Your checklist for commercial success starts with knowing your game profile

MobileGroove's Peggy Anne Salz speaks with Nexon M senior UA manager Robert Garfinkle to provide insights on user acquisition

Your checklist for commercial success starts with knowing your game profile

Peggy Anne Salz is the content marketing strategist and chief analyst of MobileGroove.

Nexon M's Robert Garfinkle will be a speaker at Pocket Gamer Connects Seattle, which takes place on May 13th and 14th.

If you think you need size to shake the market - think again.

Granted, big-name studios continue to move the needle with their blockbuster titles and heavy-hitting IP. But the massive success of niche titles including Empires & Puzzles and Idle Heroes show that newcomers who are laser-focused on satisfying Long Tail tastes, and are equipped to extract maximum value from small core audiences, can also win big.

At both ends of the spectrum, it’s a deep knowledge of the audience (not just deep pockets) that decides if a game will hit new heights or end up on the heap.

There’s a lot at stake and it helps to know if you have what it takes to strike a chord with your core audience. Even better if you can use the KPIs around your game, and how users are engaging with it, to maintain real momentum, not just attain fleeting fame.

The key, according to Robert Garfinkle, senior user acquisition manager at Nexon M and veteran UA manager of a number of major mobile gaming publishers including Netmarble, Gameloft and Elex Tech, is knowing how to “divine insights from your KPIs with a critical eye in order to identify which set of metrics will lead to real longevity for your game".

It’s an approach Garfinkle has architected by integrating critical lessons and learnings he has gleaned from six years in the industry, a period during which he has worked on some 30 games that made it through to full launch and another 60 or so titles that were abandoned in the soft launch stage.

Six game profiles you need to know

To make the match between gameplay, player types and monetisation and marketing strategies to acquire valuable users (that will prove both loyal and essential to lasting success), Garfinkle suggests a systematic approach to defining the opportunities and risks associated with your game.

He identifies six game profiles and maps out several strategies you can follow to maximise your UA budget and efforts.

Note: Garfinkle purposely provides high-level observations and recommendations. If you want to pin your approaches to hard data, Garfinkle suggests you stay up-to-date with blogs such as Mobile Dev Memo and industry benchmark reports published by MMPs and companies including Liftoff, AppsFlyer, and Singular.

Click here to view the list »
  • 1 The Bottle Rocket

    Games in this group typically put monetisation first and therefore excel at monetising users early in the lifecycle. It’s also a category that includes paid games and offers in-app purchases.

    Audience psychology: Players of Bottle Rocket titles have what Garfinkle calls a “completionist drive”. They are driven to complete the content, finish the quest, kill the dragon, or save the princess.

    Retention dynamics: Gameplay is high in intensity at first, but player interest sputters almost as quickly as it sparks as players run out of challenges. “These products have high hazards, which increase churn, and user lifespan can drop rather dramatically after 30 days,” Garfinkle explains.

    Top UA tip: The sharp focus on monetisation early in the game is a plus, providing UA managers with the determination and the data to execute an effective paid user acquisition strategy. But it’s not as straightforward as it seems.

    This is a category populated by many niche genres (such as RPG and card battlers), each with their fans and advocates. Against this backdrop, Garfinkle says, the main challenge UA managers face revolves around the mobile ad creative and finding the fit with small core audiences.

    He recommends focusing on gameplay, maintaining core appeals to the key demographic, and emphasising unique selling positions relative to other competitors in the same genres.

  • 2 The Slow Cooker

    True to the name, games in this group start slow with starter packs or packages designed to encourage users to spend more money on in-app purchases over time. UA strategy is therefore optimised towards netting 'whales' - the small percentage of players that are the biggest spenders.

    Audience psychology: Player psychology (and preferences) can be as varied as the titles that populate this group. Despite the diversity of the play styles, players generally share a sense of community and competition, Garfinkle says.

    “These games build a feeling of 'us' and 'them' through guild or alliance systems, and much of the late game monetisation is accomplished through engaging competition between these groups," he explains.

