Guest Appearances

I gave a Keynote at Pocket Gamer Connects in London a while back, based on the 666 post.

 

And, Pollen.VC did a story on my thoughts on retention: http://insights.pollen.vc/app-business/measuring-real-retention-for-real-results

 

Making progress

At times, I’m wondering: does it even have to be a game in there?

F2P games can be split into the core and the meta game. The core game is the part that people recognise as a real game. It will have some challenge to it, usually either a mental challenge, like in puzzle games, or a reaction challenge like in action games. The meta game is really about progress – and is some form of “the more you grind (or pay) the further you will get”.

Some of the games I have played the most, did not really even have a real game in there. At times, they are just a progression loop. A progression loop that feels really, really good.

The most obvious example of this is likely AdVenture Capitalist or Cookie Clicker. Try them out, if you have not done so. You buy businesses, they generate money and then you buy more businesses and they generate more money – until you are quickly in ridiculous amounts of money territory.

They simply made you progress along an exponential curve, and that feels really good. You keep on becoming twice as good every time you play. Of course, if you plot that on a log scale, it’s just a regular straight line again – just as the plots you see of Moore’s law.

HCRUpgrade

Last week, I wrote about the loop in Hill Climb Racing, where you upgrade a car, try it out a few times, realise you’re just one game away from having enough money to upgrade again, play that one time, buy the upgrade and you’re back where you started – wanting to try out your new and better toy a few times. It really never ends.

plunder-pirates-share-lg
Rovio launched a great build and battle game called Plunder Pirates back in 2014. Shortly theareafter I spoke to Wilhelm Taht (EVP Games @ Rovio) who was also hooked on another pirate game called Pirate Kings. He described the game as “Plunder Pirates with all gameplay removed”. Please note: that was a compliment to the game!

Some of the top grossing games, like Game of War, Mobile Strike and Vikings aren’t terribly far from that in the early parts. I cannot recall making any significant decisions in the first few days of e.g. Mobile Strike. I was simply tapping what they told me to tap and progressing accordingly.

pirate-kings-logo

When we dig deeper, some ‘real’ games are not that far removed from this. Plants vs. Zombies is really a great game with some deep strategy involved. However, their learning curve is so gentle that my wife played it through twice (normal and hard mode), and lost a level only once. If you’re anyway going to let the player win, why bother with the gameplay in between..?

The feeling of progression is so strong a motivator that it can apparently stand on its own in some cases. But how do you get enough content to make the progression feel good?

One first and easy solution could be to throw a lot of stuff into the game. I believe that is dangerous, and there’s such a thing as too much choice for people. With too many options, you just end up confusing people. In the real world, there was a famous experiment with jam sales in a supermarket. They set up a tasting booth with a huge variety of jams. Most people who walked by stopped to test some of that huge selection, but very few of them bought anything.

https://hbr.org/2006/06/more-isnt-always-better

Next they set up a tasting area with only 6 jams. Much fewer people stopped to taste the jam, but of those who stopped, many actually ended up buying. They felt comfortable in their decision that they had made the right choice, and thus ended up spending.

The relevance for making games is that we should make quite few things to select among, but make them ‘deep’.

What I mean by making them deep is have a lot of levels to upgrade it. Don’t offer 3 upgrade levels when you can offer 30. The great thing about depth is that you don’t have to expose the players to all available upgrade levels at the start. You can have a lot of depth without overwhelming the player.

 

The Rule of 10%

Most upgradeable things need to be upgradeable by 10%. We have designed games where they player gets one unit of some good. Offering an upgrade from 1 unit to 2 units is way too powerful an upgrade, and giving the player 3 of these things would completely break the game. Don’t do that. Make sure you have enough continuous variables that you can let the player upgrade 10% at a time, two dozen times.
 
You can stretch things further with so called gacha mechanics. That is, don’t sell item X to the players directly. Instead sell them a lottery ticket that gives them any of a bunch of items. They might get X, or they might get Y. If they get Y, they just sell it, collect some more money for another lottery ticket and hope that they get item X this time.

 

You can, and should, combine these techniques. In Clash Royale, your troops will be about 10% better with each upgrade. But you cannot buy those upgrades directly. Instead you open a chest with random cards. Then you might actually need to find 50 of these cards in order to get your character to the next level. And once you have found 50 of them, you still need to use some gold for the actual upgrade. Which gets you a 10% improvement. And there’s always another 10% improvement after that… Brilliant!
 
