Your first success: a burden or a new opportunity?

Discover the different strategies to manage your old game titles

It’s every game developer’s dream to have a long lasting title that continues to receive thousands of downloads years after its launch…or perhaps this may not always be the case. For example, the developer may wish to promote a newer and more profitable game instead. In any case, very often these first successes age in unexpected ways for developers, for better or worse. While we may expect old games to suffer from technical issues such as difficulty to maintain updates, it is perhaps less predictable that old games continue to receive a significant amount of downloads and have very engaged communities after so many years.

The goal of this article is to understand how older titles are performing on Google Play and the different routes developers are taking to deal with these first successes. We will also share key lessons learned by developers who experienced this, and the best practices they gained along the way. Before we dive in, I would like to give special thanks to Anette Ståløy, VP Business & Marketing of Dirtybit and Erik Pöntiskoski, CEO of Dodreams, for sharing such detail and insights about their experiences with us.

What is an ‘old’ game?

Before jumping into the performance of these games, let’s take a step back and look at the definition and what we mean by an ‘old’ game.

One of the first and most obvious factors to start with is the publishing date on Google Play. However this might be misleading for a few reasons:

  • Games as a service model: Mobile games are often regularly updated after their launch date. Some of these updates might dramatically affect the game mechanics, business model, or meta game, transforming it into a whole new experience. This is particularly critical in evergreen titles, which continue to drive the majority of the revenue for the developer even after several years.
“Respawnables” by Digital Legends was launched 5 years ago. However the game is continuously updated, giving the game a fresh look.
  • Games coming from other platforms: As mobile devices continue to become more powerful, many titles from other platforms like PC or console are being ported to mobile. In many occasions these titles were published a long time ago, and therefore have classic graphics despite the fact they have only recently been published on mobile.
“Runescape: Old School” by Jagex was launched in 2001 in PC but only in late October 2018 on mobile
  • Soft versus hard launch date : As part of the launch process, many game developers decide to publish their games in open beta and iterate with real players. While this pre-launch stage is common, we have seen on several occasions that this pre-launch stage may be extended for many months, or even years. These games can include all key elements, such as progression or full monetization, therefore making it difficult to define the official launch date.
“Critical Ops” by Critical Force was first published in the Play Store in 2015, but official launch only happened in November 2018

How are old games performing?

Taking into consideration the above factors, when trying to analyze how old games are performing, we will first make two assumptions to define what they are.

  1. The game was published 4 years ago, or more;
  2. It does not generate more than 50% of the developer’s total revenue

Now that we’ve established (for these purposes) what an old game is, let’s see how these games perform on Google Play. Perhaps surprisingly, these games are still very much alive, with new and engaged players, and are generating substantial revenues for developers.

When looking at all the top games in the Google Play Store, the old titles group represents 17% of them. Similarly, the number of downloads in the first half of the year (H1 2018) accounted for 17.5% of the total.

From an engagement perspective, the average number of daily active users (DAU) is 59% higher in old games, than newer games. This may be due to the games having survived over the years, and therefore having players that are committed for the longer term. If we look at the time spent, we observe that old games have on average 29% less minutes per DAU, which might suggest that they were designed for shorter game sessions, or that there is less content to consume.

What about monetization? In this case, old games have 18% less average revenue per daily active users (ARPDAU) generated via in-app purchases. This could be explained by either a bigger reliance on alternative monetization models, advertising, legacy game design (less monetisation opportunities by design), or again less content (lack of LiveOps, sales).

Lastly, when looking at the technical performance of these games and more specifically their Android Vitals, we see that on average they have a 50% higher crash rate (CR) and a 20% higher App Not responding (ANR) ratio. This implies that there is scope for improvement when it comes to technical stability.

What strategy should you take with old games?

The question to consider for developers of such games is: whether this is an opportunity — should we revamp the game and assign new resources to it? Or whether it is a burden — should we divest and consider redirecting the traffic or even unpublishing the game?

After speaking to several developers and finding out more about their strategy around old games, we have seen that the majority of them tend to follow a third route: the back catalogue or long tail, which falls somewhere in between the two other options.

