Category Archives: Mobile Games

Integrating Video Ads Into the Game Design

I look at a lot of games to figure out how best to integrate advertising into the user experience.  The revenue potential from advertising can be nearly as great as the revenue derived from in-app purchases: a recent survey of 8,000 developers by Developer Economics estimates 2015 revenues of $40.5 billion in app store sales and in-app transactions and $34 billion from ads.

Advertisers: What they really really want

The bottom line metric for advertisers is engagement – that can be new customers (e.g. game downloads) or actions (e.g. purchases, clicks, invites, shares, calendar-date setting).  The more effective the creative in generating this engagement, the higher CPMs a publisher can attain.  This is an oversimplification, but here is a general benchmark of the different creative types and approximate CPMs:

  • Video interstitial ads can generate from $6 to double-digit CPMs – the higher the completed video ad rate, the higher the CPM that you may be able to capture.  This is also where may brand advertisers with bigger budgets are focusing
  • Rich Media and playable interstitial ads are typically for game app installs and drive better conversion rates, so you cn see $4-6 CPMs
  • Static or slightly animated interstitial ads can drive $2-$ CPMs
  • Banner ads can run $0.05 to $0.50 generally

The balancing act for a publisher is how to incorporate these ads without ruining or denigrating the customer experience.  Video interstitial ads drive the most money, but they create a big break in game play, especially when you’re compensated to get users to watch the entire video ad.

How to Integrate Without Hurting the User Experience

Publishers can do a lot of targeting to minimize the perceived negative impact of these ads

  • Don’t show video ads to paying users who are driving In-App Purchases – you can tweak this based on recency of purchase as well
  • Testing different frequency caps per user per day – in some testing we did, the frequency of static interstitial ads had no impact on new user retention, but each game has different sticky factors
  • Picking spots where ads fit into the user experience seamlessly

This last point is a key take away.  In some games like SongPop, where I helped optimize revenue, there are natural breaks between rounds of play where interstitial ads fit cleanly without breaking the user flow.

But what if your app doesn’t have a natural break?  And how do you drive completed video views?

Integrating Ads Into Your Game Loop

What’s been successful in recent games is a value exchange between the player and the game developer: by watching video ad to completion, the player receives a desired currency or a limited time boost that is directly tied into the game loops.  They provide a desirable benefit for the player and done correctly can drive revenue from engaged players that whether they do or don’t open their wallet to buy in-app purchases.

Here are some examples:

Tiny Tower Vegas: Video Ad Views <> Rare Currency

Tiny Tower Vegas (iOS | Android), by Nimblebit, has in-game Chips that are used to play the Poker, 21 and Slots games; The winnings from those casino games can be turned into Cash which can be used to expedite the time to generate Coins and build up your tower.  During game play, you are being alerted with little icons along the bottom that let you know when a floor can be restocked, cash is ready to collect from rooms or when a Bitizen is ready for an elevator ride to a floor.  These icons are a core part of navigation and game play.  Periodically within this stream of icons, a Chip icon is floated into the mix. Tapping it provides the user the ability to watch a video ad in return for getting two chips.

Icons for getting free chips for watching ads are integrated into other notifications that are part of the core game loops in Tiny Tower Vegas
Icons for getting free chips for watching ads are integrated into other notifications that are part of the core game loops in Tiny Tower Vegas

By placing this in line with other game loop icons, it’s just another task to perform.  Setting the initial value of currency to provide needs to be tested: early on Nimblebit  worked with it’s ad provider Vungle and adjusted the payout from 1 to 2 chips to improve the conversion rate.  They can also pace the how often the chip icon appears, either to manage the economy or based on whether there are ads available from Vungle.

AdVenture Capitalist!: Video Ad Views <> Multiplier Boost

Newly released AdVenture Capitalist! was released last week by Kongregate (almost forgot they were bought by GameStop) and it’s been hanging in the top 25 games thanks in part to being promoted by Apple in best new games of the week.  The app is a simplified Make It Rain app, with money accumulating every second with the more properties you own. 

