Making a mobile game a success needs one thing more than most. It needs players.
And it needs devoted players; ones that will spend money on free-to-play game mechanics, fuel the virality that attracts new users, and be proactive in the communities that can be so vital to retention. Your game will need players that play, stay, and share your game.
Getting those players, of course, is a matter of user acquisition. And acquiring users for mobile games is infamously complex and costly. At least, that’s what many will tell you. Millions of dollars can be funneled into user acquisition platforms, ad revenue networks and other systems that can be as bewildering as they are expensive.
But increasing numbers of Unity using studios are making successful mobile games without necessarily spending a fortune. And there are also many that have invested their cash in attracting users, only to see that money come back many times over.
For most, of course, budgets are tight, and paying staff and making the game have to come first. But that hasn’t stopped Unity users attracting impressive user numbers.
One such team is Madfinger, the Czech Republic-based team behind the popular Shadowgun and Dead Trigger IPs, which have both use Unity. And by CEO and Co-founder Marek Rabas’ own confession, while a little luck played a part, a lot of hard work in the right places helped the team acquire significant user numbers.
“We never had money for marketing and we never used user acquisition [services],” confirms Rabas, considering the development of Dead Trigger 2. “I'm happy to say, that all of the 80 million people who downloaded our games were organic.”
But where those users came from isn’t an utter mystery; rather its something other Unity users can apply to their own games. “During the last four years we focused on building our name and the community around us,” continues Rabas. “We believe that players should finish our game feeling happy and satisfied, and in that way, they will be more eager to try our next game. Of course you can’t satisfy everybody, but if more players are happy than not happy, your community will grow. Sure we made some mistakes, but it’s part of the learning process.”
And for Madfinger, it was the quality Unity allowed the team to hit that saw them attracting their players back to subsequent games. “Selecting the right platform was a big question at the beginning,” states Rabas on the matter of how their engine choice helped them build games that would be a success with players. “We didn’t want to develop our own engine, tools, etcetera. We went for Unity because it allows us to focus on the game itself. The fact that you only develop the game once and can use it on all key platforms and devices saves a lot of time that we can then dedicate to game quality. At the same time, Unity allows us to bring a level of graphics and sound into our games that makes us instantly recognizable from many other developers.”
In terms of bringing customers to a new game, then, Madfinger’s story is one of a relatively traditional user acquisition strategy. Make good games, build a reputation, and focus on taking players from one game to the next, developing quickly and at quality to meet demand and keep players happy. One popular release can be simply used as a place to promote you next, building a virtuous cycle of acquisition that grows with studio status and reputation.
It’s reassuring that such a strategy can attract 80 million downloads of decidedly core games, but it is one that favors those with a catalogue of games under their belt, or time to evolve organically. But what about if you haven’t got a previous mobile title from which to harness community?
Jelly Button hail from Israel, home of a burgeoning tech start-up scene, and have with their first mobile game rapidly secured some impressive stats. Their debut on iOS and Android Pirate Kings is a simple and polished Unity creation that began life on Facebook. Effectively a ‘one-button’ game of spinning a wheel to gain loot and abilities with which to attack other players’ own pirate-flavored islands, in a handful of months it has reached daily active users numbers of over 1.7 million. 40,000-to-80,000 new players are downloading the game every day, with close to 5 million installs already reached.
The team is made of around 20 staff, making it a decidedly small operation. So just how are they attracting such vast numbers? “Of course it starts with a good game, and a sense of perfection and a lot of time working on the game,” offers Mor Shani, Co-Founder and Product Designer at Jelly Button. “But we are careful to design in viral loops that encourage our players to share the game and bring their friends to our game.
“That is very important,” continues Shani. “The viral loops can get crazy as they grow. We are a smaller team, and we’re now seeing 90 million invites a day sent from our users encouraging other players to try the game.”
Even with that DAU of 1.7 million players, 90 million invites in 24 hours is hugely impressive, and clearly a robust foundation for a free-to-play success on mobile. And all it took was some elegant design around rewarding existing players for getting other users on board.
“Regarding Unity specifically in terms of our growth and user acquisition, one of the things that was really interesting to see was that, as we started on iOS only, we reached this plateau of users early on,” says Shani’s colleague Jelly Button CTO Ron Rejwan. “At that point the invites were going out in various ways, including over Facebook. That meant reaching Android users, and at that point we didn’t have an Android version.”
The Jelly Button team could see what was happening. A powerful user acquisition drive was meeting players who couldn’t play their game. The outfit saw player numbers where level out at around 30,000 daily active users; a fairly small number by free-to-play mobile game standards. They needed to get the game to Android, and fast, before the critical mass was lost. Which is where Unity’s strengths mattered most to the team.
