Popcap Games, one of the biggest success stories in casual gaming, just released a major update of its highly popular Bejeweled app. Unfortunately, what Popcap is touting as a significant improvement is being panned by existing users, creating a major backlash and threatening to break the addiction that many people have to the game. Popcap’s blunder offers up some important lessons for any brand using apps to build its business or image.
First, some quick background. Popcap has built a huge, active user base for its Bejeweled 2 iPhone app. The app contained four play modes. Three of them are single-player, but the fourth is “Bejeweled Blitz”, a one-minute race version that integrates with the Facebook app of the same name, allowing mobile players to compete with their Facebook friends. Although scores from the browser-based version and the iPhone version and up on the same scoreboard, the iPhone version has always been faster, more responsive, and easier to play thanks to two-handed touchscreen operation vs. mouse or touchpad on a computer.
Last week, Popcap released a standalone version of Bejeweled Blitz for the iPhone, which pulls in even more of the features of the Facebook version. At the same time, the behavior of the “Blitz” button in Bejeweled 2 changed to force users to download and use the standalone app (for free). Here’s where the problems start. Apparently in an effort to “level the playing field” between mobile and desktop players, the standalone version moves at about half the speed of the previous version. Suddenly, the gameplay on Blitz feels like playing in molasses.
The response from fans has been brutal. Where previous Bejeweled apps achieved 4-to-5 star ratings in the Apple App Store, the new Blitz app currently has a 2-star average based on over 750 ratings since launch. The comments on the ratings are even sharper than the average suggests, with prolific 1-star ratings and criticisms of both the game and the company’s upgrade approach.
So what lessons can we take from this:
1. The game isn’t over after the user downloads your app
Getting users to download and install your app is a big part of the challenge, but you have to keep evolving and responding to their changing needs. This means app updates are inevitable. Since people can easily uninstall an app, or just stop using it, the quality of your updates and new versions is just as important as the quality of your initial release. You have to approach them in a serious and thoughtful way.
2. Don’t assume anything
Many of the reviews in the App Store accuse Popcap of not doing any user testing of the new app before pushing it out. Given the astonishing difference in gameplay between the two versions, I’m inclined to believe that accusation (or at least that they did not test with users of the existing app). You have to make sure to user-test your app with a good cross-section of users, including both first-time users who didn’t know the previous version, and “power users” who already use your app on a regular basis.
3. Never take things away unless you have to.
One of the most frustrating things about this upgrade is that Popcap disabled the existing version (inside of a paid app) to force people to download the new standalone app. If they hadn’t done that, most people probably would have tried out the free standalone app anyway and, upon learning that they didn’t like it as much, would have just shifted back to the old app to keep playing. Since we’re talking about two separate apps, this was a completely unnecessary step and created tremendous “badwill” among fans. If you want to build up love from the fans, you want to always give them more, not less.
The most important interaction in a relationship is the most recent one. Your app updates give you the chance to continue to improve your relationship with customers and fans, or blow it up, like an exploding gem. Make the right choices or it might be “Game Over”.