There are many existing articles, blogs and community posts about hypercasual games that provide really in-depth knowledge and information about various aspects of this always trending and lucrative genre. I won’t bore you with all those recaps here once again. This article is more about my approach towards the hypercasual - mistakes I made, what I learned and how to keep going for the gold (Gold being getting a hypercausal game in the top charts, not the exact gold because if that’s what we needed, we wouldn’t be doing game development anyway).
First things first, am I high on coffee? Sure. Have I created a hit hypercasual game yet? No. Why do I have a baby elephant pillow in my room? Because I love Dumbo. Great! So now that we have addressed the elephant in the room, let me share what I have learned in the process of hypercasual game development and approaching publishers in the past 4 years now.
ACT I: The force Awakens
A not really long time ago in a galaxy very, very close... a game called ‘Flappy birds’ was published on the Apple App Store. ‘Flappy birds’ was like a typical popular girl in high school whom I met at my school while peeking at batch mates’ phones. We were very far apart, it was totally out of my league, literally – I used Android, that game was on iOS. So as any other average guy would do, I started searching for its clones on Android PlayStore (Google Play store) and you bet I got thousands of them. At first gameplay, I fell in love with it. The jump, the difficulty, the frustration; it was all summed up to be this beautifully complex yet so simple game that I continuously enjoyed for a whole 120 seconds, and then I got bored out of it. Why? Because like every other consumer, I needed variety. So, I started a new journey, a journey to create my very own clone of Flappy Birds (but with variety). I added loads and loads of unlockable skins, environments, sounds effects, particle animations and then released it on PlayStore hoping to cross a million downloads just within a matter of days. Spoiler Alert: 10 installs, 6 family members, 4 friends. Okay, those 4 were my accounts on different devices. What did I learn? Hypercasual games are created not to be marketed organically; a lot of money goes into getting users to enjoy a simple game. Now you might ask, how did Flappy birds get so many installs without investing any money? Maybe because of the ‘first of its kind’ highly addictive simple to understand yet hard to master hypercasual gameplay mechanic. So in my first approach, I failed terribly but I learned some very valuable lessons; most importantly being that you can count from 1 to 100 without using the alphabet ‘a’.
ACT II: The Empire Strikes Back
Heartbroken and miserable, I went on with my life. I started distracting myself by playing mid-core mobile games, horror mobile games, and FIFA. I was so devastated that I even tried creating a horror mobile game taking inspiration from ‘Slender: The eight pages' but to no success. Days passed and so did a couple of years while I tried to make myself more thoughtful on approaching game design as my career but the love for that simple yet highly addictive gameplay always remained. That’s when these games became more popular, so much so that Apple decided to give it a category of itself –hypercasual. That’s when I knew, I simply had to give it everything before calling it a failure. I created another game set in space with a very simple touch and hold control mechanics and this time, I posted about it over Reddit as well. That’s where I got a new comment which made me delete my post. The comment said ‘il collegamento non funziona’ which roughly translates to ‘the link doesn’t work’ in Italian. So I posted yet again, with a working link this time of course. A new message arrived in my inbox a couple of hours later, asking my Skype and work mail for ‘potential opportunities together’. It excited me and I came across what would later play a major part of cupid to bring me and hypercasual a lot closer together.
ACT III: A New Hope
Up until now, I was unfamiliar with the term 'hypercasual publishers'. They were so scarce that even Yoda could have counted them on his fingers –Ketchapp and Voodoo (Voodoo at this time was still very much behind the curtains as they had just a couple of games under their name). So yeah, about the cupid I got a message from – let’s call him Obi-Wan, asking if I am interested in having a chat about my game. Now being a game creator the only thing that excites me more than creating new games is talking about them, so I quickly sent him an email. We talked a lot about how I could integrate analytics and get it tested for its potential publication with his company; the company should remain nameless but to give you a hint, its name rhymes with NapLovin.
