Why game developers need publishers
Any developer wants their game to be successful. But how do you achieve that? In fact, the ‘silver bullet’ doesn’t exist. Out of 30 mobile game prototypes we help to develop, only one becomes a hit. The reality is that, according to our observations, the chances drop tenfold without a publisher, down to 1 in 500. We wrote this article to shed some light on why this happens.
First of all, thousands of products are released on the mobile market every day, and even a good game can go unnoticed in these conditions. Some breakthroughs occur without any promotion, but the chances of this happening can be compared to winning the lottery. Unfortunately, these are the statistics.
So what do publishers do to help developers focus exclusively on supporting existing projects and creating new ones?
Let’s take it point by point. When it comes to talking about publishers, people tend to bring up ugly high-profile stories that occasionally happen rather than acknowledge how beneficial a partnership can be (and usually is) for the developer. We’ll talk about how to choose a good publisher another time. Now, let’s focus on what increases the project’s chances for success.
Probably the most important thing of all. Nowadays, it‘s difficult to imagine a successful game release without marketing. This includes User Acquisition (UA), scaling, App Store Optimization (ASO), as well as the production of promotional materials and ad creatives.
It’s impossible to be a pro at everything at the same time, so you’ll have to look for a team of specialists. For example, we have 50 people working on creatives alone, not including the stuff we have to outsource. The staff problem this market has is a whole separate issue.
When working with creatives, you first need to determine your target audience — their gender, age, preferences. Each audience requires a separate set of creatives, and they will inevitably ‘burn out’ in a few weeks’ time, when most of the players have already seen the ad and it’s starting to become boring. Then, you’ll have to make a new one. It’s good to run several creatives at the same time, have them compete with each other and find the best one. In a perfect scenario, there should be 5 to 7 creatives targeted at different audiences.
At the same time, the quality of your creatives doesn’t solve all the problems. You can have an S-tier clip that does nothing because it was targeted at the wrong audience. Besides, you need to understand which creatives bring a paying audience, and which ones attract cheaper downloads, but from less-paying countries.
If we talk about another marketing aspect — scaling — the marketing team can spend from hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars on a successful hypercasual project in the span of six months. Having this kind of resource is very unusual for an indie developer. Yes, you can almost always loan money from a bank, but, if you want to spend it wisely, you need to understand exactly what you need to do, support and develop games, have experience in launching products and go through failures. You need to closely monitor trends and product quality, not to mention constant A/B tests — all of this is kind of difficult to do when you’re busy with development.
Another important facet of marketing — ASO — can have a powerful impact on metrics. We have cases when a simple change of icons increased downloads by 30%. That’s what happened with Infinity Ops — when everyone was waiting for Cyberpunk 2077 to be released, we stylized the app icon, and the metrics increased a lot. They stayed that way even after the wave of negativity Cyberpunk encountered post-release, and it was decided to keep the icon.
The tricky part about trends is that they can decrease metrics as much as they’re able to increase them. That’s why you need weekly A/B tests throughout the project’s life cycle and choose only the best options, numbers over personal preferences.
In other words, you’ll have to put in years of work to get at least a fraction of the experience that a publisher with hundreds of projects and thousands of prototypes in the portfolio has.
This derives from the previous point, since marketing budgets are usually set in advance — from a few hundred dollars to test a prototype to millions for scaling.
The simplest example: you made a prototype, and there’s nothing easier and more effective than spending less than a thousand bucks on UA to figure out if users even like the game, draw conclusions and finalize the project, or give it up before it’s too late.
In an alternative scenario, the publisher will spend up to $2,000 on each hypercasual prototype. If the game has reached the release stage, usually it’s somewhere around $10.000-12.000 by the time scaling begins. After that, the publisher can spend hundreds of thousands, or even millions of dollars on scaling itself monthly.
Things like hiring competent staff, analytics, prototyping, and creatives are also very expensive, but publishers make it much easier. All tests and development costs for creatives are covered by them, and you don’t even need to make promo materials.
The publisher scales user acquisition, handles all analytics and helps in other aspects at their own expense. They can lose as much money as they want, but there’s no harm in it for the developer — no fines, no revenue decreases.
Besides that, the developer is always aware of what’s happening to the money, from destination to results. Of course, we’re only talking about our experience, but many partners are surprised by such openness when the work starts, so it was worth mentioning.
Connections to advertising platforms
This is a very interesting point everyone forgets about.
