The challenge of giving away $100,000

This week, I’m going to tell you about a surprisingly interesting work-for-hire project and about how we failed with it. It’s surprisingly hard to market a competition with big prize money.

Every now and then, someone contacts us and wants us to make a mobile game for them. Usually, they back down after we explain to them how the mobile games market works – it will cost you more than $15,000 to make a game, and chances are that the end result is neither Angry Birds, nor Candy Crush Saga.

This time, however, we found a good fit with a game we wanted to do and the brand that wanted us to do it. We had an idea for a twist on the endless runner genre that we wanted to try out. The idea was to put the game under water, and then use ever-increasing currents as the main challenge. You swim up and down a river with a simple control mechanic, but the currents always affect you. They keep growing stronger and will eventually force you to make a mistake. A few years ago, I had sketched out the mechanic with the concept name “Sammy the Salmon”.

Endless runners are some of the most popular games out there on mobile – most likely due to their approachability. They are popular, but very hard to make any money on – in other words, they don’t monetise. If, however, the main point is to get visibility, we thought an endless runner was a perfect fit. Even more so when the client was called Mad-Croc (an energy drinks brand). With the same main idea, but Sammy the Salmon switched to a Croc, we set to work.

We first released the game at Gamescom in Cologne in August. We were curious to see if ads for the game printed on the energy drinks cans would drive traffic to the game. I can now confidently tell you that they do not, regardless of how many millions of cans that are sold worldwide. The really interesting part was, however, when the owner of the Mad-Croc brand wanted to make a huge competition around the new game. The basic idea was to say: whoever is the best player of this will win a hundred thousand dollars! Actually, he started off wanting to have a million dollar main prize – but we convinced him to try it out with just a hundred thousand.

Most of you have likely heard about e-sports being a really big and quickly growing thing these days. On the PC, there are huge tournaments and matching prize money. Some companies have also planned to bring e-sports to mobile, but it has not yet broken through for real.

Looking through the mobile competitions we could find, there were hardly any with prizes exceeding $5,000. Surely a $100,000 main prize would be newsworthy?

Let’s go just a bit into what we can call e-sports before answering that question. Most of the big tournaments on PC are played in teams. Is this a requirement for being a e-sport? I can’t really see why it should be. Among regular non-e-sports, there are, after all, some individual sports and some team sports. Why not try to make a humble endless runner into a sport on mobile devices?

We set to work building the required infrastructure to keep track of high-scores, writing rules and weeding out cheaters. We built this together with some partners. Our initial target was to launch during October, but we had to delay the launch until early December. A few weeks ago, we finally had everything set up and started running the tournament for four weeks (until January 2016). Here’s the game:

To make sure that this is really fair to players, we turned off all In-App Purchases for the competition mode. Now we cannot earn any money on the game, but it’s main purpose was anyway to get visibility.

The set-up and the level is always exactly the same for all players, and you cannot pay to get an advantage. What you can do is learn the level by playing it a lot as it does not change.

For added suspense, and to further discourage cheaters, we decided to name the best player of each week as a finalist. Then, by early next year, we will have four finalists that get to compete head to head at an event. This way, even if you could cheat your way into a finalist position, you would then have to compete for real, live, against the best players there are – likely a humiliating proposition. We have had some clumsy attempts at hacking our high score server, but, so far, we’re pretty confident in our anti-cheat technology.

When the competition went live, it was supported by an additional promotional campaign. While it was modest sums compared to the mobile marketing big spenders (we’re not talking millions per day here), it was still significant sums and partnering with some of the best marketing people in the industry. We messed around with a lot of crazy marketing material. This one probably being the silliest of the bunch:


So… what happens if you give a huge part of your marketing budget to your game’s superfans in a tournament like this? That’s how we think about the idea: give a large part of the ad budget to the players, instead of to the marketing agencies.

