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Thinking in Tribes: Creating a top grossing mobile game without mass downloads

At XMG we've learned that you don't need to be in the top 50 downloads on the app store to have a top grossing game. Nor, do we need to only monetize on the addictions of children to survive. We're focused on making games for a specific passionate tribe.

Joey Lapegna, Blogger

November 2, 2011

5 Min Read

(Original post found here)

I recently attended a panel at DigiFest Toronto, where the topic of the increasing difficulties in distributing your indie game in the iOS App Store came up. I outlined some of these numbers in another recent post (http://www.lapegna.com/?p=108).

We all know that the real money is made when your game is listed in the top 50 overall, and it gets exponentially better in the top 25, top 10 or top 5. Only a few of us actually know what it’s like to be in the elusive number one spot. The top 50 does not account for 20% of the apps in the store, it’s more like 0.01%.

So how are the rest of the 19.99% of top app developers making their money? I can say that a large majority of them have decided to ignore the “mass market” and make games for a niche audience or as Seth Godin refers to them, Tribes.

In his book We are All Weird (kindlehardcover), Godin argues that the mass market is dead, and no longer a viable market to base a product around. Sure, there are still products that hit the mainstream and attract many sales like Angry Birds. But, these types of products are much more rare. His book outlines exactly what we’ve experienced at XMG.

The Profitability and Satisfaction of Designing Games for Tribes

There are two ways measure success on the app store - top downloads, or top grossing. Entering into the top 50 downloads is a difficult challenge that proves to get more and more difficult as the App Store matures and fills with large publishers. Most expect the only way to make the top grossing charts without being on the top downloads is to heavily monetize on the addictions of children.

But at XMG, we’ve learned there is another way. Our most successful game over the long term is one we released nearly 2 years ago, which continues to keep it’s momentum. It’s not a top 50 game, but monetizes at an amazing rate. That game I’m referring to is Drag Racer: Pro Tuner (App Store link). Drag Racer has been a success for us because it speaks to a very specific tribe, and it speaks to them well.

Of our many games, it is the one with the most engaged users. These users are willing to spend $2.99 on the game, and also willing to spend more money on in-app purchases, because they believe in the game and what it stands for.

The average user starts the game 20+ times each week. As a game designer, this is the most satisfying experience, and why I make games - to deliver a lasting, enjoyable experiences to players. Something that’s been difficult to do by making casual games targeted at a generic mass market.

It seems that everyone is still trying to make the next Angry Birds. They risk everything trying to make a game that will hit with millions of players. But when they fail, they fail miserably.

What they should be doing is finding those markets and tribes and find out how to deeply engage them in your game. These players are both willing to pay for your game, and spend money on in app purchases. Create a great game for these tribes and make connections with them. Give them a base, take their feedback and add to the game in order to target it specifically to what they want.

Using Tribes to Push Gaming Forward as an Art Form

It was really in the 50s and 60s that the concept of the mass market, and advertising to them specifically became the dominating marketing force. Marketers were able to control so much of the messaging that it was easy to sell to the mass market.

But, the Internet has enabled a new kind of market to emerge. one filled with little tribes with very specific interests. We’ve seen it in the music, television and film industry. In gaming we saw it as the rise of the indie game.

Gaming is an interesting medium, because it has existed entirely in the world of the mass market. So, it’s natural that the idea of a non-existent mass market is quite unsettling for a traditional game developer and brings up all sorts of identity issues.

Our medium moved so quickly to the mass market in the 70s with coin-op arcades and home gaming consoles, that we never had the chance to explore the artistic meaning of our games the way the film and music industry had. We almost never had a chance, but now that we are learning about this new market we can still deliver and prove to the world that gaming is an viable form of artistic expression.

In Summary...

Games like local SuperBrothers / Capybara combo Sword and Sworcery (App Store link) would have not been able to re-coup their development costs before the recent rise of the indie.

But, as indies in general we seem to have lost focus as to what it means and why the movement exists. We are trying to make mass market games which rely on large amounts of downloads for success.

I’m not saying that we stop making games for the general market, there is still room for them. But, if we want to have more stable financial successes and begin to really engage our players on another level with mobile games, we need to start focusing more on the individual tribes. Maybe in the process we can start to really make a difference in the industry one small group at a time.

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