(They do sell you cards directly too, which allows you to bypass some of this randomness – if you spend some real money).
 
So far: we need a decent, but not too large a variety of things to upgrade, and a very deep upgrade path that we can stretch further with some random and collection mechanics.
 
With the meta game and progression this important, is that all we should focus our energies on as game developers? I would say no. This one will be fairly controversial, but I will claim that the business has changed, and new things are now important for building successful mobile games.
 
The core game is what consumers care about. Just ask a player to describe Candy Crush Saga, and they will promptly give a description of Bejeweled, as they share the same core game.
The meta game is more important for the developers, as this sets the pacing of the game, and eventually determines retention and monetization. I.e. the meta game pays our salaries.
 
In order to build a fresh new game for players, the smart thing to do is, therefore, to be innovative with the core game, while staying fairly safe with the meta game. By staying safe, I really mean adapting proven meta game mechanics to the innovative core game ideas that you have chosen.
 
This first wave of F2P success of mobile were actually copies of successful core games, with innovation on the meta game. That likely no longer works. It worked back then, because F2P was new on mobile. Someone had to invent a working meta game for F2P on mobile, and it did not matter if you copied the core since the competition was asking for money up front. The first ones with good core games plus working meta games got money making machines where they could spend on advertising and make more money back. That’s no longer the case.
 
To get to the top now will likely require new ideas for the core game – and building that is likely to be hard and risky even for experienced and great teams. Clash Royale really brings something new to the market, but it took an amazing team quite a few tries to get there.

Can we stretch this Core?

Does our core idea work? Can we build lots of variation without changing the basic User Experience?

 

Back in the day, when we started planning our Benji Bananas game (some 4 years ago now), we analysed some of the top performing mobile games. A thing many of them had in common back then, was a really slick user interface. We simplified it down to “one touch or one slide”. Think about what you do when playing Angry Birds. It’s really just sliding your finger once over the screen to do one move. The more advanced birds require you to slide once and tap once. It was the same thing with other games of the era: one slide to Cut the Rope or dig the channels in Where’s My Water, one tap to make the Tiny Wings bird dive, or the Jetpack Joyride guy fly.

We took this one touch to heart when doing the design of Benji. Any idea that required something more complicated was immediately thrown out.

Games have become more complicated since then – likely because people are now more familiar with touch screens, and with games on them. The players are not overwhelmed as easily anymore, which gives us a bit more freedom to work with, but not much. Once you have settled on the core user interface – what you do to make one ‘move’ in the game – you need a really, really good reason to introduce something that requires the player to interact in another way.

The question then is: how do we build a game that will last at least 6 months while always sticking to this one simple gesture for the UI? Mobile games have two hard requirements that are in conflict with each other: simplicity to get players, and depth to keep them. It takes a really skilled team to bridge this conflict.

Another similar requirement is to make the game last for 6 months without needing artists, writers and programmers to manually create content at light speed. The question is: can we stretch this simple core game into a full mobile game with great long-term retention?

One great way is to build features into the game that can be combined with each other. You only build m+n+o features, while the player gets to play m*n*o combinations.

Let’s take Hill Climb Racing as an example. It’s a good example because it’s so simple, there’s not a huge amount of stuff to look through. At the start, they had a few cars, and a few levels in which to drive the cars (by now they have some 20 each). If I have unlocked 5 cars and 5 levels, there are 5*5= 25 different versions of the game that I can play. Unlocking a sixth car will add another 5 combinations: I will want to try out the new car I just got in all the 5 levels that I have unlocked. By the time I have tried it in all of them, I have earned enough soft currency to upgrade the engine a bit.

Now, of course, I want to try out how well that newly upgraded car behaves in all 5 levels, after which I have enough money for new tires… You can see how it goes. After a while I think this new car would be great in that new level. I unlock the level, and want to try out all my 6 cars in it. 36 games later, I’m this close to earning yet another upgrade or unlock.

The more you can make your features interact in such a way, the more efficiently you will be able to build a long lasting and interesting game without having a huge team working on it.

Another big feature is to make the game player vs. player (PVP). Most forms of PvP can be seen as variants of user generated content. When I’m building my Clash of Clans village, I’m really creating a puzzle for someone with an army to solve. Even if I’m just playing Chess against someone, I’m offering them the same challenge as a level designed by the game company otherwise would. Multiplayer games have been a trend recently, and is likely to continue for some time to come.

Multi-player is also great for triggering competitiveness among your players, and thus it is great for retention.

