Monetization data is critical in a mobile game soft launch

Conventional wisdom has long held that monetization data should play little if any role in the evaluation of a mobile game’s soft launch, with retention data providing the primary insight into whether a game is viable. The crux of the argument supporting retention’s primacy is that retained users can ultimately be exposed to any monetization mechanic the developer can dream up — retention is at its heart a measure of delight, and it should be held above other metrics as a guiding light with respect to player intent.

This line of reasoning was certainly popular in 2014, when I presented an overview of the approach that my team took in launching the swipe-3 puzzle game, Jelly Splash, at GDC. But I believe that the market — both for mobile games and for mobile advertising — has changed sufficiently since that time to upend this logic.

Now, I believe that any singular metric on its own, be it marketing-centric (eg. CPI, CTR, IPM, etc.) or game-centric (eg. ARPDAU, DX retention, etc.), is too narrowly scoped to be useful in evaluating a soft launch. Monetization is now a critical assessment feature of a soft launch evaluation, because monetization signaling has become such a core component of product growth, given that:

  1. Facebook and Google (and Snapchat, TikTok, and soon, Pinterest) are now dominated by algorithmic, event- and value-optimized campaign spend;
  2. Most successful games are disproportionately dependent on Facebook and Google for user base growth.

The retention-first soft launch measurement strategy was conceived of in a period in which just one campaign strategy existed for scaling an app via paid advertising: Mobile App Install (MAI), which optimizes merely for the lowest cost of an install given some targeting scope. But very few successful mobile games (outside of the hypercasual genre) exclusively utilize MAI campaigns for growth. Most successful games rely on some combination of Facebook’s AEO and VO campaigns and Google’s in-app event and tROAS UAC campaigns for the majority of their new users, with the distribution of spend between these campaign strategies being dependent on the type of game: for example, games with very long-tail LTV distributions tend to be able to scale VO campaigns more easily than those with LTV distributions tightly concentrated around the mean value.

When advertising campaigns are only optimized for install price, then the LTV / CPI ratio is transparent and directly connected to marketing metrics: the team can impute some level of ARPDAU to the unfinished prototype, use retention as a measure of overall quality, and make some assumption-based adjustments to CPI to determine if a game can be scaled in Tier 1 geographies based on soft launch performance.

But if a developer accepts that, if its game is successful, it will be spending a majority of its ad spend on event-driven Facebook and Google UAC campaigns, then it follows that it can’t know whether the game is successful until it has validated that those events provide for scale on those channels. And ultimately, the event that delivers the most insight — and the one most commonly used for scaled event-optimized campaigns — is the purchase.

The only two questions that an advertiser should endeavor to answer in a soft launch are:

  1. Scale: To what size of a user base can the game be scaled?
  2. Advertising payback: Over what period is ROAS (return on ad spend) realized, and is this acceptable to the company given cash flow demands?

In this new algorithmic, event-oriented campaign optimization environment, those questions are answered via ROAS based on event signals that must fundamentally be tied to monetization, and thus monetization is a critical feature of a modern soft launch.

Without monetization data, the advertiser is unable to know to what scale its game can possibly reach: if only MAI campaigns are being used in soft launch, the traffic composition of the soft launch isn’t representative of what the developer will see in a globally-live setting. And if monetization signals aren’t being sent for AEO, VO, or Google UAC campaigns, then the developer doesn’t know whether or how its campaigns will scale in global launch. And, of course, a payback window is impossible to assess absent monetization data. For these reasons, monetization is now a critical factor of a mobile game soft launch.

Visualizations taken from the recently-released Modern Mobile Marketing at Scale online course