Mobile Game Advertising: don’t be afraid to get creative

There are hundreds, if not thousands, of sites out there that can be used to advertise your mobile game, in the form of directory listings, reviews, or forum posts. If you have enough time on your hands, you can try to submit your game to as many as you can find, but in many cases you’ll be required to pay some sort of fee to be listed or to accelerate the process, which can take weeks or longer.

If you are getting into mobile game development gradually, you will likely start out by releasing your game as free. But this means that if you start reaching into your pocketbook you’ll quickly be in the red, which isn’t a great way to get motivated to continue game development as a hobby.

Besides sticking with just the free sites, you can try to get creative to avoid paying some of these fees.

To give an example, I recently received an email from one of the sites I did a free submission for my latest game, which had a long advertisement about the paid service, talking about the benefits of a premium listing plus the fact it was on sale.

The text, however, had several English grammatical mistakes or awkward parts, and while reading it I had a mini Eureka moment.

I replied back to the email, saying that I would like to help clean up the marketing text which would surely bring in more paid users. In exchange, if I could get a premium listing as compensation, that would be great.

In less than a day the admin replied back and said we have a deal. I rewrote much of the advertising text, and though I am not a specialist in this area, the end result was much better than the original one. The admin said I will get a premium listing in the next week or so. (If this doesn’t pan out I’ll be sure to let you know in a later post)

These sort of opportunities come by only once in a while, but if you keep an eye open and think creatively, you might be able to find some unique ways to further your game’s marketing efforts.

In my case, I only saved around $15, but the satisfaction from a well-handled negotiation was worth many times this. Creating a win-win situation for both parties is one of the key parts of business-minded thinking.

Mobile Game Development Hint: Use associations to help market your game

Although we all would like our games to be played by as many people as possible,    trying to please everyone just isn’t going to cut it. This is something I discussed a little bit in a previous post, and this time I’d like to talk about one technique you can use to market your game – associating it with existing categories, genres, or pre-existing games.

The most effective marketing starts early in the design process, if not before many of the details of the game are decided. A key step of this is determining what your target audience is, and an important characteristic is what types of games they enjoy.

Say you are going to make a game based on or influenced by Tetris (“Dream of Pixels” is a great example). You want to know what people liked about the original Tetris and try to incorporate at least some of those elements in your game. This may effect gameplay design, visual design, sound design, UI, and many other aspects of your game.

From a marketing perspective, it will also effect how you advertise and position your game, things like the title, icon, what keywords you use, and what forums or other sites you advertise on. The key point here is that the more you can associate you game with well-known categories or existing games, the easier it will be to find potential users, and the easier it will be them to find you. For the example of a Tetris-type game, people searching for “Tetris” on an app store have a chance of seeing your game, and you can safely advertise on forums related to Tetris since the user’s there may genuinely enjoy your game. Rather than just forcing information down the throats of everyone, you are hand selecting a group of people who likely have an affinity for your product. Try and compare this with a game that can only be described as “an action game”. Though there is potentially a much higher user base, reaching out to them without spamming is very difficult.

If you decide to associate with an existing game, like Tetris, then I recommend avoiding using the game’s name in yours (“Awesome Tetris”) or making it too similar. This is because there is always a chance you could be sued by a company that thinks you are infringing their trademark or product. Nevertheless, many game companies to do this, if not by ripping off a name of an existing game, but at least a similar icon, visual style, and gameplay.

Another option is to associate your game with a classic board game or other non-copywritten game such as Chess or Checkers. There shouldn’t be much chance of legal action being taken against you, assuming you don’t copy an existing game  modeled after one of these, such as Battle Chess. The nice thing about this is you don’t have to make it exactly the same as one of these games, it can just share one or more elements, with a mix of creative differences mixed in. Like with the Tetris example, you can advertise on forums where people are into Chess or Checkers.

To give another example of association, my first app on the Apple App Store was a Simulator for the game Hearthstone, which is a digital card game made by game giant Blizzard. My app is a tool rather than a game, but in writing it I had to create my own engine to process the rules of the game, which was a fun yet challenging exercise. Since Hearthstone has gotten very popular, I was able to springboard off this popularity and get over 500 downloads – much more than my other iOS apps. For various reasons I’ve stopped development on it for the time being, but you can check out more information on the simulator’s blog here if you are interested. One of the reasons I didn’t continue improving it is that there was always a chance Blizzard could demand I remove it from the app store, since it uses their trademarked name in the title, and also it had the potential to get good enough to help out people at tournaments.

