Mobile gaming grew at a phenomenal rate in 2017, with highlights that include increased support for augmented reality from both Apple and Google, Google’s transition to using only Universal App Campaigns for network-wide mobile promotions, greater reliance on influencer marketing, and longstanding games such as Candy Crush continuing to dominate in the space while Clash Royale maker Supercell is named as the highest earning mobile publisher for this year.
But as the mobile game market continues to evolve, app discovery and user retention remain prevalent issues. So marketers are adopting new channels to both acquire and keep players.
In the spring, Apple redesigned its App Store to give smaller apps a better chance to compete against longstanding titles if they are unique and interesting enough. Changes included the removal of the “Top Grossing” chart, which analysts and media previously used to track the most profitable games, thereby shifting the focus to the “Top Free” and “Top Paid” charts, which are determined by the number of downloads games get.
“The metric of success has shifted to those games with strong downloads in the Top Free category and success in the paid app spectrum,” said SuperData senior data analyst Alec Nezin. “New highlights on the App Store, such as ‘Games We Love,’ ‘Best New Updates’ and ‘Games You Might Like’ bring a more qualitative focus to their definition of success.”
While Nezin said that the retirement of the Top Grossing chart gave Apple more control over what apps succeed, Kooistra said that it was mostly a cosmetic change, given how it is still possible to dig up the top revenue information if you know where to look.
“These changes haven’t affected app store analytics firms or their results,” said Jelle Kooistra, Newzoo’s head of mobile. “Less than five percent of mobile game revenues today come from paid games, making it very difficult for these games to reach the top grossing charts, with Minecraft and Monument Valley being notable exceptions.”
Cosmetic or not, the shift has been felt by game developers and publishers. “Most rank-based charts in any segment, are extremely polarizing,” Nezin explained, “with almost 30 percent of all downloads concentrating in the top 10 apps. Here, the snowball effect is quite evident.”
That’s almost certainly why mobile game companies such as Zynga still strive to rise to the top of the Top Free list.
“We absolutely want to win in the Top Free charts, and it’s an honor to have your game rank as a Top Free game,” said Bernard Kim, Zynga’s president of publishing. “When you’re at the top of the charts, it’s an indication that something exciting is happening in your game and it’s resonating with players in a meaningful way. A high ranking helps with organics and brings more players into your game, and it also serves as a sign of the quality of your product.”
Kooistra agrees that a high ranking on the Top Free charts leads to better discovery because players don’t have to actively search for these games, but he also said that there is a potential downside in that these users are less likely to monetize well.
“Since finding long-term users with strong monetization is the key, I would say catering to your active players is more important than making sure you reach the top rankings in either category,” Kooistra said.
Even with the App Store redesign, discoverability remains a key issue for mobile games on both the iOS and Android platforms, and the issue will continue to grow as the market does. Although store placement remains one of the best ways to get noticed, companies are turning to other channels to get the word out about their games. Nezin predicts that, “As time goes on, mobile developers will lean more and more on traditional forms of advertising to promote their product.”
“To win over the long-term, companies need to have a full stack publishing team and capabilities to break through,” said Kim. “Not all games respond to app store featuring the same, so you need to fire on all cylinders and have multiple channels where you’re promoting your game. For Zynga, app store placement is important as it creates an entertainment ‘moment in time’ and amplifies our fully integrated marketing campaigns designed to elevate our games and strike a chord with players.”
Kim pointed to the launch of Words With Friends 2, which he said married brand marketing, user acquisition, partner relations and PR. The game was featured on both Apple and Google’s app stores, which was complemented by integrated campaigns that included the franchise’s first TV commercials.
Nexon M general manager Lawrence Koh said that Nexon M saw the increased use of high-profile brands to help with app store discoverability, which is a trend that is likely to increase. Publishers and developers will need to allocate higher marketing budgets before the launch of a new game to drive awareness, meaning that the table stakes to launch a new game will become significantly higher.
According to Kooistra, publishers that don’t necessarily have a strong relationship with Apple and Google are already using a variety of ways to promote their games. The mobile game market is still in rapid development, with pop culture icons such as Star Wars, South Park, Stranger Things and Rick and Morty growing their brands by partnering to create mobile game adaptations.
“Publishers have been looking more into relatively new tools for marketing, such as influencer marketing and basing games on popular franchises from pop culture,” said Kooistra. “Additionally, organic growth from word-of-mouth remains a strong tool, especially from games within a specific niche.”
After acquiring users, the next biggest issue is retention, with Nezin pointing out, “As time has gone on, the average mobile user has played more games on average each month, but average conversion and spending has not come close to matching this pace. This means that players now tend to play more games than in the past, but still only commit to the one or two that stand out to them most.”
Nezin further explains that average players are tasters by nature, and because of that, retention in the first day of a mobile game’s lifecycle is “truly abysmal.”
“While a game may have millions of downloads, that does not necessarily convert to meaningful engagement or revenue nowadays,” said Nezin. “Developers will need to aggressively adapt to keep their players engaged month over month.”
That means treating free-to-play mobile games as ongoing products. Nexon M looks ahead by having a 10-year service plan for each of its mobile games, and Kim said that Zynga has prioritized growing existing live service franchises such as Zynga Poker, Words With Friends and others, expanding and innovating them to inspire more in-game engagement.
According to Koh, “All parties involved in supporting a new mobile game need to be aligned on supporting the game as a live services product. This means that publishers will not only need to think of the launch marketing efforts but also have a plan in place to engage with users months and years out after launch.”
“As the industry matures, players will have more amazing games to choose from, raising the bar for every mobile game company to innovate and deliver across the board,” said Kooistra. “This process will definitely make it more difficult to retain users for a very long time.”