In the lower right corner is a blue indicator that shows time in 00:00:00 – clicking on it lets the player earn a 4 hour 2x boost in earnings in return for watching an ad – with a brutally honest and humorous pitch of “It’s back scratching at its finest!”

For AdVenture Capitalist! the video ad provides users a valuable 2x boost for four hours
For AdVenture Capitalist! the video ad provides users a valuable 2x boost for four hours

In addition to providing the player value by doubling the output during the four hours, it also creates a strong retention hook by creating a relevant app notification moment, letting the user know that their boost is over, so come back and watch another ad.

On top of making an estimated $15K per day from In-App revenues* by staying within the Top 150 grossing games on iOS, it’s smart integration of ads using AppLovin into the game loop is drawing additional revenues

Fine Tuning and Caveats

As we noted before, Tiny Tower Vegas had to tweak their payouts to optimize their ad conversion rate.  On the other end of the spectrum, AdVenture Capitalist! needs to throttle the number of ads available per day – you can’t stack multiple boosts and even then there currently appears to be a cap of 2-3 per day (initially you can see it was 5).  This might be based on the impact on the game economy, but it can also be the reliance on a single advertising partner.

The pros of using a single ad partner for your advertising include only implementing a single SDK and that it provides a consistent experience for your users.  One of the reasons I typically look to use multiple providers are many:

  • With one partner you are stuck with their fill rate – if your game takes off, like getting promoted by Apple, you may very quickly outstrip the demand of a single provider
  • Unless you get a guaranteed CPM, you may not see a consistent CPM from a single network (networks are only as good as their sales pipeline) so diversifying helps ensure you’re maximizing revenues.
  • Many of the networks are heavily skewed towards game ads – generally someone else competing for your player’s time; being able to mix in networks with brand ads can help retention.
  • Most networks don’t have a large ad sales team outside the US and English speaking countries – you could be limiting your potential in those markets if your network can’t fill the inventory.

Integrating Ads as Part of Game Design

Ultimately though, these are tweaks and modifications – your core focus is finding the right implementation of ads that fit easily and seamlessly within the user experience and ideally enhance the user experience.  To effectively maximize revenue from both in-app purchases and ads, where you integrate ads need to be in the design process at the early stages of development rather than an afterthought.

Does your company think of ads within the design process?  Who is the best provider you’ve dealt with in terms of mediating rewarded video ads?

* In-App Revenue estimates are from

25 Insights About Top Grossing Games on iOS

In my last post I noted that it’s naturally getting harder for apps to get noticed in the iOS app store as we went from 500,000 apps in the App Store in 2012 to over 1.5 million today.  So I decided there’s no better way to back that up then to look at the Top Grossing Games list for iOS – and after crunching the numbers a bit, here are 25 things I learned

Note about the data: I took estimates of revenue and downloads from ThinkGaming for February 19th and combined some meta data from AppAnnie.  Revenue we are showing is strictly from In App Purchase (IAP) revenues, excluding any advertising revenue.


  1. The top 200 grossing games generate about $10.4 million in IAP revenue a day
  2. The top two games – Clash of Clans and Game of War – generate about 27% of the revenues
  3. The top ten games represent over 50% of the top 200 grossing games
  4. All of the games in the top 200 make at least $10,000 a day in IAP revenue


The Top Ten Make Over 50% of the Revenue Generated by the Top 200 Grossing Games on iOS



  1. Over 93% of the titles in the top 200 are free to play
  2. Only two paid games cracked the top 100 games: the ad-free version of Trivia Crack for $2.99 at #16 and Minecraft for $6.99 at #26
  3. Freemium games average more than 2x the daily revenue: $55.4K vs. $24.1K
  4. Removing the top 10 freemium and top 2 paid which skew the results, the ratio is relatively similar with freemium games making 1.8x the daily revenue of a paid game: $26.8K vs. $14.9K
  5. The more you charge, the fewer the downloads. It’s a terribly small sample size for paying apps, but if you remove Trivia Crack and Minecraft plus the top 10 free games, the rate of downloads has the reduced velocity you’d expect
  6. The daily downloads for $1.99 is one-third of the downloads at $0.99, but the difference between $1.99 and $2.99 is not as big a drop, suggesting that if you are going to go above $0.99 you should just jump to $2.99