Whether it’s taking influence from one or more categories or existing games, this narrowing of marketing focus is an important step to help your game succeed.

Of course, for those games that seem to come from nowhere and create an entirely new genre (Minecraft, etc.), they don’t really need to associate with anything else. Going for a completely new style of game is a valid way to go, but it requires some different marketing tactics and there is only a handful that really succeed. Endeavors like this are the riskiest, but I feel they have the most potential to be rewarding for the developer, both emotionally and monetarily.

https://playthefieldgame.wordpress.com/2015/06/10/mobile-gaming-and-the-importance-of-marketing/

iOS game advertising stats: view count comparison of a view popular forums

For my first game on the app store, Play The Field (a casual RTS game for iPad/iPhone), I did some advertising experiments by posting in several related forums.

I think it’s important to separate the number of people who decided to click on the post title, and those who actually went ahead and downloaded the game as a result of reading the advertisement. For PTF, the latter number was pretty small so  I can’t say it was a real success. However, the former number is still important since it shows how many people reading each form were interested in the game baed on the title and the fact it was an iPad/iPhone game. These view statistics will come in handy when I try to advertise another game.

Since these numbers might help out others as well, I’ll post the exact number of views I got for my advertisements on each site, ranked with highest first.

For my next game, I will very likely use the first two because of the great turnout (forums.toucharcade.com and forum.devmaster.net). The small number of views from the last site (http://www.slidedb.com) was especially surprising since there was many fields to fill out, and a 1-2 week period of waiting to be approved. All of that for a measly 5 hits!

I did achieve one minor goal, which was to not get banned from any sites. This was done simply by following all the rules for each of the forums involved. On all forums I only posted a single time, and only in the proper sub-forum.

One thing to keep in mind is that I submitted these posts over a week or two period, so some are a bit older than others. However, because I think most of the traffic comes in the first few days (when the post is near the top of the list), I think this has a minor effect on the overall hits. It would be an interesting follow-up post to check these again in a month or two.

I’ll put links to the posts below in case you want to see how I phrased things, though because of the low overall effect on downloads I think I need to work on writing more appealing, concise advertising text.

http://www.slidedb.com/games/play-the-field

http://www.gamedev.net/topic/668462-play-the-field-minimalistic-rts-game-for-ipadiphone/

http://forums.toucharcade.com/showthread.php?t=261996&highlight=play+field

http://forum.devmaster.net/t/play-the-field-minimalistic-rts-game-ipad-iphone/26744

http://www.armchairgeneral.com/forums/showthread.php?t=159587

http://iosdeveloperforums.com/forums/advertising-and-self-promotion.18/

http://forums.tigsource.com/index.php?topic=48058.0

Mobile gaming and the importance of marketing

If you have spent countless hours trying to market your game and already understand the value of marketing and advertising, then this post isn’t for you.

However, if you tend to focus on content creation, leaving advertising as a mere afterthought, then you might want to keep reading.

I consider myself a fairly logical-minded person and until recently I held the mistaken idea that popularity and sales is primarily based on a product’s content – things like features, materials, quality, etc. If I devote a few years of my life to making the ultimate game, upon release that game should perform wonderful, since after all it’s a great game that deserves to be downloaded, right?

Not quite.

As I think more about products are made, marketed, and sold, I’ve realized that the content itself is only one of the factors that contributes to a product’s success. The more competitors out there, and the bigger the potential audience, the more a product must be advertised to have a chance to make it big.

Part of me screams out “but this just isn’t fair!”, but I have to accept this is reality. It’s been known for some time that human consumers are not robots, they aren’t always “logical” and don’t always but the “right” products. Instead, they are influenced by so many things, including the “image” of the product (hence celebrities are commonly used to buff up a product’s image) and what their friends and family think. Product naming, packaging, positioning – there are so many factors outside “what’s in the box” that influence whether we buy something.

