6 ways your indie mobile game can top the charts


This guest post was written by Gur Dotan. Gur is the co-founder of SOOMLA, a free in-game data platform for indie game developers.

In an industry that’s become user acquisition centric, Pareto’s law manifests the competitive reality which indies face.  While the likes of Supercell, King & Machine Zone are sucking in more and more users into their games via paid marketing, the small indie developers are losing app store rankings and user attention.  

In other words, the rich get richer while the poor get poorer.  And in the free, capital-fueled market of gaming, there are no Robin Hoods.  Indie game studios’ only chance for meaningful success depends on their ability to innovate not on user acquisition, but rather on core game design and alternative marketing tactics.  Here are 6 aspects of mobile game development that I believe indie studios should focus on in order to create innovative and differentiated games:

1. New gestures and interaction models

The uniqueness of a casual mobile game is often reflected by its touch gestures.  As an example, Fruit Ninja’s success was partly due to its unique finger slashing mechanics which was fairly new when it was launched. In fact, this mechanic was so fun that it spawned a whole new category of games referred to as “finger slashers”.  Studios should be constantly inventing new ways for user interaction that will create buzz around their games.

Some cool things we’ve seen across the games we’ve reviewed on the SOOMLA blog are:

  • Tap’n’hold to play, release to pause;
  • Device vibrations upon in-game explosions and gunfire.  This is also known as haptic feedback.  A creative use for this can also be found in AdColony’s video ads which integrate haptic feedback for specific ads;
  • Use of the Gyro to diversify a game’s interaction between different levels and worlds;
  • Use of video and audio input as part of game play.  This is especially strong in social games where recordings can be broadcast and shared.  It’s also useful in family games a la “Heads Up” where you can record each other and show the playback later;
  • Use of NFC for multiplayer gestures.  For example, bumping phones to initiate a multiplayer session, or to pass virtual resources to each other.

The reasoning for why this type of innovation won’t come from the top grossing publishers is because they are focused on scaling existing games that work well.  They’ve gone past the startup phase of achieving product market-fit, and now their resources are all turned towards scaling and acceleration.  

An indie studio however is more reminiscent of a startup rather than an operational business.  Steve Blank’s definition for a startup is an organization formed to search for a repeatable and scalable business model.  Supercell for example have already achieved such a repeatable and scalable model, which is why their next title is almost surely going to resemble the previous ones in genre and gameplay mechanics.  The next Clash of Clans, Boom Beach or Hay Day will have the same gestures as their predecessors.

2. Leverage collaborative platforms to scale at budget

When building your monetization strategy, consider opting for platforms that allow forms of sharing, barter and direct deals.  Chartboost was the first to offer a direct-deals marketplace and several other ad networks followed.  Tapdaq offers install trading with other games in its network.  SOOMLA is building a data sharing network that enables developers to receive real time insights when new potential payers install their game.  

The point is that as an indie developer you can drive installs and user acquisition at a relatively low cost with the right tools.  The big guys won’t share this type of data because it’s their biggest asset.  Top grossing publishers are obsessed with keeping a closed garden around their user base and exert all possible marketing tactics to keep these users within their portfolio.  In the latest turmoil of Facebook’s data policy changes, the app store giants’ revolt demonstrated how sensitive they are to trading user-level and in-game data.  For indies however, this kind of horse trading is more of an opportunity than a threat.  

As a side note, indies should keep in mind that mainstream in-game advertising forms will usually bring up ads by big publishers with huge user acquisition budgets.  The developer then risks ejecting her users into other games created by well established gaming companies.  Such companies wield superior analytics and marketing strategies that will likely keep the user within the company’s portfolio, thus rendering the user lost for the indie game developer.  This is commonly known as the advertising dilemma for mobile games.

3. Multiplayer is King

The AAA games of mobile weren’t the ones who invented or popularized multiplayer.  It was indie studios who led the cavalry.  From OMGPop’s hyper-frenzied “Draw Something” (acquired by Zynga for $200MM in 2012), to Minecraft, to Dirtybit’s Fun Run trilogy, multiplayer gameplay proliferates among top indie titles.  Here are some multiplayer aspects you want to harness when trying to innovate on this front:

  • Ghost sessions.  You want to allow users to compete in multiplayer mode even when they’re competing against a virtual entity.  Guy Books, VP Products at Nextpeer calls this the “3AM problem”.  You’re up until late and you’re looking for a worthy rival, but it’s 3AM and no players are around to compete with you.  Ghost sessions answer this problem by emulating real users to support games with a small user base until they gradually grow;
  • Smart matchmaking: once your game scales beyond a small user base, you want to become smarter about how you choose opponents in a multiplayer session.  The reasoning is that you want the users to engage in discussion with each other.  Baking multiplayer in a game can usually be complemented by social network features inside your game and has proven to increase user retention over time;
  • Continuing the last point, consider multiplayer with strangers vs. multiplayer with friends.  While the latter obviously shines with increased virality, multiplayer with friends can be much more challenging for on-time matchmaking and scheduling;
  • Offline mode.  Your game should allow users to play even when they’re offline, so that a subway ride or a weak carrier signal won’t stop them from practicing their skills.

