Lepers on a Magic Teacup Ride: The Minimum Viable Product Approach and Mobile Games

teacup annettea3 /Flickr

Thanks to the explosive growth of Zynga’s FarmVille and the entire free-to-play social game genre that followed, the “minimum viable product” (MVP) approach has been championed as the best thing since the Atari 2600. Free-to-play social games were a mysterious new genre that defied traditional beliefs in game design: There’s gold in them analytics! Major changes post-launch is a good thing! Mindless clicking behavior should be encouraged!

Ship Early, Ship Often

MVP, or the strategy of launching with the lightest feature set and/or depth as possible, came along for the ride. It wasn’t that Zynga made a pact with the devil, or forced a genie at gunpoint to grant them many wishes. Rather, MVP allowed the company to quickly launch social games, get a jump start on marketing with massive campaigns, and iterate repeatedly from there.

For developers eyeballing a move into the iOS App Store (or the Android Market, for that matter), MVP is awfully tempting. But hold that thought! MVP in the mobile world – moreso on iPhone than Android – should be treated like a leper would treat a Magic Teacup ride: Avoid it or it will get real messy, real fast.

“I demand 8,000 levels for 99¢!”

The quality and quantity bar for App Store games is pretty high, despite the fact that average sale prices have pretty much hit bottom. Beautiful iconopgrahy, high-resolution art, dozens of stages: gamers have never had it so good. This is, of course, completely incompatible with MVP, MVP should be treated like a leper would treat a Magic Teacup ride: Avoid it or it will get real messy, real fast. in which developers seek to launch as quickly as possible and improve their game over time.

Unlike console or even direct downloads, mobile devs can’t easily dismiss customer feedback that is near-instantaneous and unavoidable. (You don’t find customer reviews tacked underneath display boxes in your nearest Gamestop, after all.) And Apple won’t even approve your game if the word “beta” appears anywhere.

The 8lb. Elephant

Zynga was able to pop out an MVP version of FarmVille and succeed because the competition was small. But this isn’t the case anymore – not on Facebook and certainly not on the iPhone. There are simply too many alternatives: Whatever the subgenre, your game is directly competing with other games that are just as appealing, just as easy to get into and quickly enjoy, and just as accessible.

That Obnoxious “Real World” Nonsense

The other problem with using MVP for mobile games lies with the very nature of the device. While Facebook users are likely sitting in one place and are probably a pretty captive audience, the average mobile gamer could be and usually is anywhere, doing anything. Waiting in line at the bank, walking to lunch, hiking in the mountains, fighting off waves of Terminator robots – anything. This means a distracted gamer: They may not even be entirely engaged, let alone in a state of “flow” (or fully immersed).

What does flow have to do with MVP? Studies like this one show that users who are more fully engaged in a game are, not surprisingly, more loyal. Features missing from an MVP mobile game will ding your reputation as well, and no amount of calm explanation of your roadmap is going to change that.

Where Does This Leave “Failing Fast”?

“Failing fast” is becoming a prized notion among startups – startup incubator 500 Startups’ was originally to be called the Fail Factory – but it works best for those with deep pockets. For the rest of us, “fail fast” should be followed by “…only if you’re actually failing” and “…as cheaply as possible.” For the rest of us, “fail fast” should be followed by “…only if you’re actually failing” and “…as cheaply as possible.” One of the advantages to MVP is it allows you fail and tweak (or pivot) quickly. If MVP is to be tossed to the curb, how can you still fail fast? There are several options – all involve reaching out to your potential audience:

  • Google Ads One approach is to create a few Google AdWords units that advertise your concept, with the links leading to a landing and/or signup page. Publish, count, tweak and repeat.
  • Social Network Surveys Set up polls on Facebook and Twitter about your concept. Consider small giveaways to drive mass interaction.
  • E-mail +/ Mobile Surveys Plenty of ad networks such as Tapjoy offer “cost per action” ad units. Utilize them – particularly on mobile – to get answers you want
Further Reading

Here’s an (admittedly brief) list of articles, slidedecks and books that discuss lean startups, MVP, and failing fast:

Taken together, regressing to the “traditional” approach of “ship when ready” looks pretty, pretty, pretty good.

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