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Why Crossy Road focused on sharing and retention, not UA and monetisation

Throwing away the rule book
Why Crossy Road focused on sharing and retention, not UA and monetisation
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This article is part of an ongoing partnership with Chartboost. You can read more of its advice in terms finding new players and monetizing audience via its Playbook blog.

February 10, 2014 was a big day in the history of mobile gaming.

For developer Dong Nguyen, whose successful arcade-style mobile game Flappy Bird had been downloaded 50 million times in nine months, it marked the end of a wild ride.

Though he was making $50,000 a day in ad revenue, he felt the game was too addictive and decided to yank the game from the App Store.

For developers Matt Hall and Andy Sum, co-creators of mobile game studio Hipster Whale, however, that was just the beginning.

As other mobile devs raced to fill the void with Flappy Bird duplicates, the Brisbane, Australia-based duo took a different tack: studying why a game like Flappy Bird was so addictive in the first place.

You know the rest of the story: Hipster Whale's free-to-play game, Crossy Road, made over $6 million on integrated video ads in its first 90 days and remains at the top of App Store charts since its release in November 2014.

The duo's creation is shaping up to be one of the largest indie success stories of 2015.

We talked to Hall to find out how thinking outside the box, taking risks and being purposefully unique made his game a success.

Pepe Agell: You approached the creation of Crossy Road differently from other devs who were mainly focused on creating a successful duplicate game when Flappy Bird was removed from the App Store. Tell me a little bit about that process?

Matt Hall: We really wanted to know why the game was so popular and found the answer lay in capturing the spirit of the game itself. It took a lot of thought. We realized one of the major factors was that Flappy Bird was really social.

Everyone was talking about it. I mean, people weren't leaving bed because they were so obsessed with playing this thing!

The virality of <em>Flappy Bird's</em> high score was the spark for Hipster Whale
The virality of Flappy Bird's high score was the spark for Hipster Whale

At the same time, though, there was really high skill involved. If someone scored 50 on Flappy Bird, that was impressive.

So we wanted to tackle those elements. We wanted to make an arcade game that was worth telling your friends about and one that rewarded those who spent time playing it.

Did you decide to create a game like Crossy Road - with a lot of social components - as a result of the social successes of Flappy Bird?

It's less around the mechanics of creating a social game and more about giving people a solid reason to share the game. The characters we've created have made things pretty interesting.

“It's less around the mechanics of creating a social game and more about giving people a solid reason to share the game.”
Matt Hall

Now people are asking each other if they've gotten a certain character and are sharing what happens when they do get the character.

It creates an excitement and people want to share that excitement with others.

You didn't invest in user acquisition. Some people say it's a misstep to ignore UA. What do you think about that?

We wanted to make a game that was popular, but not necessarily one that would make a lot of money per user. That was the intention. Anything that got in the way of it being popular, we threw away.

If you're investing in user acquisition, you have to make a game that earns a certain amount per user and that greatly restricts the types of games that can be made. We wanted to make something different.

Did you talk about monetization in the early stages?

We only started talking about monetization about six weeks into the process [at the halfway point].

At first we thought we'd just sell coins like everyone else, but then once we sat down and started to talk about it within the context of the characters, we realized the game would have a very strong family appeal.

Buying characters directly is one thing that set <em>Crossy Road</em> apart
Buying characters directly is one thing that set Crossy Road apart

At that point, Andy and I didn't feel comfortable selling coins (because, for example, I don't buy coin packs for my daughter).

From there we wanted to provide alternatives, so we decided to sell our characters directly - it's something more permanent and creates a strong attachment.

What numbers did you focus on early on?

The main metric we focused on was retention. That was the most important thing for us - that someone who is playing today would want to come back tomorrow.

We put a lot of effort into that. Our retention was really high when we started testing the game - around 65 percent - and the moment we saw that, we thought 'Oh, this is going to go pretty well.'

Other than that I didn't trace analytics. It's not that important to me. I don't really care about grinding the maximum amount of money per player.

“Disco Zoo was the first game I saw that had really strong integrated rewarded video.”
Matt Hall

I's really just about making a game that as many people as possible can enjoy.

Another thing you did differently was set a pretty aggressive time frame in which you said you'd finish the game - 12 weeks. Was having a set end date beneficial to your creative process?

Well the time frame was originally 6 weeks (laughs), so don't think we didn't go over budget. Still, 12 weeks is a really short time to make a game.

Having a deadline did help our process, though. I worked based on this really strong momentum. If I stop and think about what I'm doing, often times I can't get started again.

Andy and I wanted to get the project done quickly and the deadline helped to get it to a good spot very quickly. It was very important.

A lot of developers are at a crossroads now where they want to maintain the integrity of the game, but still need to make some money in order to keep creating these games. Do you have any advice for them?

Ads are a great way of doing that. They free you from having to sell coin packs and that sort of thing. They allow you to be flexible with the kind of game you can make. Disco Zoo was the first game I saw that had really strong integrated rewarded video and that game formed the blueprint we wanted to achieve.

Now, of course, everyone's seeing what we did with rewarded video and I'm sure more people will be making games of this type ... and we will, too!

If you could give an indie developer any advice, what would you tell them?

When you make a game, concentrate on intention. Concentrate on making a game that people will come back to again and again. Try to make a game that's remarkable, that people want to share with their friends.

Once you have those things, be willing to throw away the rule book and try to create new experiences because, as Crossy Road as shown, people really respond to new things.

Author Pepe Agell leads Chartboost's international efforts. 

In this role, he oversees the global expansion of the company's publisher base, strategic partnerships, and customer relationship management (CRM) to ensure the highest standard of service and support.