The higher the price, the lower the downloads



  1. While the Top 200 Grossing Games on iOS is skewed towards newer titles (40% released since 2014), the biggest money makers are apps that were released in 2012 which average nearly $100K per day compared to 2013 releases that average $46K per day
  2. Half of the top ten grossing games were released in 2012 or earlier
  3. Remove the top ten games, and the average revenue by release year is actually relatively similar.  Those EARLIER than 2012 average $33K and those including and since 2012 average around $25K


Apps released in 2012 make 2x the revenue of those released in following years



  1. Just over 100 companies are represented in the top 200
  2. Two-thirds of the companies have a single title in the top 200 but make up just 25% of the revenue
    • Nearly half of that is Machine Zone’s Game of War, meaning that two-thirds of the companies have a single title and make up less than 15% of the revenue
  3. Those with multiple titles in the top 200 average 3.6 apps each and take in just over 75% of the revenue
  4. Parent company Storm8 (which also has the TeamLava and Shark Party brands) has the most apps in the Top 200 with 14 titles averaging $15.7K per day for a net take of $220K per day
  5. The other two companies with double digit apps in the top 200 are Electronic Arts (11) and Zynga (10) making $433K per day and $248K per day respectively
  6. The top money makers are all well known
    • Supercell: 3 titles in top six, generating $2.2 million per day
    • 8 titles generating $1.7 million per day
    • Machine Zone: just Game of War, #2 overall, generating over $1.1 million per day


Lots of smaller developers have a single title in the top 200, but a third of the companies have over 3.5 games each in the list

Two-thirds of the companies have a single title in the top grossing list, but they earn only 15% of the total revenues from the Top 200 Grossing Games



  1. Our fixation with gambling is well represented in the app store’s Top Grossing list.  When you exclude the top ten apps that, as we noted above, really skew the numbers, the best performing genre of game by far are the seven Casino/Poker titles which are averaging $57K per day.  And we excluded the biggest Casino App, #7 Big Fish Casino which generates an estimated $188K per day.  The second best performing genre among those with at least five titles are Slots games – there is a crazy 16 different slot apps in the Top 200 grossing apps list and they are averaging $31K per day
  2. Puzzle Games also do really well.  Again excluding the Top Ten which includes some of the biggest money makers in Candy Crush Saga and Candy Crush Soda Saga, the match-three game genere has 20 titles and averages about $30.5K per day.   The three bubble shooters in the Top 200 are averaging $38K per day
  3. Other top genres with at least four titles in the top 200:
    • People Sim (including Kim Kardashian naturally): $35.2K/day, six titles
    • City Sim: $28.4K/day, 6 titles
    • Bingo: $25.8K/day, 4 titles
    • RPG: $24.2K/day, 42 titles
  4. Excluding Hay Day, there are three Farm Sim games in the Top 200 — and twice as many Dragon (Farming) Sim games.  On average, those games make about $17-18K per day 


  1. Only half of the free games are ranked in the top 200 free game charts, meaning half of the list is not making their money on volume, but very solid average revenue per user (ARPU)
  2. With AppAnnie you can track the difference between the first tracking of a game and the official wide release date.  Practices have changed over time (some studios now release on a non-branded publisher name in another country and then when things look good re-release the game on the main brand), but you can get some basic insights nonetheless.  Some of the biggest companies on the Top 200 Grossing list are testing for two to three months before release:
    • — 88 days
    • Supercell — 79 days
    • Storm8 (inlcuding TeamLava) – 59 days
    • Kabam – 49 days

