Making your game stand out in brutally-competitive mobile app stores

If there was ever an entity that once and for all disproved the old notion of "if it's a good game, it'll sell," it's the mobile app store.
As part of our mobile games-themed week, we speak with developers who managed to break through the noise of mobile app stores. We'll be updating our mobile event page all week long. If there was ever an entity that once and for all disproved the old notion of "if it's a good game, it'll sell," it's the mobile app store. Game developers who are releasing mobile games on storefronts such as Apple's App Store and Google Play can't afford to leave anything to chance when it comes to getting word out about their game. They need to know how to get the word out about their games -- they need to know how to market them. Let's start off with a quick dose of perspective, to illustrate just how much of a drop your game is in the bucket of an app store: As of October this year, there were 949,228 total apps and games on Apple's U.S. App Store. Out of that total, 174,787 were games, according to If those numbers don't scare you off completely, here are some developers, big and small, who have managed to navigate the ocean of apps in mobile app stores, and find success.

Hundreds breaks through the noise

Adam "Atomic" Saltsman of Semi Secret Software has been on the modern mobile game scene since the seminal infinite runner Canabalt launched on the iOS App Store in October 2009. 2013's elegantly minimal $5 game Hundreds came to the App Store and promptly sold 100,000 copies, and came to Android later this year. Gaining attention for your game involves a lot of factors, says Saltsman, including a dose of luck. But the factors that developers can control include "differentiation, quality and grassroots awareness building," he says. "These things all complement each other - it is easier to build awareness for something that is awesome. Being awesome helps differentiate your game, and being different from other games is awesome," Saltsman adds. Saltsman says making your game different isn't quite so hard in itself, but when you have to combine that with making your "different" game high-quality – whatever that means to the mainstream at the moment – is where the task of standing out becomes even more challenging. "Awareness-building is a long, uphill battle too," he says. The success of App Store top 10 game Canabalt in 2009 paid dividends years later for Saltsman, when Hundreds launched. Apple knew of Canabalt's success, and approached Semi Secret about an iPad version, and ever since then, the studio has actively made sure that those ties remained strong, through regular contact and face-to-face meetings with Apple at trade shows like GDC and SXSW. That close relationship helped the game get featured on the App Store – a huge factor in a game's success.
Of course, not all devs can rewind the clock and make a hit 2009 iOS game that lays the foundation for future success. So what also gave Hundreds a bigger chance of a prominent slot on the App Store was that the game itself fit into Apple's hardware marketing message of simple, elegant and attractive products. "The other thing about Hundreds, thanks to Greg Wohlwend, is it is super beautiful," says Saltsman. "It just looks gorgeous. So from an almost tactical propaganda perspective, that whole game design was well-situated to help make Apple's devices and store more desirable, which I think is really the core goal of their featuring, really for any platform." He adds, "I am not sure that everyone really understands that featuring or featured slots are first and foremost ads for the platform. Advertising your game specifically is really just a side effect." Saltsman says he's not suggesting that developers design games primarily for "added-platform-holder value," but it's something to consider if you want to mitigate the risk of your game flopping. All of these factors can combine for the perfect storm of app store success. And once that success is in place, there's the opportunity for a discount to get your game back on peoples' radars. "We have only done one major sale so far but it was actually very effective, on the same scale as the big corporate Starbucks promotion we were involved in," says Saltsman. "That was a few months ago - I am curious if our next sale will be anywhere near as strong given the additional time that's passed. The main thing you learn from being on the App Store basically since its inception is that it is always changing."

The metrics approach

Most games don't have what it takes to reach an larger audience on their own. Companies like Flurry, which works from companies ranging from Zynga to General Electric, have become valuable to developers who are interested in the data-driven approach of meeting market needs. Todd Fitzgerald is VP of sales at Flurry. Some of the most important metrics that the company tracks are "events" -- the significant actions made by mobile consumers such as making a purchase, sharing the app on Facebook and other ways that users are interacting with an app or game. That data can then be combined with game designers' expertise to evolve a game to gain a wider audience. "We show you age, gender, location, persona and common interests," says Fitzgerald. "This allows a dev to target future campaigns in order to finds users that look like their best users." Paid user acquisition isn't the most romantic of ideas when talking about game design, but from an advertising and money-making angle, it's crucial to understand the kind of brute force ad campaigns that you're up against on mobile app stores. Fitzgerald says the average amount a company pays to acquire an iOS user is around $3, and slightly less on Android. He adds, "Social mediums like Twitter and Facebook are playing a bigger part [with non-paid user acquisition]. For those devs with a portfolio of apps, we see some pretty sophisticated cross-promotion happening, for free, through our publishing platform called AppSpot."

