Stealing the Limelight: How to get noticed on mobile

Stealing the Limelight: How to get noticed on mobile
Matthew Jarvis

By Matthew Jarvis

April 12th 2016 at 11:43AM

Candy Crush, Crossy Road, Clash of Clans, Game of War... These names are now as well-known as Mario, Metal Gear Solid and Grand Theft Auto – despite being a fraction of the games industry’s most iconic franchises’ age.

Just as ‘Nintendo’ was synonymous with every console released in the ‘80s and ‘90s, Candy Crush has come to represent the entirety of mobile gaming for the wider public.

So, how did these mobile titans go from fresh-faced newcomers to some of the most successful titles released in the last few decades – if not ever? 

“I don’t think there’s a silver bullet,” muses David Edery, CEO of Alphabear developer Spry Fox. “If you have strong established IP that you can leverage, that obviously helps.

"Aside from that, it’s the usual things: trying to identify underserved niches that you think you can credibly reach, building highly polished, original games and using your soft launch to improve them as quickly as possible, adding viral elements that break through the noise – much easier said than done – and working with the major distribution platforms so they have a reason to feature your game.

"Even after you do all that, there’s still a decent chance you’ll fail – the mobile game ecosystem is ridiculously competitive.”

Katherine Bidwell, co-founder of Lumino City creator State of Play, agrees that “it’s tricky to pinpoint any magic formula that would create an instant hit”.

“If there was one, everyone would have hit games – and, unfortunately, that just doesn’t happen,” she continues. “My tip would be to have a game that genuinely stands out and isn’t a clone of another formula; if another game is doing what you do but better and was first to market, then that’s where the audience will go.

"If you are doing something different to everyone else, then shout about it. Make sure the fact that it’s special is the first thing people see in your description or the first scene of your trailer.”

The last five years have made bringing a game to market easier than ever for devs. That’s just the start, however: an influx of competitors has made effective promotion critical. MAG Interactive CEO and co-founder Daniel Hasselberg recalls his experience launching mobile hits Ruzzle and WordBrain.

“In the early days – 2012 to 2013 – MAG benefited a lot from using Facebook’s Open Graph stories to automate sharing between players and their friends,” he reveals.

“At the peak we got about one million referrals per day from Facebook to the App Store. Today, you need to rely more on word of mouth and peer-to-peer messaging than news feed posts.”

If another game is doing what you do but better and was first to market, then that’s where the audience will go.

Katherine Bidwell, State of Play

An early burst of success can be a hard-fought victory for mobile studios, but today’s fast-moving games market can see an audience dissipate as it moves onto the next big thing.

Recent figures from revealed that approximately 500 new titles are released on the iOS App Store every day. That’s without counting sales and promotions on already established franchises continuing to attract players.

“There has been an explosion in the number of active iOS devices, which has massively increased the market potential,” explains Bidwell.

“At the same time, there has been increased competition from a huge number of apps, a resultant ‘race to the bottom’ in price, with many free-to-play titles and a swarm of low quality titles.”

Edery (pictured, right) says that building for longevity is a must in order to compete with the giants of mobile – but warns against investing too much in any one title.

“The most successful developers are designing games that not only generate enormous amounts of revenue, but also entertain players for years on end,” he observes.

“They are dominating the charts – which look scarily similar year after year – using their enormous warchests to drive up the cost of paid user acquisition and just generally sucking all the oxygen out of the ecosystem.

“How have we adjusted to that? We’re paying a lot more attention to metagame design, thinking a lot more about virality and trying to be more disciplined about keeping our dev cycles short and avoiding feature creep, since that makes already risky projects that much riskier. We’re always looking for opportunities that other developers are ignoring, but those are harder and harder to find nowadays.”

Yet risks can pay off, as Simon Hade – COO of Samurai Siege and Rival Kingdoms studio Space Ape – enthuses.

“We’re looking at things that have been popular in the past, on other platforms or in the East, and exploring game mechanics that have just never been done before,” he reveals.

This is a little bit like panning for gold; it’s higher-risk, you need to have multiple teams working in parallel and be totally comfortable with the idea of killing off projects early and often – but those are the kinds of risks you need to take to break out.”

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Maintaining a healthy audience around a game can pre-empted before launch, but the title’s evolution post-release is just as vital in growing its presence.

“It is absolutely most effective to do continuous development of the game itself,” advises Hasselberg.

“When we launch something new and interesting we give the players a reason to come back, as well as a reason to tell their friends that they should get back into the game, in case they have churned.”

Edery echoes the importance of continually refining: “Frequent updates of significant scope: ideally one a month, one every two months at worst. That’s going to do more for retention and word-of-mouth than most other things, and it can also get you featured.”