Coming back to what I learned; basically, to test a hypercasual game’s potential, there is a test called KPI test which I am sure every hypercasual game developer must be familiar with by now. I will anyway discuss it briefly for everyone else who might be interested in the know-how. So in this KPI test, there are two variables –CPI (Cost Per Install) and Retention (Retained users from those installs, typically measured in days percentage); of course, there are a lot other key metrics to look forward to but these two are the ones that mostly define the LTV (Lifetime Value) or ARPU (Average Revenue Per User), in simpler terms generally the profitability of a game. Why measure CPI and retention you ask? To check if the player can bring more value than the cost for which they were acquired (simple business, right?).
Now back to my space theme hypercasual game –it was a coincidence that the day my game’s KPI test started, Elon Musk successfully sent his SpaceX rocket in space for the very first time. The keyword ‘space’ was on fire in the US. You know where I am going with this, right? My game – space, SpaceX launch – space... The test lasted for a whopping 7 days, yeah good old days. The CPI averaged about 17 cents and D1 retention about 12%. I had zero knowledge if it was good or bad, Obi-Wan helped me a lot in understanding these metrics and we both concluded that the game had potential but I will have to add a lot more player ‘stickiness’ to the game. Being a mediocre programmer, I tried my best to code and implement all the proven retention mechanics of a hit hypercasual game –depth in gameplay, balancing the difficulty, more skins, more environment and a few more tweaks here and there; it took me more than 3 weeks to implement all of it and then the second test began.
The D1 retention numbers actually improved a lot, in fact, numbers actually doubled and so did CPI. Weird, isn’t it? Do you know what’s weirder? It is impossible to hum while holding your nose. Anywho, I had to kill that game but I tried a couple of more tests and iteration before doing so. With a heavy heart, I bid adieu to one of the best things I ever fell in love with – that’s when I learned the art of letting go. I have a small formula - in an ideal condition, CPI should always be lower than D1 retention for the prototype to not be killed. If the CPI is higher than D1 retention, let it go, move on to a new prototype. That’s how the world works. There are plenty of fish in the sea, I was consoled. The greatest teacher, failure is...
ACT IV: Attack of the Clones
The bottomless pit of failure and regression sucked me inside, so much so that I started looking for shortcuts. We all know from watching wrong turn movies that shortcuts don’t always lead us to the right destination. While playing a lot of trending games and taking inspiration from them is a perfect way to start with a new hypercasual prototype and I fully recommend it but taking an already hit hypercasual game and just changing the theme or characters of it with the same gameplay is strongly discouraged. At that time, I was not as bright and I started what could only be described as clone war (reskins of top published games). I found awesome websites as well where you can buy fully working source codes of these published hypercasual games for cheap, you can then just reskin and publish it yourself. Easy, no? Worth it? No. Trust me, I tried a lot; wasted a lot of time and money on reskins. Out of these reskinned games, some of them had a couple of average results but still, I believe if I had invested that much time and money creating original gameplays, I would’ve had a better chance at success. In fact, this cloning culture still exists, you might even get your 'cloned' game published by a newcomer publishing studio but believe me, you will fall in a trap and might as well deal with some losses in terms of finances with this approach of cloning hit games. Some days are better than others and one fine day, I realized that all this was just not going to work. I had to dump all of it and create new stuff, not run behind like copycats but be original, wise, creative, and green –just like Yoda. Although some publishers rose to top charts by publishing cloned and reskinned versions of the top chart games they didn’t deserve respect – you have a big responsibility of entertaining a wider audience through your creativity and what did they end up doing? Stealing someone’s idea and claiming it to be theirs? I am sorry, I got a little too carried away talking to my younger self.
Coming out of this zone was tough for me as I skipped playing new hit hypercasual games. I was too afraid that I might just try to copy some ideas from it, which in general is okay to do – to go with the trends. Ideation part got a little tough for me but it also enabled me to think of hypercasual games more practically, take the right approach by thinking of the target audience, and the fun quotient of the game rather than focus on the art, style, and theme of it. If you are also facing problems in the ideation process of a new prototype, here is a list of approaches you can take for the same.
