Your first success: a burden or a new opportunity?

Discover the different strategies to manage your old game titles

Ignacio Monereo
Dec 19, 2018 · 15 min read

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.

“Respawnables” by Digital Legends was launched 5 years ago. However the game is continuously updated, giving the game a fresh look.
“Runescape: Old School” by Jagex was launched in 2001 in PC but only in late October 2018 on mobile
“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. It does not generate more than 50% of the developer’s total revenue

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?

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:

  • 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.

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. 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.

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’s first title, Fun Run, published back in 2012, went viral and reached some of the top charts in several countries.
Dirtybit’s portfolio as of April 2018, Source: Dirtybit
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. Make More Money (MMM) initiatives: Prioritize activities that will impact the topline revenues, without damaging the user experience;
  2. 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.
  • 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)
“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. Lack of focus: Having three games was deviating some of the technical resources and the internal focus on the priority project.
  2. 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
Chart 4: Evolution in downloads in Turkey after Fun Run 2 is unpublished Source: Dirtybit
  • 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
Overall Dirtybit revenues only via in-app purchases from April to August 2018 growing at +22% Source: Dirtybit
Overall Dirtybit Active 30D installs from April to August 2018 decreasing by 12% Source: Dirtybit

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.

  • 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 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.
  • 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. 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.
  2. 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.
  1. 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.

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.

  • 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.

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Ignacio Monereo

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Tips, trends, and industry thoughts for app and game developers building businesses on Google Play.