Of course, there is no guarantee that marketing dollars will reflect to sales, which is why all all businesses that create and sell products have a certain degree of risk. You can think of it as an investment: If I invest X dollars on advertising a game that costed Y dollars to develop, what are my chances of making my money back? What are my chances of making significantly more than I invested? Without a doubt, a great game with a large marketing budget (assuming a competent and creative team of marketers) will have the best chances to profit.

Looking at popular products out there, I’m sure you can find cases where the top product isn’t always the best, but it may be a so-so product with a great marketing budget.

If you create an awesome game that is super addictive, there might be some chance it will go “viral” and spread to a global audience without aggressive advertising. But I think everyone agrees that your chances are always better with some type of marketing push, since without that your game will easily get lost in the sea of forgotten games that never got past a few hundred downloads.

If you work for a medium to large sized game company, part of your company is surely dedicated to marketing and advertising, but if you are a small team on a small budget, the importance of marketing makes your odds of success even worse. Apart from trying to find a person to advertise your game for free or cheap, you can try to become a marketing expert yourself, spending half (or more!) time just on this aspect. But this puts those of us who “just like to program” or “just want to make games” in a pretty tough spot.

Personally, I always get sort of a dirty feeling about advertising, because it essentially involves trying to convince or even fool consumers into believing a certain thing or feel a certain way. I’d like to think that straight out lies or deception will come back to haunt a product eventually (a sort of advertising karma), but I’m not sure if the world actually works that way. In any case, all I can do is try to keep my own marketing efforts from annoying people too much.

For example, it’s fairly common to use a blog to help get the word out about a game, app, or website, and this is clearly a form of advertising. I’ll admit that this is one of the purposes of this blog, which was originally created to be a support page for this game. But I don’t randomly spam people, telling them to check out my game. I feel that the practice of spamming – forcing your product down someone’s throat who probably doesn’t care – is one of the lowest forms of marketing on the Internet. Instead, I’ll read blogs about mobile gaming and other topics that interest me, and if I happen to appreciate an article I’ll give it a like, or even a comment. Some of those people happen to read my blog, and may even become interested in a mobile app I’ve written. This a kind, passive way to market a game without pissing people off.

With posting on forums to advertise a game, you can do things politely and only post in the appropriate areas in related forums at a reasonable frequency, or post all over the place any end up pissing off more people than not. The funny thing about spamming is that even with a low rate of acceptance (say 5-10%), the overall effect is still positive, whether it’s more people downloading an app, viewing an add, or purchasing some product.

Advertising a game is not just about where you try to push your message, but what your message is. Is it a single screenshot or a short movie showing off the cool graphics? Is there a list of features to just a short quip talking about the concept of the game? Or do you position it as “similar to so-and-so (popular) game”? You can write about your game on 100 websites, but if nobody finds the posts interesting your time will have been spent in vain.

I’ve used the terms marketing and advertising somewhat interchangeably in this post, but advertising is only one part of marketing. An important step that must be done before advertising is understanding the existing market (rivals, and what sets them apart) and identifying the demographic group(s) you want to advertise to. The better you can zoom in on to your target consumers, the more you can fine tune your advertising campaign. Trying to please everyone is a sure way to fail, since a 13 old girl with expendable income and a 60 year old man living off savings will have completely different buying patterns. When watching or listening to a commercial, it’s a fun exercise to try and guess what the target demographic is for that product.

Watching the initial presentations of Apple’s yearly developer convention (WWDC) yesterday, I was again reminded of the power of marketing and what a massive advertising budget can achieve. Generally there seems to be great polarization between Apple fanboys and haters, but I think it’s hard to disagree about the power of the marketing videos they have been able to consistently produce. Whether it’s about Apple trying to connect their products to the amazing legacy and history of music, or a group’s heartwarming attempt to help deaf children experience music for the first time using an iPad (Project Ludwig), their advertisements give us all something to think about.

[Credit: Featured image from Gratisography]

Why you *really* don’t want to make your mobile game anything but free

In the last year or so, I’ve had conversations with several developers who had tried to put their game or app on a mobile store with a price of “only” 99 cents. Of course, all of them were disappointed with only a handful of downloads.

