Acquisition is the art of getting your game in front of players. That makes it a pretty important step, because a player who never installs your game can’t spend money on in-game IAP. Even if you have the most brilliant game with an amazing monetization strategy, development won’t pay for itself if your entire audience consists of only your family and friends.
This post is part 2 of our F2P Monetization series, so if you are new to F2P make sure to brush up on the basics from part 1 first before reading on.
User acquisition sources. Do your marketing!
Paid User Acquisition
The most familiar form of acquisition is good old fashioned marketing. Most people are familiar with marketing, but it takes a special form with F2P. The majority of marketing comes in the form of Paid User Acquisition, or PUA. PUA is you trading dollars for players, generally by paying for advertisements on websites or within other games.
PUA can be a bit intimidating, especially if you are on a tight budget. Many AAA studios are spending millions of dollars on paid user acquisition, which means your audience’s eyeballs have some serious competition for their views. Furthermore, unless the average user spends more money on your game than you are spending on acquiring them, PUA can be a sinkhole for your dollars. Most big companies have soft launched their game and know exactly how much money the average player will spend in their game, and can therefore plan their PUA budget around that value. As long as the players on average bring in more money than is spent on them, PUA is a victory. Most of the time a paid user will spend less in game than a non paid user, which murkies the effectiveness of PUA even more.
Worth noting is that some companies pay for users knowing they are going to lose money short term. They generally do this for two reasons. One, to shoot their game up in the rankings in order to get a leg up in the “Top Games” list, and secondly to give an artificial boost of non paying users into their game so that their paying users have more people they can enjoy beating. Tactics like this might work in today’s market, but be careful planning your long term strategy around taking advantage of the these systems, as savvy users will see right through your shenanigans in the long term.
Previews and Reviews There are other ways to market your game that don’t require huge bags of money. Contacting app review sites and getting your game to reviewers are two easy ways to get your game seen. A great place to start putting together a list of contacts is Pixel Prospector’s site which provides tons of press contact information. Ideally, these communications should begin months before release, finding and talking to writers who are interested in your story.
Many industry writers strive to be on the forefront of the next big thing, and are willing to take risks promoting small but compelling new projects. When contacting the press, make sure to present them with clear, honest information about your game so that you can build trust with those who are putting their neck on the line. Similarly, don’t spam every press member who’s e-mail you dig up. Make sure to stick with those who you believe would have an interest in your project, and send them a customized human to human message. Treating potential allies like robots is an easy way to sabotage your chances for exposure.
Social media can be a great way to communicate with your audience. Sites like Facebook and Twitter let you keep people interested in your project up to date on your progress, and their excitement about your project can increase your reach to brand new fans. Communicating with the public is an important part of low budget acquisition and lets you take advantage of your small size. When you make an exciting discovery or finish a sweet new feature, you can tweet about it immediately. At an AAA studio, all contact with the outside world must be reviewed and green-lit to minimize the chance of a PR snafu. You should still double check your work and keep things professional, but the lack of red tape is your strength, so use it!
Blogs are another easy way to build community. They allow you to create content catered to different segments of your audience on a deeper level than a social media site. Even if you aren’t the best writer, you can only get better by practicing. At Not Robot, we tend to emphasize content over delivery, making sure the information we present is top notch although our writing skills certainly are not. You have an advantage at an indie because many of your fans will be interested in what you are doing as a company. The lessons you learn during development are valuable to fans who dream of one day creating a game of their own. Similarly a blog helps your audience humanize you as a company, viewing you as a group of people instead of a giant robotic corporation looking for money. Responding to fan posts in forums and on social media is a great plan as well, as is participating in development discussions in places such as /r/GameDev or Gamasutra to engage with the community.
Truth be told we haven’t quite perfected our community relations plan. It takes a lot of hard work, and we tend to let it falter as a priority even though we know how important it is. But from the little we’ve done we have seen some amazing responses. Getting great feedback on Feedback Friday and Screenshot Saturday. Finding cool content on Twitter, and getting help when we’re stuck on tough problems from other devs who have fought through the same trenches themselves. Keeping an open dialogue is a win-win-win situation between you, fellow devs, and your fans.
Designing for Virality
While the previous areas focus on actions outside of your game, designing for virality takes place within it. A viral feature is one that leverages existing players to gain new ones. This gives your game a potential to snowball, gaining access to new players who hear about the game through their friends.
In early social games, these all looked something like “Milk my cow! You get milk I get gold!” spam on your social media wall. But now, things have gotten a lot more integrated into gameplay. This is important, as you shouldn’t include features that don’t mesh well with your design. For example in Wave Crash we allow users to share their top scores through built in systems, allowing players to brag directly to Facebook and Twitter. But if your game doesn’t include a score or have any notion of beating a level, this strategy might not be a good fit. Don’t force it in when it doesn’t fit, or players will resist using it.
A relatively new viral method is to make your game something entertaining to watch, that way it will be a good candidate for streaming on sites like Twitch. A game can be fun to watch for a large number of reasons. Mechanics that are dynamic and potentially comedic support this theme, as the same level can perform differently each playthrough. Games that require a high level of player skill mastery are also prime candidates, where viewers watch to see the pro’s execute difficult moves. All of these requirements are good design principles anyway, and therefore help in both acquisition and your retention
Many indies tend to ignore out-of-game elements until they’re ready for release, and then fight a doomed game of catch-up. It’s important not to shelve developing your out of game acquisition strategies until it’s too late, as it takes lots of time and/or money to expand your reach. Start early! Keep a devlog from day one about your major decisions, keep your fans updated about your progress, build press relationships! None of these things should wait until you’re ready for release.
Most of us are developing games because we love games, not because we love business. Nevertheless, without a well executed monetization strategy, our games will remain a hobby instead of a career. Strong user acquisition is the first step of many to building that strategy.