One great way to get players emotionally attached to your game is to let them build permanent things in it. That’s why different sorts of town building games are so popular. At times it feels like the town building aspects were just glued on to something else, but it still seems to work. For instance, the Facebook game Gardens of Time gave me that feeling: https://www.facebook.com/GardensofTime

Building permanent stuff and upgrading them leads me to one particular mechanic that I must confess I did not get for quite some time. Clash of Clans had the concept of builders. You could get several of them, and use them to upgrade several things in parallel. I loved it, and spent my hard currency mainly on them. Later games have, however, gotten rid of the concept with multiple builders. They are not in Boom Beach, nor in Game of War or Plarium’s Vikings. Why not?

The thing is that multiple builders will waste the content the developer made for the game by letting players do several things at once. As a player, I am no more likely to return to the game if there are two finished buildings waiting for me, than if there is only one. And if one is enough, offering two, three or four is a waste. Letting players get through your content at twice or three times the speed is a bad idea. Hence, new games usually have just one builder.

These are some of the best ways to make your development budget stretch out to hundreds of hours of gameplay. Next week, I’ll dive into the importance of progress, and how to create that feeling in players and after that it’s going to be about why Match-3 is such a great core for a mobile free-to-play game.

Paid User Acquisitions

This week let’s go into what you can do to get users with money: paid user acquisition. Again, this is the broad overview of what is useful to know for an indie developer just transitioning into paid UA, not an in-depth article on the details.

First, let’s get the simple and modest PR message out of the way. You probably should do one, but don’t expect much from it unless you are one of the top games companies around and people have been waiting for news about what you’re about to do next. Supercell’s announcement of finally launching Clash Royale as their fourth game – after years of simply slaughtering games that were good, but not insanely great – will be considered global news.

 

For the rest of us, sending out a PR message is unlikely to move the needle on downloads. It’s sort of the same thing as with fishing for earned media by talking to press, etc.

Another way to gain paid visibility is to ‘bribe’ YouTube content creators to do a video about your game. There are quite a lot of creators who are primarily making videos about games. The biggest YouTube star of them all, PewDiePie, started out by mostly making videos of himself playing games. Of course, these guys will make a video about your game out of pure interest in case they find your game interesting. Otherwise, you can, as I said, pay some of them to do it.

The YouTubers have people who follow their channels. This is the main metric that their agents will quote if you want to buy their services. It does not mean that your video will be watched by that many people. Just that that number of people will be notified about the new video being posted, after which some of them will decide to watch it.

As I said, PewDiePie has the largest number of followers at some 41 million. Some fairly large ones have single-digit millions of followers, and quite a lot of them have hundreds of thousands of followers. A typical PewDiePie video might be watched by some 2 million viewers, while someone with about half a million followers might get 10-50k views per video.

If you are interested in getting downloads, you then need to have a guess at what percentage of video viewers will convert into game downloads. Usually, that’s not a whole lot, honestly – even though being played by PewDiePie was, according to legend, one of the things that fed the Flappy Bird phenomenon. You can watch that video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lQz6xhlOt18

However, if you look at the Top Downloaded chart for Flappy Bird, you’ll see that it had been at number 1 for some weeks already on January the 27th, when that PewDiePie video was posted.

 

On to some more mainstream ways of acquiring users, then.

I’ve already written a few articles about Ad Networks. They are the usual suspects when it comes to acquiring users, and there’s quite a number of them: Ad Colony, AdMob, Chartboost, Unity Ads, Millennial Media, Supersonic, Facebook, etc. Mainly, they will show your ads in other (free) apps, with a link to your App Store page.

There are several types of ads:

  • Banners similar to what you find on webpages were some of the first ones to move over to mobile. They have largely gone out of fashion by now, as they don’t work for anyone. They annoy the player, don’t work for the advertiser and make no money for the game that shows them. Just skip these.
  • Interstitials are full-screen ads (pictures) that will appear between play sessions. They work a lot better than banners, but not quite as well as the trend now, which is video ads.
  • Video ads are the mainstream marketing tool by now. They are typically about 30 seconds long, and either shown in between play sessions without anyone asking for it, or, preferably, when the user asks to see one in exchange for some in-game benefit – called incentivised video ads.
  • ”native ads” is a hyped term that basically means that the ad network does some work to make the ad fit in with the game’s overall style.

 

These ad spaces are then sold in a form of auction. That means that you do not typically negotiate much regarding pricing. You simply set what you want to bid, and an automated system takes care of it. The higher you bid, the higher your placement and thus the more visibility you will get.

