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Google's guide to growing your mobile games business

At GDC Showcase 2021, Brent Dance and Paula Wang went through the basics of user acquisition and how developers can connect with the influx of new players coming to mobile

The time of viral mobile successes such as Flappy Bird and Draw Something is over.

Both released at a time when user acquisition was in its infancy, they were able to reach levels of success that are now almost only achievable through a carefully crafted UA strategy from a team of experts.

That's not to say viral mobile games developed by small teams can't happen anymore, but the market has evolved in such a way that, more often than not, the top of the charts is occupied by companies who have millions to spend on their UA budget.

As mobile has grown into a beast of a market, developers have evolved alongside it and adapted to become more data-oriented to remain successful. But for newcomers, it's a very complex challenge to try to get a foot in the door without the expert knowledge now required to navigate the market.

At GDC Showcase 2021, Brent Dance, director of global gaming at Google, and Paula Wang, director of appdev sales at Google Asia Pacific, gave a crash course in mobile growth, providing developers with easy-to-understand tools to build upon initial success.

"As a game developer this is truly an unprecedented opportunity to prepare your game to engage with new players and reach more audiences"Brent Dance, Google

"As game developers one of the most exciting moments is launching your finished game," Dance said. "But the real excitement is not only the moment after launch, but also the potential for true business growth as you focus your efforts on bringing in new players and finding new markets."

2020 saw a historic rise in interest in gaming as people spent more time indoors due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Dance highlighted that search terms such as "multiplayer games online" grew 300% year-over-year.

"People were eager to do more gaming," he added. "And as the world adjusts, it looks like this increased engagement is actually here to stay. 65% of players said their gaming sessions were longer than before, with up to 60% of them expecting to continue beyond the pandemic. As a game developer this is truly an unprecedented opportunity to prepare your game to engage with new players and reach more audiences."

Dance explored which stats you should take into account to grow your games business and connect with this influx of new players, how to figure out if your game is ready for a new audience by examining metrics on player engagement, and finally took a look at how to tie your earnings to your user acquisition strategy. Meanwhile, Wang -- a preeminent expert for the APAC market -- covered expansion through those new markets.

How to identify if your game is ready for new players

If you just released a mobile game, the first step in tackling growth is to ensure that it's ready for new players, Dance started.

"Growth is a priority only if you have a solid base of players that value what your game offers. Value is a mix of signals like play time or in-app actions that identify if players are going to continue engaging with your game," he said.

"Acquiring new players does not matter if you can't keep them around"Brent Dance, Google

"Retention is a key metric in the development process to determine if there is value to the player and if you have product-market fit. Because acquiring new players does not matter if you can't keep them around."

It's essential to monitor user behaviours in the early stage of a game's launch. The aim is to help answer the following questions, when relevant:

  • What level are users reaching before they stop playing?
  • What features do they love and want more of?
  • What's their level of engagement with some of the social tools?
  • What's driving in-app purchases?

The frequency at which people play is another indicator to take into account when preparing for growth. Learn what's driving those frequent players to do more, that's different than those who aren't playing as often, Dance explained.

"These key features can be used as major selling points in the future as you plan your user acquisition campaigns," he added. "As a game developer you don't need to build your own heuristics from scratch. You can measure retention as players hit certain events and create basic funnels in Firebase."

Firebase is Google's own solution but there's a wealth of alternatives such as Flurry, Amplitude, Adjust, AppsFlyer or Unity's own analytics suite if your game is developed with this engine.

"Understanding what your retention rate is and having a tested plan to improve it is invaluable before trying to get more players," Dance added. "Say you do a funnel analysis and identify where players stop before a certain level, causing your retention to drop. First and foremost you and your design team need to see what should be fixed within the game. Is it level difficulty? Is it too much of a grind to get to the next item? A fulfilling gameplay experience will improve retention."

How to measure success

Once the game is able to deliver better retention, it's time to put together some engagement strategies to make sure this retention keeps improving.

Dance detailed a few key things you can do to make sure players keep coming back to the game or interact with everything it has to offer:

  • Push notifications delivered to players when they're off the app. This is helpful for early players who installed the game but haven't gone past its early stages. Properly timed and targeted notifications can be vital in increasing engagement, Dance said.
  • In-app messaging: that can take the form of short copy or images triggered on a certain event while using the app. It can be helpful as a reminder of other features in a game.
  • Have a social area or reward centre to encourage players to find more value out of the game while they're playing.

"Now that you've proven the value to players you should be able to market this value towards helping the game grow," Dance said. "This starts with understanding the cost, based on the existing value, to reach new players. Develop an investment thesis that you can stick with for a marketing campaign."

