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The truth about mobile games marketing

This post aims to compare the marketing of mobile and pc games. I have a good overview of both because our studio has been making and publishing mobile games for 7 years (13 games, 30M+ downloads) and last year we started working on a PC game.

Martin Chamrad, Blogger

February 4, 2016

11 Min Read

This post aims to compare the marketing of mobile and pc games. I have a good overview of both because our studio has been making and publishing mobile games for 7 years (13 games, 30M+ downloads) and last year we started working on a PC game (not released yet - Kickstarter campaign currently underway).

I’ll begin with a short history. We started shortly after the iPhone 3G was introduced in 2008. 3 guys with no knowledge of making games, although we liked to play them. We bootstrapped and created several small games on the side before we could focus solely on making games. The breakthrough came for us in 2011 with a simple gallery shooter, Overkill. Overkill took us 9 months to make with 4 people and was our first bet on free to play games. With fairly simple marketing (incentivised downloads and freeappaday website promotion) and a bit of luck (we were featured by Apple) the game became the #1 US App for a week.

From there we grew and while still being independent we can hardly be considered the classic indie devs. Our goal was (and still is) to make sophisticated games, that take a year or more to make.

Below is a summary of what we used to get 30M+ downloads on mobile and what we’re using for our first PC game, Planet Nomads.

Great game

It all starts with a great game. I know, the classic advice. While always 100% true this is even more important for F2P (mobile) games. But how can you measure it? Great retention = great game. You can’t have a viable business if your game isn’t sticky. That’s why mobile games are going into soft-launch in certain markets before launch. Games at this stage should have all the core mechanics in place but may be missing some later content, aren't as polished and/or aren't just finished yet. The first retention numbers you see may be really bad as players can be dropping like crazy at the beginning of the game. It’s usually the tutorial causing it, which is the easiest to fix. This process is more science than art as you have to pay close attention to analytics and try a bunch of hypotheses. You can often be wrong though so this phase can take up a few months. Bigger studios can even decide to kill the game if it’s not performing well.

A typical F2P game needs to have hundreds (or better yet, thousands) of hours of gameplay. That’s how studios “extract” money from players. That’s why there are many games with timers, energy, lives, and all that “crap". With paid games (PC or mobile) the situation is a bit different. A paid game could be finished within couple hours and still be considered good. Since we’re creating a sandbox game with minimal story - but almost limitless possibilities - we hope our game will keep players entertained for hundreds of hours.


Hopefully you’ve got a great game, now hit the press right? Well good luck with that. The press is overwhelmed! We know a few mobile gaming sites editors but still have a hard time reaching them. But the worst part (at least on mobile) is that even making the front page on popular sites like Toucharcade, Pocketgamer, etc. only results in a few hundred or maybe a few thousand of downloads. That just won’t cut it for a F2P game where you need hundreds of thousands.

But press is crucial for something else though. To be recognized by Apple or Google store Editors. These Editors are on the hunt for the latest and greatest so it’s definitely good to do press outreach. Ideally way before the game is released - which is even harder to accomplish.

After a few weeks of trying to get in touch with press people, the question often is if using a PR agency is a good idea. I think it’s not. We tried it once with moderate results. That $10k is much better spent going to conferences where you can build personal relationships with editors, show them your game and have a chat. Maybe if you really don’t have time (usually the case) and have free money left (usually not the case) you can hire a PR freelancer to help you craft an interesting angle/story about you, your game and company. Because “we just launched on Appstore/Steam” is not a good story.

Situation for Planet Nomads with the press is even worse as we don’t have any PC game sites connections yet. So far, even though our Kickstarter campaign is underway, we haven’t been mentioned in any of the bigger press outlets. But I assume once they do mention us the impact will be better than with mobile press. Because a few hundred downloads of a $20 game certainly makes a difference.

Building the audience

As probably every developer realizes, it all lies in the community. We had Facebook and Twitter for Craneballs games right from the beginning, that’s really the minimum. We never felt like having a blog because we simply assumed nobody would be interested. That changed with Overkill 3, our biggest game on mobile, which was back in 2014. We started doing periodic blog posts about the development, sharing progress updates, behind the scenes insights and other such things. We created a nice microsite (www.overkill3.com) and started capturing emails. We tried to get new readers via viral sites like reddit and 9gag. Unfortunately mobile stuff isn’t really that sexy in the eyes of redditors and if they smell promotion from your posts they’ll downvote you into oblivion. Fortunately though for Planet Nomads it’s quite the opposite. Not always but frequently we’re lucky and our gifs are being upvoted and commented on (like this one https://www.reddit.com/r/gaming/comments/3nuyc5/planet_nomads_no_mans_sky_meets_space_engineers).

