Comment & Opinion

The indie game developers guide to user acquisition

5 top tips for indie UA

The indie game developers guide to user acquisition

Johannes Heinze is Managing Director for EMEA at AppLovin.

It’s hard out there for an indie game dev.

Competition is fierce, especially when acquiring users. There are lots of best practices in mobile games user acquisition, and in our years of working with indie game developers to help them expand their reach and acquire valuable new users, we have some tips to offer.

Tip #1: Know yourself, know your audience

While most indie game devs are on some level aware of the strengths and weaknesses of their games, it can be helpful to actually write them down.

You should be able to articulate who exactly your game appeals to and what your user base is. But more importantly, you should level-set your expectations. You are an indie and have an indie’s budget, so don’t go after lofty market share/chart topping goals.

Market share plays are typically for the big companies with massive budgets. They have a longer pay-out window, whereas indie devs operate within a much smaller margin for error.

You are an indie and have an indie’s budget, so don’t go after lofty market share/chart topping goals.

Do the maths on budgeting for profitability (more on that below), and be realistic by setting challenging but achievable UA goals.

Tip #2: Use UA as a tool to do more profitable UA

When you first launch a new title, it’s just another in a sea of icons in the various app stores. Do nothing, and you either have a one in a million chance of a viral hit, or you are quickly relegated to the ether.

Clearly you have to do some UA, but how do you make the most of your modest budget?

The best way is to think of UA not as an end, but as an ongoing process. And before the process kicks off, you need data -- data that will help refine both your product and your UA strategy.

How are people playing your game? What is retention like? What levels are the sticking points for players? What types of users show the best retention? Once you have a basic data set you can sink your teeth into UA.

Start small, launching your first UA campaign in a smaller, similar market (if your region is Europe, try UK or Germany for instance). Put a modest part of your UA budget towards finding players - enough to be statistically significant - with whom you can test.

This is a balancing act. You want the sample size to be as big as possible - think at least high-hundreds - but not so high that you blow your budget. This way when you are ready to go big, you know which users to target, and you can do so with a stronger, refined product.

A lot of success in this industry is the result of trial and error. Be honest with yourself and don’t expect (or attempt) to manufacture an overnight smash hit through UA. And don’t blow your budget on your first campaign.

Tip #3: Study your competition; copy what works.

Whatever you do, you have to know your competition intimately, both in terms of their titles/features and in terms of UA. In terms of gameplay and user experience, always be on top of what features your competitors add, how they make improvements and of course their app store descriptions and reviews.

Remember, not adding a feature could be as helpful to your game as adding one.

While it’s important to build a game that is unique, what the competition is doing should always inform what you do. Don’t let the competition obsess you, but don’t ever let them catch you flat-footed. Remember, not adding a feature could be as helpful to your game as adding one.

In terms of UA, never forget that you’re competing against them here too: you’re spending and they’re spending to get the same valuable players.

Often you’re competing against companies that have dedicated UA teams that are looking for the best pockets of inventory. So take note of where they place ads and work with your ad partners to follow your competitors’ successful routes, or zig where they zag.

Tip #4: Quality over quantity: Know the metrics that deliver quality players with a high LTV (lifetime value)

Vanity chart positions are for bigger publishers to worry about. As an indie dev, you need to be laser-focused on LTV and metrics like retention because they’re what determines if you meet your revenue goals.

This isn’t to say that you should ignore where you stand in the charts, but remember that big publishers use those rankings to keep investors happy and to drive organic downloads.

Organic downloads are great - no one is going to complain about their game being downloaded - but organic downloaders are usually the most fickle players. Solid revenue (no matter what the crowd size) is more important to the boot-strapped indie dev.

Use UA as a vehicle to find the metrics you need to benchmark your success. With whatever data you have available from your existing users (or whatever data you acquire through UA), formulate your LTV to establish your ROAS (return on ad spend) goals for Day 3, Day 7, Day 15 or Day 30.

By being honest with yourself, and spending your budget wisely, there is still room for the indie dev to compete.

Know the different factors that make up an LTV calculation, and get granular on how the factors are intertwined and on how you arrived at those results.

LTV is incredibly important to track, but don’t get obsessed with the LTV number in itself. Rather than focus on the final outcome of the campaign, devote your energy to the inputs that you can control to get that outcome.

Tip #5: Use rewarded video to retain, monetise and acquire

The freemium (F2P) market is dominant among the highest grossing games, so typically indie devs have to tinker with a mix of ads and in-app payments (IAPs) to maximise the monetisation of their games.

Sometimes ads and IAPs go hand-in-hand, with ads actually increasing IAPs. If your IAPs are low, for example, and your game is currency-based, you might want to consider rewarded video.

Players appreciate the opt-in nature of the ad, they appreciate the reward, and once they get a taste of what they can do with the currency, they’ll buy more. Rewarded video normalises commerce for those who might have been hesitant to pay, and it operates as both engagement and monetisation.

Rewarded video is by far the most popular format for monetisation these days, but it should also be part of your UA strategy. Use rewarded video for your acquisition campaigns and the players who click are more likely to convert; those that convert are more likely to have better retention.

Why? Because they’ve seen a video of the game in action and have a good idea that it is interesting to them. There is no better instructive format in mobile advertising. Work with your ad partners to make sure that your video ad is demonstrative and compelling.

By being honest with yourself, and spending your budget wisely, there is still room for the indie dev to compete in a market crowded with Goliaths and other would-be Davids.

But of course the most important tip of all is that you need to have a great game. The only way that comes is through iteration and determination. regularly posts content from a variety of guest writers across the games industry. These encompass a wide range of topics and people from different backgrounds and diversities, sharing their opinion on the hottest trending topics, undiscovered gems and what the future of the business holds.