Hyper-casual game development then and now: did three years make a difference?
Hyper-casual development is no longer a sprint — the last time the “act quick, make a lot” strategy when a company pumps out simple prototypes with core mechanics worked well was in 2020. Now the sprint has turned into a quite long obstacle race.
According to our average figures, only one hyper-casual project out of 300 becomes successful with independent studios, and one in 100 achieves results when a publisher is involved. The chances are even greater if the studio learns how to build development processes at a high level, monitors the metrics, and pays special attention to prototype development aspects like balanced visuals, vibrant effects, UI, and unique or well-chosen assets. In other words, everything that hyper-casual prototypes were previously deprived of.
Going forward, we’ll analyze a few things about hyper-casual development that changed in just three years. There’s a common theme — it all happened because of growing competition.
2019. Hyper-casual games are mainly made by one or two people. Projects are built on bare core mechanics, and there are no visuals, meta or level design. You pop bubbles and that’s about it.
2022. Most often, there are 3-4 people in a team, but no one would look twice at 8-10 people who work on one project. Studios can easily have separate positions for 3D designers, artists, and level designers. It’s difficult for a game to become a hit based on mechanics alone. You need to create a lot of content, add a meta, work out monetization points, build a funnel of levels — take the sniper game series for example.
At the same time, many publishers also involve their own specialists. In addition to everyone we already mentioned, these are producers, game designers, marketing specialists, analysts and sound designers.
2019. Prototypes are made in one or two weeks, often in one or two days, like Chain Cube was. Everything else is considered a waste of time, because you need to test theories as quickly as possible in order to get your fresh original ideas to the top of the charts.
2022. Depending on the complexity, we usually allocate 2-4 weeks for the first prototype. This implies coming up with the core mechanics, customized feel of the game and content designed for 10-20 minutes of gameplay.
This kind of a prototype can be tested, but even if the metrics are more or less good, studios shouldn’t succumb to old habits and release it immediately. Most often, the prototype goes for revision and gets a roadmap — then, after 2 or 3 iterations it becomes clear whether the project is worth launching or not. This process usually takes another 1 or 2 months.
During this period, the developers usually focus on the game’s quality and look & feel instead of trying to come up with unique mechanics.
Level design, game design, meta and music
2019. None of it exists. Or almost none. Primitive level design, the lack of music and sounds, assets from open libraries.
2022. Level design is extremely important. It’s the only reason why Taxi Run managed to become profitable after exhibiting 20% R1 on the first prototype. For most hyper-casual games, this number means no further development. But even after making hundreds of different levels, we still notice how players lose interest if they encounter something as minute as the same turn repeating on two consecutive levels.
Open source assets are still massively used in prototypes, but when it comes to launching and scaling, it’s better to switch to unique models that players are not tired of seeing. Some publishers bring in their own 3D designers, as was the case with Mafia Sniper, but so far this isn’t a common occurrence for the market.
Full-cycle sound design is also gradually taking its place in the hyper-casual genre. The more you manage to stand out from the competition, the greater the return of investment rate is going to be. During our experiments, we noticed that a full-cycle unique sound design done by a professional increases LTV by an average of 10% for projects without sound. Previously, no one thought about it.
Now hyper-casual game developers even dabble in implementing social mechanics, but it’s more of an experiment so far.
Hyper-causal project support post-release
2019. Globally, it doesn’t exist. Some publishers did it back then, and this kind of experience was very useful to us later.
2022. All major publishers do it. It includes a regular release of new content, features, mechanics, marketing creatives, and constant A/B tests throughout the project’s life cycle.
2019. The share of ad monetization is 98-100%. No one is willing to pay real money in hyper-casual games.
2022. In-app monetization takes an average of 10%, but for some projects, like State Connect, it reaches 20%. There’s a new generation of grown-ups who don’t consider in-game purchases something out of the ordinary. Previously, it was hard to imagine that a person could pay $10 in a hyper-casual game to disable ads or buy a skin for $5-10. Now it’s the usual practice, especially in the US.
The game’s chances of becoming a hit have remained the same at best, no matter how painstakingly detailed it is. The average revenue from hit games has decreased. As a result, the top spots on the charts are reserved for those who’ve spent the last years accumulating internal expertise — this applies to both publishers and developers.
Many have gone into making hybrid products, but they’re still trying to keep the mechanics simple and appeal to the wide hyper-casual genre audience. Hair Tattoo made it into the top 3 barbershop sims thanks to its realistic visuals, which were previously only used in the casual genre. There are also cases of hyper-casual games becoming the foundation for a completely new play2earn direction, like it happened with Axes Metaverse.
The hyper-casual market itself also continues to grow, although it does so mainly because of low-income regions. On the other hand, it’s not going anywhere in the coming years. Yes, people aren’t going to stop liking simple meditative mechanics that help them wind down anytime soon.