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Navigating hypercasual through the changing landscape of mass-market casual games

From hypercasual to the future. Sunday's head of publishing explains why focusing on players is helping the company navigate the rapid evolution of the free-to-play market

Navigating hypercasual through the changing landscape of mass-market casual games

Balaji Thangaraj Vijayan, Sunday’s Head of Publishing talks to about how the company's focus on players is enabling it to navigate the rapidly evolving hypercasual market and where they see the future of games.

It’s no secret that the mobile games market, especially the hypercasual games segment, is rapidly changing, resulting in changes needed at multiple levels, from the way we ideate, develop, test, monetise, and beyond. All because of the market forces that have been discussed over and over in the past year, such as its saturation, the IDFA war, fluctuating rates, and more.

However, certain undeniable truths remain constant, regardless of how the market evolves. One such truth is that people will continue playing free-to-play games and voluntarily watch ads in return for quality entertainment. At the same time, companies will keep advertising for the mobile audience. And as long as these facts hold, there's simply no reason for us not to work on these games. Another undeniable truth is that user acquisition strategies haven't changed significantly - you can still acquire users the same way we acquired users when hypercasual first emerged. However, UA is more expensive now - which is out of our control - so, instead, our attention should be directed towards creating better engaging products with higher lifetime value (LTV). By increasing LTV, we can offset the higher cost of acquiring users.

This approach calls for a major shift in the thought process behind game development, leading to somewhat longer production cycles. Why? Because even though single-mechanic games that are easy to pick up and play will keep being popular for the foreseeable future, we’ll need to focus on building depth inside or on top of the core game loop when developing them. In the current mobile game industry, where long-term hypercasual players expect higher quality experiences, we need a better LTV than ever before - this is what your creativity and time should be focused on. So, it’s natural that production is taking longer, but it’s important not to slow down too much - our fast-paced industry now asks for a balance between quality and speed in development.

Quality Should Never Be an Afterthought

Quality here must be your priority from the start - even for prototypes - and never an afterthought. Remember, for players your test is not a test, but a real game that they will compare to other games on the market. And if your prototype is low-quality, why would the players return the next day? This means you need to get in the mindset of eliminating glitches and establishing a clear direction for the game from the very beginning. Our industry has evolved, and our approach must follow.

Have a Clear Game Vision from the Start

And what’s crucial for a clear game vision? Objectivity. Stay objective by asking your team fundamental questions, particularly about player engagement and longevity. For instance, why play this game for the 50th time? What has changed? Previously, we focused on early levels during prototyping, but now we must look as far as the difference between the first and 50th levels. How does gameplay evolve? Do objectives change? And how can variety be introduced to keep players interested?

Determining whether variety should come from the gameplay itself or through secondary loops/meta layers is important. If a meta layer is added, it must fit organically and enhance player engagement. There should be a solid rationale behind incorporating meta elements. Meta isn't necessarily the answer, especially for mass-market audiences unfamiliar with larger game elements.

Understand Your Target Audience

Don't assume that increasing LTV means shifting towards mid-core or casual games with IAPs. Labels like "hybrid-casual" don't matter and can lead to misguided decisions. Instead, focus on a clear game vision and understand your target audience.

Switching to casual or mid-core is not that simple if you don’t have your UA strategy aligned for these games. There's a psychological barrier for players accustomed to spending nothing to suddenly start spending money on a game, even if it is just $1. The value proposition must be high for players to engage willingly with in-game transactions. Otherwise, why would they? Your game may seem special, but there's plenty of quality entertainment available for free in the free-to-play market.

Instead of asking for payments, it might be more effective to encourage players to watch more ads — a monetisation model they're already familiar with. Understand what motivates players to return and break down the reasons, such as rewards or incentives, aligning them with your objectives. When encouraging actions like watching ads or collecting rewards, consider if the incentives genuinely motivate them. For example, if you want them to watch 15 ads instead of 5, will offering 15 skins do it? Probably not. Find ways to provide additional value in return for players watching more rewarded ads. This approach extends to incorporating new features, events, level designs, and gameplay variations. Stay adaptable and balance player preferences with effective monetisation strategies.

The evolving nature of these games also requires reconfiguring your team, as new skills and roles are necessary for success.
Balaji Thangaraj Vijayan

Help The Teams Catch Up

The evolving nature of these games also requires reconfiguring your team, as new skills and roles are necessary for success. For example, while a team made of artists and developers could have been sufficient in the past, your studio may now require more design, product, and engineering bandwidth to ensure higher quality. We’re seeing this at Sunday, too. Previously, there may have been a single publisher manager, but now there are publishing managers, product managers, game designers, and QA specialists, all working together as part of Sunday’s publishing team. Changes are necessary, and the team must adapt and develop new skills accordingly. It’s extremely important to sit down with your team and identify what skills they need to learn and whether they are up for the challenge.

It's also understandable that some studios are hesitant to change. They may prefer working with a publisher that clings to older approaches due to fear of failing. While we always accept this decision, it's undeniable that change is required. If you keep developing games the way you did before, no one wins eventually. From a publishing perspective, we acknowledge the changes, adopt strategies, and constantly implement workshops and training programs for our partners and internal cooperation to address this.

Moreover, both studios and publishers must also decide what investments they will make to support this transition. For example, we know that without investing in our own monetisation layer, we would have lost this race. It’s the two key aspects, investment and strategy, that you need to have in place to increase the chances of success in this new era, and we have both.

As the industry shifts, every day brings more clarity, and we now keep working with studios to provide that clarity to them. We’re sure, this commitment will create the next wave of hit games in collaboration with our studio partners, bringing excitement to an uncertain future. 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.