    Retention dynamics: Slow Cooker games have strong long-term retention, even if they must first endure only moderate early or middle-term retention to get there. More importantly, these games see “little to no user churn between day 60 and day 120” because users who are hooked and become regular users are likely to retain for a long time.

    Top UA tip: Owing to the consistency in monetisation for cohorts at scale, these titles include some of the most heavily marketed games of the F2P market.

    But UA managers can squeeze still more value out of audiences if they harness predictive LTV models and employ long-term monetisation analysis to stay on target and on budget. Winning is about fighting smart with data, but there is a downside.

    “The effort needed to build and maintain the massive marketing and analytics teams to execute effective UA strategies can sometimes lead to bloat in an organisation that needs to be checked regularly,” says Garfinkle.

  • 3 The Baton

    Games in this group, which includes isometric strategy and competitive battlers, don’t leave money on the table. First, they employ a range of mechanics to motivate high-value and high-monetising users (who also account for the bulk of the revenue) then they cleverly pit this group of progressed and passionate game fans against large numbers of non-paying users, players monetised effectively through advertising.

    Audience psychology: At its core, these games are about competition and players like to show their stuff. The highest monetising users are driven by the motivation to conquer, collect or control opponents. The end goal: to rise through the leaderboards and be the best in the game.

    Retention dynamics: Retention among high-monetising users can be “very high”, Garfinkle says. However, it’s not an easy level to maintain. “It’s contingent on having a steady series of non-payers for champions to chew on," he states.

    As these games are also high pressure, most players (outside the group of die-hard high achievers) tend to have moderate to low-moderate retention profiles.

    Top UA tip: Attracting and keeping whales is always a challenge, but it gets even harder when you have to ensure a steady stream of other aquatic animals to balance the mix and keep the game competitive for champions and engaging for non-payers.

    “The fundamental problem is one of targeting,” Garfinkle explains. “And while a number of technologies can provide you with an edge in identifying and advertising to potential payers, it is notoriously difficult to predict whale activity.”

    Moreover, owing to the inconsistency of cohorts, it can be harder to set cohort ROAS goals and difficult to scale. The best in class examples of this type of game build their models on the average, since chasing whales often results in budget overspend.

  • 4 The Cult Classic Reborn

    Games in this group are nostalgic or cross-platform experiences that primarily attract adult players who enjoyed these games as children and are eager to relive the fun.

    Audience psychology: Cult classics can move hearts and open wallets. Players are not hard to convince (since they are familiar with the game or characters in the game), but they can also be unpredictable. Cross-platform experiences, ensuring your game is top of mind and accessible on mobile and everywhere else, is a plus.

    Retention dynamics: Adult players who cherish the brand (and the experience) have high retention profiles. But newcomers, a group that generally lacks deep emotional ties to the game IP, is another story.

    “Truly new users can also be put off by a game that feels old or appears graphically unsophisticated,” Garfinkle says.

    Top UA tip: Significantly, this group of games tends to struggle with paid user acquisition - but they benefit from IP that people know and can search for by name. For this reason, Garfinkle recommends a strong focus on crafting a winning app store optimisation strategy.

    “A lot of keywords relating to the major IPs of yesteryear have high search volumes,” he says.

    It pays to show up early in app store search results. Cult games also strike a chord with users, and smart UA managers can deepen those ties (and drive deeper-funnel actions and conversions) through re-engagement campaigns.

  • 5 The Skeleton Key

    Games in this group, which includes match-three titles, are a fit with a broad range of audiences. Simple repetitive game mechanics are easy to learn, ensuring wide appeal and attracting massive audiences.

    Audience psychology: As these games can be played at literally any time - while drinking a coffee, waiting at the DMV or enduring the commute - sessions are fast and frequent.

    Players are attracted by the routine of the gameplay and can feel overwhelmed if the game offers too much choice or variation. “Users don’t want choice as much as they want to be rewarded for routine action,” Garfinkle explains.

    Retention dynamics: Arguably the mayflies of the games industry, these titles have “low IAP potential". But this, Garfinkle notes, is offset by repetitive mechanics that command user interest and support an advertising monetisation model that cashes in on audience attention.

