Social gaming offers clues to the future of education

Interesting article on how social gaming companies are using analytics to make social games more enjoyable for users and more profitable for themselves:

[W]hat the big [social gaming companies] have learned is that coming up with a great game concept is only the beginning. A successful free-to-play game is all about inspection and iteration; it is about launching quietly, testing and fine-tuning the experience constantly, watching how players react, listening to feedback and re-building. This is how the likes of Popcap and Playfish arrived at super-addictive titles like Fifa Superstars and Plants vs Zombies. And now a whole new business is emerging to help developers understand their players….

Game Analytics, a new UK-based company specialising in the data-mining and monetisation of online games [is] a real-time service that continually monitors every player in any virtual world it’s commissioned to work on. It’s like CCTV constantly monitored by psychologists and statisticians.

Game Analytics gathers data on all aspects of players, including the basics: age, gender and location. “…[W]e look at their data and we identify behaviour patterns. It allows the publisher to learn a lot more about their game than they thought they knew.”

In his experience, it’s rarely great big design errors that trip up growing freemium games – it’s tiny, often over-looked alterations. “We’re working with a big MMO at the moment. We studied the last five years of their operations and we noticed that there was a huge change in just one month in the retention rate of new players. It turned out the publisher had made just one change that caused the game to be less appealing for newcomers – they didn’t even notice it; this is one of their worlds! So now they’re trying to digest that information and work out what they did wrong.”

The key message behind freemium analytics is that free-to-play game construction is similar to web design – the publisher needs to understand, and subtly guide, every aspect of the user journey through the experience. Whereas traditional games are about creating big macro-environments for player exploration, freemium is about micro-managing every step the player takes toward actually buying something.

“A developer can build ‘funnels’ that depict the player actions leading to a financial conversion like purchasing extra content or virtual merchandize,” says Justin Johnson, CTO of Playmetrix, another British company specialising in game analytics. “It’s then down to the developer to use this analysis to improve conversion by removing obstructions and bottlenecks that may be inherent in the design. For example, aspects of the game may be unclear or too difficult for newcomers, leading to early high attrition, which means they never reach the purchase step.”

The implications go far beyond social gaming. Any field that can gather data from many users can mine that data for insights that can feed back into design changes that improve the user experience.

Online education is a prime example of a field that can leverage datasets to improve the learning experience. Traditionally, teachers have taught in isolated silos (classrooms). Each teacher uses trial-and-error to improve their teaching, but most teachers learn shockingly little from one another. Online education can potentially optimize teaching based on what works and does not work for all students across all classrooms. And, with massive databases, analytics can identify different learning styles and separately optimize the learning experience for each type of learner.

Posted by James on Thursday, July 14, 2011