Infinity Blade and the "you gotta have this!" factor

Chair Entertainment's Infinity Blade series has become a staple of Apple's game lineup, and one that Apple regularly features prominently not only on its App Store, but also at its major new-hardware unveilings. Infinity Blade uses Epic's Unreal Engine tech, acting as a showpiece not only for Chair and the heavily-licensed Unreal Engine (Chair is owned by Epic Games), but also for Apple's smartphones and tablets. A "gamer's game," Infinity Blade and its sequels helped adjust peoples' expectations of what is technically possible on mobiles.
"We don't look at platforms and say 'well, this is what that type of game looks and plays like, so we need to design to that," says Laura Mustard. She heads up marketing and PR at Chair, which has a background in console games such as Undertow and Shadow Complex. Instead of making a the stereotypical mobile game, the studio aimed for console-style gameplay and graphics that set it apart from other app store games. The technical prowess exhibited in the game created interest from platform holder Apple. "Always look towards creating something unique and something that really shows off the device in a way that is remarkable and says, 'you've gotta have this!'" says Mustard. High production values such as art and video aren't an option for most mobile developers, but if you have the resources and the talent, it can make all the difference. Mustard adds, "Communicate with your App Store contacts so that they know your plans in advance and have time to consider your game for special features and events they have in the works. Last, plan in advance, but then be flexible and then be ready to shift your plans in order to take advantage of promotional opportunities that may arise. We always have a 'plan' and it always includes being willing to change that plan in favor of a better one if it presents itself." Chair has also used discounts, cross promotion between Infinity Blade games, and transmedia partnerships with authors and musicians to aid in marketing efforts, resulting in tens of millions in franchise revenues as the result.

Plague's infectious success

A mobile game that puts players in the role of a disease that's reached global pandemic proportions might not sound incredibly mainstream, but UK-based independent developer Ndemic Creations was able to reach #1 on Apple's App Store paid charts with Plague Inc. The game effectively – and unexpectedly – ended up going toe-to-toe with big companies on the App Store, and winning.
Here are some approaches that James Vaughan, the game's developer, has observed that successful games used to get to the top of the mobile game charts: "Throw a fuckload of money at advertising and user acquisition": Vaughan notes this approach is "hugely expensive, and doing this requires you to be "hyper-scientific and rigorously data-driven," on top of having a strong game. "Not fun, in my opinion," says Vaughan. "Shack up with a big brand": "[This can] be very powerful, and fun, if you find the right brand," he says. A strong brand can make up for a weak game, in terms of popularity, though there needs to be strong alignment between the IP and your game. Another issue is that you're not developing your own brand, rather someone else's. Plague is a paid game supplemented by microtransactions, and has 15 million downloads (on Android, it's a free download with a full game unlock). The following two approaches are the ones that Vaughan used for the game. Identify and target a niche: "It is getting harder all the time, but finding a relatively empty niche on the app store makes your life significantly easier as you don't have to compete with thousands of other similar apps," he says. "You have the world to yourself and can wait for players to come to you, without getting distracted." But the challenge with this approach is that the amount of success is "utterly dependent on the size of the niche," says Vaughan. And predicting the size of that niche is very difficult. "Make a game that people want to tell their friends about": This is related to the "niche" approach. This approach to marketing is free, has high impact and bypasses traditional press and app store curation processes. But finding the right "angle" of the approach is difficult, says Vaughan, and is "hard to add into a game at the last minute." Vaughan says word of mouth played a crucial role – there was no real PR effort, and the game was not featured by Apple on its App Store, yet it went to the top of the charts in three days because players wanted to talk about it on their own. Plague launched in May 2012 for iOS, October of that year for Android. Even as the game ages, it remains a strong performer. Vaughan's strategy is to keep giving players new content. "In my opinion, the most powerful way to re-engage with players is through updates -- adding new content for them to enjoy." He has seen the effects of updates first-hand: Three months after launch, the game fell to #78 on the paid charts. After a major update, it jumped up to #14. "This can also be a great way to earn additional revenue - passionate players are prepared to pay for new, high quality content. The release of Mutation 1.5, nine months after launch, resulted in our highest grossing day ever."
All of these approaches have proved successful for different developers, but if you're going to take on a mobile app store today, make no mistake: Your game could disappear into the app store void, never to be seen again, even if you do follow practices established by successful developers. "Mobile app stores are brutally competitive these days and loads of great, high quality games sink without a trace due to the sheer volume of apps being released," says Vaughan. "You get lots of people talking about how to use marketing and PR to help get attention and these are definitely important, but I find even the cleverest approach has a relatively minor, short impact."

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