Tom Kinniburgh

It’s an exciting time when a platform or feature creates new opportunities with which you can make games. As a developer, being first to market can prove lucrative as there is much lower competition. However, this doesn’t come without risks; if the platform fails then your game and the investment you’ve made is wasted.

The iMessage platform is simple to develop on and uses Xcode as the main tool to create projects. When compared to new technologies such as VR or AR (which both require much larger investments in learning and development), iMessage provides a less risky opportunity for new games.

At Pocket Gamer Connects 2017 in London, I presented some of the data that we’ve been observing from the latest iMessage apps. I took the time to read up on the protocols and the implementation as well as downloading and playing many different iMessage titles. In general, the overall stats are very promising for the platform and I think there are a number of reasons why.

Messenger Gaming – New Platform, New Opportunities from Tom Kinniburgh

1. New App Store, More Visibility

The iMessage App Store was announced at WWDC 2016 as a platform which would provide new opportunities for featuring, lists and recommendations. Apple has fiercely controlled and prevented any 3rd party app stores from being created and up until the release of the Apple Watch in 2015, Apple maintained a single storefront through which all app downloads occurred.

Therefore, any new Apple App Store is a big deal. The big difference between the Watch and iMessage stores is that not everyone owns an Apple watch, but every iPhone comes equipped with iMessage.

2. Inherently Social

iMessage – and all messenger apps for that matter – are an ideal platform for circulating gaming content. The fact that every game requires a second participant makes each game inherently viral – you must spread it in order to start a game. The fact that someone must share your app to begin a game creates virality. Virality is a welcome component of game marketing compared to the steep costs of user acquisition or stiff competition to receive a top line feature on the app store.

Virality is commonly measured in a KPI called the K factor and anything of over 1 is considered to be a viral game. Messenger games start life with a K factor of 1 as you must challenge a friend in order to play. However, most players might challenge 2 or more friends, often leading to higher average K factors of 2 or more. This is a fantastic benefit for any game’s growth.

Along with the high growth, people all over the world are spending more and more time in messenger apps on their phones rather than other apps. This is partly due to the increased number of messengers available (their usage has now eclipsed SMS), but messenger apps also now have much greater functionality. Analysis by SimilarWeb showed that in 2016 the average person was spending 23 minutes and 23 seconds inside of messenger apps every day, and in 2017 i’m sure it will be higher.

Growth in time spent inside of these platforms is where you want to be building your games. As a game developer, you should always follow the eyeballs.

3. iMessage Game Design

Certain game designs fit perfectly into this messenger ecosystem. Any turn-based multiplayer game, time-independent puzzle game or most strategy games benefit from the competitive and social elements that the messenger platforms provide.

When you dig into the data, iMessage apps have greatly shortened app session lengths but a larger number of app sessions starts when compared against similar good mobile games. This makes a lot of sense as a session is counted each time the iMessage game is started and once you have completed your turn you must send that to your opponent, ending the session. This creates strong feedback on when a player should stop playing a game.

Rather than attempting to increase session length (something that most modern mobile games strive towards), iMessage games do best when they limit the session length to around 30 seconds. Keeping a round short fits the format of the messenger platform itself. People play iMessage apps during a conversation with their friends and want a simple but interesting experience that they can share with their friend.

There is also an increase in the frequency of sessions per day per user. This has a very positive effect on the retention for iMessage apps in general. Retention is defined as whether a user has had a single session on a single day. They are said to have been retained for that day.

Retention is featured very heavily as a core metric to observe in all games. It’s a core KPI for good reason; if someone isn’t playing your game regularly, they are unlikely to play your game at all. So keeping high long term retention is a good check to see if your gameplay is being well received.

3. Every choice needs meaning

Designing a social competitive game within 30 seconds is actually quite a limiting set of design constraints. That said, constraint can foster creativity – and the best iMessage game designers know that within 30 seconds you need to create a hook, give the player a choice and let the choice have meaning for you and the other player.

