Sooner or later, most mobile game developers will face the need to make ad creatives: whatever people may say, the success of an organically marketed project is not comparable to what a large-scale ad campaign can achieve.
Everyone gets why marketing is important, but what do you do when an outsourcing studio wants $6,000 for a playable ad, competitors make misleading ads, and gameplay videos for your project are being edited by a puzzled artist in whatever way they see fit?
Let’s figure it out together using the example of hyper-casual games, review possible ways to approach the process and discuss key points to prevent you from doing too much.
There are three main types of ad creatives:
- Statics. Static images, banners and so on. Not so popular anymore, but still usable, at least for ASO.
- Videos. They receive the most attention and resources in the industry. We make about 40 playable ads a month, but videos are a different story — there are about 150-160 of them being produced every week.
- Playable Ads. This segment of interactive advertising is growing at a rapid speed. It used to only be available to studios with large budgets, but the situation has changed — we’ll discuss this as well.
Now let's talk about where and how certain formats can be used, about the difficulties you may encounter, and the steps you should take while putting together a creative team.
Where to start
Step one. Play games and watch ads. Sounds pretty obvious, but it's a great way to help you gain visual experience and develop a general understanding of popular trends. To start off, it’s enough to catch onto the types of videos from different companies that are most common.
Step two. Analyze the competitors who have products similar to yours. This is a must for all developers because trying to randomly find a successful marketing strategy is like finding a needle in a haystack. A more efficient and safer way is to compile the top 5 competitors that release a lot of ads, figure out the trajectories they’re moving in and do something similar. If it works, you can make the subsequent creatives more complicated and enrich them with your own ideas on the foundation you already have.
These days, searching for data for analysis is quite simple:
- On Facebook. The platform has free access to ads from other companies. The information is very accurate and you can see all the ads uploaded to the channel. The downside is that you can’t find out which of the creatives worked the best. But if everyone starts releasing misleads with room repairs, it becomes obvious that they work well.
- On other services that provide access to analytical data, like App Magic, App Annie, Sensor Tower, Apptica and others. The last two are very similar and also allow you to view other people's creatives. AppMagic is great for comparing the increase and decline of downloads and profits.
Mobile game ads are often similar due to the fact that particular creatives are performing better at a given moment. Their success is also based on analytical data from large marketing departments, and these guys know what they're doing. However, you can’t just go with the safest option and kick back forever: trends change, so you need to constantly analyze the market.
Step three. Monitor trends. It's not just about advertising trends, it’s about everything: it's important to think globally and use non-gaming content that your potential users like right now. It could be anything, from a popular show like Squid Game to a viral sound from TikTok.
An example of a working trend is when the "player" in the ad messes up, takes a long time to think, and then loses. The best option is making a video where the “player” fails at the very last second, and give users a clear understanding of how it was supposed to go at the beginning. This is what shot Party Match into the stratosphere — the metrics were average, but it soared into the top 5 after we added a creative using this method.
This works great for the entire hyper-casual audience, but such videos require a delicate balance that can only be achieved with practice. You need to create a feeling of a real attempt to win, albeit unsuccessful. At the same time, the viewer must understand what had to be done in order to win.
If you make it too difficult, don’t give any hints, or make an extremely stupid attempt, the user won’t have the incentive to go and do it “the right way”. One or two videos out of ten with errors like these will work, but if the budget doesn’t allow you to act a little reckless, it's better not to risk it.
There are also more unusual trends, like when a random sound suddenly becomes viral. We tried to add out-of-context chewing noises for Chain Сube and WormsZone. These are completely different genres and target audience, but in both cases the results were good.
Another trend that’s worth mentioning are playable end cards. They quickly gained popularity, and now it’s flat-out impossible to launch on some ad channels without them. End cards don’t require you to adapt the content to them. Actually, it’s quite the opposite: they can be exactly the same as your top creatives. Thanks to end cards, we were able to significantly increase the spend on the channels — for Chain Cube, it even doubled.
People used to use mainly static when it came to end cards, but now simplified variations of playable ads are more common — just one or two clicks so that you don’t waste a lot of the player’s time.
But what if you have a unique mechanic and no competitors? The advice is simple: show real gameplay, don’t try to make it more attractive than it is, don’t use any effects or even color correction — this is always a good start, especially for hyper-casual games.
So, you now have a good eye for trends, you studied them and the competitors, and even drew some conclusions. What's next? Let's move on to specific creative formats.