Different ad sources are likely to vary wildly in the cost you have to pay for a download. CPI, Cost Per Install is the typical way you will compare the cost between different channels, even if what you are not necessarily paying for installs, but might be paying for views (CPM, Cost Per Mille, that is per thousand views). As I wrote in a previous article, the difference in CPI between two ads can easily be a factor of 10. Some installs cost us over $5, while others were under $0.50.

An expensive install will be over $5, while anything below $1 is considered cheap by now. It obviously also depends on the country you are advertising in. Some of the most competitive markets are much more expensive than developing markets. Of course, it does not make much sense to pay for a download in a market where you know that the players will never have money to pay for anything in the game. That is, their Lifetime Value (LTV) is very low.

Another thing that affects the price is the volume you want to buy per day. It is much cheaper (per install) to buy lower volumes. The higher the volume you want to drive per day, the more you have to pay for each install. That auction system basically forces you to bid high to reach volumes.

What your most direct competition is bidding will also affect what you need to bid. If two games are targeting the same potential players, the one who can afford to bid higher will win and crowd out the other one. That’s a very good reason for you not to clone Clash of Clans or Game or War!

To have a look at what other’s are spending, head over to Appscotch. http://try.appscotch.com/

 

A lot of companies are targeting the US first. There are two reasons for that. One is that the US is the top revenue generating country (together with Japan and Korea). The other is that trends from the US often spread to other markets, and more seldom the other way around. This is similar to the music industry: while every country has their own charts, Germans will hear about a band that tops the US charts, while Americans will certainly not hear about a band that tops the German charts.

Speaking of charting, that was a very popular strategy early on for the App Store and Google Play. They gave a lot of space to the Top charts, which led a self reinforcing spirals for the most successful apps. Apple and Google have changed the stores since then, and now the self reinforcing spirals are not as strong anymore.

 

A “burst” campaign is one specifically designed to get the app to rise on the charts, without much care for the quality of customers attracted. The hope is that the app will benefit simply from the exposure it get by being high on the top downloaded chart. The cheapest way to get there is through ‘incentivised’ installs. That is, to bribe a player with some items in one game, in order to get them to install another game. Most people who install through such an offer will hardly ever open the target app, and their retention in that app is dismal. They are cheap though, and can cost from a few tens of cents to about $1.50. As with all other ad prices, they are cheapest in Q1 and most expensive during the Q4 holidays.

This way of gaming the App Store and Google Play is not really popular with the platform holders. They have therefore limited its appeal by giving less visibility to the top charts, by calculating the top charts based on more than simple downloads (counting retention, ratings, etc. on Google Play), and by outright banning incentivised installs (App Store). If you still want to use the burst strategy, it’s best to concentrate your firepower to select markets and likely either iOS or Android. With incentivised installs, you only benefit if you get into the top 10. Otherwise you are wasting your money.

The retention and monetisation of players will be different depending on where they come from. Roughly speaking, the more they know about your game before downloading, the more probable it is that they will actually enjoy it and stick around. People who have seen a video with gameplay explained will be very likely to actually show good retention. People who download a game their friend showed them will also stay. The downloads you get from getting featured are slightly worse, while banner ads and especially incentivised downloads can be really bad.

Since this is quite complicated, with varying cost levels together with varying value for the customers acquired, there are several companies that specialise in it so that you can outsource the trouble. It will typically cost you around 10% of your ad budget. The quality you get really then depends on how important your business is to them, and how much attention you will therefore get from the “ad ops” – the guys who are running the optimisation.

Speaking of budgets, when you do low volume paid UA, you are likely to just buy it with your credit card through an automated system. That will become a problem very quickly once your volumes go up. Most credit cards have their credit limits at some thousands of euros/dollars/pounds, and the UA budgets quickly rise above that. You will have to ask for credit with the ad networks to get around that.

One interesting way to stretch your budget is provided by a company called Pollen.vc. Buying ads at even moderate scale will quickly tie up a lot of money. Say you’re buying installs for $10k per day, and you’re so incredibly lucky that they players immediately spend an equal amount in the game – that is, everyone customer you acquire is immediately profitable. Apple and Google will pay you with a small delay, and that delay still needs to be financed. At $10k per month, you need about half a million to buy ads before you start getting your money back from Apple and Google (45-60 day delay at $10k per day). Pollen.vc looks at your accounts on the App Store and Google Play, and then lends you the money the next day – a handy tool when scaling up a game company.