Peng Yue is producer and COO at Clash of Kings developer Elex. He reiterates the need to frequently update.

“Develop based on users’ needs,” he adds. “Let players hear you every week, see your movements and know you are improving everyday.”

Not all community management is handled in virtual space.

“We have found that going to game festivals and speaking at events has been a great way to pass on the message of Lumino City,” Bidwell (pictured, above) recalls. “Entering the game for awards can also be a crucial bit of PR for small companies, where your game can be showcased to lots of people and validates what you’ve made.”

Of course, not every title can win big at major competitions. Yet, positive customer reviews and word-of-mouth can be just as valuable in increasing app store reach – as long as devs are cautious of the potential backlash if players feel forced to ‘Rate and Comment’.

“We try to find ways that make the game more fun if you play with friends,” explains Hasselberg.

“Even in single-player games you can often find some social twist that makes gameplay more fun and rewarding if you have friends playing as well. We always try to be careful and respect the players, and not make them feel abused by the game’s desire to have them inviting friends.”

Hade agrees with Hasselberg’s praise of innate shareability – and adds that aspects as straightforward as an eye-catching style can contribute.

“Focus on making a game that is fun, compelling and social at it’s core and you get virality for free,” he says.

“There is probably some low-hanging fruit to address a certain type of user through SNS integration, text and email invites, and the like, but making your game readable by someone sitting next to you on the bus or looking over your shoulder – that is more important.”

Bidwell summarises: “By far we’ve found that the most important thing is to create a great title that the stores will want to promote. Review and share mechanics are great, but by themselves they’re nothing without something great to share. If your game suits it, work out a way to make sharing as intrinsic to the gameplay as possible.”

Pay more attention to the metagame, think about virality and try to keep dev cycles short.

David Edery, Spry Fox

Staying on top of what players are searching for may seem an impossible task, but trying to get in front of the curve is a must for any studio seeking long-term sustainability.

“Social online experiences is the biggest trend for the future,” Yue predicts. “Interaction and attachment among people is always an attractive demand for players.”

Bidwell forecasts a return to more traditional business models, as pricing structures popularised by the mobile market fall out of fashion.

“In the future, premium priced games will make a dent in the onslaught of free-to-play,” she says.

“The audience is now looking for a ‘pay once, get it all’ experience, and often get frustrated by the sting in the tail of in-app purchases.”

Hasselberg closes by advising developers to take their time and launch a game built to last – rather than becoming another victim of the mobile gold rush.

“Developers need to become much better at learning from their soft launch data,” he warns.

“Going worldwide with a title that doesn’t work is more distracting than anything else – patience is a good thing to make sure you have a very solid game first.”


We break down the aspects of an effective App Store page with help of mobile experts

Simon Hade, Space Ape: "Names and icons that are more literal descriptions do better. You should let the data guide you. The only thing that is certain is that your intuition is at best 50-50 when it comes to what marketing copy works. Similarly, for your app store images and trailers: the honest gameplay trailer outperforms the glitzy CGI production every time.

"There’s been research that analysed a lot of play store AB tests and force ranked the kinds of changes made by their effectiveness.  The biggest impact was changing the short description. The next biggest impact optimisation was changing the order of the images – not changing the images, just the order. Which leads me to think the description and patch notes don’t matter much at all. I never read them - do you?"

David Edery, Spry Fox: "When it comes to keeping players informed, we use both update news-space in the app stores and proprietary news functionality in our games. We try to be honest, clever or cute when we can be and, well, just human I guess. People are collectively spending millions of hours playing our games – that’s something we should be respectful of and grateful for, and we try to show it in our message to our players."

Katherine Bidwell, State of Play: "With icon design, keep it simple, keep it clear and try lots of different alterations and see how they fit within the App Store library template. Something that looks great on an A4 white piece of paper can look terrible in situ. Don’t be afraid to seek opinions from your peers; we originally thought the crucial bit of info to get across with Lumino City was the hand-made models, but they looked really odd as icons and it wasn’t clear at all what the game was about."

Daniel Hasselberg, MAG: "In-game messaging and notifications are important. We also do a lot of work with experimenting on different screenshots and videos on Google Play to figure out the best way of letting the users now something interesting has happened. For major updates it can also be valuable to run re-targeting ad campaigns making sure to inform our most valuable players that something has happened that they ought to check out."

Peng Yue, Elex: "There are three points to a good logo: it needs to be noticeable, impressive and attract people to click. There are many good-looking logos that lack clicks. A good logo shouldn’t be very complicated and should pass the message to users easily.

"The pictures and descriptions must be real. It should be easy and clear for people who have never played your game before to understand it, but also try to make it interesting. This needs to be optimised consistently and adjusted in response to feedback from players, but is not a one-step work."

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