The benefit of working for a hyper-casual mobile game publisher is that I see hundreds of games on a weekly basis, and get to test a large portion of them. This helps me develop an objective and economies-of-scale point of view in understanding what makes a good and marketable game. We all know too many developers (or have been those ourselves) who have spent hours (or more realistically many months) creating a game that didn’t manifest into a hit. It wasn’t necessarily because the game wasn’t good, it’s that for whatever reason it didn’t connect with the wide audience of hyper-casual. Either it wasn’t marketable so UA was ineffective, or it wasn’t clear enough and so retention was low.
I’ll delve into some of the most common mistakes that I see, when reviewing, testing and launching mobile games. It’s important to stipulate that I’m referring to hyper-casual games. I personally think that these games are being misunderstood from a developer standpoint and are being treated as ‘very easy to develop’ kind of games which isn’t true. This is simply not the case. Though this genre has its own specific dynamics and audience, they are almost ultra-mini versions of AAA games and so a great opportunity for developers and designers to practice and improve their craft. What’s more, hyper-casual games dominate the top free charts so cannot be overlooked. Yet, the number of hyper-casual developers we see with multiple successes is super low. Why? Because creating a hit isn’t as easy as it looks.
Clarity is crucial
Unlike other genres which have a more niche target audience — 61% of hardcore gamers are Generation Z (13 - 23 years old) — hyper-casual games appeal to the widest variety of players possible, even those who don’t even consider themselves as gamers. This means that the visual appeal must be wide, accessible and engageable. Clarity is key here.
A clear concept doesn’t mean one which is simple. It means that it must be minimalistic and not complex. Take Hide N Seek for example. When we initially received the game, I could see that it had great potential. But the scale was too big. Playing hide and seek was an interesting concept but doing so in a field or beach made the seeking too hard and the hiding too easy. Not exactly on the hyper side of casual. There were two main learnings that we took from this. The scale had to be massively reduced, which is how the current maze concept came about. And our data showed that the farm layout had the best CPI, so we implemented aspects from it, such as the color scheme, into the new minimal maze layout. The result? Their already low CPI dropped by almost 50%, retention increased from about 30% on D1 to almost 50%, and playtime increased over 33%. Ultimately, games which are easy to pick up, understand and play, succeed.
See below the changes we made to Hide N Seek.
Focus on feelings, but not your own
Game developers are artists and artists like to build what makes them feel good. But creating a game that will attract and maintain the attention of millions of people requires the developer to pause his emotions, and focus on the feelings of others - the players. I’ve seen many games that look good on paper only to flop in reality. What I learned is that it’s not about mine or the game developer’s or designer’s taste in games. Period. Success necessitates being able to look beyond yourself and what you like in a game.
When interacting with a game, emotions have a huge part to play. So it’s time to re-prioritize the focus and put a different hat on. Make it less about the game’s aesthetic and more about how it makes others feel. Understand what’s triggering a positive emotion - perhaps it’s giving a good challenge, a pleasant experience, or a satisfying feeling - and place your focus on that.
The key to identifying a successful emotion and therefore a successful game is to spot when there is mass appeal. I see too many games that are copycats of other games or have no link to what’s going on in the outside world. It’s important to do thorough market research and see what’s trending. You could check social trends and see what’s happening on YouTube, Instagram and TikTok. But most importantly is to look at gaming trends.
I recommend looking into sub-genres. Take minimal adventure games as an example of a genre which is a platform/runner style game in a hyper-casual setting. These can take numerous formats, like Jelly Shift and Sky Roller which are momentum games, controlled with one continuous button and no character navigation games, or Samurai Flash and Join Clash which are also controlled with one continuous button but give the player free navigation. These games, along with many others, all follow their own, highly successful, sub-genre theme. The key here is to find the genre and then the sub-genre that interests you and adapt it to different controls, gameplay style and perspectives. Or take a more mid-core game and ‘hyper-casualize’ it with more suitable settings so that it’s easy for people to pick up and play.
Marie Kondo your game
No one likes clutter. It’s distracting and when you’re trying to attract and keep someone’s attention, it’s more of a hindrance than a help. This is one of the central pieces of advice that I give to the developers we work with. Less is definitely more. At a previous company, I worked with a developer to make many changes to their game, with one of the main items being - clean it up and make it easier and more accessible for a player to focus on the gameplay. This game ended up reaching #1 in the charts, was very successful revenue wise and it remains a success a year later.
Perfectionism doesn’t make things perfect
Combining the above points, we move into the importance of an MVP. And by that I mean an ultra-MVP. It’s heartbreaking to see months of hard work go to waste because a game didn’t crack it. So it’s crucial to find a trend, and create a snippet of a game to see how the market reacts. Fifteen levels will do. It’s all about quick ideation, creation, testing and execution.
There are so many things to consider when developing and then publishing a game. The environment should engage the player while being minimalistic and not too distracting. The art should be well polishing but not overbearing. A good flow and rhythm needs to be established.
Obviously every game is different and it ultimately comes down to the game’s metrics. How the game is performing in each KPI will affect the features that need to be tweaked. The beautiful thing about hyper-casual games is that what you see is what you get. The player’s feedback is as raw a feedback as you will get from any place.