 

Last, if you want to become an expert in this field, you should follow blogs such as Eric’s at mobiledevmemo.com, and attend conferences such as The Business of Apps.

 

Free User Acquisitions

I’ve noticed a pattern when talking to indie game developers who have been successful. A lot of them are not only really good at making games, but also at acquiring users.

This post will be an overview of everything user acquisition (UA) related. Obviously, I cannot cover everything in very great detail, and I encourage you to head over to the real experts for the in-depth stuff. For instance, Eric’s blog at mobiledevmemo.com is a really great resource.

First off, let’s do the rough divide between what you can get for free versus what you have to pay for.

Let’s start with the free stuff and continue with paid UA next week.

If you already have some popular apps, you can cross promote your new game from them. Some 5 years ago, this was mainly what publishers were offering game developers. They wouldn’t say it directly, but their offer was really “we’ll talk to Apple and hope they feature your game, and we’ll cross promote from our other games for a week”.

Cross promotion is, of course, dependent on how large an audience you have to cross promote to. That is, what is the Daily Active Users (DAU) number of your existing apps. You should expect a certain percentage of those people to download your app. As an example, let’s use our Benji Bananas game, and our friends at Fingersoft.

Fingersoft got started by building a few novelty camera apps with funny filters – back in the days when such things as a cartoonish filter on a smartphone camera were considered funny novelties. They then used their camera app users to cross promote the launch of their first game – Hill Climb Racing. The downloads they got that way – only some thousands during the first day – were enough to get the game on Android’s Top New Games list. That got some people to notice, which led to more downloads, which led to a higher chart position and more downloads in a self reinforcing cycle.

XPromoChain

Cross promotion (and other tools that can get you a short burst of installs) is really a way to prime the pump. A good game, with some virality, can start to spread if it’s given a chance. You just need to get over the critical mass first. What the critical mass is will depend on the game. Some thousands was enough for Hill Climb Racing, 75 000 was clearly enough for our Benji Bananas game, and 40 000 was enough for Draw Something.

When we partnered with Fingersoft they used Hill Climb Racing to cross promote our Benji Bananas game. The first day we got some 75 000 downloads, which put us pretty high on the charts already. From then on, the game started growing more based on chart positions than on cross promotions. You see, a good game will have a lot of players coming back to it every day. The first day you cross promote, everyone of the Daily Active Users will see the ad for the new game for the first time. The next day, most of them have already seen it, effectively likely to halve your cross promotion power. In our experience, you can get up to 5% of your DAU to install the new app.

Chart

A good publisher really will have a better chance of getting Apple and Google to feature you than most new indie developers have on their own. It’s a sort of pre-filtering. As the vast majority of all games that are launched are just not interesting, merely getting picked by a publisher sends the signal that some external party is interested enough to at least commit some resources (even if it might only be their working time, in some cases) to your game. That means that the game is at least worth taking a look at for the featuring teams and possibly for some news sites.

Otherwise, the way to get featuring is to build something different, something with really high production values and generally something that will make Apple’s or Google’s products to look great.

The next thing to look at is optimising your App Store or Google Play page. Getting the right text and keywords there is a form of Search Engine Optimization. The key is to get high rankings on a few keywords that are often used. You probably should not go for the very top keywords, as the competition there is so tough that you will never get high up when people search for things like “free game”. Try to own a word that’s trending, but that others have missed. You should be able to drive some thousands of downloads per day using this strategy.

Here are some further hints and tips from Chartboost on how to optimise your keywords. Optimising the screenshots is another part of the search engine optimisation.

Last, you can try to earn publicity by speaking to various media and trying some “stunts” to get free publicity. Unfortunately, this is very hard to do for mobile games. Jake Sones wrote openly about his marketing efforts that did not lead to much.

Traditional media often do not really take mobile games seriously as content. Stories about mobile games are often more about the business aspects than about what the games are about, as Thomas Bidaux points out on Chartboost’s blog.

It’s pretty much the same thing with YouTubers. There are quite a lot of creators who are primarily making videos about games. The biggest YouTube star of them all, PewDiePie, started out by mostly making videos of himself playing games. Of course, these guys will make a video about your game out of pure interest in case they find your game interesting. However, mostly they find PC games interesting, and a mobile title will have to be something special in order to attract their attention.

What I completely left out of this now, is designing the game for virality. That will have to be its own article. Next week will be the overview on how to acquire users with money.