The back catalogue route: Keeping the status quo

In this option, the developer will keep the game alive but try to reduce costs to the minimum. As a consequence, we generally see that resources such as game developers or designers, as well as marketing budgets are reassigned to other projects. Some of the most common reasons will be:

  • The impact of new content or LiveOps in retention and monetization is very small.
  • Return On Investment (ROI) of their advertising campaigns is smaller since the Cost Per Install (CPI) continues to increase and catches up with the Lifetime Value (LTV) of the players.
  • Overall revenues for the portfolio decrease and there are signs of cannibalization between games.
  • Other external factors such as new game genres, new games from competitors, or new technologies that accelerate players churn from the game.

Although generally these are not positive indicators for developers, it does not mean that the game is dead.

Anatoly Ropotov, CEO of Game Insights, commented that there are two main reasons to keep their old games alive:
“At Game Insight we believe the community is critical to maintaining the brand perception and reputation of our studio and thus we continue to update our old games in-house. Although back catalogue games only generate 14% of our total revenues, profitability is 50% higher than the overall portfolio thanks to the community and we still have a flow of new organic users.”

Some of the most common challenges to consider when operating the back catalogue are:

  1. Spaghetti code: Supporting the game from a technical perspective can be more cumbersome due to legacy code, old engine versions and SDKs. In some instances we see that developers outsource the technical support since they do not have the in-house skills anymore.
  2. Monetization: Ensuring that the game works correctly either via ads (updating the mediation platform and advertising SDKs), or in-app purchases (automatizing customer support based on common queries and issues).
Automatizing the LiveOps can also help to keep the game fresh, according to Martial Valery, CEO of OhBiBi Games:
“Since we have seasonal content and time limited quests produced from past years, we automatically push these events to players. As a result, new players will still get the sense of playing a live game.”
  1. Team: Maintaining designers’ and developers’ motivation to keep working on supporting these games can be difficult.
  2. New users flow: Making sure that the store listing continues to be updated and players continue to find the game.

To summarize, the back catalogue option is one of the most popular ways amongst old titles, since they continue to add value to both players and developers, despite the issues mentioned above. However, there may be instances where it is interesting to take a different, and maybe a more radical approach — as we will see in the next section.

The burden route: Divesting old games

In certain cases, a developer might decide to prioritize a newer title over old ones, and as such ultimately choose to deprioritize their back catalogue. This can be done in multiple ways; such as running in-house campaigns to drive downloads for the new game, limiting the old game content, or ultimately unpublishing old titles from the Store. This was the case with Fun Run 1 and 2, from Dirtybit.

Dirtybit is a Norwegian game developer & publisher based in Bergen. The company focuses on real time multiplayer games within the casual racing vertical, and since its creation has reached over 100M downloads worldwide.

Dirtybit’s first title, Fun Run, published back in 2012, went viral and reached some of the top charts in several countries.

In April 2018, Dirtybit had published three games in the Play Store. As reported by Dirtybit, Fun Run 3 was the top title, representing almost 72% of total revenues, and 52% of downloads. The previous titles, Fun Run 1 and 2, were also significant in terms of both revenues (28%), and in particular, downloads (48%).

Dirtybit’s portfolio as of April 2018, Source: Dirtybit

If we fast forward four months later (to August 2018), this picture is quite different. Fun Run 3 is now making up the majority of both revenues (92%) and downloads (99%). So what happened here?

Dirtybit’s portfolio as of August 2018 Source: Dirtybit

A shift in strategy

Until 2017, Dirtybit was mainly focused on growing the user base and, with over 100M organic downloads, this seemed to have paid off. However, from a monetization perspective, things were not that positive, and Dirtybit was well aware that the Average Revenue Per Daily Active User (ARPDAU) was significantly lower than its peers. In 2018. Dirtybit decided to change their focus towards increasing revenue, by implementing the following changes:

  1. Focus on an analytical approach: Rely on analytics for decision making and expand the team;
  2. Make More Money (MMM) initiatives: Prioritize activities that will impact the topline revenues, without damaging the user experience;
  3. App store optimization (ASO): Improve the user acquisition funnel using experiments, such as store listing tests with the app icon and the name of some titles;
Example of tests with Fun Run 3 icon in the Play Store in Dec ’17. Top right icon saw an impressive +46.5% increase in organic conversions versus other versions (Top left — control icon, and bottom left — second test icon). Source: Dirtybit.