So some conclusions

  • Money is indeed being consolidated into the top few players, with a third of the companies in the top 200 grossing games list driving 75% of the money for the games on that list
  • Many games released in 2012 or earlier were able to cement their first-mover advantage and are making on average nearly 2x that of games released in subsequent years
  • Freemium games tend to out perform paid games in total grossing revenues
  • While gambling and puzzle games dominate the apps in the list and the revenue, there will be some non-standard genres that have a break out hit like Trivia Crack – but again this is more an outlier and very hard to bank on

From Draw Something to $40 million TV Ad Campaigns

OMGPOP's first Facebook game was Cupcake Corner
OMGPOP’s first Facebook game was Cupcake Corner

I’ve spent the last four years on quite the ride, so pardon the long absence. I jumped into OMGPOP in 2010 as the product lead for a Facebook game; we delved into mobile apps in 2011 as the market shifted and then I was fortunate enough to be part of the crazy explosion of our game Draw Something. After getting acquired by Zynga, I jumped crosstown to FreshPlanet to grow and monetize SongPop as well as try to develop more social causal mobile hits. And here in 2015 I’m watching the market shift yet again as mobile game developers are now turning to traditional brand marketing by spending tens of millions on TV ads.

So here’s a couple things I’ve observed along the way:

#1 Overnight success takes years to perfect

Two of the biggest hits I’ve been associated with (Draw Something and SongPop) came after years of iteration.

Draw Something started off as a real-time flash game Draw My Thing on the now defunct site (but you can still play the embedded game on sites out there if you are looking for it). Drawing with your mouse sort of sucked but it was fun in real time – you had to beat the timer and draw well enough that others in the group could guess it.

Before Draw Something on mobile, there was Draw My Thing on OMGPOP - a synchronous game where you had a timer to draw and other users tried to be the first to guess the word you were drawing
Before Draw Something on mobile, there was Draw My Thing on OMGPOP – a synchronous game where you had a timer to draw and other users tried to be the first to guess the word you were drawing

We ported the game to Facebook which greatly expanded the audience, peaking at about 2.1 million Monthly Active Users (MAU) – but that was a mere blip compared to what we saw when we jumped to mobile. The iterations on mobile were huge: In 2012 doing real-time mobile play wasn’t an option so we shifted into asynchronous game play; the clock and “winning” or “losing was eliminated; and typing out your guess on a mobile device was a pain, so we shifted to a sort of scramble-like listing of letters from which to make your guess.

Before SongPop, an initial iteration was The Crazy Cow Music Quiz
Before SongPop, an initial iteration was The Crazy Cow Music Quiz

SongPop too had an earlier incarnation – can you believe The Crazy Cow Music Quiz? Obviously we ditched the cow, and a bunch of pre-game power ups, opting for a simpler and more direct game play.

Neither of these game ideas were a success overnight. And that’s about the same for every indie darling that makes it big, the latest being today’s #1 hit Trivia Crack by Etermax. Trivia Crack was built on the success of its Spanish-language version predecessor Preguntados which was built on the success of it’s Scrabble-like game Adworded which was built on the company’s past experience as a third-party developer.

#2 Sometimes there CAN be too much of a good thing

People binged on Draw Something similar to the same extent people now binge on NetFlix - games now have to figure out how to not let the player get sick of the game and burn out
People binged on Draw Something similar to the same extent people now binge on NetFlix – games now have to figure out how to not let the player get sick of the game and burn out

When Draw Something first came out, it was like crack. People couldn’t get enough of it. They played non-stop, during class, over night – it was this incredible social binge event. But unlike binging on Breaking Bad episodes on NetFlix, when you were “done” on Draw Something, there were a ton of opponents waiting for you to draw back. Unlike Scopely’s Dice with Buddies where a round is literally a couple seconds, Drawing took quite an investment of time and thought. That’s cool with three or five of your close friends, but having to draw for 50 people gets a bit overwhelming.