    Top UA tip: Size matters. UA efforts are naturally designed to drive some of the largest volume user acquisition campaigns in the industry. Broad campaigns are best powered by ad creatives that appeal to (and convert) broad swathes of the population.

    Fortunately, the value proposition (and the effort needed to explain it) are straightforward - allowing UA managers to avoid the major 'first-time user experience' pitfalls. Casting a wide net is a strategy that pays, but it can also blind UA managers to the importance of monitoring data and minute detail that will allow them to achieve UA targets.

    “Often times companies with games in this group neglect the requirement to learn and apply rigorous UA methods,” Garfinkle says.

    “The absence of advanced targeting or programmatic approaches makes it difficult to scale.”

  • 6 The Fidget Spinner

    Games in this group, which includes hyper-casual titles, typically have low ARPUs and high install volumes. It’s a powerful combination that plays in favour of ad monetisation models - which is why ads, not IAPs, account for 90 per cent-plus of revenues.

    Audience psychology: If you think this group is similar to Skeleton Key in all respects, including player behaviour and preferences, think again. While gameplay centres on similar activates (killing time with short puzzles or engaging in PvP sessions that typically last only a few minutes), players in this genre crave more than routine and repetitive mechanics.

    As Garfinkle sees it, players here are “often more psychologically interested in gameplay we can find in the Slow Cooker or Bottle Rocket game groups".

    Retention dynamics: The good news: This is the games group marked by fierce growth and massive returns if UA managers get it right. The not-so-good-news, the genre is emergent and retention data is sketchy.

    “Retention data is all over the place,” says Garfinkle. It’s a safe bet that users are characterised by a relatively low retention profile, “especially after the 30-day range when there is seldom compelling gameplay experience for users to chew on and a reason to stay on".

    Top UA tip: Campaigns should appeal to the broadest segment of the gaming market, not only to core gamers but to people who have never played a game before in their lives. UA managers optimising for ad revenue (which is essential with these titles) should pay attention to ad creatives. “These titles are characterized by extremely high creative conversion rates, often 20-times to 40-times what typical midcore titles are achieving on a per 1,000 impression basis,” Garfinkle explains.

    Campaigns, because they must cover the bases to appeal to broad audiences, are also a good fit with programmatic. It can be a risky business, and Garfinkle offers some key data points and ranges to guide your UA efforts. While games in this group see a lot of scale, they are often doing so with margins which hardly match.

    For this reason, Garfinkle says “watching the APRU and the CPI becomes extremely important, especially when you’re dealing with numbers in $0.10-$0.40 range.

  • 7 Applying profiles for profit

    Identifying your games group early and finding ways to exploit the core strengths of each game profile is what will decide if your game flies or fails.

    Garfinkle advises UA managers to start out with a checklist, noting where the game fits the profile and where it doesn’t. Pay attention to the ways your game is different from other titles and list them as your top unique selling proposition.

    Generally speaking, this is the value-add at the core of your differentiation and what you want to communicate clearly, and often, in order to drive user connection with your game and stand out from competitors.

    And don’t think you can set it and forget it. Garfinkle urges “critical thinking” and recommends UA managers to get together frequently with their teams to discuss and assess the fit of the gameplay with the profile.

    Find ways to leverage this knowledge in a wider roadmap to attract the right player types and apply the suitable monetisation model. Draw from profile information (around player psychology and retention dynamics, for example) to inform your UA strategy architect campaigns to engage users based on personalities and preferences.

    “Sometimes a great game languishes in obscurity because campaigns ignored or downplayed negative player psychology,” says Garfinkle.

    Other times, a poor game receives more than its share of attention. The outcome is determined to a large extent by the ability of UA managers to make the proper match between player psychology (and the game mechanics that will acquire) and the monetisation model that can keep them coming back (or extract value from their brief but intense time in the game).

    “There is no panacea in the games industry, even the best of games has the opportunity to fail,” Garfinkle observes. "But by studying the circumstances of success or failure we can get closer to finding the next hit, and rapid iteration to adapt to user preference is the difference between a Fortnite and a Spore.”

Mobile Groove - Founder, Analyst & Content Strategist