GameDev Thoughts: The Benefits And Limitations Of Using Metrics To Improve Your Indie Game

Metrics are becoming an ever-greater part of how games are made. To gain a deeper insight into how their use affects both developers and players, a brief definition is necessary to get us on the same page. At their most simple, metrics are the collected behaviors, as well as the tools to measure these behaviors, exhibited by players while playing a game. These are most often measured through specific lines of code, which relay the player’s patterns of behavior to the developers in order to allow them to make adjustments as necessary. 

These are, understandably, extremely useful, allowing devs to determine when, how and something why their game is played. It tells them the specific actions players take, how long they play for, and at what times... which allows them to tailor their design accordingly. As such, this data-driven approach to development is becoming increasingly popular with developers, enabling them to gain a far better, not to mention quicker, insight into player motives than the traditional combination of direct communication and guesswork allowed. What’s more, the tools designed to analyse players’ behavior improve by the day, meaning that developers can not only gauge what their current audience enjoys, but what might work well in future games. This also encourages the patching and updating of games, i.e. maintaining support long after launch, in order to maintain an active and thriving playerbase. 

Yet metrics are not without their downsides. They encourage releasing games in an unpolished, frequently barely playable state, and improving them as you receive player feedback. This is exemplified by the social games available on Facebook and the like, which, rather than innovating or even going so far as to release a functioning product, simply sit back, observe the statistics and adjust as they go. As developers, we should use metrics in order to improve upon an existing good player experience, and not use metrics as a crutch in order to facilitate the release of half-finished games that could use another few months QA testing. Additionally, we should always seek to use metrics as a form of two-way conversation with our players, as opposed to just mining data for data’s sake. Seek to find how we can truly improve the player experience, instead of searching for more ways to game players into spending more money.

However, one area of utmost importance is the lack of innovation that comes as a result of this. It’s fairly rare to find a truly innovative social game, because it’s cheaper to release a clone of a competitor’s with a shinier interface. Investing in new, interesting ideas that may or may not pay off is risky, especially when you have investors who want to see returns on their money spent. Why is this a risk, when it might seem relegated to the oft-mocked world of social games? For the most part, because these companies’ return on investment is so much higher than that of the traditional Triple-A games industry. Like it or not, we may soon be facing a situation in which publishers tell developers to make games in a manufactured, “tried and true” manner, in which innovation or interesting ideas do not even play a part. At the end of the day, the somewhat archaic concept of “making something new” doesn’t really compare to a formula you know works, does it? 

All jokes aside, this is a very serious issue, one that imperils the very state of gaming today. Once an over reliance on metrics embeds itself in a company’s culture, it is very hard to get rid of. More and more of the company’s brand, image and products come to rely on large amounts of numbers, and in practically no time at all, they cannot be separated. The company might then be faced with the problem of bad metrics analysis or harvesting, meaning that the entire point of them is negated, as well as the aforementioned experimentation and creativity, after which time most self-respecting developers will have had enough and leave. 

Important Takeaways: Metrics are, in essence, a good thing. They aren’t inherently evil, or even harmful, yet if implemented incorrectly they can prove disastrous. They allow developers to gain a deeper insight into what makes players tick, and subsequently improving their experience. They allow customer reactions and satisfaction to be gauged, hopefully avoiding negative publicity and upset gamers. Yet they cannot be seen as the cure-all for games, the one solution that will see profits explode and complaints disappear. They threaten innovation, the very essence of gaming and art in general, and must be handled carefully. They are a handy tool, and one that we as developers must wield with great caution.