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.

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