Data & Research

Ever softer: Trends in the soft launch strategy of F2P mobile games

Ever softer: Trends in the soft launch strategy of F2P mobile games

It wasn't so many years ago that soft launching a mobile game consisted of a couple of weeks live in Canada to bug fix.

Fast-forward to mid-2016, however, and the complexity of the experience has changed immeasurably.

Sort of...

Our favourite testbed

One thing that hasn't changed is the dominance of Canada as the #1 soft launch country.

According to our research, it was used as a test territory in 72% of the games we studied.

Why? Because Canada provides the best small market with which to test against US players - the most accessible and most lucrative market for most developers. 

And this is one thing to get clear about soft launch.

It's all about testing, in particular, testing in a restricted market that has similar characteristics to the big, key markets you want your game to be successful in.

In that respect, then, some of the changes to soft launch strategy merely reflect the increasingly global nature of the mobile games industry. 

Some are driven by other trends, however. 

Reader beware

As for the caveats of our research (there are always caveats), it's not designed to be comprehensive.

Canada was used as a test territory in 72% of the games we studied.

We looked at 36 games in soft launch, chosen because they were prominent enough to be listed on our weekly updated Soft Launch list.

Because of this, the sample is skewed towards western developers, looking for test markets that will match the key western markets; US, UK, Australia, Germany, France etc.

Nevertheless, we uncovered some surprising conclusions.

Read on...


Click here to view the list »
  • 1 Top places to test

    As highlighted in the introduction, the top countries in which developers soft launch their games hasn't changed much.

    Acting as a proxy for the US, 72% of the games we considered had Canada as one of their soft launch territories.

    Similarly in terms of English language markets, Australia was used by 56% of games, with New Zealand at 39%.

    Gateway to Asia

    What is significant, however, is the position of the Philippines as the third most popular territory at 44%.

    The reasons are clear; it's part of the fast-growing south east Asian region, but one that, thanks to its long association with the US, has strong English language penetration.

    In that regard, it's the ultimate bridge.

    Looking further down the list, there's strong representation from Scandinavia with its largest population Sweden at 39%, Norway at 28% and Finland at 22%.

    Bigger than Sweden, The Netherlands acts as another proxy for mainland Europe at 28%, while Singapore acts in a similar way to the Philippines at 31%.

    It's also worth noting some other tier 3 locations; South Africa at 19%, Brazil at 17%, and Indonesia at 11%.

  • 2 Testing almost everywhere

    One big change in soft launch over the years has been the number of countries in which games are tested.

    As we've seen, the usual duo of Canada and Australia are still popular, but rarely on their own, and then only during the early stages of soft launch.

    Across the 36 games we considered, the average number of countries in which a game was live was 7.

    Going big

    Again, there are some caveats to this average: some games are live in a lot of countries.

    Certainly the Japanese-developed Age of Empires: World Domination (KLab) could be considered regionally live.

    There's a wide variation in the number of countries games are being soft launched in

    Age of Empires: World Domination is available in 22 countries including Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong, all of which are in the top 10 global markets for mobile games.

    More generally, it's live in the key south east Asian territories ranging from Thailand and Malaysia to Singapore, the Philippines and Vietnam.

    Similarly, Rovio's Battle Bay is live in 17 countries including Australia, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Hong Kong, Malaysia, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Singapore, Sweden and Vietnam.

    More interesting, is Zynga's big hope Dawn of Titans, which is live in 15 countries.

    It's treading a finer line between soft launch and semi-launched however.

    In the west, it's only available in Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland.

    And more strikingly, it's the only game we found that was soft launched in Chile, and only one of two available in Austria, Saudi Arabia and UAE.

    US is the one

    Another game who's status we're uncertain about is Zplay's Minitropolis.

    It's live in 15 countries on Google Play, including Australia, Canada, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Sweden and the UK, plus a good chunk of south east Asia.

    Still, that stated, the rule-of-thumb that states a game is in soft launch unless it's available in the US remains a good one.

  • 3 Long time testing

    Similar to the expansion in the number of countries developers are testing their games in, is the length of time they are testing them.

    In our survey of 36 games, there were four that had been in soft launch for more than 12 months.

    Dawning?

    Demonstrating its rather troubled history, Zynga's Dawn of Titans was originally slated for a late 2015 release.

    Zynga publicly stated it was pushing it back into 2016 to improve longterm retention. The game is now expected to be released in the fall, by which time various versions of Dawn of Titans will have been in soft launch for 18 months.

    But that's not the record.

    Z2Live's Rise of Tyrants has been in soft launch for almost 2 years.

    Slow burn 

    The history seems to be that the company's acquisition by King, and then King's acquisition by Activision Blizzard, has prolonged testing.

