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How to release mobile F2P hits over and over again

Lessons for serial success from prolific mobile game developers like Playrix and Scopely

Why are some companies able to consistently release successful F2P mobile games, while others seem unable to score multiple hits?

It’s well known that nowadays every single developer struggles to launch new hits. But still, some companies such as Playrix and Scopely seem to have a greater success ratio than others. Why?

I raised this question a few days ago on LinkedIn. The discussion helped me develop my random ideas into this article. So I’d like to thank Evangelos Leivaditis, Sagar Joshi, Yasser Bushara, and my man in the North Tiago Tex for their contribution.

Of course, there is not a single thing which completely explains what sets apart serial hit launchers from one-hit wonders. The difference is a combination of many factors. Here we listed some of them:

#1: Shoot multiple times at the same spot

Several of the companies that we’d consider serial hit launchers have achieved that status by finding a successful formula, and repeating it several times:

  • Excluding Township, all of Playrix’s releases are puzzle games, particularly in the Match-3 category. They have little variation when it comes to target audience.
  • Most of the titles share similar UX, art style and core mechanics (the decoration meta), which enables agile production and strong re-engagement of the casual audience, which by definition has difficulty building new habits.
  • Scopely’s titles are classified either as Collection RPG Strategy oriented to the mid-hardcore audience, or casual puzzle.
  • The recurrent usage of IP optimizes the value of their licensing department and generates brand reputation, gathering more trust from IP holders and fostering better future deals.
    After all, if you were the holder of a powerful IP, who would you want to develop your mobile game: Scopely or a company with a mediocre history?
  • Even if lately it seems to have fallen a bit out of grace, Supercell’s most recent hits, Clash Royale and Brawl Stars, focus on a similar kind of experience (real time PVP with strong focus on competition and eSports) and target similar demographics.
  • This enables a high degree of project synergy in terms of technology, design methodologies and marketing (brand recognition, etc), as well as feature insights that they can share (like Battle Pass, Trophy Road, and so on).

None of the companies above are pursuing being the masters of many trades. They have recognized how difficult is to create a top quality product in any category, and therefore have chosen to master a specific one.

Benefits of specialization

Focusing on a specific genre, target audience, game experience or technology brings advantages that ultimately improve the chances of launching multiple hits. Among them are:

#1: Faster progression towards quality

By iterating over an already mastered area, new projects get a kickstart of know-how from the previous hit, which will dramatically accelerate the prototype stage. Even if you don’t have a successful game in your locker, iterating over a specific genre still means faster gathering of knowledge, since development times will shorten and insights can be shared among different projects.

#2: Access to the target audience of the previous game

This means being able to gather feedback from engaged players, having a strong list of suggestions and building more reliable player personas.

#3: Clear KPI Benchmarks

New projects will have a clear benchmark for KPIs. Having a deep familiarity with a specific genre will also help you stay aware of any ongoing market fluctuations, helping you detect problems or opportunities faster

#4: Increased project synergy

The more similar your games are, the easier it will be to share more between them. For example, if games share the engine and technology, you can reduce costs per project, and the development team can focus on optimizing quality rather than versatility. It also means that most processes and methodologies that your company has on live games will work on new games too.

On the contrary, if your new games go for a completely new genre and audience (let’s say, you’re doing a hardcore MOBA while your company was traditionally focused on Casual Tycoon games), you’re going to have to completely redesign the creation process, which will take a long time. Not to mention many insights from your past experience will be less relevant.

#5: Better recruitment and training

Focusing on a specific genre or target audience will accelerate the training of your personnel, since newcomers will be able to pass through the live games and get frontline experience. This experience will not be as valuable if the new game has nothing to do with the previous one. It will also allow your recruiters to focus on a specific professional profile and attract workers who have a deep interest in the genre.

#6: Generates incremental value of failure

Supercell taught us all that to get hits you need to kill games, and most likely most new game development projects will end up being canned or failing.
But if a failed project doesn’t generate valuable knowledge for the next one, then it hasn’t improved your chances of success. It’s just wasted money.

A lot of companies and teams switch to something completely different after obtaining mediocre results on their first attempt. That doesn’t make sense — at that point they’re better suited to succeed at the genre they just tried.

By iterating on the same area, Playrix, Scopely and many others make sure that any failure contributes positively to a future attempt, whether it’s a list of points to rethink or avoid, or art assets that can be reused.

Then why do companies tend to over-diversify?

The benefits of a laser-focused portfolio strategy are quite clear. And yet, most companies engage in out-of-scope diversification, which diminishes their dominance over an area and diverts their efforts. Key reasons for this strategic mistake are:

#1: They over-value wide diversification

A rule of thumb on any business is that having a well diversified portfolio means that your company is healthier. You don’t have all your eggs on the same basket, and you’re expanding. But this is not necessarily true in games, especially in mobile, where top grossing positions are a winner takes it all scenario.

Even the most successful mobile games companies rely on a small catalog of extremely profitable games. The strategy of wide roster of mediocre performance games means low profitability, potentially none.

By following a strategy that supposedly decreases risk, companies are taking the path that increases the risk that everything they release fails.

#2: They undervalue quality

It wasn’t so long ago that mobile gaming was an extremely blue ocean. This meant that many games (some of which now are household names) had terrible quality, or were unoriginal, scaled down copies of games that existed in PC or consoles. And yet, they became extremely successful.

