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Fuel Wants to Make It Even Easier for Mobile Games to Suck Up All Your Time

"If 80 percent of people can’t beat that first level, you want to be able to tweak that in real time."

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Hey, you know all that time you lose playing addictive mobile games? Well, get ready to lose even more.

(Sorry, employers. Also, a quick aside to Walt and Kara: Playing mobile games is technically “work” for me, right?)

The new normal in mobile gaming is “games as a service” — that is, “live” games that milk value out of their players (who typically pay nothing at first) over time, rather than selling a one-and-done product at the same price for everybody. This model tends to tilt game developers’ priorities toward the “whales” who spend a lot of time and money in their products.

A gaming-engagement company called Fuel says those developers are leaving money on the table, from players who “hit a wall” and flit to some other game.

“In a game where you kill zombies, the developer thinks the first level is easy enough,” Fuel CEO Mik Naayem said in an interview with Re/code. “But if 80 percent of people can’t beat that first level, you want to be able to tweak that in real time.”

Naayem is referring specifically to Fuel Dynamics, his company’s latest product, which is supposed to let clients teach their games to change depending on the user. The idea is that if a player doesn’t churn out of the game when he fails at the first level and is instead greeted with an easier challenge, he’ll keep playing longer and ultimately spend more money.

This is not too far off from the thinking behind Gondola, a startup I wrote about recently that applies the same philosophy to pricing in in-game stores. The difference is that Fuel is instead focused on variables like, to borrow Naayem’s example, how many zombies come after the player during the actual gameplay.

Of course, I asked the obvious question: Won’t players feel weirded out if they know that their awfulness at a game is being processed by an algorithm, with the ultimate goal of getting them to waste more time and spend more money?

“I don’t see it as a people manipulation tool as much as a remover of bottlenecks,” Naayem said. “‘This game is too hard, this game is too easy.’ What can be done to make this game better for me?”

He stressed that Fuel Dynamics is designed to work client-side, meaning developers who use it won’t need to be paying for their users to contact a remote server in order to deliver the game tweaks. Fuel isn’t sharing which companies are using the new product at launch, but its past clients (according to the company website) include Bandai Namco, Miniclip and Sega.

Fuel has also brought on two new advisers, Naayem added: Former Square Enix co-COO Juergen Goeldner and former Scoreloop CSO Volker Hirsch.

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