A Mental Model for Publishing a Successful Game

A Mental Model for Publishing a Successful Game

Riot Games just gave a class on what a game release should look like. On April 7th, Riot (known for League of Legends) released a private beta for its latest title, Valorant, a 5v5 first-person shooter set to fully launch later this summer. On the first day of the private beta, the game reached a peak of 1.7M concurrent viewers on Twitch, tying a Twitch record. Even more impressive, Riot did not pay any content creators to stream the game but, instead, randomly distributed codes to the private beta of the game to stream viewers.

As AAA games evolve from the legacy retail sales model based on units to something more SAAS-like online/ongoing, we’ve attempted to construct a mental model of what makes a game launch successful. Ultimately, publishing a successful game comes down to a combination of generating consumer interest and providing high-quality content at launch, then continuing to support those efforts into the future.

Pre-Launch Consumer Interest

Buzz. First and foremost, there needs to be a baseline level of anticipation for a game. Publishers need to generate interest from gamers for a title ahead of launch. In the old world, this was done through previews to gaming media as well as traditional media like billboards, television ads, and print. Game stores also helped generate buzz for various titles with in-store promos and pre-orders. In the new world, publishers need to generate pre-launch excitement from a more grassroots level to generate discussion on social media platforms. One powerful way to generate pre-launch buzz is through partnerships with content creators.

Creator Partnerships. Today, it’s extremely important for game publishers to leverage content creators as part of game launches. In the earlier days of streaming, content creators chose games more organically and based on what viewers wanted to see — eg. Fortnite — but now publishers make sizeable investments in launch partners. EA reportedly paid Ninja $1 million to stream Apex Legends at launch. The investment into launch partners helped Apex reach 25 million downloads in one week and added around $5 billion to EA’s market cap at the time. While some thought the rapid rise of Apex indicated a potential rival to Fortnite, the hype was short-lived. As of October, Apex Legends reported reaching 70 million players, no small feat, but far below the 350 million of Fortnite. Apex continues to drive revenue for EA, but at a far smaller level than Fortnite for Epic, in part due to ongoing support from content creators. After the first week of Apex’s launch, many top content creators moved back to Fortnite or on to different titles. We view the lack of continued support from creators, which is no doubt related to gameplay and watchability to some extent, as a key reason for Apex’s inability to truly compete with Fortnite.

Riot Games leveraged the influence of content creators for the Valorant launch in a unique way. Riot distributed codes t0 viewers of Valorant streams on Twitch to access a limited beta of the game. By creating scarcity of access to the game, Riot created viewer demand for Valorant streams. Creators want viewers, so they played Valorant. Riot used supply and demand in a way that let them pay nothing to creators but get full support that yielded record concurrent streams on Twitch. Other developers are sure to copy this method, so adjustments and enhancements to the technique, rather than just a one-for-one replication, will influence success of the beta code distribution strategy.

Pre-Launch Content Quality 

For a game to be a success, the quality of the game must exceed player expectations. This is particularly true for free-to-play games, as gamers don’t feel there is a sunk cost of a $60 upfront payment to keep playing. There are three components to content quality pre-launch: gameplay, watchability, and a unique hook.

Gameplay. Quality gameplay is the lowest hanging fruit in the content quality category. The controls must be fluid, the game free from any major glitches, and the visual aesthetic must meet expectations. For some games, this means hyper-realistic gameplay like Call of Duty or PUBG, whereas others may be brighter and more vibrant like Fortnite or Valorant. If a game fails at these basic requirements, it isn’t likely to last long enough for any of our launch criteria to matter.

Watchability. Gaming is inherently social. Even people who aren’t playing a game at any given time can get entertainment value out of the game if it’s watchable. We define watchability as the entertainment and/or utility value a social network or game provides a user without their active participation. For gaming specifically, games with high watchability are easy for viewers to watch and understand, giving them entertainment. This also means that players can improve by watching others play the game.

Watchability is one of the things that Fortnite has done really well. The premise of battle royale — stay alive until the end — combined with Fortnite’s visual aesthetic made it easy for anyone to tune in and quickly pick up on what was going on. Other games, like League of Legends or even Overwatch, are a bit more nuanced and less watchable to a general audience even though both titles have dedicated hardcore fanbases.

Unique hook. Games with staying power typically have a unique hook, something new that they’ve introduced to players that helps them stand out from the field and defines a key part of the gaming experience. This might be a completely new game format or a mechanic in a game that hasn’t been seen before. While many point to battle royale as the driving force behind Fortnite’s success, we’d argue that its building system is really the unique hook. This makes the game feel distinctly different than other battle royale games, and it also enhances the watchability factor. Counter-Strike pioneered the team vs. team round-based play, which has been brought to games like Call of Duty and Fortnite. Despite this approach being borrowed by other titles, Counter-Strike has maintained its positioning as a top tier first-person shooter game for going on two decades. Sometimes it helps to be the first to a particular format, but it doesn’t ensure success.

