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Can Indie Mobile Teams Do User Acquisition in 2019?

After releasing Critter Clash I speak about my experiences being small and scaling with UA. I talk about what impact subscription services like Apple Arcade might have on developers and design, and discuss the current state of game discoverability.

What inspired you to transform Lumi from a marketing consultancy into a mobile game studio?

We’ve always been a creative crew, marketing is just one way that we were able to start working in games immediately. Our marketing and PR skills were sorely needed when we started in the industry in 2014. We saw the gap and wanted to help developers get over the fear of selling themselves. As time went on, we found ourselves drawn toward the creation process and asking what it would be like to make games ourselves, and met an amazing technical partner in Christina Chen who had a background at Microsoft and Pop Cap. We started asking, what would games looks like if they were made and published by people who have a background in marketing, and data science?

Half of the work is done when you can sell something, and understand what the emotional rewards are of what you’re building. We’ve always been making games in our own time along the way, and the three of us have been a part of SO many games created and launched, so this was a natural step for us. The three of us have never been interested in settling down, and I’m sure this will just be another iteration in a long series of ventures.

What are the differences in marketing mobile games compared to other platforms?

Increasingly there’s less and less difference in terms of the experience that can be delivered on mobile platforms. As phone technology has improved dramatically, and with the advent of platforms like Stadia, there’s not much difference in terms of experience or possible gameplay on mobile vs console or PC. The primary difference is the expected business model, some differences in the context and the way these elements impact what design systems are used. 

The user experience across different platforms can be very different, since touchscreens, controllers and mice all provide a very different game feel. For the end user, this potential difference in experience depends on your play style—compare laying on a couch with a controller, the flick and click of a mouse on PC and the swiping, tapping haptic feedback on a touchscreen. It also depends on where you are at the time, perhaps you’re commuting and you are looking for a pickup and play experience rather than an intense 40 minute RTS saga.

The free to play (F2P) business model that took off on mobile opened up the market to vast numbers of players, many of whom had never accessed games before. It’s been a very democratising experience, essentially giving access to games to people who do not see themselves as gamers - eschewing much of the jargon or assumptions on prior knowledge that ‘game-fluent’ PC and console players are often expecting. This was a huge opportunity (and shake up) to experiment with the content and user experience of games, and to look at what could appeal to a broader audience, in particular, women, who have often been thought about last when it comes to designing games. 

It’s a wild ride to be in this space as it happens, with mobile allowing the design of lighter, casual and gateway experiences to games with no barrier to entry for new players - as well as very different, very hardcore (long play sessions, high difficulty curve and rewarding expanding metagame) gameplay experiences. The accessibility of mobile and free to play has had other effects of course, like a ‘winner takes all’ shift towards the large developer-publishers compounding their successes and becoming monoliths, and the accessibility of tools making discoverability for new entrants harder over time. 

It’s fascinating to see the challenges and disruption of premium titles on mobile as free to play games have saturated and out-competed their paid counterparts in many cases. These changes are happening quickly and are very demanding to anticipate, study and act on. We’re starting to see a pushback or challenges to free to play on mobile as well, with projects like Apple Arcade and the consoles working to leverage mobile as a catchment tool for larger experiences on their own platforms (eg. Animal Crossing Pocket Camp as a precursor to the upcoming Switch title). There are also many alternative, emerging monetisation opportunities put forward by platforms, such as subscriptions, encouraging developers (often with more bespoke narrative titles) to try other methods of monetising their games. 

How did we approach cutting through the noise of such a highly-populated marketplace?

 

In terms of cutting through the noise on mobile, this is incredibly difficult and requires a multifaceted approach. The first challenge is financial. The coveted top 100 list on mobile arguably PAY to be there through user acquisition spend, acquiring volume on demand. Every element of these top runners has an expense, your downloads can be bought, the velocity at which you’re able to buy these downloads affects your chart position or your rank for certain keywords or genre. Your number and velocity of ratings from these downloads affect your rank, which in turn pushes you up the charts. These companies are able to spend millions of dollars on the game of user acquisition, and at between $1-5AUD per player acquisition, the sums already-successful developers and publishers can spend is truly dizzying. It’s extraordinarily difficult to compete as a new entrant or as a scrappy small team with a free to play offering, so you need to be extremely targeted in your approach. 

