Category Archives: Mobile Games

The 2010s: Platforms Built Powerhouses, then Slowly Took the Power for Themseleves

When I started this blog back in early 2009, I was musing about Amazon selling MP3s and nascent measurement of user sentiment via social media. Then in June of 2009 I finally started playing with data around Facebook games. This was all pre-Farmville and it was still the wild west, which meant on Facebook you could actually build a business (and attain user data) depending on how fast you could move. Zynga built its business on moving fast.

October of 2010, shortly after we released Cupcake Corner as a dessert-themed Cafe World knock-off while at OMGPOP, marked the end of Facebook as a platform for “social” or “viral” growth.

I remember it well because shortly after we released, we were at the FB HQ and heard Zuck announce big changes to the Facebook newsfeed algorithm, which lead down the long path to gating access to users. It impacted games, but it also impacted businesses who had invested in generating large audiences on the platform that, over time, Facebook would make you pay to actually reach.

And that’s the rub – in the early days you could engage users on the platform and bring them into your experiences outside of the platform; then you pretty much had to build a business WITHIN the platform, but users were relatively easy to get via virality; today Facebook wields all the levers to drive traffic to a business built within Facebook. Why invest in building something on Facebook when they can slowly squeeze your ability to grow and profit?

There is a little bit of the old “wild west” game development experience happening in Messenger games which are slowly being migrated into the main Facebook app with its own tab. The games are channeling some of that PvP magic with a hint of old-school virality, and Facebook is providing developers incentives (promotion aka cheap traffic) to build games there, but ultimately Facebook owns your users (and over time will extract more from you to reach your own users) and with more developers vying for eyeballs, you’ll have to pay to maintain the traffic you see during these early days.

Apple as a platform had had similar promise early on, leaving a window for developers to build a booming business. Here Apple exchanged the value of their platform for 30% of your profits, but it was a pretty huge audience. Eventually, once the app store platform got saturated, user acquisition got expensive and pretty much priced out smaller game developers.

Now with the introduction of Apple Arcade – at a ridiculously low price point of $5 a month – focusing on apps from a select few developers, they have relegated the rest of us to the morass of the over-saturated app store (where paying 30% for the privilege now seems overly exorbitant for the access what Apple provides).

On top of that, I’ve seen that Apple is jumping into the mobile acquisition ad market with its deep pockets to promote Apple Arcade and drive subscriptions. I can only guess this spending will drive up the cost of acquisition ads developers use to drive app installs, adding a bit more salt to the wounds. Analysts are predicting Apple will have 12 million paying subscribers by the end of 2020.

Early in the last decade, companies like Zynga, King and Super Cell were built by the reach of the Facebook and Apple platforms, but as the decade came to a close, the platforms have become the powerful gatekeepers and ultimately are moving to not only own the customer paying relationship (ad views on Facebook, direct payments on Apple), but the user experience as well.

Alternative App Acquisition Strategies

Acquiring users continues to be one of the more difficult parts of getting your app to grow.  The number of apps has tripled since 2012 and so have the costs – where you could once get installs pretty solidly at $1 you are now paying $2.50 or more.  This creates more pressure on your monetization so that you can generate a strong ROI on those acquisition dollars.

You can try to get featured by the app stores, but these are one-week lottery tickets that need to be supplemented with acquisition or solid word-of-mouth.  Here are some other ways that apps are testing to see if they can create the word-of-mouth virality to help them effectively grow.

Creating Viral Buzz

Last month,  Adam Besvinick posted about the going cost of getting a frat or sorority to latch on to your app:

The idea is following up on Tinder’s initial success,  where 1) they need a core group of users in close proximity to use the app, 2) they had a USC frat throw a party where admittance was based on people downloading the app.

Knozen tried to get users by offering up ice cream cakes
Knozen tried to get users by offering up ice cream cakes

New York-based developer Knozen has an app where people rate friends like “which one is more likely to do X” and have your friends agree or disagree.  But the difficulty was getting a group of users that knew each other to make things work.  Instead of getting a frat, they found other startups in New York and offered to give their offices a ice cream cake break if the office got six or more people to sign up.  An interesting way to get people a bit involved, but ultimately not scalable.

In each of these cases, this alternative to buying Facebook ads is driven by the need to get a very connected cohort – something that is very difficult to do now on Facebook where requests and invites to your real friends have been suppressed and seen as spam.

YouTube, Twitch and Meerkat, Oh My!

YouTube and Twitch channels were a key topic of conversation at GDC: a favorable review or stream of your app can drive a ton of downloads.  Mike Rose of tinyBuild games gave a great in-depth piece about what makes these guys tick (you can see some great writing he’s done on the “The YouTube Effect” for Gamasutra), but it almost exclusively dealt with Steam-based game development, and very few actually review or stream mobile apps.

If you can’t get the attention of the key YouTubers, how about using these tools yourself?  These channels (as well as the fledgling Meerkat) do provide you the tools to interact with your audience, get feedback and hopefully hype for your new app.  But it requires a dedication to creating content and truly engaging your audience that might be difficult for a small developer to take on.

