It is hard enough for a game to become a hit in the App Store or Google Play these days; it’s harder still to maintain that success. With today’s steep competition, it’s more challenging than ever for players to find your new game – and those developers lucky enough to survive learn that success doesn’t get any easier after the game’s first year.
The good news is that the blueprint for success in a game’s sophomore year already exists. It comes from companies like Supercell, Zynga, Miniclip, Kiloo, and others (even if their playbook doesn’t work 100 percent of the time). This playbook involves a different set of strategies than what worked for a game in year one, and sometimes, you need an entirely different approach. The developer’s focus must shift from growth to retention and engagement — one that changes the way a company allocates budget, invests in technology, and even structures its org chart.
These are not insignificant changes. But to sustain success beyond year one, a mobile game must make critical evaluations. The lifecycle of its gamers will have changed. The dynamics of its virtual economy may have shifted. And what worked for acquiring users in the beginning isn’t likely to cut it in the future. To adjust to all of these changes and maintain success into a game’s sophomore year, here are five basic tenets that game developers should adhere to.
Focus on what works
In the early days of mobile gaming, most developers took a portfolio approach to game design, launching a multitude of titles spanning myriad categories. As the industry began to mature and certain genres bubbled to the top, a popular approach was to take existing, proven game mechanics and “reskin” them to duplicate a hit, thus flooding the app store with clones. Later on, developers could launch sequels or trilogies in order to capitalize on the success of an initial hit.
Today, developers are much more likely to focus on nurturing an existing hit and extending its life, rather than launching sequels or an entirely new game. Simply because launching a new app is both expensive and risky. The resources and budget required to properly test and launch a new title are so significant, that many publishers are instead doubling down on existing hits and looking to iterate on what has been proven to work. This is not only a safer bet, but it allows publisher to nurture an already engaged audience, rather than having to dedicate significant UA spend to cultivate a new one.
But to survive its sophomore year, a game still needs plenty of attention, and developers that don’t allocate enough resources towards maintaining their winners shouldn’t expect to see it maintain success very long. Focusing on one game might require killing off production of another – or maybe even sunsetting lesser-performing titles. Even the largest gaming powerhouses have learned that the amount of resources required to sustain a game beyond its initial success requires an extremely strong focus on that one title.
Create compelling barriers to exit
For a game to avoid the sophomore slump, it must focus on maximizing retention. One the best ways to do that, simply put, is to make it difficult for users to leave. Once a user has invested enough in a game, they are less likely to switch to a competitor. The game becomes part of their everyday routine, and soon they can’t imagine life without it. But fandom can turn to boredom in the blink of an eye, so it’s important for developers to create smart barriers to exit.
One way to detract gamers from leaving is to implement plenty of social hooks. Games that feature clans, player-vs.-player (PvP) content, chats and other social connections tend to do well because the game becomes a conduit to social interactions. Providing a platform for gamers to connect not only nurtures a sense of community for the title, but also encourages competition and provides a platform for users to highlight their accomplishments. Another obvious barrier to exit is monetary investment. Once a gamer has invested money in a game, they’re much more likely to stick around. Any investment they’ve made in terms of personalizing their profile, building up resources, collecting cards, etc. will make it that much less likely they’ll leave.
Consistently deliver new content
The only way to get sustain player engagement for months (or even years) on end is to continually feed their appetite for new content. If a game offers a limited number of levels or ability to progress, there will inevitably come a point where players reach the finish line and must decide whether they want to replay or quit. More often, they’ll choose the latter.
As a game enters its sophomore year, the developer must ensure that players never run out of things to do. This is why a dedicated LiveOps team becomes even more important as a game matures. In today’s landscape, the best way to capitalize on a hit is to support the game by continually adding new content to keep players engaged.
Acquire better users
As a game evolves, its user acquisition strategies must evolve with it. The goal should no longer be to focus exclusively on growth — but on the right type of growth. In the beginning, developers generally focus on volume, but as they gain more insight into those players that engage and pay for items, they can focus their acquisition efforts on these audiences by employing more precise and lookalike targeting.
But with more tailored targeting, should come more tailored messaging. A/B test various creatives and copy to determine what works best for each audience and optimize accordingly. Consider also which types of ad formats will deliver the highest quality users – for instance, video trailers and pay-per-engagement ads can help drive more qualified users who come to the game knowing more about it.
Evolve monetization strategies and business models
In a free-to-play game’s first year, achieving success requires a very delicate balance between monetization and user experience. But as a game enters its second year, the developer is armed with more information on which monetization strategies work best and for which audiences. These insights enable the developer to be smarter, yet more aggressive, in year two. This may entail integrating additional ad placements, or experimenting with new formats or limited time currency promotions.
In year two it’s also important for developers to re-evaluate their overall business model. For example, if a game has a healthy user base but is failing to sufficiently monetize through IAP, they should consider how to best integrate low-friction ad formats to monetize their non-paying users. This could include inserting interstitial video during natural breaks in the game or presenting users with a rewarded video during a critical pinch point (such as when additional energy is needed or to unlock a speed-up).
Considerably successful apps may also want to consider whether it’s worth moving to a subscription model, particularly if the publisher can offer a depth of content that is sufficiently desirable. Whatever the case, revenue models should be consistently re-evaluated to ensure that they provide the highest possible value to the publisher as the app evolves over time.
Take advantage of new platforms or territories
Year two is the best time to expand your boundaries and explore how taking advantage new platforms or territories could pay off for your game. Taking your game to a streaming site like Twitch or YouTube. Streaming content is not only a great way to nurture community, its “one to many” approach also exponentially increases the number of eyeballs on your app.
And if you’ve already gained a foothold in your primary market, year two is an ideal time to explore the possibility of expanding into other geos. But be cautious with your approach – as the formula to win in one region does not immediately equate to success in another. Consider whether it makes sense to self publish or to partner with a publisher that offers local market expertise. Research CPI costs and soft launch your app in a country or two where the barriers to entry are lower. Ensure that device penetration rates are sufficient for the platform that you want launch to and take a look at what competitors or similar apps have done to introduce their game to the region. And finally, take into consideration whether you are planning to localize your content out of the gate or initially reach a primarily English-speaking audience. If the latter, you’ll want to test your app in a country with a high percentage of English speakers.
The App Store launched over nine years ago, and in that time the mobile gaming industry has evolved tremendously. While developers were smart to experiment with different titles in the early days of the industry, today many have found that the safest, and often most profitable, bet is to invest in and expand upon those that have proven to work, just as they would treat any other type of media property with a sustainable audience. Sustaining a game into year two is never easy, but by consistently testing, iterating, and exploring new ways to deliver and expand upon a game’s existing content, developers should be armed with the right tools to avoid the sophomore slump.