You can't do without it at the start, especially when it comes to advertising channels like Google — the slots for statics must be filled, otherwise the launch will either be limited or not happen at all.
The statics will also be useful for ASO on new projects and its subsequent testing. If you’re launching a hyper-casual game, just one picture in different sizes besides the icons may be enough.
If the task is relatively simple and can be done with existing assets (screenshots, gameplay statics, UI for playables/videos, etc.), it makes sense to involve a designer: in this scenario, their skills are more important than the ability to draw. If we need to draw a location, for example, then we involve artists.
Don't spend too much time on statics, though: hand-drawn creatives and logos are completely inefficient in terms of time spent. A beautifully crafted screenshot of an interesting gameplay moment with added interactivity — crosshairs or a hand doing a ‘come hither’ motion — will go a longer way. Producing this kind of creatives takes one day of work tops, but it will work better.
A few things to keep in mind when working with statics:
- The text. It should be readable and eye-catching even on the smallest screens. The shorter and simpler the text, the better.
- Color and composition. Key objects must contrast with the background, and the composition should attract attention. It’s better to exclude all visual mess, because it’s really annoying for the players.
- Visual identity. A good creative stands out from the rest, and its complexity has absolutely nothing to do with it. A pencil drawing is likely to be more effective than a detailed picture — many studios use simple art, and this works well.
Videos are a major driving force in mobile marketing, especially the simple gameplay clips. Next come the options.
In addition to the trends we described above, the noob/pro technique still works very well — take a perfect walkthrough and a failed one, and show them either side-by-side or sequentially. In our experience, this is best suited for titles if there’s some kind of construction and a static camera. Creatives like these perform worse for things like fast shooters.A more original take on the same noob/pro principle
There are also smaller tricks that can help draw attention to the game:
- Text blocks with strange words or calls to action.
- Emojis taking up half a screen.
- Experiments with backgrounds that are not in the original game.
- Accentuated black and white creatives.
- Bloggers in the corner of the screen. They don’t have to be famous, just emotional and charismatic enough.
- Unexpected sound design. Like trending music from TikTok.
While we’re on the topic, let’s talk about the sound. For a long time, there was an opinion that no one turns it on on smartphones, and therefore ads don’t need it. In fact, information from ad networks suggests the opposite: at least 50% of users play with sound, and their number is growing. There were cases when we added strange voice overs to our best videos on several projects and gave them a boost by doing so.
For 3D titles, it’s good to use in-engine clips and add some changes to the gameplay. Producing videos like that requires motion designers: they change camera angles, object physics, levels, characters. There are no specific rules, the main goal is to present the game from a different angle without investing heavily in production. For example, if the game has isometric graphics and we want to show it from a third person view, we go with the GTA camera template.
In terms of technical specs, we make each video in two formats (1080x1920 and 1920x1080) and four timings (10-12 seconds, 15, 30 and 40-45 seconds). Most often, 30-second videos perform the best. If there are enough slots for the test, you can experiment, but at the start the usual 15-30 will suffice.
When choosing a genre, you should also look at the time costs. Creating a gameplay video takes one day at most. If you need to make a video from scratch, it all depends on the complexity. 2D takes from two days to one and a half weeks, 3D is a more complex task and takes up to two and a half weeks.
We put things that showed themselves well on several projects (blocks of text, filters, voiceovers, mirroring) in a starter pack and subsequently recreate them in different videos.
There are two types of interactive ads: full-fledged playables and playable end cards. Full-fledged playables are a separate advertising unit, and end cards go in conjunction with video clips and are shown in the end of them.
At Azur Games, playables are a must for all projects. We use mostly playable end cards: they can give a new spin to the existing top videos and increase the spend.
There are cases when playables work well without video — usually, in strategies. For example, independent playables in State Connect and State.io became one of the top creatives.
Most often, playable ads are produced by specialized outsourcing studios. This leads to a number of problems:
- Waiting time. The demand is very high, so contractors usually run several projects simultaneously and often can’t set exact deadlines. It’s unlikely that you’ll be able to release more than 20 playables a month even if you work with several studios at the same time.
- Price. Since contractors essentially have to build HTML5 games from scratch, the price of a single playable ad can range from $900 to $6,000. With prices like these, not everyone will be able to afford the required amount of creatives.