This starts with identifying the key performance indicators and goals you're aiming to reach with your marketing campaign, which often include the following:

  • Total user base
  • Daily active user
  • Retention rate
  • Churn rate
  • Purchase behaviour

"In order to reach these goals, we also need to determine how much you are willing to invest. User acquisition is a great way to steer and earn revenue from players, and grow your business. But in order to do so we have to identify how each player you acquire is contributing back to overall revenue. This ends up being the lifetime value or user LTV.

"User LTV measures how much a user will be worth over their full-time span as a player in your game. It incorporates all of the revenue driven by your users across ads and in-app purchases. Tie in the LTV of your players back to the campaigns where you acquire them gives you a better sense of how to set your overall marketing budget.

"User acquisition is a great way to steer and earn revenue from players, and grow your business"Brent Dance, Google

"Your user LTV is crucial towards more advanced value-based bidding when marketing for new players. Also, your marketing team has a target LTV to hit."

There are different ways to calculate user LTV ranging from simple to very complex. Dance provided a straightforward method to figure out user LTV. It can be calculated by taking the Average Revenue Per Daily Active User (ARPDAU) for your app and multiplying it by the average days a user plays your game.

To define the ARPDAU for your app, add up your total revenue earned from both ads and in-app purchases in a 24-hour period and divide that by the total number of active users you saw during that time.

"To give you an example, if yesterday you made $50 in ads revenue and $50 in purchases, and you had 1,000 users playing your game, then your ARPDAU would be 10 cents," Dance explained. "Next, you can estimate the number of days a user plays your game from your churn rate."

For example, if your day one retention is 80%, then churn rate is 20%. Assuming constant churn, that means the average user plays for five days. Now, you can just multiply your ARPDAU -- 10 cents in the example given -- by five days to get to an average LTV of roughly 50 cents per user.

How to target APAC markets

Concluding the talk, Paula Wang gave a quick rundown on how to approach the Asia-Pacific market, one of the largest and fastest growing markets for mobile, which should be on the radar of any mobile studio hoping to go big.

"Many developers around the world recognise the immense revenue opportunities in APAC," Wang said. "However, they're unsure about how to design, fine tune and enter this market. APAC is not one monolithic market. You have mature markets like Japan and Korea, you also have emerging markets like India and Southeast Asia, and of course, you have greater China, which is somewhere between mature and emerging.

"Understanding the general preferences by market can really help you narrow down your focus"Paula Wang, Google

"Recognising the [differences in] player preferences and behaviours is step number one for a successful market entry. Understanding the general preferences by market can really help you narrow down your focus. For example, in Japan and Korea, hardcore games are more of the norm, probably due to a long history of PC and console games, whereas in India, Philippines and certainly many of the southeast Asia countries, casual games and hypercasual games tend to be the primary [type of] game available to the users."

Individual countries' preferred types of games and genres will also impact your monetisation strategies. Wang recommended diversifying and experimenting with different revenue models depending on the audience you're targeting.

Free-to-play with in-app advertising, in-app purchases, subscriptions: these different models can be combined to maximise the lifetime value of your players. Take the time to research them and see how they are used in the countries you're targeting.

"Successful games would also need to consider the localisation [for] a certain market," she continued. "Each market also has their different preferred transaction methods and certainly preferred revenue model as well.

"What we're seeing right now is interesting innovation. It's this idea of genre mixing. So you could have a casual game which has some hardcore game design element in it and vice versa. For example, combining a puzzle game with some anime art style that basically kind of knocks down the barrier between the traditional casual game and hardcore game camps, and really combining the best of the two worlds. And it'll offer a much more interesting gaming experience for the users."

"There's more and more first-time game players that [are] coming into the ecosystem. So focusing on growth differently will open up more opportunities"Paula Wang, Google

There's also interesting things to explore in the demographics of these markets, with women becoming more and more prominent as players.

"In greater China, 45% of game players these days are [women] and that number is continuing to grow at about 10% to 15% a year," Wang said. "And what's more fascinating is the rise of female seniors [who] play more games in some cases than the other female segments. Korea, Japan and Southeast Asia also have higher percentages of female players. Right now, it's about a 40% share of the audience.

"We're also beginning to see more share of revenue coming out of female players. In fact, this segment accounted for 35% of mobile games revenue in 2019. As we start to identify more trends coming out of this past year, one thing remains clear: there's more and more first-time game players that [are] coming into the ecosystem. So focusing on growth differently will open up more opportunities for you to grow in more markets, and in more players' hands."

More Academy guides to Selling Games

Our guides to making money from video games cover various aspects of the publishing process, whether you're a young game developer about to start a new project or an industry veteran:

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Marie Dealessandri: Marie joined in 2019 to head its Academy section. A journalist since 2012, she started in games in 2016. She can be found (rarely) tweeting @mariedeal, usually on a loop about Baldur’s Gate and the Dead Cells soundtrack. GI resident Moomins expert.
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