Launching a mobile game is an immense undertaking. After months of development and production time, the soft launch period comes. For free-to-play games, the soft launch period is critically important for determining how well the game will perform globally, and if its retention and monetization mechanics are adequate for supporting scalable performance marketing.
Simply put, the soft launch phase will reveal whether a game can become a business or if it should be killed.
In this post, I’ll outline a strategy for executing a mobile game soft launch that addresses many of the foundational changes that have recently impacted the mobile ecosystem, especially AppTrackingTransparency.
Pre-soft launch activities
I believe that market research is the most important part of game development. Market research is the process of interpreting the games market through the combined lenses of metrics and opinions to discover the equilibrium between what an audience wants and what your team can build, scale, and operate. Market research will give you some ideas about what you can expect while making and operating your game. Thorough market research should also help you to identify the challenges you’ll face in production and with marketing, allowing you to mitigate them in advance.
Researching key players in your game’s genre can give you some great insights into what your target audience values in a game. You need to do some homework and answer these questions about the games and the players in the genre you’re targeting:
- How are other games named? Are they memorable?
- How does an IP fit into the game genre?
- For example, a game that is based on a well-known IP ( such as Disney, Harry Potter, Marvel etc.) doesn’t guarantee success if game mechanic is poorly implemented or the game is lacking well-built progression elements
- e.g. Disney IP in an RPG game won’t probably match the expectations of the classic RPG target audience. Looking at the recent launches of Disney Sorcerer’s Arena, Looney Tunes™ World of Mayhem – Action RPG, etc.
- Which keywords are they ranking high for?
- Who wants to play this kind of game?
- What is the size of the potential audience?
- Does this audience have significant disposable income?
- What is the potential RPI? (Revenue per install)
- Are players competitive or social?
Doing an internal analysis could prove to be very useful in getting your game in front of the right audience.
The obvious strategy for your mobile game is, of course, to try to make a game that appeals to your target audience and at the same time stands out from the crowd of similar games. But how do you know who, exactly, your target audience is and what it wants?
The usual way to identify your game’s target audience is to use game categories. If you are making an RPG game, you can check out the best performing RPG games in your market, analyze them, and try to learn their strengths and weaknesses. It’s natural and understandable that many studios simply believe that they can ignore demographic categories and directly target RPG enthusiasts as a broad group. But categorizing people this way will ignore the potentially vast audience of people that don’t currently self-organize around a genre but might nonetheless play your game. Games usually focus on primary and secondary target audiences.
For example Candy Crush Saga – Candy Crush is a casual browser/mobile Match-3 game. The audience of Candy Crush consists mostly of female gamers and also much older gamers. These gamers focus on Completion (collecting and finishing everything) and almost every other motivation factor is low. So the primary focus is on the middle-aged female audience that is interested in the Match-3 genre and cares mostly about achievement over all other aspects of the game.
Determining the target audience
Determining the target audience is key to reaching loyal and high-profit players, which will drive nearly all of the game’s revenue and therefore its marketing ROI (return on investment). To effectively determine the game’s target audience, game developers should consider the three main general aspects of target audience grouping: demographics, psychographics, and motivations.
Players motivation information
People play mobile games for different reasons. Most gamers, from their own gameplay experiences and playing with others online, have developed to represent a taxonomy of some of their gameplay preferences into a player profile. Over the past two decades, academic researchers and game developers have proposed many models and frameworks to codify these differences. There is certainly no shortage of models that describe players (from Bartle’s well-known Player Types to LeBlanc’s Aesthetics, from Lazzaro’s Fun Types to Sherry’s Gaming Uses & Gratifications).
A basic example of a player profile is: LAURA, a female aged 35–40 who lives in the US and has a university-level education (demographic), is a sociable extrovert from a top-middle economic class and lives an active lifestyle, plays puzzles & adventure games (psychographic), lives in Nashville, Tennessee (geographic) and makes small and frequent purchases without considering the brand (behavioural). She desires to complete every mission, get every collectible, and discover hidden things.
