Dennis Mink is senior vice president of marketing at Liftoff
Developing an understanding of what makes mobile games fun — and what makes players tick — is an important arrow in the modern mobile game marketer’s quiver.
Back when IDFA reigned supreme, marketers were hyper-focused on turning huge quantities of user-level data into precise ad targeting strategies. But since major tech companies and governments have implemented new rules and regulations to protect consumer privacy, marketers have learned to adapt.
In the post-IDFA world, effective marketing strategies require a deep understanding of contextual data rather than behavioral data. While contextual data such as device information and app categories are well documented, there’s another source of contextual understanding that is critical for marketers, but often overlooked: game design.
Beyond genre: game design as a key targeting data point
App stores use categories and even subcategories to organise games by genre, grouping them so that theoretically, when a user finds a game they enjoy, they can then find more games just like them. But just because a player enjoys an RPG doesn’t necessarily mean they want to play another one. Marketers need to look beyond app categories or game genres for truly valuable contextual clues. The fundamentals of game design provide more impactful insight into player psychology.
Conventional wisdom might suggest advertising only other sports mobile games, but looking deeper throws a wrench into that thinkingDennis Mink
Take sports games, for example. Let’s say a user is fired up to play the new game they just downloaded from the sports category. Conventional wisdom might suggest advertising only other mobile games in the sports genre to that user, but looking deeper throws a wrench into that thinking.
As it happens, this hypothetical user is playing a team management game. They are motivated by building a group of talented characters, leveling up each one, and using strategic thinking to apply the right moves at the right time and in the right place.
It’s entirely possible that the same player will be interested in a sports game that allows them to control the game-winning character or score a goal, but maybe they’re more likely to be attracted to a team management game in an entirely new genre. An RPG, for example, where multi-character party balance and strategic combat choices are core to gameplay, could be just as appealing provided those features are properly highlighted in ad creative. More than a game’s general genre, its design principles speak volumes about what keeps players motivated and engaged.
Understanding those fundamental differences can help marketers drill down further and get even more granular with their campaign targeting. That’s why it’s so powerful for marketers to understand the basics of formal game design. Theories of game design seek to understand what makes for fun and compelling play, what keeps people engaged, and what motivates them to continue through the world of the game.
Game design 101: brush up on your basics
There isn’t one definitive way to study game design, but there are plenty of introductory compilations out there. Here are three suggestions for mobile game marketers interested in learning about game design fundamentals:
- A Theory of Fun for Game Design, by Raph Koster
A Theory of Fun is widely considered a classic, and is often included as a textbook requirement for game design courses at the university level. Raph Koster investigates what gives games staying power and keeps players coming back for more over the decades or even the centuries. The 10th anniversary edition of the book discusses changing gaming demographics, the impact of creative choices, and the most important element of all game design: fun.
- The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses, by Jesse Schell
In The Art of Game Design, author and video game designer Jesse Schell examines how principles that date back to classic board games, card games, and even athletic pursuits inform today’s modern video games. The third edition includes design insights about AR, VR, and F2P games. Working through the book’s hundreds of questions will help marketers tap into the psychological headspace that links designers and players in the gaming world.
- Game Feel: A Game Designer’s Guide to Virtual Sensation, by Steve Swink
Steve Swink breaks game design down even further in Game Feel by identifying the building blocks that go into every game: feel and sensation. Distinct elements like sound and music cues, narrative metaphor, and player perception all contribute to the elusive concept of feel and determine each individual’s experience of being truly involved in a game. There is also a companion website that will allow marketers to experiment with feel in various game designs.
Using game design principles to deliver better UA campaigns
It's an approach those looking to gain a competitive edge while increasing return on ad spend can’t afford to ignoreDennis Mink
In order to adopt a truly design theory-driven approach to UA, marketers need to develop strong relationships with design teams and/or spend time in analytics platforms looking for engagement patterns to identify what specific features are resonating most with players. This information can then be used to either further refine targeting and creative within your category, or most critically, expanding into contrasting categories to target users in games that share similar features outside of your home genre.
There will always be a place for campaigns that aim for the middle of the bell curve, but that can’t be the exclusive approach UA managers take in a market that’s growing more competitive by the day. Carving out a material portion of your team’s time and resources for campaigns that are laser-focused on your product’s unique, cross-genre features is the key to acquiring and retaining high value players through design theory-driven UA.
It’s a largely underexploited approach that those looking to gain a competitive edge while increasing return on ad spend can’t afford to ignore.