Side note: Watching Jimmy Fallon and Jim Gaffigan experiment with Meerkat, you can see the power of being let in behind the scenes for a stolen moment with someone or some brand you are interested in. Imagine Taco Bell giving you a sneak peek into their new recipe kitchen, Marvel giving you small snippets from filming the next Avengers movie or EA giving you some insight into a play test. Where Meerkat (or Snapchat Discover) can be interesting to interact for a fleeting moment with an existing engaged fan, a game or app developer can probably get a lot more mileage by giving away free keys to their game and creating videos to share with the press.

Paying Users for Engagement

Tons of money is wasted in user acquisition via advertising - why not pay users directly for engaging and getting hooked on your app?
Tons of money is wasted in user acquisition via advertising – why not pay users directly for engaging and getting hooked on your app?

One of the more interesting ideas I saw at GDC came from a former colleague of mine, Oliver Kern.  Instead of paying companies for ad impressions, clicks or installs, his Tiny Loot company empowers developer to pay end users for time spent engaging in the game. Ultimately I’ve talked about how getting someone deep into your game is the best way to retain users long term (see how games are giving more and more “free” play in their freemium games).  And a highly-engaged user is one that is more likely to tell their friends about it and/or spend money.  If that is the behavior you really desire, then this acquisition model seems to pay for just that.

The Silver Bullet for Word of Mouth

All of these are interesting, but they don’t solve the key issue: Your app has to provide a great user experience that makes a user talk about it with friends in order to create word-of-mouth:

  • Tinder was successful because it was simple, people had great experiences and funny stories around it to share with friends.
  • Crossy Road had a unique look and simple game play that makes you laugh every time you fail.  They harnessed those great end of game “splat” moments to drive about 2/3 of it’s million shares a day.
  • Draw Something harnessed user-generated content that got people laughing and sharing images

To me it really comes down to the product.  Every so often someone will create that out-of-the-gate viral sensation (notice how all the examples above were simple to use and harnessed humor).  For the rest of the time, you have to create an engaging experience and drive the user deep into the game to get them in the habit of returning to your app.  The deeper the engagement, the more likely you can drive a higher LTV and afford acquisition.

What alternative acquisition channels are working best for you?






The Reality of VR: Game Devs Speak Up at GDC

One of the things I tried to get my arms around at GDC this year was what exactly is the opportunity with VR – as the mobile game industry begins to consolidate, could VR be the next big wave?

Matthew Falcus posted a nice overview in Gamastura today — Making the Most of the VR Opportunity — that provides a great overview.  I wanted to add some of my notes from GDC which I thought were interesting context as well, especially from day one of the Virtual and Augmented Reality Roundtable session.

Indie VR Developers by the Numbers

  • The room was to capacity with about 80 participants
  • 8 people had shipped a game, 60% of the participants were actively developing something
  • 2 had been working since the late 90s in Augmented Reality/Virtual Reality – seeing a lot of the same issues that people were tackling then now resurfacing today
  • 95% of the participants were male
  • About 95% were developing in Unity because it’s easy and can integrate things right away.  One or two were using proprietary code, mostly because they started a while ago and just stuck with it

You Are Going to Get Sick

A lot of folks were sharing their experiences – for example you are going to make yourself sick when you are prototyping and can’t work the rest of the day – but the bottom line was that every user is different and there is no magic bullet to solve sickness – yet.  That said here are some of the things that participants mentioned seemed to make it better for users:

  • Made the game explicitly have the character put on goggles
  • Having a focal point in front of the user helps keep their balance
  • Make steps/staircase feel like a ramp instead of bouncing up and down them
  • Team Fortress 2 developers ended up creating a “meathook” solution where it’s all about your head orientation – your feet are just dangling
  • Bring content to the user instead of user moving to the content (Oculus Rift’s Crescent Bay demo did this)
  • Teleport to locations vs. the manual walking, moving

If you are developing a game then, how do you get around if allowing a user to walk around and explore the environment makes some people sick?  It’s a different narrative and thought process.

Is the Tech There Yet?

Generally, the answer is sort of.  There were several new devices debuted that week and discussions about trying to develop to the lowest common form (John Carmack of Oculus suggested developers look at graphics like they were building for the Game Cube) because no one knows which platform will take off.

This discussion veered into issues about the lack of tactile feedback and the disconnect between not being able to use your hands or see yourself within VR.  One participant said the current state of AR/VR now is analogous to what 3D was in the 80s, “We are at a point of finding the cheats for AR and VR and then systems will do the math to help us achieve the solution.”

The biggest disconnect for many though, is that it feels like the technology is driving the discussion, where instead it should be the experience we are trying to achieve in AR/VR should be driving the technology.  As one participant reacting to the discussion about the need for haptic feedback suits noted, “how long do you expect them to wear it?  An hour is probably a LOT for mainstream users.”

The Reality: VR Might Not be About Games at All

I’ve tried both the simple (Google Cardboard) and latest  (Oculus Crescent Bay) VR headsets and the experiences are intriguing, but not something I’m yearning to go back to over and over again.  One of the most interesting debates really is what IS the experience that is going to be the defining one for VR?   As Holden Link from Turbo Button noted during the VR for Indies Panel, games might not end up being the killer app.  “The killer app for VR is probably Netflix – being in a giant theater.”