for money.” Paying users enjoy no limitations, and they pay to enhance their own good time, not because the game corners the player into doing it or makes the game less pleasant if they don’t. PopCap does have a sophisticated back-end system that lets the developers tweak and manage the economy in real-time, something Contestabile feels is important to effective monetization. And it also has a team devoted to marketing and in-game events, with advertising and promotions to keep the game perpetually visible. Happy Users Are The Best Growth Strategy Marketing and events also runs new promotions regularly that keep users engaged – plus, they help the company make its own business a bit more predictable. For example, every Tuesday sees a tournament, that predictably raises the game up on the sales list. Such events are a win-win, since they mean the company reliably knows from data how much it will make it response to various community activities and offerings -- and players are more engaged, too. But the social game company strategy of injecting money into user acquisition “bursts” is much less advisable than charming players and letting the use base grow organically. “If you can acquire customers organically you will never get more engagement, retention and monetization,” asserts Contestabile. “Sustained effort over time have a better result than just shooting a lot of money for one day or a week hoping that people will stick around.” “If the game is more fun, you’re going to get more engagement, more retention and more monetization,” he emphasizes. “If players are having fun, they will play, they will stay, and they will play. And that’s really the only secret behind PopCap’s mobile games; we think about fun… we look at data for sure, but the most important question is, ‘Is it more fun for the players?’” “Think about fun first and foremost,” he emphasizes. And even though early first-wave freemium games might have given the sector a negative perception at the start, he feels everyone should be developing them to reach as many players as possible -- and there is earning potential for quality products. "Freemium is the biggest opportunity that the game industry has had since we started making games," Contestabile concludes.

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About the Author(s)

Leigh Alexander


Leigh Alexander is Editor At Large for Gamasutra and the site's former News Director. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Variety, Slate, Paste, Kill Screen, GamePro and numerous other publications. She also blogs regularly about gaming and internet culture at her Sexy Videogameland site. [NOTE: Edited 10/02/2014, this feature-linked bio was outdated.]

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