How we published Beholder on Google Play

This post details our experience with the paid and trial versions, as well as observations about the Play ranking and organics. It’s written for industry professionals or anyone interested in the business of games.

Image courtesy of Alawar Entertainment

Beholder is a special project for us, not only because it’s a special game — gritty, dark and satirical — but also because it presented a unique challenge for Creative Mobile as a publisher.

Originally a PC/Steam game developed and published by Alawar, Beholder is a paid title. Unfortunately, paid games are facing an uphill struggle on mobile (I’ll explain the economical reason later). Even more so on Google Play, where only 2 out of 500 top grossing games aren’t distributed for free (AppAnnie data). The inability of specific genres and developers to adapt to free-to-play seriously reshaped the industry over the last 10 years.

CM are among the publishers who had survived and then succeeded by embracing free distribution. However, the fundamental principle of free-to-play — micro-transactions that enhance and fast-track the experience — just wouldn’t work in a game about hard decisions. Monetizing with ads was out of the question, too. Watching a Gardenscapes teaser to save your daughter from dying today didn’t quite fit.

So rather than risk destroying the fragile emotional balance, we agreed to publish the mobile adaptation of Beholder as a paid title — something we hadn’t done in over 6 years!

Why paid games are a nightmare on mobile

Free-to-play game developers and publishers get a lot of blame for being greedy and abusive, but the industry is full of people who would rather work on “AAA” paid games if they were viable. Unfortunately, it’s very tough to sell a mobile title at price points above $5 when portable games are generally seen as inferior products. People don’t like paying PC game prices on mobile, even as they spend more and more time playing on their phones and tablets.

An experience shouldn’t be judged by the medium, but this perception is rooted in history and reinforced by advertising suggesting that whoever buys a smartphone is entitled to a wealth of content at no extra cost. As a result, the only mobile games that consistently sell large volumes at somewhat higher prices (~$7) are Minecraft and Grand Theft Auto — huge consumer brands.

Why is the price point so important and how does that relate to marketing? Most advertising on mobile platforms relies on a handful of channels, where the highest bidder gets the most exposure. In order to break even, a product has to bid no more than the amount it earns on a per-user basis. That is nothing else but a game’s ARPPU (average revenue per paying user) multiplied by the percentage of paying users (conversion rate).

For paid products without micro-transactions or ads, ARPPU equals the list price. Additional paid content (“DLC”) can only improve it marginally, as it is expected to cost less than the base game, and only a fraction of players buy it.

Meanwhile, the power of free-to-play is the price flexibility: most players pay nothing, but some spend a lot, easily pushing ARPPU to double digits and above $100 in some segments. These games get excessive leverage in the marketing channels, and even very appealing paid games with high conversion rates can’t keep up.

This effectively means that, by going with a paid model for Beholder, we gave up on performance marketing. Instead, we had to focus on using the other available tools and playing to the strengths of each distribution platform.

Launch forecasting session at CM (screenshot from Beholder).

Initial launch and a new game plan

In line with the fundamental philosophies of Apple and Google, App Store is the more curated platform, while Play is more reliant on AI-driven recommendations. Clever algorithms are fantastic for driving organic discovery of great games, but because they feed on data, they need significant download volumes to kick in, putting paid games at a disadvantage.

With this in mind, our expectations from publishing a paid title on Play were initially low. The game launched in May priced at $4.99 and was well received, settling at a 4.7-star review rating and ranking category top 3 in all markets, which seemed appropriate for a relatively niche, serious title. Revenue was in line with what we reasonably expected, but well behind AppStore sales, and any hopes of a miracle were crushed.

Underwhelming results had an apparent positive element: they opened the door for “plan B”. After observing sales for about a month, we agreed to deploy a free try-and-buy version to co-exist with the paid game. The option was always on the table and supported by Alawar, who relied on it successfully in the past. However, the memory of Super Mario Run getting bashed for its $10 unlock IAP was still fresh, and we didn’t want to risk the game’s and our partner’s reputation. Even after the initial launch, opinions were split. In addition to the possible backlash from the players, there was a risk of cannibalizing the paid game sales. But, true to our spirit, we decided that failure was better than uncertainty, and went ahead.

