Game developers who were Boy Scouts when they were kids may have an advantage when it comes to launching a successful game. With the competition in the gaming business enormous and the odds of success infinitesimal, the game maker whose motto is "be prepared" definitely has a leg up on the competition.
"Infinitesimal" sounds like a dramatic word, but when you are adding a new entry to an estimated 600,000 games in the App Store (there are even more in Google Play) - with between 500 and 1000 new ones joining the ranks daily - it's an appropriate word. According to Deloitte, only about 200 mobile game companies will gross over $1 million in 2016, with the average game grossing a mere $40,000.
Of course, for some game makers that's a fair chunk of change. "A key characteristic of the mobile games market is low barriers to entry," says Deloitte, with some games taking just days or even hours to develop. Most of those will probably live on in anonymity, given their presumably low production values, poor design, and unchallenging gameplay. As professional game developers know, you get what you give in the process, so developers who don't put in the work are unlikely to get million dollar - or even $40,000 - results.
For those who are serious about development, preparation is key. Among the decisions that need to be made are what kind of game to develop, determining what fans like, deciding on the appropriate markets/countries to publish the game in, and determining the best time to introduce a game. Then there's the money side of things: How to appeal to and market to potential users, and how to build a successful monetization strategy. As everyone knows, first impressions are the only impressions that count - and to ensure success, game developers have to know how to handle issues like these before they make one.
"Americans, especially, don't always "do" foreign cultures well, and it might be a good idea to partner with a company in an important target country - or even to hire a developer who lives there"
It's a big world, with a lot of different kinds of people - and those people have a wide variety of tastes when it comes to gaming. The job of a game developer is to try and appeal to as many of those gamers as possible, but preferences in gameplay will drive the appeal of a game in specific markets. For example, research shows that Americans prefer casual games (think Candy Crush, Angry Birds, etc.), while players in Japan are fans of role-playing games (RPG), and in Southeast Asia they love social games (played on Facebook, etc.).
There are several ways to approach game development. One good strategy is to choose a market, and create a game around the preferences of gamers there. Another option is to try and adapt a game that works in other markets for players in another, insert elements (modes of play, scenarios, etc.) that will allow players in other markets to enjoy it as well. Either way, developers need to know who their target audience is, what kind of gameplay/experience they are looking for, and how to tailor their core idea to meet those requirements. It's certainly easier for a developer to build a game when they have an idea of whom they are "working" for, and it maximizes the chances of success.
To get players to download a game, the first order of business is to ensure that they understand it - how to play, what the objective is, what the rewards are, etc. Language, icons, characters, fonts, and other visual and linguistic cues are thus all very important factors in game development. The text in the game, menus, dialog by characters - even the name of the game - are crucial. Some names just don't translate well, and sometimes they can be identical to pejoratives in another language. In addition, the landing page for a game needs to be tailored to the app store in the country/market it is being sold in.
Americans, especially, don't always "do" foreign cultures well, and it might be a good idea to partner with a company in an important target country - or even to hire a developer who lives there - to help smooth things out from a language and culture perspective. With so much competition for a gamer's time and attention, developers need to keep in mind who will be playing - and ensure that their project is in line with players' habits, morés, and lifestyles.
Despite the homogenization of popular culture due to the outsized influence of American culture, there are still deep cultural roots that developers need to take into account when developing a game for a specific market. Some things are just not appropriate - and when players see them in a game, they may develop an atavistic dislike of a game because of actions or scenarios that don't jibe with their cultural experience - for example, when a character acts in a way that could be considered culturally offensive (eating with their left hand in some Eastern cultures, for example). That's a gaffe that could cause players to shut down and shut out a game altogether.
"Developers seeking to get into the top 25 of US App Store games have to shell out at least $200,000 in advertising costs alone - but spending a lot, of course, is no guarantee of anything except a smaller bank account"
Yet another question for developers is how much they can afford to spend in order to build an audience. While it would be great if all that counted was game quality, the truth is that in order to get users, developers have to spend. For developers with deep pockets, of course, that's easy - according to Fiksu Research, developers seeking to get into the top 25 of US App Store games have to shell out at least $200,000 in advertising costs alone - but spending a lot, of course, is no guarantee of anything except a smaller bank account.