Several years ago, I had the thought that if I could make any money, even a few dollars, it would be a way to get my foot in the door of a new opportunity. After that point, all I had to do was keep working on increasing that income slowly but steadily, and eventually I could make a significant amount of profit.

But, after having a few apps on the store myself, and doing some research, I realized how wrong I was.

I don’t have the exact figure in front of me, but I’ve read several places that nowadays something like 90% or greater of mobile games are free. Frequent browsing through iOS games pretty much confirms that, especially given that the apps I usually peruse are in the “popular” categories and even many of those are free. But what is more important than the fact that most are free is that many of the free games are really well made, with top-class graphics and gameplay – clearly something not done by a lone developer.

As you might expect, many of these games use in-app purchases to try and make a profit, and some games still use advertisements, though use of ads seems to be gradually decreasing over time (I consider that a good thing). There are other free games which, surprisingly, seem to have neither of these – the only explanation is that they are just trying to get their name out there in preparation for a followup game.

As a budding mobile game developer, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking your game will somehow be special, and achieve great popularly while earning you thousands of dollars (at a price of only $0.99). While this might be true if you have one or more people on your team with a great deal of experience making and promoting mobile games, for the average small team or hobby developer your odds are not so great.

So let’s say you were trying to decide between making your game free, where you could potentially have a few thousand downloads, and 99 cents, where you would be lucky to have a few hundred downloads (if that). Your first instinct might be to go for the cash, but that would be a terrible waste.

The reason is that while very few small-time game developers will make much money on their first game, they have a great potential – the potential to gather precious information.

The more downloads you get, the more chances you have of getting reviews, either directly in the app store or from a third-party website. Reviews are one of those things whose value can’t be measured easily. Not only do they tell you someone cared about your game enough to write a review, but they get to the heart of what a user enjoyed, or didn’t enjoy. For my first app I only got a handful of reviews, but they were all very valuable information, and helped me drive updates.

Another advantage of free games (especially if they have no in-app purchases or ads) is that it’s much easier to advertise them on the net, or with friends. You’ll less likely to get people saying your spamming or just trying to make a quick buck from a forum post. You still need to exercise caution and tact when advertising, but it’s a little bit easier.

Also, there is a higher chance your app will go ‘viral’ if it’s free, since all that takes is one or more people who have popularity to happen to mention your game, whether in a tweet or on their blog. At $0.99 if you get only 50 downloads compared to 500 when free, your odds of going viral are 10x higher when free.

And don’t forget other sources of hard data. Now with Apple’s analytics being released to all developers you have much more data to mine, and even the most basic data can be extremely valuable if you know how to analyze it. For example, using the number of reported upgrades gives you some idea how many people actually cared enough about your game to not delete it immediately. If you have used something like Flurry in your app you have even more data from each person who downloaded your free app. Tools like this can help you determine engagement, which is a measure of how much the user was really involved when using the game. Did they make it to level 7 after 2 hours of play, or give up due to frustration in the middle of the tutorial?

The other reason the bar for paid games is so high is because there is so much competition even in the realm of free games. As a user, I can tell that there is a major psychological difference between free and 99 cents, regardless of the monetary fact it’s “only 99 cents”. I’ve only paid for a handful of iOS games, but I’d say that at least 30% of them were disappointments which I stopped using after only one or two sittings – in spite of the fact the screenshots or app preview seemed impressive. Gameplay does matter. After being fooled I’m even more hesitant to spend anything on mobile games. In spite of my annoyance with the concept of in-app purchases and the “freemium” model (especially coming from PC gaming where everything used to be one-time purchases), I have to acknowledge that using free games to get users to experience the gameplay is a key aspect of the current mobile game market.

As a final note, while it’s true that you can do aggressive advertising to help up your downloads for both the free and paid models, your improvements in the free case are bound to be more drastic. Compare spending a few days of advertising all over to increase your sales from $20 to $40, as opposed to making free downloads jump from 1000 to 2000 (with a handful more reviews).

Once you’ve reached a moderate success with the free model, you can then either decide to add in-app purchases, ads, make a ‘pro’ version (as a separate download), or just use your newfound knowledge and start over with a new project. Whichever option you choose you can leverage the popularity of your free app to drive traffic to wherever you are trying to actually make money.