How ASO influences metrics: a closer look

Azur Games gets into deep details

How ASO influences metrics: a closer look

Rustam Saidrakhmonov is the ASO lead at Azur Games.

There’s plenty of stereotypes about an ASO specialist’s job.

What can be easier, write a simple description for the store, add a few gameplay screenshots and a trendy icon with a screaming dude on it, and you’re done.

Now you just have to sit and wait for the organic traffic to come in, right?

If everything were so simple, there probably wouldn’t be a staff shortage in this particular sphere — why would we need a special person for something so easy anyway? In reality, it’s so difficult to find a good ASO specialist that you usually have to just grow one within the company.

Many people also think that one ASO is enough, but the work continues throughout the entire life cycle of the project. Next, I'll go through the things we encounter every day in dozens of projects.

Spoiler: even changing an icon can increase downloads by 30%.

What an ASO specialist actually does

Our ASO team, which currently has eight people on it, handles dozens of projects monthly, if not weekly.

On top of that, they constantly get new games to work on and still have to support the existing ones. There are a lot of ideas and each one needs to be tested, all while trying to keep up with the rapidly changing trends and overall situation on the market.

For example, most hypercasual games have a tendency to burn out in six months, and if you want to get the most out of promoting a game at the peak of its popularity, you have about a month to test the entire meta, both text and graphics.

It’s so difficult to find a good ASO specialist that you usually have to just grow one within the company.

Keep in mind that you have to spend at least a week of it figuring out how different audiences behave on different days. There are cases when everything is fine on Monday, but then the new version underperforms in terms of key metrics over the weekend and something needs to be changed.

This doesn’t mean that the work on a hypercasual project stops at the one month mark. Within the company, we conditionally divide ASO into two classes, primary and support. Primary ASO is done before marketing tests to understand whether we’ll keep working on the game or not; support ASO is provided until the project shuts down.

The workflow for individual "hot" titles is planned out 2-3 months in advance with weekly tests and non-stop analysis of the results. "Hot" titles are usually defined by the amount of money spent on marketing, or, sometimes, by a high rate of organic downloads.

In this case, the schedule is mapped out in a way that allows us to test the highest possible number of ideas as quickly as possible, since store algorithms are more willing to promote new apps.

This is only a portion of the icons we’ve tested in a single year on one of our hits, Modern Strike Online

Testing is more difficult if the traffic volume is insufficient (conventionally, 1,000 downloads a day is a good number), so we increase the number of days allocated for it.

At the same time, new titles are coming in, new hopes follow, downloads influx by millions, and the cycle repeats itself. Besides, the work on old apps doesn’t stop until they get taken off the market.

Read on to get more details about how Azur's ASO team operates. 

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  • 1 What happens when we get a new game?

    1. Introductory stage

    We sync with producers and developers to understand what kind of game it is, discussing genre, gameplay, and target audience at the meetings.

    2. Analysis stage

    We figure out where the idea of the game came from (maybe it’s a mix of references), we analyze the setting and all competitors, including indirect ones.

    We look at the competitors’ entire meta: texts, keyword rankings, icons, screenshots, previews, ratings, positions by category, how many people download the game in a particular country, what is the revenue by country — in other words, everything that can help us get an idea of what the situation on the market is to further position our game.

    We explore the things that could use some improvement on our part and the opportunities our competitors are missing. Have they localized the product for Japan or Brazil? Do they have mid-range keywords and long tails (i.e. multi-word keys)? Can we make a better trailer? These are some of the things we’re looking to figure out.

    Oddly enough, the children's games are the most difficult to handle. Prior to making a final decision on developing a game, the producers need to study the audience that isn’t particularly easy to understand.

    Most children don’t know how to search and pick content themselves, so their parents are doing it for them. Therefore, they’re the ones visiting the page. That leaves us with two entirely different categories of people, one has to be interested enough to download the game, and the other has to like the game itself.

    Or, maybe the child found the game and the parent is just checking it out before downloading. In this case, the content has to speak to the children with cute pictures and explain how the game benefits the child's development to the parents at the same time.

    In addition, parents, as well as the platforms themselves, are very sensitive when it comes to choosing a game for their child. They pay a lot of attention to the reviews, ratings and app safety.