Obviously, that kind of marketing isn't for everyone - but there are other ways to get the attention of players while ensuring a reasonable ROI. And while getting to the top of an App Store in any country is a good way to get attention, there are other - often more cost-effective - ways that can ensure effective user acquisition and retention, and ensure that players hear about and have an opportunity to play with a game. Advertising costs for top 25 app game category aspirants in Canada, for example, run about $15,000. Other strategies that are more affordable abroad than in the US but can greatly enhance user acquisition and retention include social presence and promotions, collaboration with celebrities, and co-publishing with companies that are experts in a specific market. All of these can turn a game into a top download, while ensuring that ROI remains positive.
Gamers usually have open minds, but few will be willing to plunk down money to buy a game they are unfamiliar with from a publisher they probably never heard of - so for most developers, a free download is a good place to start. That doesn't mean that the game is going to be "free," however; it means that the model for making money will be based on strategies such as advertising, freemium upgrades, or in app purchases (IAP).
Ads are a chief feature of free apps, although making money off them can be challenging; user engagement with ads is often low, and many players are turned off by them, finding them annoying despite being aware that it is the ads that allow them to play for free. A tried and true strategy for app developers is to build a game using a freemium model - providing basic free to play features and providing a pay upgrade path. Then there are in-app purchases (IAP), where players shell out cash for advanced characters, capabilities, equipment, and the like.
Which is best? Again, it depends on the audience, the game, and the market circumstances. Players in China expect to see ads in games - and "pay" for games by tolerating those ads - while American players find them annoying. Freemium/IAP games work well in some places, while in others the concept is a non-starter. One popular ad strategy is a rewarded video, in which players get credits/features for watching a video (really an ad, but perceived as less market-y than an ad).
It also depends on what kind of game is being offered; casual games are more likely to feature ads, as the gameplay is less intense and players are less likely to find them annoying. The more hardcore a game - the more intense the play and the competition - the more likely players will be to eschew ads, but the more likely they will be to pay to play, either by upgrading to a paid version of the game, or via IAP.
"Developers need to realize that their job is not done when they finish their "perfect" game. Language, culture, regions, and player habits all play an important role"
IAP is considered by many to be the "Cadillac" of monetization strategies - if you can get players to pay for digital goods and services, it shows that they are truly into the game, and that it can be considered a success. But IAP requires strategy and preparation to pull off successfully. The approach can't be too aggressive, and there has to be enough "meat" in the game, giving players a stake and a reason to shell out cash for more features/characters/tools etc. In addition, IAP tends to be cultural, with players in the US, Canada, Germany, Japan and South Korea much more amenable to IAP than in other places. Once again, research will provide the answers on how developers need to approach this topic. The same holds true for other monetization strategies.
As in the movie industry, there are times in the year that are better or worse when launching an app. Special events, holidays (especially Christmas, when many people give/get smartphones as gifts), and major sales events (Black Friday, Labor Day, Cyber-Monday, back-to-school, etc.) are good times to launch. Of course, other developers will be doing the same, so there is a danger of a game getting lost in the crowd - resulting in more competition that could cost developers more money than anticipated to overcome.
Timing requires research. Depending on the kind of game and the potential audience, there are days of the week and times of the month that are more advantageous. With casual games, for example, a weekend launch might be good, as people might want to download a game Sunday in order to try it on their morning commute to work Monday; for more intensive RPG or fantasy games, a mid-week advertising blitz might be better, as players will download to prepare for a long, uninterrupted weekend of play.
All this, of course, precludes the need for a "good" game - one that is exciting, has a good hook, exciting/fun gameplay, interesting graphics, a pleasing design, and stability (for example, ensuring that the game doesn't crash when a lot of people play it online at the same time). That's work enough - but developers need to realize that their job is not done when they finish their "perfect" game. Language, culture, regions, and player habits all play an important role in who is going to be playing that game, where it is going to succeed, and how it should be marketed. With a little preparation and flexibility, though, developers can turn their games into major success stories.
Yonatan Erez is the CEO and Co-Founder of Ilyon Dynamics, a mobile gaming studio he founded in 2013 along with 3 friends. The company is currently seeing 30-50% growth each month, most of it organic, and is working on new titles to release in 2017.