Because of the contrast in volumes of acquisition and signed contracts, the price a publisher can get can be very different from what an indie developer is offered. Roughly speaking, you can buy downloads for $1 on your own, or you can buy 10 times more for the same amount of money with the publisher, since the price they’re going to set will be 10 cents per install.
Experienced publishers have been building relationships with advertising platform managers for years, they already have a good reputation, and therefore they get the best conditions.
It’s impossible to become this trustworthy overnight, even if we leave out the mountain of paperwork it takes to sign a contract. When all is said and done, publishers get access to the credit lines to acquire users and scale on an unlimited budget without waiting for the money to come in.
Connections to app stores
Yet another point that is rarely remembered. Everyone knows what kind of boost a store feature can give you, but getting there isn’t easy. Having the name and reputation of a major publisher who has a long history with the stores, as well as some personal contacts, helps a lot.
For instance, the publisher can show the metrics their project is going to have to the platform before they even do anything, since it’s already been tested. As a result, you can come to an agreement and save hundreds of thousands of dollars in marketing.
Other app pages and store recommendations are a different story. Influencing them is even more difficult since they’re picked by the algorithm, but understanding the core principles of how the stores work and a top notch ASO can significantly increase your chances. We have a whole team working on ASO, but let’s not dive too deep into that, since this is a marketing topic anyway.
Feedback and expertise
Everything we previously mentioned implies good expertise. It’s not about theoretical knowledge, but about the experience gained from working on real projects with a real audience. A publisher sees hundreds and thousands of games, so the experience accumulates organically within the company, and all of it can be used if you need it, completely free of charge. Let’s not forget the marketing teams that manage millions of dollars while they work with tangible audiences.
Even before the contract is signed, the publisher already can tell how viable the game’s CPI is and whether it can be scaled by user acquisition. In other words, the developer will receive useful information about their game before they enter any kind of partnership.
Take monetization, for example — it requires experience of working with different audiences, different genres and different countries. Revenue streams don’t stop at interstitial ads that play every 30 seconds, and a good publisher will gladly share their knowledge in this area.
We have cases when we revamped the games dropped by other publishers, and one of the most common things we finalized first and foremost was annoying monetization. This was the case with Chain Cube. Initially, in-game ads popped up every 45 seconds, which was predictable and annoying. We added a reward video and reward windows tied to the player’s achievements, redesigned the UI and slightly changed the visuals. As a result of all iterations, the game’s rating increased from 2 stars to 4.3, retention increased by 20%, and playtime doubled.
The product itself is also very important. A publisher should have game designers, artists, QA testers, UI specialists, producers and more on staff. They can dive into the project, give feedback, and sometimes completely close some staffing gaps in the developer’s studio in order to increase product metrics.
You can try to figure it out by yourself and connect to paid or free services, or you can get access to all analytics tools and the publisher’s SDK for free — use it yourself, configure it and request reports from analysts.
For instance, we use not only well-known services like AppsFlyer and Firebase, but also our own analytical BI tool with a user-friendly interface for tracking marketing campaigns, their ROI, key product metrics, LTV forecasting and more.
Our system collects and aggregates data from different sources like ad network accounts, mediation, and above mentioned AppsFlyer and Firebase. We look at revenue per every impression, installs, costs and other metrics with all the necessary groupings up to creative names. As a result, the entire marketing team uses this tool — that’s where we calculate ROIs, KPIs, look at summaries on projects and marketing campaigns, analyze A/B tests, build funnels, and so on.
The developer can do all this on their own, it’s just a matter of time, expertise and desire. The publisher already has everything automated, the data is downloaded automatically every day — you just need to go and click on the metrics you want to see. For example, you can see which creatives are performing well and which aren’t living up to the expectations.
This applies not only to marketing, but to product analytics as well. It helps to look for things like reasons for user churn and get to the bottom of it.
Developers often have their own funnels, but misinterpret them. They may already have built-in analytics tools like GameAnalytics and have a general idea of where the problems are, but the publisher can help dive deeper and collect information not only on user churns by level, but also on win rates at certain levels, level duration, and so on. Combined with feedback from game designers and producers, it becomes possible to understand whether the loss occurred during the level, or in the menu between levels; what caused the churn — high difficulty or an excessively long level.
If everything we’ve talked about today doesn’t scare you, you might as well give it a shot on your own. However, if your goal is to create a successful project, scale it as much as possible and get into the worldwide charts, having an experienced partner by your side proves to be a much better deal in most cases.
There’s no catch — the industry has become so competitive that publishers now offer the conditions so favorable it often makes no sense to refuse. That’s why we’re planning on exploring the best ways to choose a publisher in the near future. Stay tuned!