    You’re very lucky if your game has a strong competitor. You can look at their creatives, early tests, and generally follow the game’s evolution. In most cases, there are no creatives, or the competitors are very weak, or the ASO is nowhere to be found, so you have to pioneer a certain subgenre.

    3. Strategy development

    After we analyze the project, we make a roadmap and discuss it with producers and developers. Our game plan strongly depends on the goals and objectives — sometimes you need to start with graphics or, conversely, with text.

    If you need to expand your reach and then work on conversion, we start with the text meta.

    This happens in 90% of cases with hypercasual and midcore projects — we select the semantic core, compose a text meta, and localize it for different countries. We do this first because the text meta gains momentum very slowly. It takes at least three weeks to index the keywords on Google Play; the App Store is easier to approach, the results are often visible almost immediately.

    We start with graphics if we don't have time to work with the text. For example, when user acquisition starts in a week. In this case, the text meta won’t have time to gain momentum and we’ll waste our time. Even though artists also need time to create content, it's quicker to make colorful, attractive packaging with banners, screenshots and calls to action, and switch to expanding the keywords and writing well-developed text afterwards. Graphics testing is the most important thing for hypercasual.

    4. Testing stage

    After the primary ASO, the game goes to the marketing team for a CPI test. We need it to understand if we’re ready to continue user acquisition, how much a download costs, what’s the retention and other parameters.

    If we’re ready to keep working with the resulting metrics, the game goes to the second test to see if it pays off.

    5. Result evaluation stage

    The producer decides whether to keep the project or not. If the project has passed both tests, it transitions to large-scale acquisition.

    6. Strategy implementation

    If everything’s good, we move on to what we call the support ASO. We’re working on increasing reach and conversion and optimizing the text meta as well as possible.

    Let’s say we wrote a text with the largest possible number of relevant keywords during the primary ASO. When we optimize, we increase target keyword density — this way, a large share of the target audience will be able to find the game by words and phrases.

    If there’s a lot of acquired traffic, we check which creatives give us more downloads and adjust the packaging for ads to eliminate any discrepancies.

    7. Search for new growth points

    We test the performance of pictures, text and other throughout the entire project life cycle.

    8. Project shutdown stage

    We stop doing ASO only when we’re no longer working with the developer. While the game is on the market, the work goes on.

  • 2 Sorting Beads' ASO

    As a halfway summary, it’s worth mentioning that independent developers are having a tough time with ASO, because organic traffic goes to the people able to spend more money to draw it in.

    Recently, the correlation has become especially clear: the more traffic you acquire, the more organic traffic you get, and the more important the ASO becomes.

    Sorting Beads is one of the exceptions.

    Acquired traffic (pink graph) was gradually decreasing, but a comprehensive effort towards ASO (orange and purple) over the course of a month resulted in an explosive growth of organic downloads:

    Before/after. Example of a better performing Sorting Beads app icon

    A single keyword improvement put Dr. Pimple Pop in the top search results and culminated in 1.5 million downloads without UA.

    Putting the emphasis on high and mid-range keywords like pimple, pimple popper, pimple popping and so on in the English meta helped.

    Additionally, we looked at the keywords our competitors were ranking by, took the most relevant ones into our meta and localized them into 17 languages.

    The outcome was almost immediate.

  • 3 ASO trends

    Trends greatly affect the ASO efficiency and need to be constantly monitored and thoroughly tested — trend packaging can crash the metrics as much as it can increase them.

    On the positive side, when everyone was waiting for Cyberpunk 2077 to be released, we stylized the Infinity Ops icon. Metrics increased and stayed that way, even after the post-release backlash Cyberpunk encountered. We tried changing the icon once again, but the metrics immediately dropped, so the stylized icon stayed.

    As a result, the downloads increased by 30%.

    The pink graph shows the stylized icon versus the other two options

    In another case, the exact opposite thing happened. Cyberpunk 2077 stylization didn't work for I, the One, so we had to leave it alone.

    When it comes to incorporating trending content into screenshots and videos in the store, we talk to the developers first.

    If we add screenshots of impostors, and there aren’t any in the actual game, we’ll mislead the players, and this can have a bad effect on reviews and ratings. For the most part, work with the content if the developers are ready to add it to the game, high-level content included.

