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GDC recap: 4 quick insights into how to grow casual games for the long term

Rafael Vivas
Mar 17, 2017

Earlier this month at GDC, I had the pleasure of moderating a panel called “Growing Casual Games for the Long Term” that was incredibly well-attended and featured the insights of panelists Peter Hansen-Chambers, Commercial Director at Hutch; Michael Grobe, CEO of Game Circus; and Issei Shimizu, Senior UA Manager at MobilityWare. The conversation was wide-ranging, and here I’d like to share with you top insights that came out of it that any casual game dev should keep in mind.  

When it comes to UA for casual games, don’t underestimate power of organic lift.

While there are several built-in advantages to UA for casual games versus UA to for core games (namely the fact that conversion rates tend to be higher because the appeal is broader), one that game devs should always keep in mind is the effect on organic lift. If you’re able to track your organic lift achieved from user acquisition, often you’ll find yourself in a position where you can acquire users at a rate higher than the LTV of an individual user due to understanding the true profit derived when acquiring. I’ve seen organic lift for casual games go as high as 1 paid install: 2.5 organic, which has a significant impact on CPI.

For example, let’s say your user LTV equates to $0.30 and you figure out you’re achieving one organic user per each acquired user, you end up in a situation where you’re getting $0.60 worth of value for every user acquired. If you were bidding a $0.20 CPI earlier to acquire users profitably, this boost shows that you could double your bid to $0.40 and still obtain profitability. In many cases, this type of bid adjustment is the difference between being able to achieve 1,000 or 10,000 installs/day at a sustainable and profitable rate.

You can start small and build up.  

“Small” is a relative term in UA just like anything else, but really no matter your budget, if you approach UA for your casual game right, there’s nothing wrong with being conservative at first. I’ve seen casual game indie devs start with investments of $50/day and $0.25 bids to $10,000/day and $0.60 bids, all because they initially got enough data to optimize and find high quality new users. Peter shared that at Hutch, when they started doing UA, they spent just $2,000/day, but as they got more data and could optimize and scale, they could comfortably spend $40,000/day. When it comes to initial UA, you might not be ROI positive at first, but by optimizing with the data that you get from early spend, you will be before long, and then you can scale.

Mix up and test your creative.

When it comes to your creative, there are two cardinal rules: mix it up and test it all. As Issei said, “Don’t shut off a format because you don’t know what it is or haven’t tried it before.” Never run just one ad at a time — see what works and iterate on the best concepts. Change it up, too — I’ve seen casual game advertisers acquire 1,000 new users a day at $.75 each and then change their creative and acquire 6x-7x more, all for the same CPI. They saw that increase in installs because their CTR and CVR on the ads increased. An increase in performance meant they were able to win more traffic across our network.

When you mix up your creative, be sure to invest in quality. “People don’t invest as much time in creative as they should or understand how much return comes out of it,” Michael said. Leverage video ads and make sure they showcase the best features and most exciting moments in your game. Finally, don’t forget that playable ads are becoming increasingly popular. If you haven’t experimented with them already, you probably should.

Cross-promote when it makes sense.

While there is a lot to be said for cross-promotion with casual games, often game devs rely on them too much, and users wind up seeing too many ads for the same thing. It’s often the case that you can make more money with ad placements than you will off of UA from cross-promotion. I’d advise calculating your CPM from the impressions shown to your users, the same way you would compare other ad networks. Once you figure out the CPM, you can decide whether it makes sense to send those impressions elsewhere or keep them within the ecosystem. If you’re not sure how to calculate your x-promo CPM, just use the following equation: (# of installs driven from x-promo*LTV / impressions)*1000. Keep in mind that you’ll need to run some initial impressions to get the data for this equation.

So if you’re a casual game developer, know that growing your game for the long term is completely doable. Take organic lift into account when you determine your CPI, and feel free to start small with your UA budget and build up. Don’t let your creative get stale, and continually test it to see what works. Finally, cross-promote strategically, always keeping in mind how you will maximize your revenues.

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