Business Post Mortem: Wolf Toss: Pre-launch Planning & Blended CAC
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
...Wolf Toss is now at over 1.2 million installs across iOS, Android, and Chrome.
Today's post is about how it got started. I'm going to break one of the rules of copywriting by describing what we didn't do and why as well as what we did do, because I think other game developers have good cause to consider those strategies and tactics that we didn't pursue for Wolf Toss. While this post isn't as stats-focused as the last two - it's all context for the posts still to come about the things we've tried and what worked and what didn't.
Wolf Toss came out of a humble beginning. It didn't come out of a week-long game jam, or a series of game planning meetings, or some kind of market analysis showing that it was the logical evolution of the physics knock-em-down genre.
Instead, as Todd Hooper wrote in his MobileDevHQ article last week, Wolf Toss was originally conceived "as a GDC demo showcasing how quickly a Lua scripter could create a modern mobile physics game using the Moai game development platform." Basically, the thinking at the time was that if a small team could create something along the lines of a chart-busting mobile game in a very short amount of time, it would be a terrific demonstration of the game platform. It was. One designer/lua scripter and one artist built a four level "Big Bad Wolf & Three Little Pigs" themed game with smooth performance, sound, scoring, and cloud-hosted leaderboards in five days. Then they spent two more days making sure it ran well on Android. The GDC meetings went great. Then everyone forgot about Wolf Toss for a while while the studio team worked on another game.
Months later, we came back to Wolf Toss because it was a game that people were having fun playing in demo form, and we knew we could finish and release it in a reasonable amount of time. Time to market was the biggest deciding factor - and is the main reason Wolf Toss is our first studio title.
Positioning the Game:
We developed Wolf Toss in a very iterative way, with daily and weekly adjustments, and lots of in-company play time on our laptops, phones, and tablets. Some differentiating features emerged early on in this process: an overworld map, multiple cannons allowing quite a bit of travel arond the levels, large indoor "mansion" levels with lots of pigs and floors to navigate, secret levels that had to be unlocked, and special powers (like lighting your wolf on fire to burn through all the straw and wood objects). Before long, I was describing the title as "_____ birds" crossed with "Super _____ bros" or a knock-em-down physics game made deeper with old-school platformer elements. We thought we could find a market at the intersection of mainstream players of smartphone action and puzzle games and people who love a bit more exploration and strategy. We started to talk to ad networks, think through player acquisition options, and look at what we could do in terms of promotion with a $50K vs. $25K launch budget.
In the end, our title is nicely evolved from others in the genre and based on the high review averages (4.5/5 stars) seems to deliver the majority of players exactly what they want: some familiar game play elements with some new strategies mixed in. But as the marketer, I was hoping for an even greater emphasis on the differentiators, and I shed a silent tear when we had to cut secret levels in the name of making the schedule.
Goals for the Game:
The team worked very hard to get Wolf Toss honed into a enjoyable, polished title. But the overriding push was to get the quality up where it needed to be and ship. We did some very small alpha/usability tests, but not nearly as broad, early, or often as we would have liked to. The monetization design was not central in our process, and not tested with real players. Twitter and Facebook integration was an after-thought, and neither viral growth nor interplayer relationships were designed into core game play. All this is context for the fact that making a lot of money on Wolf Toss was just not a goal. Instead we settled on the goals of:
- Releasing a polished title on par with top app store titles in terms of smooth gameplay, graphics, animation, and sound
- Simultaneously releasing on three modern platforms and app stores
- Netting 100,000 players with a small marketing budget
We really would have liked to chart on the first page for iPhone and Android as well, but as companies were spending $25K-50K per day to achieve that on iOS alone last Fall, we couldn't commit to a goal like that without the budget to back it up.
When it came time to pull the trigger, we decided to go with a small marketing budget for the game launch (< $20,000). We just didn't expect to have a positive ROI on our marketing spend. Most of the "safe" CPI or CPE customer acquisition mechanisms lead to $1.00+ player acquisition costs for free mobile titles. CPC, video, and fixed rate promotional opportunities may or may not deliver results. All this is well worth it if you have some proof or hope that you'll have a player LTV that's significantly higher than a buck. We thought ours would be less. We were right about this. With a budget this size, we knew the 100,000 player goal was far from certain - we certainly couldn't plan to buy the players.
There were a lot of strategies we had to discard off the bat:
- Buy our way into the top charts to get organic traffic and "ride them back down" (too expensive)
- Drive traffic from related titles to lower overall CAC (we don't have other titles)
- Start an ongoing process of paid advertising, tracking and tuning to find profitable channels (unknown and expectedly low player LTV)
- Rack up so many killer reviews that people notice (long shot, especially in December)
- Focus on a single platform and a single country to get the most momentum from our marketing spend (budget was too low to move the needle on even one platform)
Here's what we did decide to do:
- Focus PR efforts around the simultaneous iOS/Android/Chrome launch. This would be noticed by games and startup industry folks, and deliver some players, but we didn't expect it to drive lots of game installs
- Optimize for app store SEO and track performance differences across stores. SEO is powerful for the web, how well could it work in app stores?
- Push what we could through Social media and create viral content. This is a long shot, but inexpensive and could have amazing upside if it hits. We chose the themes of "better than established brand name game," "funnier than established brand name game," and the "bacon is the best food on earth" meme.
To date, we've spent just $6,335 on marketing content and PR, and another $17,175 on incentivized installs. You'll notice that we've exceeded our <$20K budget by a bit, but we did that intentionally to try to capitalize on our terrific success on Android and see if we could break into the top 24 (first page) in the free games chart.
This gives us a blended Wolf Toss CAC of less than $0.02 per install.