- Limited choices. Most likely, you’ll have to choose one of the existing options that the contractors will offer. Any change, even a minor one, has to be ordered and paid for separately. Let’s say there’s a theory that the audience will like a sky of a different color better. A fix like that will cost hundreds of dollars and can take a lot of time. Also, any first-hand experiments with the settings are out of the question.
Luckily, you don’t have to outsource it. There are platforms that let you create ads, control the process and deadlines yourself. This helps to gradually build up expertise within the company and test any theories in a couple of clicks.
It took us only one day to adapt Chain Cube through the Luna platform. It allows you to render playables directly from Unity, which is great for the studios that aren’t ready to write their own framework.
You can make thousands of playable options in order to A/B-test which color combinations users like best — the process is quick and doesn’t require any level of involvement from developers. It reflects positively on the numbers already: we made a playable ad for State.io ourselves, and it gave the game a 10x increase in daily downloads and spend on ironSource. IR grew 3-4 times, IPM — 2-3 times.
Since we connected to the Luna Labs platform, the volume of content we outsource has dwindled down to 10-15%. All that being said, working with outsource studios has one big plus: if you partner up with the people who make really cool creatives, their works can be used as the golden standard when you start producing ads independently.
There are also pseudo playables. Technically it’s very easy to implement them on the same platform. You need to upload a video, cut it, set breakpoints, and add interactive elements to them with a call to perform some kind of action. For example, an enemy appears in the video, the video pauses, the enemy is highlighted, and a finger that points to the spot where you should send your troops appears. You can make several of these pauses, and no one will even figure out that this isn’t a full-fledged playable, but a simple pre-recorded video.
No matter how high-quality the creatives you make are, you’ll have to face a new problem — eventually, it’ll burn out. Millions of players will watch the video several times, those who are interested in seeing more will click on it, and the rest will be annoyed by having to watch the same ad over and over again. This issue is especially pressing for the hyper-casual market, which is rapidly changing and constantly offering users something new.
That’s why you need to have several clips in rotation at the same time and observe which creative the algorithms give preference to and how much it pays off — basically, you should never end up in a situation where you have only one working creative on your hands. Ad channels prioritize the videos with the largest spend, they have the best chance of becoming top 1.
If a new ad creative maintains the spend for two weeks, it’s good news, but don’t expect any miracles after that. Most likely, it’ll start to decline, and you’ll need to launch something new. The worst option one could go with in this case are misleading ads — they also take a significant percentage of the spend, yet rarely pay off.
No one knows exactly how internal selection algorithms on ad channels work, but the general logic is that they give impressions and spend to the creatives that are beneficial to them. The greater the gap between top 1 and top 2, the more reason to believe that the algorithm liked the metrics of this creative. You can't influence this process, just turn off creatives that consume a lot of spend, but don't pay off.
One thing can be said for sure: the market doesn’t forgive stagnation. Ad channels are becoming more automated by the day and determine the winners with little or no human intervention. Quite often, it’s enough to upload up to 10 creatives weekly, do it in portions to avoid overloading the channel and see how priorities are set. Don’t give up and let weak ad creatives burn out completely, though, especially if the budget is small.
To start things off, going back to competitor analysis and seeing if they have some interesting new items definitely won’t hurt. After that, it’s worth working with what already performs best. There can be two types of improvements:
- External. Change the sound design, add an intro, or even just mirror the video.
- Internal. In shooters, seamlessness works best when the video is a single 30-second runthrough. If it doesn't work in one location, we move it to another. You can replace the weapon with something more impressive, or create the feeling that the character is about to die.
If there is hope for success, you should run the creative through several iterations in order to be sure of its futility, but only relying on numbers and internal expertise when you do so.
For the sake of experiment, you can add trending characters like Siren Head, Huggy Wuggy, or imposters to the creative, combine two succeful features from different creatives, or even use the creative for another title.
Building a creative team workflow
Start with what you really need and don’t try to patch up non-existent holes in the team: do simple tasks on your own, build up expertise and gradually scale. Having your own expertise is a huge plus, because recruiting junior specialists and leveling them up as you go is often much easier and faster than recruiting seasoned professionals.
When the team starts to grow, it’s important to understand what kind of specialists are required for different genres. Most videos for hyper-casual are made by creative motion designers who understand the marketing side of the process well, follow new trends on TikTok and YouTube, and come up with ideas. With their help, you can meet specific needs. At Azur Games, we recruit junior specialists and teach them how to work with Unity, quickly make videos and implement a large number of simple tasks without burdening programmers.