As a consequence, there’s a lot of companies that have embedded in their DNA the belief that success is easy to achieve in the mobile space, and you just need to patch something together to make a quick buck. But this is not the case anymore.

Nowadays mobile gaming is the most competitive digital entertainment business space. The standard of quality has skyrocketed, sometimes in ways that are too subtle for people who aren’t extremely engaged in the product to detect, and which may not appear in a superficial analysis.

This means that many companies tend to overestimate their ability to create a game with similar or superior quality to the genre leaders. The reality is that this very challenging, and that without a significant improvement over what they already had, players will prefer the products and brands that they are already familiar with.

#3: They overestimate cannibalization

A common argument is that by investing too much in a specific area, similar products will cannibalize each other (increasing CPIs, etc). But this is a misguided approach.

In today’s ultra-competitive mobile environment, if there’s something that works, either you create more of that or someone else will. Any blue ocean will turn red very fast, and by that point you want to have several games well positioned there.

It’s impossible to protect a market space: an overly cautious mindset about cannibalization will open up the possibility for competitors to release copycat products and generate the cannibalization effects that the company wanted to prevent. And since the cannibalization effects are unavoidable, it’s better to cannibalize yourself than be eaten by a competitor.

What’s the right level of diversification?

Before starting to pump out copies of your latest hit, note that I am not saying that companies should avoid diversification; rather, that what companies commonly consider diversification is in fact over-diversification (targeting different genres or audiences).

My argument is that serial hit launchers carefully manage their portfolio diversification by creating products that tackle the same opportunity (similar audience and genre) and maximize their strengths (technology, art style, insights…), but are different enough to reinforce the company position and reengage players.

A lack of diversification actually generates a risky situation, creating a market saturated by copycats and increasing the probability of a disruptive competitor emerging.

On paper, King has quite a diverse portfolio, but if we check each game we see that they had minimal innovation, which allowed competitors like Playrix to grow under their nose and eventually steal their crown. I doubt that any competitor wanting to repeat the feat would have it easy.

#2: Achieve low UA costs

In order for a game to be able to become a hit, it needs to generate enough revenue from players to allow further user acquisition to scale the size of its business (user LTV vs UA costs). This means that games which have expensive user acquisition costs will put more pressure on their monetization systems in order to achieve a faster return of investment.

Serial hit launchers have mastered at least one effective way to lower UA costs, which they use repeatedly in their projects. Examples of these strategies are:

  • The usage of well known IP to boost organic downloads and ad conversions. This is Scopely territory, a formula well proven to work by the launches of The Walking Dead: Road to Survival, Star Trek: Fleet Command, Looney Tunes: World of Mayhem, YAHTZEE with Buddies and many others.
  • Targeting the same genre or audience multiple times, aiming to capture churned users from the previous hit
  • Running aggressive advertising campaigns, often employing out-of-the-box creativity that uses fake ads and controversy to increase their clickbait effect. Playrix was the trendsetter of doing this kind of unorthodox marketing with their titles. Homescapes is a great and hilarious example:

#3: Careful expansion of teams and studios

Lately, I’ve heard the argument that getting a hit is mainly a matter of quantity. According to this POV, the best way to improve the chances of success product is to increase the amount of attempts. I consider that this is naïve.

A common reasoning to support having many teams in parallel is the example of Supercell, which have famously explained that in order to obtain their hits they’ve killed a lot of games. While I don’t doubt that their strategy is valid, I’m also positive that their idea is to repeatedly invest in teams that are promising, and nurture them to grow as an excellent team. If it was just about killing stuff, they surely have enough money to be developing (and killing) twice or thrice the amount of games.

In my experience, when companies focus exclusively on increasing the amount of development teams and development studios, disregarding other considerations, they are making several mistakes:

  • Separating their best talent among multiple projects, damaging the success ratio of each of them in a way that isn’t compensated by the increment in attempts. By choosing to keep a limited amount of teams instead, companies would have it easier to build teams composed exclusively of top performers, increasing the chance of generating high quality products.
  • Increasing your logistical costs and diverting thinking power to management (of multiple teams or studios). This moves effort away from making games, and redirects it towards an expansion which doesn’t necessarily mean an incremental increase in revenue or profitability.
  • Limiting the amount of resources available per team and studio, potentially below the amount necessary to deliver a product with enough quality. This forces the team to choose genres and approaches that are achievable with those limited resources available, rather than taking the decisions that are optimal for the game. In addition, this limitation of resources ends up creating a situation where teams and studios of the same company start to compete for resources and allocation, which kills cooperation and synergy.

On the right path

It would be naïve to look at the current stars of the mobile gaming industry (like Scopely and Playrix) and say that their reign will last forever. Back in the day it also seemed that the dominance of Supercell and King was unstoppable, and yet eventually the market caught up.

Nevertheless, I think that both Scopely and Playrix are doing a great job so far at keeping momentum by avoiding the pursuit of paths that ultimately were liabilities for the previous rising stars. By maximizing the investment on their current area of operations, diversifying within their area of expertise, instead of boldly defying genre boundaries, and keeping company expansion (headcount, studios…) under control, they are setting themselves up for long-term success.

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JBDev

JBDev

I’m a game designer, economist and F2P specialist with +10 years of experience on the games industry. I write at https://jb-dev.net/