Six months ago, Fastlane: Road to Revenge had 200,000 daily active users and was generating around $40,000 a day from ad revenue and in-app purchases combined. Since its initial launch in May 2017, which fell short of developer Space Ape Games' expectations, Fastlane had lost roughly 300,000 DAUs, $35,000 a day in combined revenue, and ran on a skeleton crew of two people.
Nearly a year after it first released, however, Fastlane: Road to Revenge has over 16 million installs, 700,000 DAUs and is Space Ape's most profitable game, pulling in $45,000 a day from ads alone, with combined IAP and ad revenue of around $80,000 a day.
With around 50 per cent of revenue being generated from ads, Fastlane: Road to Revenge is an anomaly in the sphere of free-to-play mobile games. Transformers: Earth Wars for example, Space Ape's highest revenue game, doesn't feature any ads whatsoever, while the developer's other two big games -- Samurai Siege and Rival Kingdoms -- reach about five per cent ad revenue.
Although there is a growing number of free-to-play games that operate entirely on an ad-based model, even the highest performers are still lower than a successful IAP game, says Nicolas Boulay, head of growth at Space Ape.
Joined by COO Simon Hade, Boulay discussed with GamesIndustry.biz how Space Ape was able to turn around the game's fortunes by redesigning its approach to ad revenue.
"The reality in ads is that advertisers are not buying an impression," says Boulay. "What they are buying is install, a user interacting with the ad. If you show an ad to a thousand of your viewers but none of them are clicking on it or downloading anything that's being promoted, then it's very likely that the income you're going to get is close to zero."
Therein lies the inherent problem with ad revenue in mobile games. A user must not only click an ad, but also download the app, a concern only worsened by the reality that ads which commonly appear in Fastlane are for directly competing games.
Encouraging your own users to download and play a competitor's game sounds counterintuitive, but, as Boulay explains, there is a lot about the world of ad revenue that appears to defy logic. Balancing this idea of pushing users toward a competitor's game while also ensuring they returned to Fastlane was one of the more difficult challenges to overcome for Space Ape, but also an integral part of its newfound success.
When the growth team first began experimenting with the new model, Boulay says, Space Ape was afraid of advertising competing products in its games, and wouldn't run ads for strategy games in Samurai Siege and Rival Kingdoms for that very reason.
"To be honest that's been a journey for us," he adds. "We thought people would see those ads and start playing and not come back. We had this very black and white vision of ads. But the approach we had for Fastlane was based on experience and learning from the past. People are bombarded with these ads anyway, and the reality is when we reiterated on the design, we looked at retention. Retention was a big part of the metric that we optimised against.
"We saw that actually even when we were promoting a competitor's game, or when we were opening to all advertisers to show ads in our game, retention wasn't dropping but [ad revenue] was increasing."
Fastlane is designed to be played in short bursts, and once the player runs out of fuel -- an in-game resource -- they cannot continue playing until it has regenerated or they have purchased more with real money. The growth team discovered that the end of a session was the perfect time to encourage a user to download another game. By offering them an in-game reward for watching the ad, such as faster fuel regeneration, Space Ape was able to push users toward downloading another app only to return when their reward was ready.
"Even when we were promoting a competitor's game... retention wasn't dropping but [ad revenue] was increasing."
Nicolas Boulay, Space Ape head of growth
"You've got to find this right balance where you're confident enough in your own game that you can encourage people to try other games, knowing they will come back when their energy refreshes or their mission has finished. You actually want people going to play other games in order to make money from ads," says Hade.
Much in the same way that Space Ape has rebuilt its development process from the ground-up, so too has it completely reshaped how it thinks of ads.
During the process, Space Ape developed the four pillars of ad design: ads need to work for the player, offering desirable rewards that compliment the core gameplay loop; ads should be placed at the right moment during a player's session, so as to not negatively impact retention; design implementation should be part of the game world and feel natural for the player to watch; lastly, ads must drive installs.
Applying these four pillars of design, Space Ape came away with several key findings.
Firstly, if the player is given the option to watch an ad rather than forced, it doesn't hurt retention. As a result, 85 per cent of ad revenue came from these rewarded ads. The growth team also found that in order to encourage ad interaction, rewarded ads at the end of the session generated 25 per cent higher cost per thousand impressions than the option to watch an ad at the start of a session.
Additionally, giving significant rewards to players for watching an ad was found to increase the engagement rate while also not cannibalising IAP revenue.
Space Ape concluded that watching ads is a clear value exchange, and approached ads with the idea that players should want to watch them. Testing found that when integrated as part of the game's aesthetic, it actually proved more profitable than offering the option of paying to remove them.
Offering ads that provide value to the player through rewards that can coexist with IAP bundles is the secret, explains Hade.
"A common mistake that people make when they implement ads is that they add them afterwards," says Hade. "We might be making say ten per cent of our revenue from people buying fuel -- and we condition people to buy fuel -- but then we implement an ad where we give away free energy, you might make some more money on the ads but you cannibalise the IAP.
"It was very important for us from the beginning to design the economy as separate modules. The rewards and motivations for engaging with ads are very different from the rewards and motivations you get from IAPs. A lot of things you buy with real money are not things you get from interacting with the ads, and the things you get from the ads are things you can't buy."
While ad implementation was key to Fastlane's growth, it would not have been enough on its own to inject such growth, notes Hade.
"The other part of that equation is that we are also spending money to acquire users into Fastlane," he says. "Previously what we would do is bid on Facebook and Google and other ad networks to acquire users into Fastlane based on how much money they would spend. That made a certain amount of sense when you build a battle game like Transformers: Earth Wars, where you have users who do spend a lot and it's not possible to monetise an ad."
"You've got to find this right balance where you're confident enough in your own game that you can encourage people to try other games knowing they will come back"
Simon Hade, Space Ape COO
Part of the breakthrough with Fastlane was being able to attribute ad revenue down to the user level. The growth team could see that users who spend less typically generated more ad revenue. By increasing their user acquisition budget on ads in other games, they were able to earn more ad revenue.
"The sort of people who discover your game because they clicked on an ad in another game are more likely to be tapping on ads in your game," Hade adds. "Being able to spend our user acquisition budget on channels for acquiring users who are going to generate more ad revenue was part of the equation. So that was what allowed us to scale up the spend in a profitable way. Whereas if we weren't looking at the ad revenue from the users and optimising for that, we would be blind."
Riding high on the success of Fastlane, Space Ape is now looking at how it can apply these lessons to other games. This comes with a certain restriction, however, which is that simply putting ads in a game that isn't designed from the very beginning to facilitate the model doesn't work.
"We've made that mistake in our previous games as well, but we saw a clear difference in Fastlane when the ad is something that fits into the world and it adds to the world," says Boulay.
However, the studio recently reshaped its entire game design process around chasing a genre defining hit, and currently has seven other titles in production. Although Hade notes it would be unlikely to find a billion-dollar success solely off the model, he could see ad revenue generate "if not the majority, then at least a big part of the games you will see coming from us," suggesting that it could be as high as 60 per cent.