Titles that require visual enhancements need 2D animators. For midcore, there are mini-teams of technical motion designers that record and edit gameplay, as well as strong 3D artists who work on improving graphics.
Serious production requires the involvement of developers who will squeeze the game for everything it has to offer. In addition to making playables and preparing builds, they can assemble a new level, change physics, mechanics, and add characters.
In this regard, Harvest.io where you need to harvest crops while driving a tractor is a benchmark case in our practice. We made the tractor’s reaper five times longer than it actually is, which increased the downloads by 10 times, and the spend by 6. It took the programmer literally five minutes to make this change.
If a publisher is involved, they will help with the right specialists, especially if the project shows good metrics. If the project has a high spend, it can get high priority from the start and receive 5-10 videos per week from the publisher.
But if there’s no publisher, and the lack of new creatives becomes painfully evident, you’ll have to rely on a good outsourcing studio to help you cope.
Target audience and misleading ads
Hyper-casual developers often use general principles for all projects without a specific connection to the target audience. Popular things like famous characters, recognizable melodies and references to popular films and TV shows work very well.
In midcore, things are different. We have a lot of experience with shooters, so let's take a look at them. Three concepts work best:
- Seamless gameplay, walkthroughs.
- Moderately paced gameplay highlights set to music.
- Fake walkthroughs with more expensive and dramatic gameplay you can’t achieve by simply screen-recording the game.
We don’t recommend using hard misleads, though: the shooter remains a shooter, just in a beautiful shell of improved graphics, unique animations and other elements that don’t affect the essence of the game.
Misleading ads are one of the most controversial topics in mobile game advertising. Despite the stores trying to weed them out, some developers find loopholes to use hard misleads like adding mini-games similar to the creatives to the project. Using this tactic is definitely not worth it when it comes to hyper-casual: the video will attract a lot of attention, but the users will quickly get disappointed and leave. Although, embellished graphics, clean editing, adding a plot, or even silly text blocks or voice acting to the gameplay are a whole different beast. All of this works for hyper-casual in 95% of cases.
Indie developers at the dawn of their careers don’t need to use anything besides honest gameplay. One way or another, they’ll have to play along with trends in the future. And they may require experimenting with the approach even within the same genre.
For example, Hidden Object gameplay videos perform very well if you add backgrounds and objects that aren’t in the game: in an ad for one of our projects, players loved looking for underwear in the dressing room and bedroom.
Fully avoid extreme content like direct allusions to adult materials. The more views a video like that has, the more likely it is to catch the eye of an unwanted audience, and this can lead to serious consequences for the project, up to a complete relaunch.
When you’re targeting a wide audience, there isn’t much of a point in doing separate ads for the most solvent countries. As a rule, the best creatives will be purchased there the most anyway, with rare exceptions.
Bonus. How ads change gameplay
Sometimes experiments with marketing content result in gameplay changes.
Chain Cube had an interesting case: the marketing team drew a new cube merge effect, and the users who saw the video liked it a lot. By adding it to the game, we increased playtime by 15%.Regular version
Version with the effect
For Slingshot, our marketing department independently assembled a level where hitting a specific point led to the destruction of the entire location. The spend has doubled — the video worked and continues to work to this day, we just change locations, colors, and so on. It was decided to add the level to the game.
A similar thing happened to I, the One: the boxing ring level from a successful ad later also migrated to the game.
Universal tips and tricks
And finally, a few basic principles that should be kept in mind when creating an ad. The things we’re about to tell you are quite versatile and can come in handy in a wide range of situations:
- Choose a reasonable video length. It can vary from 12 to 45 seconds, but it’s best to stick to the golden standard — 30 seconds. This format performs best.
- Go with gameplay videos. A CGI video may be beautiful, but it's more important to create a sense of authenticity for potential players and to direct the gameplay to present it in the most advantageous way.
- Don’t try to do the most. For instance, you don’t have to cram a packshot into the video if it damages the timing: if you have a non-franchise project, it won’t work anyway. Using packshots makes sense if they’re complex (and therefore more expensive) and if the players need to be reminded about the brand you’re marketing.
- You need to grab the user's attention from the first seconds. Don't be afraid to spruce up your project or add a little craziness to the story: improved gameplay graphics or a spectacular level created specifically for advertising purposes will help visually engage players.
- Don't be too quick to give up if you don't have enough budget for something: most likely, there’s a cheaper technology or approach that will help you achieve what you want. In advertising, “good” and “expensive” aren’t always synonymous.