“Using Unity it took us maybe a month-and-a-half to move the game to Android,” adds Jelly Button Creative Director Moti Novo. “That ability for a smaller studio to quickly move to another platform when it mattered was really important, and it allowed us to get to those Android users. Then we launched the Android version, and in matter of days we leapt from 30,000 to about 120,000 or 130,000 daily active users. That was the start of the growth we’re seeing now, and so really moving to a new platform fast was very important to our success.”
Jelly Button’s story is an impressive one, and with everyday that passes they are inching closer and closer to joining the mobile gaming space’s big league.
But for some, even a team of 20 can feel like a distant dream. Fortunately, even Unity-using teams with headcounts you can register on one hand are finding ways to attract impressive players.
Lonely Few is a two-man team, comprising of developers and co-founders Yeong-Hao Han and Rod Green. Yet despite their slender size, they’ve seen their puzzle game rub shoulders with the mobile goliaths on iOS and Android since its release back in 2013. It has continued to attract players, and succeed, buoyed up by an initial wave of critical praise.
But for Lonely Few, it almost didn’t happen. “Initially we just released the game, we didn't do any real announcement or press push,” admits Green. “We emailed a few places but weren't expecting much. After a month or so we started working on our next project assuming Blendoku was done.
Fortunately for Green, he noticed the unusually high number if five-star reviews Blendoku was getting across the app stores, and was inspired to give his creation a second chance.
“What [those reviews] said to us is that even though there wasn't a huge amount of downloads, people who found the game really liked it, since the reviews were all glowingly positive,” continues Green. “So we figured that maybe there's more to this game than we expected.”
The Lonely Few duo quickly returned to the game, and began to promote it off their own backs. “We went into PR mode; we emailed, tweeted, anyone and everyone who we thought might be interested. We emailed the stores – Apple, Google, Amazon – and worked our way through the chain till we found someone who could give Blendoku a chance to shine.”
With that persistence, Green and co-founding colleague Yeong-Hao Han made it through to the store holder’s editors; proving it can be done. And those editors saw something in Blendoku. Soon it was featured across the world. Being featured, of course, is the Holy Grail of user acquisition, and through persistence and determination, a two man studio had done with their Unity game what many spend a fortune failing to achieve.
“Something clicked,” offers Green. “We hit a critical mass. Currently we're at about 4.5 million downloads worldwide.” Lonely Few’s story proves that two developers armed with an email account and a twitter profile can attract numbers that, when there are only two staff wages to pay, can do more than keep the studio alive.
For those prepared to invest, however, the user acquisition rewards can be ample, and one route worth considering is that of another traditional medium; advertising, which can work out relatively cheaper that straight up paid for UA platforms.
Not so long ago Pocket PlayLabs was struggling financially. Today it has its most successful mobile game published by the mighty Rovio under the Rovio Stars initiative. Free-to-play tile-puzzler Juice Cubes has been downloaded 25 million times, and presently courts around 2 million daily active users, many of whom are paying to get the most from the game.
“We have always been a fully self-funded studio, but after over a year with 20 guys on the payroll, we were also struggling financially,” confirms Pocket PlayLab Co-founder and CEO Jakob Lykkegaard.
The team had invested “a few million” in advertising their game across various channels, and the future was uncertain.
“A small soft launch in Australia changed all that,” adds Lykkegaard. “We could finally see that the game hit the right numbers and that the money spend on advertising actually came back in in-app purchases. That meant that Juice Cubes more than sustained our development costs even before it was launched. That was also about the time Rovio Stars among other publishers started contacting us.”
That oldest, most established form of user acquisition – namely advertising – can clearly work, then. And while a ‘few million’ might seem an intimidating amount to some, if you can find a way to secure the cash then the rewards can be bountiful.
But just like all their contemporaries, the Pocket PlayLab team will tell you it all starts with a good game. And for the studio able to attract support from the outfit behind Angry Birds, that all starts with Unity.
“[Adopting] Unity was a huge relief for us as we suddenly only had to focus on making the game entertaining, and most of our developers actually learned Unity while building Juice Cubes. It also enabled us to build prototypes and make rapid releases. Plus, we suddenly didn’t have to plan for what platforms we should release on, as we could just release on them all, including mobile and web.”
Ultimately, Juice Cubes, Blendoku, Pirate Kings and the Dead Trigger titles are all very different games, from distinct studios that took their own route to acquiring users. But they also share two things in common. They all wrote their own mobile success stories, and they all did so using Unity.
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