For our half year effort with marketing Overkill 3 via blog we ended up with over 5000 emails. When the judgement day came and we sent the final email with the DOWNLOAD NOW link the click rates were about 8% (400 players cared enough to check out the game). We were kind of disappointed. The reason is really simple. Mobile game players don’t spend much time looking for new games on their desktop. They just browse the Appstore once in a while and download what’s at the top. There are, of course, bright exceptions. Some mobile games can amass a huge community of raving fans on gaming forums. We’ve never had that luck.

It’s quite opposite with PC games though! PC gamers are looking for new games on their (you guessed it) PC! We launched a blog & microsite for Planet Nomads quite early on (after 4 months of prototyping and early development) and have been able to capture almost 6000 emails to date. The best part though is when we sent the email about Kickstarter campaign being live almost 19% clicked on that link, which resulted in a good amount of sales.

Let’s play

Let's Players shape the scene today and drive downloads your way. The only problem is they need a game to play. So if you're looking at pre-launch marketing it isn't really going to happen. If you do get them to look at your early build, it's almost a win, however you want your game to be downloadable by players by the time they launch their video. So it's all about hitting that short window of a few days after launch, while the game is fresh. And that's a lot to ask, given how tight schedules popular Let's Players run.

User Acquisition

User acquisition, the final frontier. Most of the developers don’t have money to buy players and those who do, still don’t have enough. It’s a battle an indie developer cannot win. Companies like Supercell and King.com, are able to spend $5+ per new player and can spend millions doing so (http://venturebeat.com/2015/04/27/why-king-and-supercell-spent-nearly-500m-marketing-their-games-and-how-you-can-spend-way-less/). Their games are so well designed and the longterm retention is so good that these companies are able to extract more money per player than any indie developer. We’ve fought this battle and given up. The math doesn’t work for our mobile games.

But it’s not all lost. It’s about finding new ways, new services that aren’t saturated yet. We've had some successes with Chartboost, FB ads and Tapjoy. In the early days of the Appstore you could buy cheap incentivized downloads for a burst campaign, appear high in the charts and then get lots of organic downloads. Those days are long gone as now Apple penalizes you when your players are not coming back to the game (which is the case with cheap incentivized downloads).

There isn’t a week without an email in my mailbox from some company offering their new best user acquisition or monetization solution. Just be careful. What actually works for us well even now are Facebook ads. In our games we offer gamers the ability to connect via FB and we track their habits and spending. When we launch a new game then we can create a look alike audience and get those to download the game - though this only works if your games are similar.

Cross promotion within your own older games or within your network can be a good way. The only problem is that the active userbase of your older games is probably declining (which is also probably true for games within your dev network).

Launch Day

The single biggest marketing push comes from Apple or Google featuring you. We’ve been lucky enough that Apple noticed us early on and kept a dialogue opened. A few years back there were only handful of good games coming out every week and it was easy to get featured if you had a decent game. But the pace of how the mobile gaming market changes is incredible. In the last two years the number of new games in the Apple Appstore grew up by 270%. On average 500 new games are added to the Appstore every day. Just two years ago it was 110 new games.

And the quality went up as well. So that means more developers are competing for the limited spotlight Apple and Google provide. And unfortunately you never know if your game is going to make it, you’re basically left at the mercy of Apple/Google Editors. It’s the holy grail of developers to be featured, but only about 1-2% of all the developers are that lucky.

I’m not sure how featuring works on Steam, but I guess it’s somehow similar. From what I’ve heard they tend to have a dialogue with selected developers, which is a good thing.

What we really like about Steam is the ability to release games in Alpha version. It’s a win-win because players get the chance to influence the game early on and the developer can pre-sell the game before it’s finished. From comments under our videos though it seems like some players are getting annoyed by this approach. It’s not uncommon to read not so nice comments about yet another unfinished game being abandoned by the developer in the Early Access. We certainly don’t plan to do that but unfortunately some developers apparently took advantage of this system.

Final thoughts

Long story short: we've had a hard time marketing our mobile games because there isn’t really a clear and easy way how to do it. The majority of mobile game players don’t spend time online looking for new games, while PC gamers do. After spending seven years developing mobile games, the reality of the industry got to us. Core loops, retention, F2P mechanics, play style consisting of short bursts, controlling your players' every move through analytics and careful balancing… We’ve decided it’s time to step up our game and to go the market of all markets: PCs. In the past year we’ve had a lot of fun talking to our fans and creating the community around Planet Nomads. It’s certainly an uplift from mobile F2P games.

If you read it till the end, thank you. Check out our Kickstarter campaign (https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/2043603103/planet-nomads/) which is yet another great marketing channel that mobile games don’t have! And let us know what you think.

If you disagree with something written here or maybe want to add your experience, don't hesitate to comment.

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