Organics, reception and performance

The initial results were hardly impressive — after two weeks on the market, the free version was seeing 500–1000 daily downloads. I don’t think any seller should complain about one thousand customers walking into their store every day, but it wasn’t enough to move the needle for us. Eventually, growth resumed, and in just over a month the try-and-buy version seemed to level off at healthy 7000+ organic downloads per day. With the conversion to payers in line with typical free-to-play game figures, the impact was now noticeable.

Although the description of the game made it clear it was a try-and-buy demo, we didn’t expect too many people to read it, and prepared to deal with hundreds of players frustrated by the $4.99 “paywall”. In practice, there were some negative comments, but the average score settled at the same 4.7 stars as the paid game. Moreover, we didn’t see any cannibalization of the sales of the paid version — instead, it seemed to improve. The opposite was also true — running a “back to school” discount event on the original game boosted its sales 10x, but had no negative impact on the free game organics.

Screenshot from the Google Play Developer Console

Surprised, we shared our findings with the Play team as part of our feedback routine, who in turn deemed the game worthy of a spot in the weekly promotion reel. We were excited, but didn’t expect the numbers to scale well. However, during the promotion, conversion to payers didn’t dip and even grew slightly. Review score took a small hit, but still rounded up to 4.7. Most surprisingly, as free game downloads and IAPs spiked, so did the paid game sales. At the peak of the promo, paid version was +700% up compared to the previous period, narrowly beating its own launch week results. In some markets, Beholder was simultaneously top 5 in both Free and Paid, and top 20 grossing with both versions.

Top Free, Paid and Grossing (AppAnnie). Beholder games highlighted.

Long-term effects

After the promotion ended, the try-and-buy version seemingly reverted to the same organic downloads as before and soon hit the 1 million mark, while the pay-once game stabilized at a multiple of its previous level. Combined, try-and-buy and full versions were grossing over 5x of what the paid game managed on its own — now a very sizeable contribution to the project. Additionally, the increased download volume allowed us to use the Play A/B testing feature and iterate on our store page assets for better conversion.

Everything was looking fantastic for a couple of weeks until we observed a decline in organics that gradually became more pronounced. Slowly, we rolled back to around 2500 daily installs — still a significant amount, but well below the peak. After the next Play promo we observed yet another decline cycle, now settling at around 1000 daily installs.

Organic discovery is a complicated subject, and you can never truly figure out the exact mechanics, but one credible explanation is rooted in the Play recommendation principles. It is well-known that ranking is based on the quality of interactions at least as much as quantity, and most metrics related to quality take a hit when you get a quick burst of non-target downloads. Therefore, it is not unreasonable to expect the store rank to sink, particularly if a game is somewhat niche. Performance marketing can cushion against this effect by providing a stream of valuable users that help maintain KPIs, which was obviously not the case with Beholder. One way or another, we had to accept that nice download spikes came with a long-term negative side effect.

Final thoughts and summary

It’s worth noting once again that Beholder is a special game. It explores a theme that doesn’t appeal to everyone, but those who appreciate it become super-fans. It is very well-received by the press, earning numerous awards and making “game of the year” lists. Originally a Steam title, it came with an established player base, and the development team has been doing a fantastic job of talking to their audience passionately and authentically. Their style inspired us so much, we made it our own, and players responded:

Finally, we wouldn’t be able to get the necessary exposure without support from the App Store and Play teams.

That said, we believe that understanding the mechanics of each platform is an essential component of mobile marketing, and playing to the strengths of each significant channel can make a big difference for any game or application.

In addition to the above, there are common-sense practices that are worth following regardless of the platform or the business model:

  • Choose whichever model is right for your game, don’t compromise on the gameplay experience, and be honest.
  • Make assumptions and line yourself up for “plan B”, if possible.
  • Don’t be ashamed of asking for help and advice. It’s a complicated world. Have a hard time with your game plan or KPI forecasts? Ask me!
  • Be extra nice to everyone (players, fellow developers, platforms, media) and never lie. For every hyped up product, there’s an AppAnnie revenue report anyone can see.

If you like what you read, please ♥ it below or recommend to a friend who is curious about video games and business. This will encourage me to write more and share knowledge acquired after 10 years in the industry.

An earlier version of this article was originally published on PocketGamer. A version with minor edits is also published by the IGDA Estonia magazine.