    And as the two videos - one from May 2015 and one from July 2016 below show, (a bit hard to see), there don't seems to have been that many changes.

    The result appears to be a highly polished experience; at least that's our experience of the UK soft launch.

    (Incidentally, Rise of Tyrants is one of 7 games that has the UK as a soft launch territory.)

    The other two games that have been in soft launch for over a year are

    • Bandai Namco's Fortress Legends, and
    • Warner's DC Comics Legends.

  • 4 What does average test time mean?

    Having looked at some games that have been in soft launch for too long, let's consider the average.

    Obviously, there is a strong caveat at this point.

    What we've measured is the length of time each of these 36 games has been in soft launch.

    We haven't measured the total period because they haven't finished their soft launch yet.

    Hence, this data must be viewed as an underestimate.

    Average what?

    For example, the average soft launch period for the games is 5.6 months.

    However, if every game remained in soft launch for another month before it finally went live (another likely underestimate), the average would be 6.6 months (obviously).

    For this reason, it's best described that the average soft launch period of the 36 games is at least 6 months.

    The distribution of soft launch period for our 36 games

    (Equally if outliers such as Dawn of Titans and Rise of Tyrants went live tomorrow, the average would drop to under 5 months).

    (Indeed, if we remove the highest and lowest four games, the average drops to 4.4 months, but I fear we're getting too focused on the stats at this point).

  • 5 Even the US can be a soft launch option

    As recently stated, a good rule-of-thumb is that a game remains in soft launch unless it's available in the US.

    However, there are exceptions to all rules.

    Looking at the 36 games we considered, three were available in the US.

    It's interesting to consider why.

    Testing against where?

    The most obvious example is Cybird's BFB Champions: Global Kick-Off.

    The football game is a new version of a popular Japanese title and is currently available in Denmark, Norway, Sweden and the US.

    The first three territories play into the typical Scandinavia testing grounds, while the US is a secondary market for football (aka soccer) games.

    For that reason, it makes for a good - if likely relatively expensive - market to test the behaviour of the key European markets (and Mexico).

    The other two games are harder to analyse.

    Goodgame's Legend of Honor is soft launched in Canada, the UK and the US on iOS, so perhaps should be considered live.

    The only reason we don't is because the #1 market for the German developer's menu-heavy strategy games is Germany and eastern Europe.

    Indeed, a standalone Polish version of the game is also live.

    As for Diandian's Wartide: Heroes of Atlantis, the Chinese-developed RPG is live in 10 countries on Google Play in the UK and US, as well Canada, Finland, the Netherlands, Norway and part of south east Asia.

    Aside from the thought that it's all just a test for the iOS launch, it's hard to work out why.


  • 6 Rovio's approach

    Because of its scale and current volume-driven strategy, the most represented company in our survey was Rovio.

    It has four games in soft launch.

    • Angry Birds Goal!
    • Angry Birds Holiday
    • Battle Bay
    • Pet Monsters

    Horses, courses

    Looking at the company's approach to soft launch, it's mixed.

    Real-time PVP game Battle Bay is live in 17 countries, including Australia, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland. It also has a strong presence in south east Asia.

    To a degree, this reflects the game's six month gestation: it's been in soft launch since March 2016.

    Also, when you're running a real-time PVP games, you need a lot of players always available to play. That requires a globally-distributed approach to soft launch.

    New ground

    Collectable RPG Pet Monsters has been live (Google Play only) since December 2015 and is available in 9 territories, including Australia, Canada and Finland.

    Odd testing grounds for the title include Slovenia (it's the only game in our survey soft-launched there), Israel and Brazil, plus a good smattering of south east Asia countries - Hong Kong, the Philippines and Singapore.

    Of the two Angry Birds games, Angry Birds Goal! is out in 8 countries, mainly European but including South Africa and Thailand.

    The only oddity is Angry Birds Holiday.

    It's available in 4 countries: Brazil, the Philippines, South Africa and Thailand, and hence is the only one of the four not to be soft launched in Australia and Canada.


  • 7 All bases covered

    The final thing we wanted to consider was if we wanted to play all the games listed on our Soft Launch list, how many app store accounts would we need?

    There are a number of ways of handling this, but the simplest is to have accounts in the top 3 soft launch territories (we're not dealing with iOS vs Android at this point).

    This would be:

    • Canada
    • Australia
    • Philippines

    However, that doesn't provide blanket coverage.

    To cover off the remaining three games, we need:

    • Singapore (Dawn of Titans and Hero)
    • Sweden (BFB Champions: Global Kick-Off)

Contributing Editor

A Pocket Gamer co-founder, Jon is Contributing Editor at PG.biz which means he acts like a slightly confused uncle who's forgotten where he's left his glasses. As well as letters and cameras, he likes imaginary numbers and legumes.

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