    That’s what happened with impostors. We asked the developers on several projects to put them into the game and none of the players complained.

    In any case, all work gets tested and everything is based on numbers. If the icons that look cool and trendy in our opinion underperform compared to the worst ones in terms of numbers, we choose the latter.

    However, there were situations when we first tested fictional locations that weren’t in the game (for example, a forest with mountains) and saw a good response. After that, we discussed the changes with the developers, and they implemented them into the project.

    In general, current trends lean towards showing the real picture, real gameplay, gameplay video recorded on the phone — without blurring, opening scenes, color grading, plaques, and so on. Players like it more than cinematics. Nowadays, even the screenshots stay basically unedited; this type of content is more honest and easier to localize.

    As for the screaming dudes and impostors, they’re a thing of the past.

    However, there’s a new phenomenon — trendy color combinations. The recent favorites are the red and yellow combo and brightly colored objects on a gray background. They performed very well, but the trends are changing rapidly.

  • 4 Localization

    This is a lot of work for ASO, which is often overlooked by developers. We do a high-quality text translation into 30 languages for our hypercasual projects, but the graphics are even harder to hanle.

    Sometimes a “good” icon performs worse than a “bad” one on global tests — you need to figure out why it’s happening and which country it’s coming from.

    This is where creative adaptation for different countries begins. It’s not exactly localization, so ‘adaptation' is a better word for it. We look at the colors, composition and so on. In Asia, for instance, having well thought-out characters is really important — players from this area like bright, colorful, and very detailed visuals.

    For the Harvest project, we chose color combinations that looked similar to the flags of different countries. For Bangladesh, the combination of green and red was the most popular, but Brazilian users favored yellow and green.

    You need to understand the specifics of people’s perception in different countries and take all prohibitions into account. From the images of bottles or half-naked bodies for Arab countries, to very delicate topics like civil wars.

    Understanding who you’re working with and what you’re showing them is vital. For example, people in Israel read from right to left, so you need to invert screenshots.

    China is a whole separate topic. You can’t use images of skulls and bones, black color is undesirable, red or yellow is good, and white symbolizes mourning and death. It’s also better not to use the number four.

    Every area requires a special approach. It’s not like there’s ever a massive outrage about a screenshot coming from one particular place, you just need to be careful.

    As for the text localization, the first thing you need to do is select the keywords you’re going to give to the translators.

    There are special tools that can help you find keywords by country like App Tweak, ASO Desk, and App Follow.

    We need to make a list of phrases and search terms that rake in the downloads for our competitors, or pick something similar. When it’s done, we can ask the translator to rewrite our text and include these words. Then, we choose a semantic core for each country.

  • 5 The other things ASO affects

    It’s important to note the connection between АSO and Google Ads. In this case, having a good-looking ASO is important because the visuals from the page are going to be used for Google Play Store ads by default, directly affecting the performance on this platform.

    Whether or not your game gets selected for the store features is also influenced by ASO. If you know your competitors, their place in the category, and pick the text meta and graphics that look similar to your competitors, all your activity shows the algorithms where and how you need to be featured.

    We noticed an increase of traffic coming from other other apps' pages and Google recommendations

    We noticed an increase of traffic coming from other other apps' pages and Google recommendations

    All in all, the amount of organic traffic and features are affected by anything and everything, starting from how attractive the app icon is and ending with how frequently the app crashes, because you can’t perfect the packaging and leave it at that.

    It’s important that all teams — ASO, game designers, developers, UA and others — make a collective effort under the producer’s close supervision.

    There was a negative case when marketing made provocative UA creatives for one of the games. Immediately, the conversion dropped a little — people decided the game wasn’t for them.

    Then the people who didn’t like the ad itself came and gave the game bad ratings. Store algorithm figured out that something was wrong and started featuring the game less, so organic traffic also decreased, even though there wasn’t a hint of provocative content on the ASO side in the store. Same thing is going to happen if the game crashes.

    ASO can give your project a boost, but only if all teams are on the same page.

  • 6 Final thoughts

    ASO is way broader than it might seem at first glance.

    This is also a new profession, and there aren’t many people with experience. That being said, you can still find good classes that will give you enough basic knowledge to start a career.

    From that point on, you just have to practice on real projects, this is the only way to get a full picture of what ASO actually is.

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