There are many methods of demographic, psychographic, geographic, and behavioral data collection. There are quantitative methods, statistical processes such as surveys and questionnaires, and qualitative methods, such as focus groups or comprehensive interviews. There are several companies that specialize in target audience research – e.g. the above-mentioned Quantic Foundry or Solten.
Most developers know how to test concepts and do this early on to mitigate their investment risk. The best way to gain an advantage in this saturated space is to identify more accurately which concepts will appeal to the most relevant audiences. Concept testing helps you make these important product development decisions using concrete data, and it plays a critical role in revealing how people make their own decisions and which messages convince them to install.
Another benefit of concept testing is its flexibility. To enhance your learning, you can use surveys. To obtain player feedback, you can create a redirect on the test app store page that directs people to a survey. These questions can cover game mechanics, characters, feature set, core loop, monetization, spending behavior, how often players play games, and more. These survey questions are invaluable to:
- Identify aspects or features that could drive the best monetization and return on investment
- Pinpoint the most liked (or disliked) features
Doing this can ensure that every detail of the game is perfect before the game is made available to its target audience.
The step-by-step guide on how to do marketability tests can be found here!
How to Soft launch your game in 2022?
What is the point of releasing a new game or app to a restricted audience market in advance of a full launch?
A successful soft launch is the best way to optimize a mobile game for global launch. The Build, measure & Learn loop is a principle that emphasizes speed of iteration as a key component in product development.
When using this principle, the goal is to release a game to market as soon as possible, measure its performance, and then iterate based on user data, repeating the loop as often as required or possible
Soft launch stages
I like to divide the soft launch into three stages: Technical, Retention, Monetization. Each stage serves a different purpose and different KPIs are measured.
While in the Technical stage, we are mostly focusing on data health, crash rate, and tracking in general, in the Retention stage we measure D1, D3, D7 Retention, FTUE, tutorial completion rate, and much more.
Game developers are obsessed with achieving the highest D1 retention numbers they can, but D1 is not the holy grail. I’ve seen games with D1 retention at roughly 25% still being able to generate many millions of Euros in revenue per month. The result was primarily driven by excellent D60 retention, which was 6-8%. Therefore, it is absolutely crucial to focus on the ratio between D1, D3, and D7.
The monetization stage is where the fun starts. Measuring ARPU, conversion to payment, and Dx ROAS requires running purchase (ROAS) oriented campaigns: AEO/VO on Facebook or tCPA/tROAS on Google Ads.
Let’s not forget about ad monetisation. In this stage, you should already have identified the game’s rewarded video ad placements. Now you are playing around with setting up waterfalls and combining floors with bidders.
Once you’ve set up ads, the North Star KPI you should track at this stage is Impression per DAU. Generally, an IMP/DAU above 4.0 means the Rewarded Video (RV) placements you’ve integrated into the game will impact user acquisition efforts in a meaningful way. If you’re coming in below this number, you can either change the RV placements, change the RV rewards, or accept that ad revenue will not make up a significant portion of the game’s revenue. If you’re only using one ad partner at this stage, it is a good general rule of thumb that once you add a mediation platform you’ll increase your ad revenue by 100%. A proper mediation setup can further increase ad revenue by another 25%.
Soft launch timeline
How long should we be in the soft launch? There is no correct answer to this. But the goal of a soft launch is not to be in a “tweaking mode” forever.
How long your game can stay in soft launch is influenced by multiple variables:
- CPI vs LTV or Dx ROAS goal
- Retention KPIs
- Monetization KPIs
- Money in the bank
Soft launch countries
In order to discover what country could be the best fit for your mobile game, what are the criteria to look for?
There is a wide range of different countries that seem quite suitable for a soft launch. It is always important to think about your game target audience when picking the most suitable geographies.
The most frequent question that arises during a soft launch: are my acquisition metrics satisfactory? How do they compare to other games? Below are some examples from my own work that I can share to provide perspective on how CPIs vary across geographies and different campaign optimization strategies:
Google Beta testing in Soft launch
Google Play’s Beta program is gaining popularity amongst game developers, Google has done a commendable job of giving game publishers the tools that they need to perfect their games. The benefits of beta testing are obvious: you can test your game with specific groups. Available testing options include Internal testing, available only to people inside of your organization; Closed testing, available to a larger set of testers but not publicly available; and Open testing, which will make pre-release versions of your app available on the Google Play store. Games in the beta testing program don’t get reviews on the store, which is helpful when something in the game breaks.