Actually, surprisingly little happens. Most people seem to think it is spam, and that it isn’t for real. Some of our silly short videos often get such responses. Perhaps it’s because no one has done such a thing before – people seem to associate it with the web pop-ups promising you that you are really THIS close to winning a million if you just click here, here and here. That means, that the competition was not deemed newsworthy by most media or by most people, and did not start rising up the download charts on its own or even when gently pushed by a marketing campaign.

The competition is still going on. We now have the first two finalists from the first and second weeks of December. Their high scores were within 0.2% of each other. There seems to be a max distance you can reach in the competition version of the game, and if you’re really good, you’ll get there in less than a week of playing. I wouldn’t have known that before we started as I’m not really good enough at endless runners myself. If you have some spare time over the holidays, and could use an extra $100,000, there’s really a fair chance of getting to the top of this.

And if you’re building a mobile e-sport with significant prize money, try to think about how to work around the problem of people associating you with spam. Maybe team sports are a better idea, after all. That way, players would at least have to spread the game to some friends in order to win the prize, which would give the game some virality that an individual game lacks.

Making Sense of Ad Networks

Ad networks, waterfalls and mediators and attribution partners

In an earlier post about SDKs, I wrote about ad networks. This post will expand upon that ecosystem.

It was likely simple once. You had a game or website with a lot of traffic, and someone wanted to show ads to all those eyeballs. So you did a deal. Like this:


Now there are three layers in between. At least.

The problem with direct sales are the communication channels. There’s more than one game with a lot of players, and there’s more than one company that wants to advertise. If everyone is talking to everyone then they all waste huge amounts of time just discussing and cutting deals. If a thousand advertisers talk to a thousand game developers, then there are a million deals to be made. Enter the ad networks.


The ad networks take care of this problem. All the advertisers just talk to an ad network, and all the game companies also just talk to an ad network. The ad network has made some sort of standard deals that they offer everyone to be efficient. Usually it’s some sort of auction that they are running.


Now, with a thousand advertisers and a thousand game developers, there are just two thousand discussions taking place, and they are mostly automated by the ad networks systems. Clearly this is useful and saves a lot of wasted effort. It’s so useful that more than one company got this idea! Now there are a few hundred ad networks around.

From the game company’s perspective, it is now a question of what ad network to use. Some of them have a lot of advertisers but pay only a little for each ad you show. Others have fewer advertisers but pay more for each ad. As a game company, you can make several times more money if you do the right choices with how to handle the ad networks.


The solution is to integrate more than one ad network into your game. Your game will then say to the ad network that “here’s a spot where you are allowed to show an ad”. If the network has a suitable ad to show, it is sent over, and they log what the user did (watched the video, clicked the link, or ignored it completely). Your game can basically ask the highest bidding ad network to show an ad first. If they have one to show, that’s great. If not, you go on to ask the second highest bidder if they have one, then the third and so forth down the line. This is called the “waterfall”.


Unfortunately, it’s a lot of work involved in optimising your ad revenue. Who has the best paying ads is always changing, and is different depending on what country your player is in. Which means that you have to have several waterfalls and constantly monitor and update them. Fortunately, there are now companies that offer this service. A mediation platform basically does this for you. There are several around, some run by ad networks (they swear on their grandmother’s grave that they do not favour their own ad network), and others from independent companies.

At the advertisers end, there is a similar problem. There are lots of ways to advertise your service or app, how do you know what’s the best one? You could be running small campaigns on each possible channel, measure how they did and then decide where to spend the big bucks based on that. This requires quite a lot of skill, math and time to do. Fortunately, there are companies who can do this advertising for you. Companies such as Fiksu and Twigeo are there for you when you want to outsource this job to professionals. To keep track of where you’re getting your installs, you need an Attribution partner, such as Adjust, Tune or AppsFlyer.

Now we are left with this picture of the market:


Currently, I’m mostly thinking about which network mediator to choose when we’re trying to make money from ads. You know, there are several, and we want to optimise between them…

And I have the same problem when wanting to buy ads. Someone really should offer me a service to choose between the service providers here…

Let me Spoil Every Movie for You

All Blockbusters have the same script! What can a game developer learn from that?

