The brutal truth about being successful in today’s mobile gaming is that if you don’t have money, you’ll have a hard time making money. Money revolves around the rich, fleas revolve around the poor, goes the saying (or at least something along those lines), which is why big game studios, capable of pouring huge amounts of cash to advertise a project will eat up the little studio trying to squeeze its way to the top of the charts. That doesn’t mean the small studio can’t make it in the capitalistic jungle, it’ll just have to change strategy a bit. Indie development teams can’t fight with big game studios on their ground. Their 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, from my perspective, six aspects of mobile game development where indie game developers can beat the big guys on the premise of innovation:
Small indie dev studios can make it in the capitalistic jungle if they change strategy a bit >> Click to tweet
1. Gestures innovation
The best possible example of how a small indie studio or any indie game devs can make it big is Fruit Ninja. It might sound strange to you from this perspective, but when the game first came out, its touch gesture, now referred to as “finger slashing”, was completely new. Fruit Ninja basically invented a genre and that’s what gave it the much-needed break. Studios should always brainstorm to come up with new and interesting ways users can interact with their devices.
Studios should always brainstorm to come up with new and interesting ways users can interact with their devices >> Click to tweet
- Use the gyroscope to your advantage – games such as Space Spacy are the perfect example of how to use your device’s features to create a great game.
- Tap’n’hold to play, release to pause.
- Record audio and video – I’ll never understand why this isn’t an essential part of every game, but you have a camera and a microphone ready to be used, yet you’re not using it. And when you know you can share your recordings and broadcasts, the possibilities are endless.
- Haptic feedback – Similar to what we’ve seen on PlayStation and Xbox controllers, your device can vibrate during in-game explosions, gunfire and general violence. AdColony does a great job integrating haptic feedback to its video ads.
- NFC – Near-field communication is another feature basically all devices have today, yet developers don’t use it that much. It can be used to initiate a multiplayer session or share resources through phone bumping.
You must be wondering, if all these features are there and they’re fertile soil for innovation, how come big game studios aren’t using it? The answer is quite simple – they’re way past the innovation phase. Their attention is now turned towards scaling existing games that work well. They’re no longer in the startup period. According to Steve Blank, “a startup is an organization formed to search for a repeatable and scalable business model”, and big game studios have already found a repeatable and scalable business model. That leaves a lot of room for you. Take Supercell for example – they have already found such a model, I am pretty certain their next game will be similar to previous games in genre and gameplay mechanics. The successors to Boom Beach, HayDay or Clash of Clans will have the same gestures.
2. Scaling through collaborative platforms
With the right tools, an indie developer can drive installs and user acquisition at a relatively low cost. Those tools are most usually platforms that allow forms of sharing, barter and direct deals.
With the right tools, an indie developer can drive installs and user acquisition at a relatively low cost >> Click to tweet
For example, Tapdaq offers install trading with other games in its network, and Chartboost offers a direct-deal marketplace. SOOMLA also jumped on the bandwagon, as it is currently building a data sharing network allowing developers to get real-time insights when new potential players install their game. This kind of data is something you can’t get from big game developers, as they’re holding on to it for their lives. Top grossing publishers are vigilant about building a tall wall around their user base and will do all they can to keep these users within their portfolio. However, where big game studios see a threat, indie developers see an opportunity, and it can (and should be) leveraged for their benefit. There is something indies should know: integrating mainstream in-game advertising forms is a double-edged sword. It will bring revenue, but it can also bring ads from big game studios with huge user acquisition budgets. That way, the developer risks losing users. This situation is commonly referred to as the advertising dilemma for mobile games.
Indies should know: integrating mainstream in-game advertising forms is a double-edged sword >> Click to tweet
3. Focus on Multiplayer
If you take a closer look, you will see that the best indie games are those with quality multiplayer. OMGPop’s Draw Something (bought in 2012 for $200MM by Zynga), Minecraft, Dirtybit’s Fun Run trilogy, those were all indie games that exploded thanks to their amazing multiplayer features. Multiplayer is definitely something you should look at, and here are a couple of aspects to keep an eye on:
If you take a closer look, you will see that the best indie games are those with quality multiplayer >> Click to tweet
- Ghost sessions: Multiplayer is great, but what will you do when there are no people around to play with you? Nextpeer’s VP of Products Guy Books calls this the “3AM problem”. It’s something that can make or break the multiplayer experience of your game. If you’re up at 3AM and there’s no one around to play with you, you need ghost sessions to emulate real users, before the game grows big enough to have players at all times of the day.
- Smart matchmaking: after your game has grown and has a large user base, you want to start thinking about how opponents in a multiplayer session are chosen. A smarter matchmaking system will see users engaging in useful discussions with each other, and that way you will also grow a social network. This has proven to increase user retention over time.