App Store Optimisation
Even before the IDFA was deprecated, many game developers chose to soft launch on Android. Android was always the preferred platform thanks to its quick review processes turnaround and the tools it makes available in the developers’ console.
Algorithms in app stores always can rank apps against keywords, their descriptions, and their titles. The soft launch is the best time to start with keyword research and to optimize app store visuals. Focus on icon, screenshot, and feature image and test these at least once, but ideally multiple times to improve conversion rates and therefore decrease the game’s cost per install.
ASO should be a crucial part of your user acquisition strategy, so it’s important to get this right early on. The soft launch is the stage where you can make sure you’ve got the most appealing app store pages possible.
Game developers should approach soft launch with an open mind. During any soft launch, it’s vital that personal bias is removed and data alone is used to determine what is and isn’t working.
In the monetization stage, the UA and data teams work hand-in-hand to create LTV predictions based on acquired cohorts. This is also why I often suggest to game teams to stay in soft launch until they have enough data to build LTV models, as is described in this article.
There’s no doubt that Apple’s privacy measures with iOS 14+ have introduced important measures to safeguard users. But they have also created significant challenges for marketers who have had to adapt to a completely new way of measuring UA campaign performance.
Before iOS 14, marketers could determine user-level campaign performance. But with Apple’s SKAdNetwork, ad campaign performance data is only available to advertisers at the campaign level, and with significant restrictions relative to the data available prior to iOS 14, such as those imposed by the postback timer system, the campaign ID limitation, the privacy threshold, and the 6-bit conversion value parameter.
Some casual game genres see a lower average time to first purchase, particularly compared to Midcore games or 4X-Strategy games. Because of SKAdNetwork’s conversion value and timer systems (described in detail here), it is crucial for UA teams to work alongside product/game teams to ensure that a game can capture as many purchases as possible in the user’s first 24 hours of gameplay without jeopardizing the game economy. This will provide critical revenue signal to user acquisition campaigns.
User Acquisition strategy
My preferred UA channel for the soft launch remains Facebook. Given recent quality fluctuations following the rollout of Apple’s ATT policy, I have introduced Google UAC and SDK network ads into the retention stage. How should strategies differ between PVP games and non-PVP games?
A team in soft launch should understand how many new daily players must be introduced to the game in order to make statistically sound data-driven decisions. In a PVP game, player liquidity is the key for matchmaking and therefore the UA team needs to spend continuously to provide a certain volume of daily new users. Because if matchmaking doesn’t work, it can influence retention and the overall appeal of the game.
The days when Mobile App Install (MAI) optimization was the only tool available to UA teams are gone. While the MAI campaign strategy can drive good quality traffic, it won’t be sufficient in the retention or monetization stages. When you enter the retention stage, sit down with a data team to identify events in the game (tutorial completion, level 10 achieved, 5 missions played, connect Facebook or share invite) that suggest player engagement. Then implement and use these events for optimization purposes in App Event Optimisation (AEO) campaigns.
Starting with broad campaigns using Facebook regular campaigns or Automated App Ads campaigns, continuously narrow down the targeting to individual interests or lookalikes, depending on the results.
Diversifying the UA portfolio is one of the most important parts of the marketing activities in the monetization stage. Different channels yield different LTV curves. Understanding this prior to global launch is crucial for setting up the global launch strategy. The same applies to Android vs iOS campaigns. While Google Ads is an important part of Android UA activities, it tends to not perform as well for iOS. On the other hand, Facebook in some cases may work well for iOS, but not on Android. Be sure to test multiple ad networks before going into a global launch. If your soft launch budget doesn’t allow it, run Facebook, Google, and an SDK network as a minimum viable UA portfolio.
A diligent soft launch is the best way to optimize a game for a global launch. Soft-launching allows developers to collect data, identify bugs and receive early feedback from players. But the soft launch period isn’t just for testing the product. UA teams should be using this time period to test and optimize every aspect of marketing.