For us, this meant a very planned out soft launch period. It helps immensely that we have Microsoft and Pop Cap veteran, Zuma Blitz and Plants vs. Zombies alum, Christina Chen as our co-founder for Lumi Interactive. She’s worked with the best of them with a huge appetite for analysis and challenge, and her experience, skills and passion has made a world of difference!

Modern developers on any console need to be aware that opportunities are heavily based on relationships, which is something that each of us learned very well in our PR and marketing days. Fostering and pursuing a relationship with platform managers and keeping them up to date with the right information, at the right time, means you have a chance of being are top of mind for featuring consideration or other opportunities. Thanks to Christina, we always approached these discussions armed with data from our constant iteration and testing. It’s a business at the end of the day, and you’re making a business to business case - you have to be aware of what you offer your players, as well as the platform partners that can help you cut through the marketplace noise.

What informed the decision to release Critter Clash on Android first?

We were lucky enough to be one of only six developers (out of over 100) accepted into the Start on Android program in late 2018, which provided a significant  face to face support with Google’s Ads, monetisation and Play Store teams. We also got access to early access featuring traffic and a pre-registration campaign, which allowed us to test our game early and start with a cohort of players directly on launch. We’re a really small team, so shipping simultaneously on iOS and Android would have been too much to handle reliably at first - so we’ve applied all we’ve learned to our Apple launch, and Critter Clash is now available globally on both Android and iOS!

What impact do you think subscription services like Apple Arcade will have on the mobile market? Will it potentially affect the free-to-play vs premium approach to mobile game design?

Arguably, an aim of Apple Arcade is to provide quality premium content to users in a similar way to Netflix, and to give a ‘home’ the kind of players with disposable income (and inclination) to support premium experience styles on mobile, which, research suggests, is a minority of mobile consumers and very focused on the affluent Western markets. Will this remove the ability to purchase single experiences outright? Does this limit access to players who are able to afford subscription fees? We’ll see.

I’m in two minds about it. On the one hand, it’s a great offer for developers interested in creating deeper experiences that suit a premium monetisation model, but on the other hand, modern consumers are inundated with subscription services and there’s only so much the pocket can take. Think about it: Spotify, Netflix, Audible, Apple Arcade, Stan, Foxtel, Apple Music, are all asking for some level of subscription. It all adds up, and it’s fast becoming an unsustainable model that may whiplash back in the next few years.

Will Apple Arcade affect the variations in the premium vs F2P approach to mobile game development and design? To be very broad, F2P is designed for retention and engagement in small bursts, premium is normally designed for more sustained attention. The way that Apple Arcade would work as a subscription does place some emphasis on retention and engagement (across games/the service), and I suspect this could be an important element for any game on the platform despite being ‘premium style’ in other ways. I think there will be things that F2P designers understand about retention that will be relevant and useful for Apple Arcade as a platform and for the titles it supports, so I’m expecting to see a hybrid of the two models and look forward to checking the launch titles out! 

Do you think mobile storefronts like the App Store and Google Play do a good job of curating games and discoverability? Why/why not?

Often no, we do not. Discoverability is often bought and not earned on both platforms, outside of the limited (but still very appreciated) featuring opportunities. When you or I search for any keyword in the Apple App Store or Google Play Store, that keyword is being competed for - and there are a few factors that influence the positioning of the results. Firstly, how relevant is this keyword to your game? This is determined by a combination of your ratings, game name, review score, store description and the velocity that you acquire those things. Yet above that, there are paid ad slots in the results which developers pay for to show above organic results (Apple) or if you’re using Google Ads, they will determine what keywords your game shows up for. 

In addition search algorithms for each platform is proprietary and not transparent, it’s often the case that a platform will change or alter the algorithm without you knowing and your downloads all of sudden drop off and you have no idea how to work within the system anymore. 

When it comes to search terms, only games that show up in the first 10 spots really get downloads, and unless you’re searching for some pretty obscure or specific terms, like a game’s specific name, the search results tend to be the companies that have the money to stay there . This is often achieved by running install ads constantly to maintain their chart position or placement for high volume keywords - for example, “action”, “battle”, “royale” - and therefore a high keyword ranking for valuable search terms. 