When Zynga bought us, Draw Something was barely a month old and no one had a clue what the eventual retention curve would look like. I won’t second guess anything we did in Draw Something to become such a cultural phenomenon, but today social mobile games put a lot of effort into gating the content a bit, to get users to stay a while instead of binging and leaving.

SongPop limits the number of opponents you can have at any one time. Many games like Two Dots or Candy Crush have “life” systems – you lose lives when you fail a level and either have to ask friends, wait or pay to regenerate those lives and keep playing. Trivia Crack sort of combines the two – limiting opponents you can play by a “life” system. The balancing of these gates and when they appear are key both to monetization, but also regulating the consumption of your content.

#3 Deja vu all over again

When I was younger, I remember a movie would stay in the theaters for weeks. Today, most movies are gone in a flash — maybe two weekends at the cineplex and then gone. But hits last longer – just not as long as they used to. In 1977 Star Wars was in 40% of it’s max theater release for 29 weeks. For last year’s Guardians of the Galaxy, it was in 40% of it’s max theater release for only 10 weeks. The economics have changed – there are about 4x as many theaters today so more movie-goers can see them in the first couple weeks. Looking ahead it’s becoming more clear that theaters will eventually give way to direct-to-home streaming.

Hit games like Luxor would remain at the top of the charts for six months before the downloadable PC game market got saturated
Hit games like Luxor would remain at the top of the charts for six months before the downloadable PC game market got saturated

When I was marketing downloadable games in 2005, a hit game like Luxor was at the top of the sales charts for six months – a game we all called a “AAA” game back then. Within two years the top selling game was at the top of the charts for just two to four weeks. The economics changed – there were 3x as many games being made. And then this little platform called Facebook started making it easier for users to get free games instead of paying $9.99 a pop for the downloadable game.

Are we seeing a similar trend in mobile? Saturation makes it hard for a new game to get heard. The majority that do break through — with either a burst campaign or the lottery ticket of an Apple feature — don’t end up lasting long on the charts.

Developers in the download space tried to pivot to Facebook games, but it was the early adopters on the platform like Zynga and Playfish that were able to take advantage of looser viral channels. Few other developers were as successful than those early entrants on the Facebook platform.

Are we seeing a similar trend in mobile? Over half of the top grossing games (Clash of Clans, Candy Crush, Big Fish Casino, Hay Day, Soltomania) were released in 2012 or earlier. In 2012 there were 500,000 apps to compete with in Apple’s App Store – today there are 3x as many. The companies that were able to establish hits in or before 2012 have been able to maintain those franchises as early adopters on the platforms. has saturated select cities with branding campaign for Candy Crush Soda Saga - including the tops of yellow cabs in New York City has saturated select cities with branding campaign for Candy Crush Soda Saga – including the tops of yellow cabs in New York City

So while we all know it’s been getting more and more expensive in the last two years to create a new app (more depth and polish required) and acquire new users (CPIs easily can climb over $3), the money accumulated by these early adopter developers have allowed them to grow and move to an entirely different level: full-fledged brand marketing (cue Kate Upton). With city take overs by and apps buying commercial time during NFL football playoff games, these are the marketing tactics that a small to mid-size developer can’t even begin to compete with.

So what’s an indie developer to do?

Well the great thing is that based on #1 above, there’s always room for iteration and innovation. When you can provide a unique experience, tell a unique story, change the way you interact with a device, then you might be able to find that big hit. Just realize you might have to fail 20 times to get there.

Second, be on the look out and try different platforms. Facebook disrupted the downloadable/PC games market and created new developer power houses. Mobile disrupted the Facebook games market hierarchy and has created new developer power houses. Eventually new platforms will come, we just don’t know where. So innovation and iteration is key for the indie developer to find a new market where they can be successful. Can someone crack Instagram and Twitter to create a new mash up of game play with social? I’m betting they can.

But this is my big question going into 2015: Can the medium-size developer shop survive? Or will we continue to see consolidation with a bunch of power house developers and a lot of small 1-3 person teams trying to create something new and unique?