How to get noticed on the App Store

People say that the hardest part is getting your game noticed. They are wrong. That’s part is super easy!

The hard part of game development is making a good game. Once you have done that, the rest is easy. At least comparatively. Now let me start by explaining what a good game is.

A good game is something that keeps players coming back forever. Or at least almost forever. It’s all about the long term retention. The sad thing is that it is really, really hard to build a good game! Once you have done that, all you need to do is get some reliable metrics to prove that you have a good game, and you have a whole bunch of people who are willing to help you in exchange for a ‘modest’ piece of the pie.

Building the game itself will need only developer time (and likely a lot of it). There are no other big investments you need to do up front. Proving the retention numbers is also possible for quite cheap. It is from that point onwards that it will get expensive – or you will need a lot of skill and luck to work around spending real money. I will be exploring both options in coming articles.

If there is a single number that will help you sell your game to partners – be they investors, publishers, the App Store featuring team or others – it is your one month retention rate. Or, to be more precise: your 28-day retention.

First off, what is this numbers and why should we track it?

Your retention number is simply the percentage of users who come back after a specific number of days. For the 28-day number, suppose you got 1 000 downloads on the 1st of February. If 80 of these specific players start your game on the 1st of March, then your 28-day retention is 8%. Players who start the game on the 28th of February or on the 2nd of March do not count towards the 28-day retention (that’s the 27-day and 29-day retentions). Players who downloaded on the 2nd of February also don’t count, of course.

The reason we should track the 28-day retention is because four weeks is long enough to really start measuring if you are able to keep players engaged for a longer term. If you can keep them coming back on day 28, you are likely well on your way to fulfil the 666 rule I wrote about last week. Hardly anyone will be playing a single-trick game without any progression for four weeks straight.

You should track four weeks (28 days) rather than 30 days since there is a clear weekly cycle to retention. Players who download a game on Friday are more likely to play it on Saturday, while players who download on Sunday are less likely to play on Monday. In our games, the retention rate drops by about 5% if you compare the 1-day retention between players who downloaded on Friday vs. players who downloaded on Sunday. That difference can be seen even longer term, which is why 28-day retention is more stable than 30-day retention.

So what’s a solid 28-day retention number? For several years, people were saying that you need to get to 10%. Apparently, game developers are getting better, since the numbers that are now shared by some game companies are likely above 15%, and in some cases clearly above 20%. Of course, the higher it goes, the less risky your game is to commercialise. Which is to say, the higher your retention number, the easier it will be for your to find partners that give you a good deal.

To be able to measure this important number you need to do two things:

  1. Integrate an analytics solution that will let you track the numbers.
  2. Get enough users that are not your friends. You need at least single-digit thousands to be able to measure reliably.

Go here to see a list of analytics tools. I will write more about them in a later post.

To get a few thousand users to measure, I suggest running ads in developing countries. You will not get paying customers this way, but it is way cheaper to measure retention there compared to more affluent markets like Europe and North America. Choose a country where a lot of people speak English for the best effect, such as Malaysia or The Philippines. You will need a budget of a few thousand dollars, but not more than that.

Having a good 28-day retention number does not yet guarantee profitability, but you’re close. Since players stick to your game, you will have time to figure out how to get them to pay. Or you can simply show ads to them.

You also need to be able to show that you can get a decent volume of players into your game. But since acquiring a niche audience is both more complex and more expensive, I will assume you did not do that when you got your test users. Which means that you likely have some mass appeal if you got this far.
During the following weeks, I will be writing about how to track your players from first hearing about your game until they are paying customers. About the all-important retention and its components and how to keep testing and improving your game. After that, we will look into the monetisation bits, why they are much harder to track and what toolboxes you have as a game developer.

Number of the beast, and two times a thousand

The two most important rules we got from analysing the top-100 grossing games.

This time, I am going to tell you the two most obvious rules we got from analysing the top grossing games, as described last week. They are the 666 rule, and the 2×1000 rule. If you didn’t already, I suggest you first read about how we analysed the games.

First off, the 666 rule. According to this, your game pacing should lead to players playing the game:

6 minutes / time,numberofthebeast
6 times / day,
every day for 6 months.

It’s rough, of course. But the point is that play sessions are short, they happen very often, and long-term retention is critical. Let’s take each six in turn, starting with the first: 6 minutes per session.

Short sessions are critical. Mobile games are played throughout the day, whenever the player has even just a few minutes of time. The very shortest sessions can preferably be just a few seconds long – for instance, collecting your gold in Clash of Clans, or spending your gold in AdVenture Capitalist. A longer more involved session might take a few minutes – such as the attacks in Clash of Clans. There’s a reason they are time limited.

The short sessions do not mean that letting people stay and redo the core loop several times is necessarily toxic to your game. It means that one loop around the core needs to be done in minutes. My guess is that this demand is what has killed e.g. the MOBAs on mobile. They have typically demanded longer sessions with deep concentration. That does not work on mobile. I really tried to start playing Vainglory. Several times. Every time, my one-year old interrupted me before I got through the tutorial and the game forced me to start over. After four or five tries, I gave up.

It is also a plus if the concentration needed is not too deep. I regularly see people playing a mobile game while doing something else. My wife plays Match-3 games while watching TV, and one co-workers did an attack in Boom Beach while we discussed new features for our upcoming game. In short, this is very different from PC and console games. They aim for immersion. If you are immersed in a mobile game, you’re about to miss your bus!

6 times a day. That is needed to form a habit. A working game will have you pulling your phone from your pocket every time you have just 30 seconds of time to yourself. There’s always something to do, and every time you pull out the device you make some small progression to your goals in the game. Of course, it does not need to be exactly 6 times. More is better.