The App Annie E3 gaming report of 2015 corroborates that multiplayer is a driving force in lifetime value, showing that among the top mobile games, multiplayer games accounted for 60% of consumer spending.  This report has also been elected to appear in SOOMLA’s top games reports e-book.

4. Optimize the game’s concept for SEO

I know, I know – all you purist gamers out there are going to hang me in the town square for saying this.  How dare I tell you to choose your game’s concept, storyboard and art based on keywords?  Well, as it so happens, most indie studios aren’t sufficiently funded to make their way into Apple and Google’s top charts with paid user acquisition.  This means that organic discovery plays a heavy role in their game’s distribution.  

This doesn’t go to say that you shouldn’t pursue your most creative ideas.  It just means you need to refine them with preliminary app store keyword research.  In fact, it doesn’t matter much if your game’s mechanics resemble a FPS, a platformer or a match-3 game.  What really matters is the keywords that will drive your position to the 1st search results page.  

So if your game’s theme is about zebras in the jungle, and the competition is too strong on those terms, consider designing your game about meerkats in the desert.  This is just a simplified example that goes to show that a slightly modified game concept with strong SERP position is much more valuable than a game with a concept you’re passionate about with no presence at all.  Finding uncharted territories of keyword search on the App Store and Google Play should be one of the first steps when planning a game.

This practice is probably the oldest trick in the book.  As in online content marketing, keyword research should become a standard preliminary exercise for indie game developers as well.

Tools such as App Annie’s Keyword Rank tool and Search Man’s keyword search can help you. Other ASO techniques you can try include:

  • Optimize your website to rank for your app-related keywords;
  • Include app call to actions on your website;
  • Update app screenshots often in the app stores;
  • Encourage users to rate your game with in-game rewards;
  • A/B test multiple icons and descriptions for your game listing.

5. Strategic Localization

We speak English, read english, write code in English, yet many of our potential users don’t. The truth is that there are more Spanish speakers than English worldwide, and way more Mandarin speakers than both.  According to Wikipedia 14.4% of the world’s population speaks Mandarin, 6.15% speaks Spanish and 4.70% speak English. It’s also interesting to note that half of the world’s population speaks the top 13 languages.

However, language distribution isn’t the only deciding factor for which locale to choose.  It’s the market size that counts.  The market revenue being generated from paid apps, IAPs and advertising revshare is the high level metric you should observe for determining your localization strategy.  My advice to indies is to go for countries that are:

  • Emerging markets with lots of smartphone users;
  • Non prohibitive in terms of advertising and user data collection;
  • Don’t require software infrastructure changes such as migrating service providers and servers;
  • Use standard marketplaces by default with mobile devices (App Store, Google Play, Windows Phone Store, Amazon App Store etc.);
  • Relatively easy to find localization partners and contractors to work with.

By these parameters it seems that the best bets are Japanese, German, Spanish, Portuguese and Russian.  This can also be backed by numbers about the top 10 localization languages that maximize revenue, from App Annie and Newzoo.  There are quite a few services that can help you localize your game and quite a few titles that have localized successfully. It’s worth watching the GDC talk about Expeditions: Conquistador from Logic Artists to see how they did it.

Notwithstanding the above observations, the Chinese market is probably the most coveted destination of many game developers. However, the truth is that app penetration to China can be insanely difficult without a ground operation in Shanghai / Beijing, as well as a deep understanding of the gaming ecosystem that lays beyond the great firewall. Most indies should forego distribution in China by default, unless they have some unfair advantage such as a partner in China or significant business development resources to support this expansion.

6. Remakes and Retro

Just like buying luxury art for your home is for Upper East Side dwellers, designing unique, detailed art is for rich companies.  If you’re not funded (yet), and your team has only one or two professional artists, chances are you won’t be able to conceive the next Clash of Clans.  What you will be able to do is to create nostalgic callbacks to the days when we owned Ataris, IBM 386s and Commodores.  

By adopting 8-pixel art, coarse polygons, memorable storyboards and old-school gameplay mechanics, indies can create highly entertaining games without committing insane artwork budgets.  The flagship casual games to mark this trend are Flappy Bird and Crossy Road, both which climbed to the top charts and netted their creators millions of dollars.  Another interesting phenomenon takes place around these games – they spawn a whole sub-ecosystem of clones and effectively mark a new game genre.  Given the low production costs of these games, developers quickly leverage others’ fame to replicate the success.