That’s the search side of the discoverability challenge. When it comes to ‘explore’ or ‘discovery’ methods of finding games via visiting the store and viewing featured games, I have similar criticisms. Both platforms tend to thoroughly, frequently feature games that are made by the major players of mobile game development. You’ve all heard of them: King, Supercell, Playrix are some of the biggest. These leaders have industry-leading teams per game, with the resources and experience to be extremely profitable. So for their 30% revenue cut of in-app purchases, it makes sense for Google and Apple to prominently feature the mega-hits of industry leaders.

It can be seen as a case of ‘the rich get richer’, which isn’t to say that these titles aren’t great quality and worth player and partner support.  But when it comes to creating a sustainable industry, for a variety of developers the current mobile marketplace doesn’t work. Smaller developers that have interesting or unique ideas that COULD work with the right traffic often don’t get the opportunity to thrive, as they can’t outlay $100k+ per month on user acquisition budgets. So you end up with an ecosystem where smaller developers are floundering often, and some copy what the big players have done to snatch a small amount of the market share, or if they try something new, there’s a high chance it can’t get the time or the player data to get it to work from a business perspective. Studios trying to explore mobile, whether F2P or premium, can go broke over the experiments required to even have a chance at scaling. 

This risks the industry getting into a very homogenous environment for game creation in mobile. When it’s hard (and expensive) to take risks, it can become uncreative - which is why in some cases, we see similar systems and game loops and genres rehashed over and over (think match threes, clash royales etc). It’s a familiar, strange echo from issues in the 90s, where physical publishers had control and failure was devastatingly expensive, so many only funded what had worked before. Similarly in mobile, we may see known franchises that have 15 or 20 titles in them with similar game loops, rather than a fresher exploration of what games could be to different people. 

Platforms have a responsibility to both the consumer that plays, and the industry that provides them with content. They have the power to keep variety alive, and we are seeing them start to experiment in response to stagnation and disruption - Apple Arcade on iOS, and Google Play’s Indie Corner and Start on Android programs are steps in the right direction. 

As a side note, with our background in marketing, data and psychology, we’d be very interested to see more experimentation with discoverability algorithms. Beyond the tired language of genres, searched based on how players want to feel, or moods, could be very fresh and interesting, such as emotional reward tagging: happy, sad, tense, selfcare, low stakes etc.

Finally, what do you think the future of mobile gaming holds?

Games on mobile have a lot of exploring to do. There are opportunities to use the accessibility of the platform to craft important environmental, personal and political messages. Where is the Captain Planet of the gaming world? Stories, especially with interactive elements can be a powerful medium for behavioural change and education. Game developers, and not just premium developers, need to work on more closely understanding how, because we have a lot of power in reaching so many. 

I think at this moment in time there’s a squeeze in the wider games industry - a lot of independent creators are closing or not surviving the competition in the mobile space while the winners get larger. I hope initiatives like Apple Arcade can change that, but I have a suspicion that much bigger changes are needed. We might also see less saturation of genres which will be good for the consumer, it’s very overwhelming in the app stores at the moment, and maybe there will be tighter quality restrictions on publishing to these stores. 

I definitely predict that the business models of F2P and premium alike will continue trying to change. We’re already starting to see this with annuity IAPS and subscription models. With Google’s Stadia and similar ideas out in the market place in the near future, I’d love to see more local co-op play opportunities come to mobile as well. We love the playful, fresh fun in how Jackbox and similar games use the phone as an ‘alt controller’, and the radio play style use of audio in mobile romance games like Mystic Messenger. We’re looking forward to all the weird, fun, new games we’ll see - and the players they’ll reach.

As for what the Lumi Interactive team is doing, we’re focused on creating games that include care and nurture as a core loop, rather than competition. We focus on exploring themes of community, customisation of comedy with our titles. We feel (and hope) that a lot of studios this year will discover that creating care and affection in games can be a positive, effective way of retaining your players. We’re keen to see what that mindset can create in games. 

You can learn more about Lumi here:

www.lumiinteractive.com

You can download or check our Critter Clash here: www.critterclash.com

Thank you to Christ Button (@BibbyBhoy) who originally interviewd me for this junkee article:

https://twitter.com/junkee/status/1168366691065028608

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