Breaking the User Acquisition Glass Ceiling

Oscar Clark   •  April 15 2021

The games industry has seen tremendous change since the introduction of Apple’s App Store in 2008, and not just on the mobile side of the market.

Since that time, we have seen a huge in the rise of the power of Games-as-a-Service on one side, but on the other we have the rise of simpler, ad-funded, hyper-casual experiences.

Under lockdown the demand for games as a whole has exploded, but for smaller, less established studios, this extra demand hasn’t trickled down, as their games are lost amid the clamouring voices of the big brands and titles.

Too many developers reach a glass ceiling that prevents them for reaching their true potential.

This is because they can’t easily prove the ability of their game to make a profitable return to their investors, publishers or UA funders until after they go live.

And unfortunately, by the time they can, it may be too late to make any necessary changes as the game will have lost the impact of launch.

User Acquisition (UA) is a highly focused, no-bullshit form of marketing which is all about obtaining a direct install of your product (i.e. your game).

The trick to UA is understanding how to test and optimise your approach so that you can find and excite an audience that delivers a clear return on your advertising spend.

The following are some of the key considerations for a successful User Acquisition strategy.

Targeting and testing

Firstly, it’s critical to deeply understand who you are trying to target for your game, and why they are going to care.

This means taking the time to assess the game’s ideal players and the quintessential motivations that will make them want to play – although hopefully you have already considered this during the concept development of the game.

At Fundamentally Games we try to identify three different personas for our audience.

These start out as thought experiments about the people we think will play the game. From these, we identify common characteristics that can help us define the values and behaviours that can be used to help promote the game.

It’s helpful to use a combination of factors to target effectively players on the advertising platform, for example on Facebook we may decide that we are looking for “PC Games Players” who also “Play Candy Crush”.

Remember though, this is simply a hypothesis to be tested, and once you know more about who really plays your game, you must update your personas.

Privacy and IDFA

We live in interesting times when it comes to advertising, not least as there are numerous changes being made to reinforce privacy controls as well as Apple’s decision to remove their advertising tracking identifier (IDFA) in their next major update.

These changes will absolutely affect the specifics and accuracy of advertising targeting, and there are some great articles out there from people better placed to explain the implications of these.

However, it is important to carefully consider the best legitimate channels and messages to communicate to relevant potential players.

These changes may have an impact on costs and effectiveness in the short term.

But there will be advantages for teams who can adjust to the new circumstances by keeping aware of the best advice and regularly testing and experimenting where possible.

Start small and kill early

One of the most powerful changes that has happened in the last decade is that ad-platforms like Facebook, Apple Search Ads and Google (and to a certain extent, game-specific platforms like UnityAds, AppLovin and IronSource) have empowered teams to spend relatively small amounts to get meaningful initial results.

At Fundamentally Games, for our very first Cost Per Install (CPI) test we will spend as little as $300 to get an immediate sense of the potential attractiveness of the game.

Whilst this might not be representative of the results that scale or optimisation will deliver later, it does give a great baseline to decide if a game can work or not.

The key to a successful CPI test is to ensure you know, in advance, what success looks like and that you have set a Key Performance Indicator (KPI). And if the game doesn’t exceed the minimum agreed KPI, be prepared to kill it.

As a rule of thumb for mobile, if a game does not achieve a CPI of $0.40 or less (or $0.30 for hyper-casual content) then the game may need to be killed.

PC games can benefit from this kind of testing, even if only as an indication of interest, but UA works very differently and it’s generally harder to match advertising to install rates.

Awareness > Interest > Desire > Action

Effective marketing is a process, not just a snapshot in time.

The key is to follow a flow of Awareness, Interest, Desire, then Action. Potential players need to be able to understand why this game is something that they will love, and why they need to install it right now.

Brand building and social engagement has a part to play in this, but these methods can be highly intangible, and it is therefore difficult to measure their impact.

However, when focused purely on UA, it is still important to consider this flow in the way marketing materials are designed, i.e. the images, video and text need to take the player on that journey.

This flow can be seen reflected in the creative approach used in video ads for mobile games, where the 30 second video ad has become the gold standard.

Simple is not simple

It is essential to immediately show a potential player why they MUST install a game.

Whether the game is being promoted in a tweet, influencer post or otherwise, the objective remains the same.

To illustrate, think about a 30 second video advert. Such ads try to convey a call to action, usually based on what the game is about (at least at an emotional level) and why the player should act now to install it.

Generally, it’s also useful to set-up the premise of the game in a way that foreshadows for the player why they will want to keep playing and perhaps even the value of spending money at some point.

The challenging part is that, depending which research you read, an ad has only between 3 and 6 seconds to peak the player’s interest.

Arguably it then only has until the 12 second mark to build up the necessary Desire and Action that will drive the player to install your game.

The first impression lasts

The sad reality is that Bait & Switch ads work. This is because they tend to have the simplicity and tantalising nature to convey an idea and encourage installs.

But please don’t do that.

Whilst this method will get installs initially, the quality in terms of retention and conversion will tend to be a lot poorer.

However, the key issue is that even if this method is successful, the player ends up with a different game than they were expecting, and that will have an effect on their likely retention as well as their conversion to spend on IAP.

This is especially significant for ‘living’ content where the developer is dependent on long term retention and ongoing repeat IAP spending.

If an ad sets the wrong impression it can significantly compromise the success of the game.

If instead we can target players with an authentic interest in our game in ways that set the right expectations, and deliver what those players care about, they will want to keep investing their time and money into the game.

Synergy, always synergy

User acquisition doesn’t take place in a vacuum.

The game and company’s websites, social media, Discord groups, previous games, profiles of key members of the development team, friendly content creators on different platforms, and even trade or consumer press can have an impact on the performance of a game.

However, it’s hard to track. Rarely will a game see a spike in downloads after a great write up by a journalist – although it can happen on rare occasions.

That doesn’t mean that these aren’t important; instead, they are about creating the conditions where your ad can be more effective.

Building up brand awareness pays off in the very long term but only where it can connect the dots between each element, from the keywords selected during Appstore optimisation, to the game’s website art style, to the way the reasons to play are communicated in a trailer.

Where relevant, it’s also valuable to link LiveOps events and promotions into the tone of engagement with content creators and press, which can also be used to build greater relevance into any UA campaigns.

Embrace change

There is only one certainty, change.

As a game starts to scale or even when simply trying to maintain download rates, the need to adapt targeting, messaging, design and creative increases.

The larger the market share of a game, the more expensive it will be to increase that further.

What’s worse is that as a game’s messaging becomes more familiar, it also becomes more difficult to motivate the remaining audience.

The answer is evolving the methods of communication. Look at how the needs of new audiences can be addressed, how audiences can be reengaged, how loyal players can help others engage with the game.

In the end it’s about being creative, testing regularly and being prepared to kill ideas that don’t deliver.

In summary

Breaking through the UA Glass Ceiling is all about being able to prove as early as possible that a game can be successful, by testing early and being willing to kill off games that don’t work, so you have the resources to learn and improve on the next one.

Too often game developers get stuck, who see success happening for others and can’t quite break through themselves.

Publishers are increasingly risk adverse and with so many developers and games to choose from, they can wait till each game already has proof of the return on advertising spend before they step in. This means they can choose to only invest in projects that they already know can scale the winning games, which leaves all the risk on the development team.

The reality is that there are too many games that don’t succeed because developers don’t get the help they need early enough.

However, if you focus on targeting, testing and how to build Awareness>Interest>Desire>Action, you can find the proof of the potential of your game without breaking the bank.

Oscar Clark   •  April 15 2021