Following this shift in strategy, they found that Fun Run 3 was the clear winner:

  • Monetization was significantly higher: 2 to 4 times higher ARPDAU
  • Long term retention was also better: +46% at D28
  • Updated technology: easier to support and with more room for improvement
  • Better UX: both in gameplay and First Time User Experience (FTUE)

It became quite obvious to Dirtybit that, in order to drive more revenue, they needed to redirect more users to Fun Run 3.

Before going ahead with this decision, the developer had to resolve some challenges:

  1. Visibility: Fun Run 1 and 2 were better positioned organically, which often led to players being confused on which of the three games they should download.
“Fun Run” query in Google Play US according to AppAnnie (Oct ’17) shows app’s total search traffic generated by the keyword Fun Run
  1. Organic growth and virality: While Fun Run 1 and 2 became viral quite soon, this was not the case with Fun Run 3
  2. Lack of focus: Having three games was deviating some of the technical resources and the internal focus on the priority project.
  3. External competition: Uncertainty about the market and the sustainability of these organic downloads.

Pulling the plug on old games

In June 2017, the developer decided to run a test in Turkey and unpublish Fun Run 1 from the Play Store, with the goal to understand what the overall impact in organic downloads was.

Evolution in downloads in Turkey after Fun Run 1 is unpublished Source: Dirtybit

This test was repeated in April 2018, when Fun Run 2 was removed from the Play Store, and Fun Run 3 was the only Dirtybit game left.

Chart 4: Evolution in downloads in Turkey after Fun Run 2 is unpublished Source: Dirtybit

Following both tests, Dirtybit saw that most of the downloads were redistributed across the remaining title(s). As such, in May 2018, Dirtybit decided to unpublish both Fun Run 1 and Fun Run 2 from the Google Play Store.

The main considerations in making the decision were:

  • Downloads: Dirtybit expected Fun Run 3 to absorb 90% of organic downloads from Fun Run 1 & 2.
  • Visibility: Fun Run 3 would be the only “Fun Run” game and therefore this would reduce confusion among players in discovering Fun Run.
  • Monetization: Fun Run 3 ARPDAU was 2–4x higher than older titles and thus allows the developer to be more efficient in a highly competitive market.
  • Community: Dirtybit released an official statement to be open about the decision and prepare the community of players.

What impact did this have?

Overall Dirtybit saw an increase in overall revenues (+20%), compensating for a decrease in the average active 30D installs (-12%). Here is a summary of the key results:

Evolution of global Dirtybit downloads after both Fun Run 1 & 2 are unpublished. Source: Dirtybit
  • Revenues: (IAP+Advertising) Fun Run 3 grew by 57%, and overall revenue by +20%.
Overall Dirtybit revenues only via in-app purchases from April to August 2018 growing at +22% Source: Dirtybit
  • Active 30D installs: Fun Run 3 increased installs on average by 50%, but overall Dirtybit installs declined by -12%.
Overall Dirtybit Active 30D installs from April to August 2018 decreasing by 12% Source: Dirtybit
  • Resources: Resources were freed up as it is easier to maintain one game instead of three.

Key learnings

  1. Make decisions based on key metrics: Unpublishing the first game is not an easy decision, however, as a company, you need to be ready to let the first game go if the metrics tell you so.
  2. Test and make sure the timing is right: In this case, testing in a market with a significant user base, such as Turkey, allowed Dirtybit to get results at scale. Choosing the right time to unpublish is also critical and we would recommend it ideally be done only when the app has strong technical stability, and the team is ready to deal with new users and the community.
  3. Plan ahead for both the best and the worst: Dirtybit had both a pre-mortem and a plan B scenario in case the decision was not going in the right direction. While most of the results were positive, the community still wants the old games to be updated.

The opportunity route: Revamping the first success

In some cases, old games can (re)become the biggest opportunity; by re-assigning more developers, game designers, and overall resources to the game, some developers manage to improve the performance of the old game significantly. This was the case for Drive ahead! by Dodreams.

Founded in 2008, Dodreams is a Finish game developer & publisher based in Helsinki. The company focuses on local multiplayer games and their main title is Drive Ahead!, a gladiator car fight. As of 2018, the company has over 100M downloads in the Play Store.