- Friends vs. Strangers: You should also think about splitting the multiplayer in two parts – vs strangers, and vs. friends. Even though multiplayer vs strangers can be good for your game’s virality, multiplayer with friends is more challenging because of on-time matchmaking and scheduling opportunities.
- Offline: Don’t make the game online only. There are still lots of places in the world with weak signals, and people who can’t afford high-speed data packs. That shouldn’t stop them from practicing their skills in your game.
According to the App Annie E3 gaming report of 2015, multiplayer is a driving force in lifetime value. Among the best mobile games, 60 per cent of users’ spending went on multiplayer. This report has also been elected to appear in SOOMLA’s top mobile data reports e-book.
4. Think about SEO
This will probably label me as a “sellout”, but you really should think about keywords when choosing the game’s concept, storyboard and art. Keep your eyes on the prize, and the prize is to succeed despite all the big guys throwing cash at advertisers – and you can do that through careful search engine optimization. I’m not saying don’t chase your dreams – I’m saying adapt your dreams to make it easier for people to find them. It doesn’t really matter which genre the game is, what matters is when people search for different terms, they find you on the number one spot. If your game is about medieval city building and conquest, but there are hundreds of games already on that topic, why not make a game about a Stone Age village and diplomacy? This is just an idea from the top of my head, but the point is that you should modify your game’s concept for better search engine positioning.
You should modify your mobile game’s concept for better search engine positioning >> Click to tweet
The best way to achieve this is scour the app stores and find holes to fill. You can do this with various tools, such as Search Man’s keyword search, or App Annie’s Keyword Rank tool. You can also optimise your website to rank for your app-related keywords, include app call to actions on your website, or update app screenshots in the app stores every once in a while. You should also use in-game rewards to motivate people into rating your game, and do A/B testing for icons and descriptions for your game listing.
5. Strategic Localization
There are two important things people don’t usually pay much attention to, but could make or break a game. That’s the language the game is in, and the market it’s aiming for. You read in English, you code in English, and you make your games in English, but only 4.70 per cent of the world’s population speaks that language. According to Wikipedia, 14.4 percent of the world’s population speaks Mandarin, and 6.15 per cent speak Spanish. It’s also interesting to note that half of the world’s population speaks the top 13 languages. But you shouldn’t simply go for whatever language is most spoken in the world – the size of the market also matters. When determining your localization strategy, you should pay attention to market revenue being generated from paid apps, IAPs and advertising revshare – they will show you where the money lies.
Determining an #indiegame localization strategy: study market revenue generated from paid apps, IAPs and adv revshare >> Click to tweet
Indies should focus on countries that:
- Don’t prohibit user data collection and / or advertising.
- Use standard marketplaces by default with mobile devices (Google Play, App Store, etc).
- Are emerging markets with a lot of smartphone users.
Looking at these parameters you could focus on Japanese, German, Spanish, Portuguese and Russian markets, as they turn out to be the strongest ones. Numbers from App Annie and Newzoo also confirm this theory. It’s worth watching the GDC talk about Expeditions: Conquistador from Logic Artists to see how they did it. You must be wondering why I decided not to include China in the list. The land of the rising sun is a huge market, but also one which is too hard to chew, once bitten. It can be insanely difficult to have any decent app penetration in the country without a Shanghai / Beijing office, and unless you have some unfair advantage, such as a partner in the country or something along those lines, my advice is to steer clear.
6. Retro Games and Remakes
There’s a reason why 8-bit games are still popular in the age of ultra-HD and more K’s that can fit on your TV screen. That’s because the nostalgia-inducing poison that remakes and retro games offer is something we can’t turn down, and that is something you can look at as an opportunity. If you’re a small development team with a handful of artists, you can’t compete with the big guy in terms of unique, detailed art. Instead, go for simple drawings and retro graphics – that way you can create highly entertaining games without spending your last penny on level design. Just look at Flappy Bird, or Crossy Road – those games made their creators millions, and the graphics are not something you need twenty people to work on for the next year. What’s even more interesting is that these games often create a completely new genre and see dozens of spin-offs and clones.
There’s a reason why 8-bit games are still popular in the age of ultra-HD: their nostalgia-inducing poison >> Click to tweet
About the Author
Gur Dotan is co-founder and VP Marketing at SOOMLA, an open source company with the mission to drive game developers’ success with technology and data. An engineer-turned-entrepreneur, Gur digs into everything from blog posts, to growth hacks to developer communities. Gur recently launched Gamegear.io, a directory of mobile gaming SDKs which also includes Chupamobile.
With literally millions of apps in the app store, you really need to make your app stand out. Sure, if you have a budget you can run a burst campaign or do one of the many forms of paid promotion. But, in addition to being a key part of app marketing, ASO can help your app generate more organic installs, making your business more sustainable.