There are some good books to read if you aspire to become a screenwriter in Hollywood. A bunch of them all say the same thing: there’s a pretty fixed structure to the script of a blockbuster.

Let me spoil most movies for you now: when everything is finally going just great for the hero, pause the movie and you will most likely find yourself at the midpoint. When everything thereafter falls apart (bonus points if some minor character dies), pause again and your will be at ⅔ of the movie.

There are a number of books that will teach you the classic story telling model. It’s called “The Hero’s Journey”, and you have hopefully heard about it if you’re developing games with a narrative component (ok.. let’s say “story” instead). As a reminder, it goes like this:

Act 1:

-The story’s world is introduced. It’s in a stable state, we’re introduced to the characters.

-The theme of the movie is introduced. Hints about what this is going to be about.

-Something disturbs the stable world

-Our hero should go on an adventure, but hesitates

-A mentor comes in and gives our hero a swift kick in the behind, and the hero gets going


Act 2:

-Love story & side plots are introduced

-Our hero is trying to adjust to the new world and new rules. Likely feels like a fish out of water. Most of the movie’s trailer clips are from this part.

-MIDPOINT: our hero has finally learned the new rules and is victorious (but it’s a false victory)

-Problems appear, stakes are raised

-ALL is LOST! Something dies.


Act 3:

-Fresh inspiration allows the hero to find a new way

-At the midpoint, our hero had learned the new rules, but forgotten about his/her real self. With a new combination of the original personality and the new things learned, our hero is finally victorious for real.

-Ending with how the world changed as a result of the adventure. Everyone grew and learned something (except for the bad guys). Contrast the new world with the world at the beginning.


There you go: just about every Hollywood blockbuster works according to these rules. You can use it to annoy friends and relatives by telling them what comes next. If you want to learn more, here are some books about it.

Entertaining books:

Save the cat!

How to write a movie in 21 days


Serious (=Dry and Academic):


The Writer’s Journey

The Hero with a Thousand Faces


However, the point I’m getting at here is not the straightforward idea that game stories should be just like movie stories. Rather, it is that a related art form has developed some rules for what works. Rules that have had a remarkable staying power. You see, this structure does not only underpin movies, but stories overall. Joseph Campbell abstracted The Hero’s Journey by looking at stories in literature throughout human history, from early myths to recent books and movies. He found the popular ones so similar in structure, that they basically tell variants of the same story. Human psychology evolves very slowly, and therefore certain patterns appeal to us over millennia.

Likewise for other art forms: there is music theory and there are colour and composition theories for visual arts. The real point is that there is likely to be some design patterns for successful games too, and we need to discover them. We need to understand where to innovate, and what parts are so fundamental that fighting them is futile.

On mobile Free-to-Play (F2P) games, I believe that designing for short sessions, several times per day, every day for months is a fundamental thing that will not change (see the number of the beast post for more). How specifically to achieve that end is still likely to evolve.

We might also see more stories in mobile F2P games, but it’s hard to produce hundreds of hours of storyline cost efficiently. If we do see stories, I think they will likely adapt the TV series version of the Hero’s Journey. That is, they run several of these story arcs overlapping. There’s always one story about to wrap up, one under way, and one just starting. Some arcs are longer, some shorter, etc. F2P games and soap operas are both never-ending.

This blog is about what we have so far learned about making games in general, and mobile F2P games in particular. When reading about ideas and best practises, please think about if the practises presented are only the current fad, or are they the fundamental Hero’s Journey rules of our art form.

Marketing vs Market Engineering

-Free-to-play is a more honest business model than the traditional premium model. And that has consequences for how you market.


-Let me explain!