Drive Ahead! was launched in the Google Play store in October 2015. In 2016, the goal of Dodreams was to grow their portfolio of games to increase both Daily Active Users (DAU’s) and revenue. By launching new games, they were also expecting to fix all of the issues identified in the original game. In October 2016, a second title was published, Drive Ahead! Sports, originally a minigame within the main game, that became a standalone game in itself. Dodreams reported the following:

  • Revenues: 62% of total revenues came from Drive Ahead!
  • Downloads: 54% from Drive Ahead!
  • Resources: 60% allocated to Drive Ahead!
Drive Ahead! Sports, second title by Dodreams launched in October 2016

Challenges with the portfolio approach

In 2017, Dodreams realized that there were some issues with its portfolio approach. First of all, the developer understood that the audience for Drive Ahead! Sports was more niche than for the first title. The developer came up with the following conclusions on Drive Ahead! Sports:

  • The good: From a revenue perspective, 90D ARPDAU was 2.5x higher than the original game.
  • The bad: As mentioned, the audience was smaller and DAU was only a fraction (20%) of the original game.
  • The ugly: In early 2017, a major UI/UX update and a new saga map nearly killed the game, leading to a drop of 50% in DAU, retention, and revenue.

Dodreams decided to revamp the original title by assigning the majority of their resources (75% of the team versus 60% in 2016), to this title for several reasons:

  • Sustainable stream of new users: Approximately 100K downloads per day with high virality through UCG (videos), and local multiplayer design.
  • New strategy: Test new Free to Play (F2P) mechanics in Live-Ops events, so as to adopt the most successful ones into the core game mechanic.
  • Business model: Capitalize on ad revenues while building the necessary metagame & progression for stronger IAP future.
  • Lower risk: as well from an investment perspective compared to starting a completely new game project once again.
  • Onboarding new members: using other titles to allow the team to gain experience in managing free-to-play games in a rapid iterative fashion
An example of new LiveOps methods in the game Drive Ahead!

What happened next?

Since the change in strategy, Dodreams reported that Drive Ahead! 30D active installs have been growing on a yearly basis by +14%, while Drive Ahead! Sports has decreased by 9%. In the first major update, first time user experience (FTUE) improved by 50%, while D0-D3 advertising engagement had similar metrics. In a second major update, LiveOps events have added another 50% improvement to the FTUE and Dodreams is now validating new features or game mechanics for competitive online gaming.

The evolution in Active 30D installs since January 2018 until August 2018 Source: Dodreams

Key learnings

Assess the opportunity in advance:

  1. Justify why a game should exist (in the case of Drive ahead! Sports) and what is the position within the portfolio. Make sure new launches are proper stand alone games. Not just the old game re-skinned.
  2. Understand what drives revenue and profitability, and aim to grow these in steps, not leaps. Partner used to give the team a target to grow DAU. However later on understood that this metric is an outcome of both daily new users and churn. Since the team cannot influence it directly, when designing sprints, the team will focus on aspects such as virality, social features, progression and providing long-term goals in the game.
  3. Use the existing community as much as possible to test and validate features before full rollout. Staged rollout and limited time events help to reduce the risk of alienating existing fans with big updates.

Create a vision:

  1. Excite the current team and attract new hires/partners: bring new people on board to help in areas needing development
  2. Listen to the team: job satisfaction improves the quality of the game. Data provided from tools such as Firebase and Google Play Console enable self-organized teams and agile methodologies in game development which boosted the team spirit at the studio.

Leverage secondary games to onboard new employees:

  1. Drive Ahead! Sports, although not the main priority, is now the starting point for new team members, granting them full ownership to progress and to learn.

Conclusion

First of all, remember that a new player, who has downloaded your game just a few minutes ago, is probably not aware when the game was published. Thus, even if the game is, a priority or a burden, developers have a unique opportunity to still impress the new player arriving to their game.

Additionally, old titles still continue to receive a significant amount of downloads and in fact they have on average more DAUs than newer titles. In some instances, these can be even more profitable than live games.

So assess the opportunity and we recommend the following practices:

  • Optimize based on objective metrics and key performance indicators. As we have seen, it is important to detach yourself emotionally from the first success and be ready to let the first project go.
  • If you decide to unpublish, consider the community and the potential impact on downloads in the overall portfolio.
  • Make sure you have a clear vision and mission that will excite the team when revamping a game.

What do you think?

Do you have thoughts on strategies for old game performance? Let us know in the comments below or tweet using #AskPlayDev and we’ll reply from @GooglePlayDev, where we regularly share news and tips on how to be successful on Google Play.