A managing partner of Bitfold Online Games, Mike Turner knows his way around the design and development of mobile and social games. He also plays the role of analyst at times. He provides a guide to tools that can benefit mobile game developers in this two-part article series.
When your game comes within a month or two of launch, a tidal wave of operation-oriented questions starts to run through your team’s collective brain. Questions like:
“How are we going to acquire our users?”
“What analytics tools should we use?”
“How do we handle customer service?”
“Should we integrate ads?”
In this process of preparing for the operations phase, developers look to third party tools to help them automate various pieces of the player lifecycle.
However, the tool market is saturated, so it can be difficult to develop a proper framework to evaluate the large number of tools available for each lifecycle step. This article series aims to clarify what useful tools and services exist for each lifecycle step and provide a framework for evaluating their usefulness to your product.
When talking about game operations tools, it’s helpful to segment them by stage in the player’s lifecycle they address.
1. System Management Tools: Keep game servers and clients healthy
2. User Acquisition Tools: Get new users into your game
3. Behavioral Analytics: Understand users and their desires
4. Engagement and Retention Tools: Keep users engaged for longer
5. Monetization Tools: Boost the number of paid conversions & spend per user
In this first of two articles, we will be looking at two of the five segments of game operations tools: system management and user acquisition tools.
System Management Tools: Avoiding Damaging Downtime
An online game (mobile or web) is a persistent online service that must serve players 24/7. Keeping this service up and healthy presents very intense operational challenges, especially as the game’s user base grows. Back-end bugs and outages occur regularly, and each of these problems represents a hit to all of your KPIs.
In the best case, back-end errors only cause minor harm to your game’s KPIs. However, extended outages can often lead to thousands or millions of lost users and revenue. The longer a problem in the server exists, the greater damage it does to your game’s numbers.
The reason bugs and outages occur so frequently in many games is that they’re not properly monitoring their system’s performance and error logs, letting serious technical issues slip past their operations team. The underlying cause of a server issue usually can be found in the server’s logs, but the speed of the tools you’re using to investigate those depends on how your logs are managed. If developers have a log management service to monitor and centralize server logs, developers are able to quickly discover where the issue is and fix it before it hurts KPIs.
Once centralized, you are able to search for any log you want to view and visualize the contents of that log or display aggregate statistics in charts. This allows a game’s live operations team to spot issues and solve them fast, thus limiting any downtime. Considering the (generally) large amount of money spent to acquire traffic and money lost when downtime occurs, integrating a third party log aggregation tool is worth it.
User Acquisition Tools
User acquisition in games is challenging because developers need to acquire users who are likely to engage with their game, and it’s often wildly unclear WHERE to get those “quality” users. They also need to ensure the return from those users is higher than the amount spent acquiring them. This section provides a list of tools for organic and paid user acquisition, as well as strategies for using them at varying levels of marketing budgets.
Work Hard for Organic Traffic; It Rocks
Organic traffic is free, and organically-sourced players often engage and retain better than users purchased with ad campaigns, so you want to put effort into establishing your own organic traffic sources.
Social Media Tools
Social media is an obvious choice. You want to put a lot of content (video, picture, conversations) out there and engage people who would potentially play or promote your game. But managing every social network can become unwieldy. To help, there are several tools that allow you to aggregate your communication to one dashboard, analyze the performance of your conversation, and help you predict when to post content and what hashtags are most valuable. Some of these tools are below:
App Store Ranking Optimization
If you have a mobile game, a high ranking on the app store will provide your best source of organic traffic. Recently, a new class of app store optimization tools, such as SensorTower, has become available that help you optimize your presence by researching which keyword strategies are most effective at driving app store traffic for your game.
App Store Competitive Research
If you want to do serious research on the app store on how competitors are rising and falling in rankings across hundreds of different categories, App Annie is an excellent tool to check out.
Mobile ad tool providers have a lot of cool offerings for game developers beyond just mobile banner ads and incentivized installs. Today, there are some very rich game-specific mobile advertising offerings that can drive a lot of well-targeted users to your game.
These offerings include:
– Rewarded ads: Installs or ad impressions that reward the users for viewing them. These type of ads can reliably generate traffic, but the retention rate of the users acquired via these ads is typically poor. This is because players are motivated to interact with your game for rewards but not necessarily because they’re interested in your content.
– Direct deals: Making deals directly with other game developers or cross-promoting your games within other games you have made. Paired with the right partner, this can be a very cost-effective way to acquire users who will engage with your game.
– Ad mediation: Game-specific ad networks. When bidding on ads, you can select specific networks on which you’d like to advertise. Different ad networks have different audiences, some far more suited to game development than others. Being able to choose a network that caters to your target customers helps greatly in driving relevant traffic.
– Native ads: Ads that are integrated natively into the UI of the mobile app or website you are visiting such that they appear as a seamless part of the user’s experience. These contrast to banner or rich media that are placed “on top” of a game or website’s UI.
– Rich media ads: Ads that have advanced functionality. These include videos, full-page interstitial ads, ads with interactive signup forms, ads with playable mini-games, and more.
– Targeting, segmentation, and attribution: Tools that allow you to attribute your conversions to specific sources and campaigns, segment your traffic into specific demographics and cohorts, and analyze the overall effectiveness of your campaign.
– Game-specific ad offerings: Tools tailored specifically to developers, including game-only ad networks, rewards for players reaching goals, in-game news feeds, and more.
Smaller developers with marketing budgets under $20,000 will benefit from more direct deals and game-developer specific offerings, such as those that Chartboost offers. Other paid options tend to be slightly more cost prohibitive than is realistic.
Larger developers or developers with big budgets can also make good use of direct deals and game-focused offerings. However, for larger budgets, well-designed rich media and native ads that run on game-oriented advertising networks can bring in quality players. Experimentation with various ads and ad networks will be needed to determine the best approach to advertising in these channels, so make good use of the analysis tools these packages provide.
Don’t Waste Your Marketing Spend!
Acquiring is usually expensive, and often when companies make big ad spends, they are wasted. Some of the main reasons for this include technical glitches, targeting the incorrect type of users, and misunderstanding the users and their motivations.
When users who come to a game via a paid ad experience a significant technical glitch, they will generally leave the game forever. Using logging tools like Loggly to keep better uptime of all components of your game can help save you thousands in marketing spend.
Often when developers purchase ad buys, they target audiences not well suited to their content. One strategy to ensure you’re targeting the correct audiences would be to use your ad’s analytics on a minimum number or users to establish the value of various traffic sources and buying strategies. Also, if you’re using a tool that has mediation capabilities, use it to select a network proven to have game-development friendly audiences. You could also use game-focused tools such as Chartboost, which have game-only networks, and direct deals with other game developers.
Often times, users perfectly suited to your app will land on your app, but they will fail to engage or convert to paying users as much as you want them too. If you do not know WHY this is, you are in BIG trouble. Developers need to take an aggressive strategy towards understanding users and delivering changes that make them happy.
To find out how to better understand users, and the remaining tools that support game development, check out part 2 of this article series.