With the traditional pay-up-front “Premium” model of selling games, the game company or publisher has an incentive to build up expectations before the launch. They need to make people desire their product. It’s all about the customer expectation. What happens after the customer bought the game is less relevant. If they never even play the game, or test it only once, that’s fine. They already payed for it. I do this myself all the time with Humble Bundle games. I like to think of myself as a person who has the sophisticated taste to enjoy a fine indie game in my spare time. The problem is that I do not have spare time. So I end up buying the games, but never playing them. Which, as I pointed out, is just fine for the indie developers. They got paid for building up the expectations.

Free-to-play is wildly different. The clue is in the name. A good F2P game will let you play the game for free forever. It is better to keep you playing for free than having you not play at all. You might, after all, tell your friends about it, and they might tell a friend who tells a friend who ends up paying. Since you can play for free for several months, before eventually deciding to pay, the players know exactly what they are paying for. And therefore, expectation building ahead of a game launch is much less relevant.

A way to think about F2P is that we are giving the player unlimited try-before-you-buy. We don’t optimise for expectations up front, we optimise for retention of the players who ended up trying our game. If we can keep them, they will slowly spread the game to friends, who spread it to more friends and eventually we end up making money. Have a look at the resulting revenue curves for successful games in both models to see the difference. GTA V and Fallout 4 both made a lot of money in their first week. After that, the sales numbers quickly drop. Candy Crush Saga and Clash of Clans are the opposite. They have made similar money over the games’ lifetimes, but it is much more spread out in time. I looked at the public sales data for GTA V and Candy Crush Saga, and sketched out roughly how their sales were distributed. The curves here show how both GTA V and Candy Crush Saga made about $3 billion in the last 2 years. As far as I can tell from public data, they should be very close to each other in terms of total revenue generated over the last 2 years. That leaves out the original ramp-up of CCS, of course (it was released in April 2012, about 1.5 years before the start of this data series). While the totals are about the same, the distribution in time is very different. GTA has peaks at original launch, and when ported to new platforms (XBox One/PS4, and PC). Candy Crush Saga, on the other hand, is very

If you want the premium curve of high expectations leading to quick revenue at release, you need to do traditional marketing. Creative stuff, buzz building, talking to press. A good game will certainly be needed to convince people that you are worth the buzz, but what’s a good game will be decided by press and early players in a matter of days.

In this mode, you have a lot of activity based on best practises, but they are hard to measure exactly. How much did that magazine interview do to help you? Was it more or less effective than that huge poster at Gamescom? It’s hard to know, but that is marketing. A traditional saying is “I know half my ads aren’t working, but I don’t know which half!”

Free-to-play marketing is different. Just about everything you do is measurable. You have different ads and measure click-through rates on them to optimise. You try different channels and and measure cost-per-install on each. And most of all, it’s not about a huge effort concentrated around the launch date, but about a long-term process that can run over several years. My friend Thorbjörn Warin who has been at Wooga, Grand Cru Games and AdColony had a nice way of saying it. You market premium games, but F2P is not really marketing – it’s market engineering.

If you’re an indie developer working on a new title for Steam, you want to do marketing. The guerilla kind, but anyway. You speak to game media, you’re active on discussion forums, you try to attract Youtubers, etc.

If you’re doing mobile F2P, you might as well not bother with that. Our Benji game gets tens of thousands of downloads every day. A news article about the game usually has such a small effect that we cannot even see it when looking at the download charts. The chart below show tens of millions of downloads for Benji over the last 2 years (the drop in April is just missing data on Appannie). This is market engineering territory.2yearDownloads

Ironically, at the very highest levels of user acquisition budgets, you’re back from market-engineering to marketing. Just look at the TV ads of King, or Supercell’s Super Bowl ad.

At their level, they have maxed out what they can get from ads in other mobile apps. Who hasn’t already seen several ads for the top-3 grossing games (Candy Crush Saga, Clash of Clans, Game of War)? That means that they need to bring in fresh users to the ecosystem rather than take users from other mobile games. But, if you’re the guys making these TV ads, I don’t think you need my advice for how to do user acquisition for mobile games anyway.