This is one of the reasons certain board games are long lasting evergreen titles, such as Scrabble or Crosswords. Each player’s move affects the board for the next player. Your choice of letters has changed the board in a meaningful way for your opponent who then adapts their move to create an ongoing and developing challenge for both parties.

Game Pigeon’s Pool app is a great example of this. Within the simple interface each shot has a huge amount of possible outcomes and the player must make a choice on how to perform a move. The player has 3 limited but finely tuned controls, cue direction, cue power and ball spin.  Each allow you to optimise and obsess over every move in order to take that perfect shot.  Based on the outcome of your friend’s previous shot, you have to consider your move from a fresh perspective every time. The shot itself is short, perhaps 2-3 seconds per move, but you force players to think skilfully and meaningfully about their choices in a short amount of time – as the outcomes and the whole session lasts around 30 seconds.

Bad design fails to recognise this.

In another app within Game Pigeon’s Battleships – the player is asked to make a choice of where to fire their bomb on a 12×12 board. The outcome has only 2 possible results: Hit or Miss.  There are a very limited set of choices and a binary set of outcomes within this game, so every shot has very limited meaning to you or the other player.

This is part of the original Battlefield design, but the reason it works on a board and not so well over a messenger app is because in between each move there is the interplay and social interaction of the players themselves. The common “ooohs” “ahhhs” and “damits!” we remember from childhood stand as a testament to that fact!

GamePigeon Battleship

This doesn’t translate to a messenger platform. A potential improvement to this gameplay design would be to provide each player with 3 moves per turn. This makes each action have 3x the meaning and each game ends 3x as fast. Although the depth of each turn is still significantly less than Pool, the overall flow of the rounds and the interactions with your friends have much more depth than the original implementation.

4. Start with high intensity

With the focus of app session length at around the 30 second mark, you don’t have the opportunity to develop characters, fill out a backstory or even expect a player to learn controls – you need things to be instant. You need it to be fun and you need it to create meaning.

This pushes you to create games with short bursts of high intensity. Games like Cobi Hoops from Cobra Mobile put a 30 second time limit on their gameplay and focus your attention simply on getting a high score, but with every shot and angle to the Hoop needing your attention the 30 seconds are intense and every shot counts.

Rather than intensity being the necessity in iMessage games, it’s more an issue when an app has very low intensity. The game Battle Bash for instance has high intensity gameplay when you’re having a battle, but it doesn’t start with high intensity. A player might have to make 2 moves or more before they see the enemy. If you multiply that by two players, it can be a total of 4 messages sent before a single shot is fired. It would be better game design in this case to have all units randomly positioned on the board, right from the beginning of the game to get people immediately into a high intensity situation.

5. Force short Skillful Sessions

If you’ve created meaning and skill in your gameplay the next important thing is to limit and kick a player out of the session in a nice and informed way. The reason for this is to try to leave the player wanting more and to be genuinely excited to return to the game to find out what their opponent has done next.

Forcing players to end sessions is important in lots of free to play games as you want to teach your players to wait and when they do wait they are often rewarded. This sort of design tactic is effectively employed in almost all effective monetisation techniques where timers are used. In an iMessage game, rather than a timer, you have to wait for the message reply from your friend.

When designing the end of round for any of these games that use iMessage you need to consider what information is important for your users to remember and include it in the message frame itself. In the case of Cobi Hoops the score is the important piece of information and so it’s included in the screenshot that accompanies each move. In pool a small screenshot of the current game is included which reinforces the current game board that you are both competing on.

iMessage – the platform

As an exciting and new platform, iMessage shows great potential for new game developers.  The best games so far have all shown a strong vision for creating games that fit the shorter sessions and more socially competitive gameplay that a messenger system provides. The current iMessage app store still has less competition than the main App Store, but creating the depth and connection with your players through deep experiences is out of the scope of the messenger platform. So if you’ve got a multiplayer game design that fits the quick 30 second window, creates meaningful choices and can get people straight into the action, then the iMessage platform is a great place to start!

Tom Kinniburgh

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