Last, but not least, is the aim of keeping your player for 6 months. Or 6 times 6 months, if you can manage. The top games are at the top of the charts mainly because they keep their players for a very long time. High cost-per-install is less of a problem, if the player is loyal for years once they try out your game. I will write a separate piece just about this part – it’s that important.

Then the two thousands:

How will the player progress in game session 1000?
How can a superfan spend $1000?

Calculate six sessions per day for 6 months. That’s about a thousand sessions. Or 100 hours (six minutes per session times 1000 sessions = 6 000 minutes = 100 hours). That’s a nice round number to keep in mind when designing your game play. What will the player be doing during session 1000? How will another six minutes make the player feel progression in the game, after they have already played 100 hours during 1000 sessions? In short, what’s the carrot that gets them coming back at that point? Again, it’s a really hard question to answer, but answer it you must.

This rule of 666 – and the resulting 1000 session rule – was followed by about 95% of the games on the top-100 grossing chart, last time we looked. There is, however, one more rule that got an even higher score. The rule of a thousand dollars.

One of the criteria we looked at when analysing the top games was: is it possible for a superfan of this game to spend $1000 on IAPs? Out of our feature guesses, this was the only one that was present in every single game we looked at. 100%. For some games, $1000 is likely at the upper end. The more casual games make their money off lots of players, each spending somewhat modestly. The more hard-core games, on the other hand, will have much, much higher top spending. Rumour has it that some war games even have oil sheiks spending over $1 million on IAPs. I do not know if it has happened, but at least the games make it possible.

In short, it’s the super fans that pay your salary. Make sure you let them.

Learning by Playing

What we learned by playing all the top grossing games.

You need to have a deep feeling for what appeals to your players. Not just a rational explanation, but an emotional understanding. The only way to get that is by putting yourself into their shoes. By playing the games they play.

The way we do this at Tribeflame is that we assign a representative sample of the top grossing games to each person in the company. Everyone then plays and analyses the games they have been assigned.

This practice evolved from an earlier version we had where every week one person in the company presented a top grossing game that they had chosen and played for a few weeks. Their task was to explain to the others on the team why that game had made it to the top grossing charts instead of all the others that do not make it. While this was useful, it led to a very selective sample of games that we analysed.

To get a better picture, we next did a rough categorization of the games on the top grossing charts. I encourage you to do this too, and you will quickly see that the games on the chart fall into categories quite nicely. You have the Supercell style town building games, the King style Match-3 games, the Casino games and a few more categories. You can argue about exactly how to draw the line between your categories, but I think that is less important. For example, are Hay Day and Clash of Clans in the same category? How about bubble shooters, TwoDots and Candy Crush Saga? One, two or three categories?

With broad definitions, the three categories listed above (Town builders, Match3, Casino) will cover the majority of games on the top-100 grossing chart. Some 70% fall into those categories. (This keeps changing, of course, but surprisingly slowly.)

Next, we need to agree a way to analyse the games. There are a bunch of good advice on various blogs that you can use as a starting point. For instance, here and here. Make a list of features that you think the top-100 games will certainly all have in common. Or at least most of them. You can also include some of your own favorite features that make you yourself enjoy a game. Say you like a good storyline in the games that you play. Add that to your list. Not that you will find many such games on the top-100 grossing list, but at least you will learn that what you like yourself is not necessarily what makes for good game revenues.learnbyplaying

After this, you assign 10 games to each person. If your team is small, you get to analyse only e.g. the top 50 games. If it’s large you can analyse top 300, or have several people analyse the same games (that might be useful to see how objective/subjective your criteria of analysis are). Now take a time out of some weeks for playing the games, and then get back to the reporting part.

Once everyone has played their games, it’s time to report the results. Simply list the features you thought they would have in common and have everyone count how many of their games include that feature. For instance, you might be certain that 3D is gaining traction on the app store, or that games should be playable without a network connection. You just ask everyone to count how many of their games were 3D and how many required a network connection to work. For some features, you might want to allow half points. For instance, the example of the story line above is not a clear case of yes or no, but can include in-between levels.

There are some weaknesses to this approach. There is bound to be some subjectivity to your scoring, and you are only analyzing the winners, not the possibly identical games that never made it to the top. Also, the top-100 grossing list only includes games that make their revenue through in-app-purchases. Some games might generate a lot of ad revenue, but they do not show up in the top-100 list. Last, the top-100 list will not tell you how much is spent on advertising each app to keep it there. Some of the apps might stay high on the charts simply because every dollar that they make is immediately put back into advertising to get new users. Which means that a high position on the charts does not guarantee profitability for the game or developer.

Still, despite all these caveats, I would argue that the exercise is very useful. At least for our company, it has enabled a very good common understanding of what we need to think about when developing a game.

Introduction

Hi,

I am Torulf Jernström,tribeflame-008 and have been in the business of building games since 2009. Before that, I was 5 years with Nokia (2004-2009), working in both phone R&D and Corporate Business Development (i.e. thinking about what startups to acquire). I also got to work in the team that invented NFC, which was very cool.

I co-founded our company Tribeflame in 2009, and have been CEO here since then. Our biggest hit, Benji Bananas, has some 70 million downloads (in late 2015). In addition to running this company, I am a mentor at Game Founders, and Entrepreneur in Residence at F50, as well as a weekly columnist for PocketGamer.biz.

This series of blogs will cover a number of learnings that I wish I had known when we started out. I hope it is of use and amusement to other game developers. 

Cheers,

Torulf