ACT V: The Rise of Skywalker(s)
In recent times, I created and tested a lot of prototypes. You can find some of them here. A couple of them looked very promising during initial tests but were eventually killed due to lack of something or the other. It really didn’t bother me much at that time but now that I look back it sure troubles me, makes me think about if I had the right approach or not. Maybe it was the right thing to do, letting the prototypes which didn’t show good results go. I sometimes thought, there could be more things wrong to the whole approach of mine because adding more and more prototypes in the testing phase was only leading to disappointment. After a lot of thinking I got to a point where I realized that when we breathe through our nose, we always inhale more air from one nostril than with the other one. In my hypercasual journey, the one thing majorly missing was good feedback –feedback on improving gameplay, feedback on if the same gameplay has been tested and tried previously, feedback on if the gameplay feel could very well be tested before even creating a prototype of it. During recent times, a new technique has been highlighted a lot – CTR tests. CTR stands for Click Through Rate. To put it in simpler words, testing a gameplay feel before creating a prototype by testing a video similar to the gameplay via CTR test. Talking about numbers, a CTR above 4% is generally considered interesting. A lower CTR often implies that the video has a lot (too much) elements in it.
As a developer who is willing to spend their time and effort in creating a polished prototype, you can always try testing a gameplay video for CTR or an MVP (Minimum Viable Product) to check if the metrics are giving good results for the game to be successful. Killing a game which has been in development for quite some time is a really draining process, I am telling you this from experience.
Choosing the right publisher needs to be the top priority for any developer in case of hyper casual games is what I have also learned during this process. A publisher who doesn’t just run for ‘one more successful top chart game’ but should also invest time and effort in developing a good long term relationship with the developers and could provide enough resources if required with right market insights. With the popularity and success of hypercasual genre and the profitability associated with it by investing comparatively lesser time and resources has pulled a lot of new players to make most of this opportunity. The rise in the number of hypercasual game publishers is growing each year and to an extent, it is good for the developers and studios as well. Due to a lack of competition, developers used to have far fewer options. Most of the time they had to sign unfavorable contract terms for the long run to gain short term profits which is now completely avoidable. I created a small poll on my Instagram to get feedback from my fellow hypercasual developers to find out which publisher they think is the best, if you are interested in it, here is a link.
In terms of options, while there are certain publishers who would want you to sign a contract before going further with any test of any sort, developers/studios can freely choose to test their game by approaching a lot of other hypercasual publishers before signing any contract.
The exclusive contract usually depends upon your previous games and your portfolio and varies from developer to developer. You could be paid some money monthly or you could also be paid some money per prototype you deliver. You could also sell your source code and exclusive game rights to the publisher for some pre-decided amount if the prototype shows potential. You could bargain and see whichever deal suits you best and I would strongly recommend you stay aware of the exclusivity contracts terms and conditions before getting into one.
For the profit-sharing contracts, again it varies from publisher to publisher. I have known and heard of publishers who put an upper limit to their payouts to the developers for when the game is generating revenue and I have also worked with publishers who don’t share your own game’s data with you for the tests. I can talk about Homa Games for now as I have been working with the Homa team. Their contract is 50-50 profit sharing. I personally appreciated the whole support of the team, the feedback they constantly shared, and the time they spent to help me to build better titles. If you want to get in touch with them, feel free to contact them here or you can contact me directly; I can put you in touch as well and help you during your journey in the hypercasual industry.
I have created a Discord server for hypercasual game developers and teams, the server has channels related to assistance, team building and assets sharing, failed prototypes sharing and showcasing your new games. It is more like a hypercasual community for the experienced ones to connect with and help the new devs and teams in exploring the hypercasual space. Pass on what you have learned. Here is a link for the Discord server, feel free to join in even if you just want to explore.
Lastly, I would like to wish you all great success in your hypercasual journey. I hope to see your games in top charts pretty soon and if you have any questions, do not hesitate in dropping in a DM over my IG or shoot me a mail.
May the force be with you...