When we combine the five pre-launch factors, we think there is an obvious interplay between them that looks something like this:

Gameplay and the unique hook are inextricably intertwined as the core components of the gaming experience for the player. Both serve to build a base for something that is watchable to non-players, and watchability is the desirable factor of a game for creators who want non-players to watch them play. All of this combines to create buzz for the game that results in a successful launch.

Post-Launch Content Quality

Post-launch, the focus for publishers must be to create staying power for a title. This starts with maintaining and improving the quality of the game over time.

Content Evolution. In order for a game to have a long lifespan, the content needs to evolve over time. In the old publishing model, developers would release sequential games. Call of Duty publishes a new title every year, working with three different development studios in order to do so. In the past, content evolved through downloadable content (DLC). Publishers would offer DLC to its player base, typically for a fee, as a way to monetize a game far after its launch. This model is changing, in part due to Riot Games. Since the release of League of Legends, Riot has always maintained that there will never be League of Legends 2. Instead, Riot pioneered the season model — a unique hook at the time — where the game was periodically updated over time to include new champions and gameplay updates like the addition of ranked play.

In order to monetize the season model, publishers have created a “battle pass” gamers can purchase during a “season,” which turns games into reliable subscription software offerings rather than piecemeal software and add-on sales. For any subscription software business to work, one of the most important rules is to always be continuing to improve the product so customers don’t churn off. In the old model, it didn’t matter if the game kept improving after a player bought it or after they bought some DLC. The battle pass requires publishers to continue to iterate on their game to keep loyal players engaged over the long term, which we believe is a more lucrative model. In the past, games were individual pieces of content that were described as a “hits driven business.” Today, games are closer to a service that players are willing to pay for on an on-going basis.

Post-Launch Consumer Interest

In order to maintain and grow consumer interest after the launch, it’s important for publishers to support their community, and if applicable, help influence the competitive scene for their games.

Community Support. After a game is launched, publishers need to communicate with gamers, content creators, and the competitive community and inform them of changes that are taking place. Riot has laid out its vision for Valorant in a number of blog posts for all of these constituents. Similarly, in Season 1 of Fortnite, Epic Games actively published posts about patch notes for the game and the reasoning behind changes they made in the game. While communication is the goal, decisions made by publishers are not always popular with players regardless of how well they are explained. When Epic Games moved Fortnite’s matchmaking to skill-based and forced cross-platform play, gamers and content creators voice extreme displeasure, causing some content creators to move on to different games. While this creates a headwind for Epic, the company’s history of open dialog with gamers puts them in a better position to navigate the issue than if they never interacted with the community.

Competitive scene. Not all games need a robust esports offering. Games like GTA, Minecraft, and Animal Crossing reach massive audiences and are wildly successful without a competitive scene. But for some games, Valorant included, the competitive landscape is important. If a publisher wants to build a potential esport, it’s important to engage the community early. Part of Valorant’s private beta is to ensure the agents — the characters that gamers choose to play as in-game — are balanced for competitive play.

Competitive players and organizations look for consistent things in an esports title: a high-skill ceiling, a balanced game, an effective anti-cheat system, and a supportive publisher. Players and organizations want to know that the time they invest into the game will be worthwhile. Riot is well aware of how this works given their success with League of Legends and has designed Valorant to be a major esports title. While the company announced that they’re “not looking to force anything too quickly”, we expect the game will follow the franchise model of League of Legends in time.

Games can’t be all things to all people, but it’s important that publishers understand their audience and communicate with different stakeholders to talk about what they’re trying to build. If a game is going to have staying power, publishers and players must build the game together.

Valorant’s Grade

So far, Riot has nailed the pre-launch stage of Valorant. On the consumer interest side, Valorant has generated a lot of excitement for the game and found a creative way to enroll content creators in the release. The quality of the content is high. The game is thrilling to watch and fun to play. It’s easy to pick up on the objective of the game and the ultimate powers of the agents are easy to grasp for viewers. The only area of concern is the unique hook of the game. Valorant has borrowed concepts that have worked well in other games like the attacking and defending game type, the ability to play as a character with unique abilities, as well as bright and vibrant aesthetic. All things considered, the unique hook isn’t completely clear. The aesthetics of Valorant make the game more about tactics and teamwork and less about a player’s ability to spot an enemy hiding in a dark spot on the map. Will this be enough to propel Valorant to the top of the competitive FPS space alongside Overwatch, Counter-Strike, and Call of Duty?

When it comes to supporting the game post-launch Riot’s track record with League of Legends is promising. Riot has shown they understand content evolution, writing the book on the season format, and will support the game for years to come. Overall, we think Riot has set a high bar for AAA game launches with Valorant. We think Valorant could be a major title for years to come.