Tons of developers choose mobile as their first platform due to its accessible nature. At first glance, it seems a lot easier to target mobile, but is it really? Let's do a deep dive into how mobile games are made in 2023.
Most developers with a background in console and PC, especially indie developers might want to try the same workflow they always used, after all, these are just games, right? Well, here's where Mobile is different than traditional game development. This is a Data-Driven market, from start to finish. What this means is that no decision is made from "gut feeling" or passion, every decision must ideally be tested with real players to be approved.
When talking about Data Driven Development, you will most likely hear the word "KPIs" which stands for "Key Performance Indicators". This is a startup term used to describe numbers that reflect how well a product is performing and how much it can be scaled up. Here is a list of the most common ones:
Key Performance Indicators (KPIs)
CPI - Cost per Install
Simply put, how much it costs you to convince someone to download your game. This goes hand in hand with UA which we will talk about later on in this article. The general idea is that when marketing your game, you will have to run ads to get it in front of as many people as possible. You pay every time it gets shown to people. Good-performing ads will require fewer impressions to convert someone into a download. So let's say that it was shown to 1.000 users and only 1 of them ended up downloading your game. It costs you $10 to show your ad to all those users. In this example, your CPI would be equal to $10.
How much time are players spending in your game? Once you start tracking this, you will realize how quick player sessions can be. Even getting to 20 minutes of playtime can be quite an effort as people lose interest very quickly. This metric can be read in daily playtime and in DX Playtime, where X is the number of days since installing the game. Let's say a user spent 5 minutes during the first day, 10 minutes during the second day, and 5 more minutes during the third day. Your D3 Playtime would be 20 minutes (5 + 10 + 5).
Following the DX logic where x is the number of days since installation, retention shows how many players are coming back in the days following the initial install. So a D1 Retention means how many players that installed it yesterday are still playing today. This is usually read in D1, D7, D14, and D30 during initial testing. The higher this number, the better. Higher retention rates also generate higher playtime, so keep that in mind.
Life Time Value (LTV)
From the day users download your game to the day they delete it from their devices, how much revenue did they generate? Every day users play your game, and every day they watch ads or make purchases. What is the average sum of all of that?
Return on Investment (ROI)
This is the KPI that glues everything together. This is what makes or breaks a mobile game. This is a percentage-based value that determines if the game is profitable or not. Let's say you had CPI of $10, this is a very high UA cost, however, your game is extremely fun and engaging with a playtime of 2 hours, a huge D1 retention of 60%, and a final LTV of $15. Ignoring the fact that taxes are a thing, your game would make you $5 in profit per download.
These are just the initial and basic KPIs, usually used in the initial testing of prototypes. There are several more which we won't go into detail in this article.
How to make a game with good KPIs?
Now that we know what KPIs are, let's talk about how to make a game with good ones. First of all, if you are thinking about making a 2-year-long dream project, scrap that, It will most likely fail.
Start by doing research, and decide what type of game you are making, Hyper Casual, Hybrid Casual, Casual, Midcore, Hardcore, etc. Look into the competition and understand what makes a good mobile game in the specific market you are looking interested in. Find out what is trending, brainstorm, produce high concepts for several ideas, and filter out which ones don't work. Once you get the general idea of the game ready, move into prototyping.
Mobile game development is all about testing your prototype/idea early on, it's all about making mistakes early before spending years working on a project that would have never worked anyway. It doesn't matter that you poured in all of your love into a project, if the KPIs are not promising, the game will still fail.
In this initial stage, you must be as fast and cheap as possible. Don't spend unnecessary resources and time polishing and developing features that aren't going to influence the numbers. Spend 2 - 3 weeks making a prototype that includes the general gameplay loop and is visually striking. Integrate analytics software such as GameAnalytics or ByteBrew.
Once you get your prototype ready, the next steps would be to get users to play your game and measure the results. This will bring in data for you to analyze and make further decisions.
Sometimes this can be where you find crucial issues with the game. For example: we noticed on one of our games that we had a huge loss/churn of players on level 3. When playtesting ourselves, we noticed that in this level, users unlocked a new special attack that was very difficult to use resulting in player loss and therefore frustration. Users then decided to stop playing. Once that was fixed, our playtime doubled.
If the KPIs aren't promising at this stage, the game is usually scratched and the process starts again from the market research.
How can I get more downloads for my game?
Simply put, through User Acquisition Campaigns (UA). This is the single best way to get users. Usually, it revolves around making "Creatives" that are used as advertisements across UA Networks such as Facebook Ads, TikTok Ads, Chartboost, Unity Ads, Admob, etc. Creatives are usually videos but can be in other forms such as playables as well.
Keep in mind that Chartboost, Unity Ads, Admob, etc all have a minimum investment to get started. Facebook Ads and TikTok Ads don't but are usually not as scalable as the UA Networks.
Soft Launch vs Global Launch
These define the general goal of the game. Soft-launched games are not made to be profitable, they are still in the testing phase. Once the KPIs are aligned, the game has been tested at scale and is ready to move into global launch where it starts receiving heavy investments for UA campaigns.
This is also when the game enters a LiveOps stage, core features are no longer implemented and instead, the focus shifts to retaining the users and monetizing them as much as possible.
Getting more Organic Downloads through App Store Optimizations (ASO)
Once the game moves into Global Launch, ASO plays a major role in not only getting more organic downloads, that is, without having to pay for them but it also helps reduce CPI as people who clicked the advertisement, might be put off on the actual App Store due to low quality.
Making a mobile game can be quite different than making PC or console games. Make sure you test out several prototypes and fail early instead of spending years crafting the perfect game that might simply not be profitable in the long run.
It can also be a challenging task. Sometimes hiring experts might be the best way to go. Our team at Yellow Panda Games is more than equipped to handle the development be it the LiveOps stage or the entire development. Get in contact and let's make a great game together!
What is the difference between Mobile and Console Games?
Mobile games rely a lot on data driven development using KPIs such as CPI, LTV, Playtime and Retention as their primary decision factors. Console development is much more about making a good vertical slice, pitching it to publishers and getting funded.
Should I develop my dream game for mobile?
The answer is probably not. Mobile games are designed to be profitable, your dream idea is most likely not. If you are looking for a way to express yourself artistically, perhaps consider Steam as your target platform.
How can I get more downloads?
UA Campaigns are the way to go. Create high quality creatives such as videos and playables and pay to get your game seen by millions. If you already have a good amount of daily downloads, considering performing ASO experiments.
What Publishers do you recommend?
We've worked with quite a lot of them including Voodoo, Moonee, Kwalee, CrazyLabs, Lion Studios, YSO Corp and several others. There is very little difference between how they conduct day to day operations and all of them are ultimatly only interested in promising KPIs. Whatever publisher you choose, make sure that the culture between you and them are in line, that your values align and that they are transparent with you. Chose the one you feel is the best fit.