The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutras community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
This article originally appeared on Playbook, Chartboost's blog dedicated to the business of mobile gaming.
So, you’ve decided to soft launch your new mobile game to a targeted set of test users. Good call! A controlled soft launch is a tried-and-true way to work out the kinks (like pricing for in-app purchases and game play mechanics) before your game gets released to a wider audience.
We’ve assembled four key metrics to watch during a free-to-play soft launch. Pay close attention to these numbers (and ignore everything else … for now) to determine whether your game will be entertaining and profitable down the line.
First, though, it’s important to remember no games are exactly the same. A metric that would be successful for one game may not be sufficient for another. So your first step is research and planning. Here’s what to know before you start measuring soft launch success (or failure):
- The definition of “good” metrics varies hugely across genres. For instance, successful endless running games have very high reach and retention, and very low revenue per user; a hardcore strategy game may be the opposite. Interviewing peers and competitors is often the best way to establish a good baseline.
- Different countries also vary greatly in player behavior. If your goal is a less expensive audience, a country like the Philippines or Malaysia may make sense. However, users in those countries behave differently than, say, users in the US or Europe. If you have a firm target market, choosing a more expensive but similar country like Australia, Canada, Sweden or the Netherlands is smarter.
- Related to your choice of test markets, you need enough players in your soft launch to produce meaningful metrics. This is a minimum of 10,000 players, but could be much higher.
Okay now that we have the basics covered, here are the four metrics we think are most important for your soft launch:
1. Early retention rates
Start by tracking the percentage of users who return to the game. Common intervals are Day 1, Day 7 and Day 28 (or Day 30, but Day 28 keeps the calendar days being compared consistent; users likely have different habits on Saturdays and Tuesdays, for example). Developers often shoot for a minimum bar across genres, like the 40/20/10 (percent) rule for 1/7/28 (day) retention.
What this tells you: How much users want to return and play again. These numbers are foundational to your success. Low early retention numbers are concerning, but can be improved on with changes to the first-time user experience (FTUE).
Later problems with retention are more worrying. “I find that it is quite difficult to make significant improvements to long term retention without massive changes to the game, some of which may be close to the effort of building a different game experience,” says industry consultant Josh Burns.
2. Average revenue per user (ARPU)
For the free-to-play model, in-app purchases remain the primary revenue source industry-wide, though advertising is rapidly growing in importance. Total revenue from both sources is the first indication of whether the monetization strategy is working. ARPU varies hugely across genres, but even the most casual games usually need a monthly ARPU of around $3 for F2P games.
What this tells you: How users are interacting with ads or making purchases — and whether any monetization tweaks you’ve made were effective. You’ll want to see that users are monetizing decently from the start.
3. Average revenue per paying user (ARPPU)
Unlike ARPU, which measures all users, ARPPU is total revenue divided by the number of users who paid something — anything — while playing the game. Separately measuring paying users from the beginning is especially important for free-to-play games since a small percentage of active, engaged users will drive the bulk of the revenue.
“Revenue averages across a game’s entire population (ARPU) will always underestimate values for paying players because [they] represent a tiny percentage of most games’ user bases — and even within the ranks of paying players, the vast majority of revenue is generated by a small subset,” writes Mobile Dev Memo’s Eric Seufert.
What this tells you: Which parts of the monetization strategy should change to encourage more people to spend more money — and the amount that payers are willing to shell out while playing your game. Highly monetizing titles have ARPPUs of over $20. As with ARPU, this number can and should be increased during soft launch, but focusing on the habits of your paying population can help clarify which monetization channels to focus on.
4. Conversion rate
Finally, look at conversion. ARPPU ignores non-paying users. But those free users — and they will be the majority — are important during the soft launch stage. Their feedback and support is invaluable, and to successfully monetize a game you’ll need to improve at converting those people to paying customers. Typical conversion can be 1-2 percent, or around 5 percent for strong performers.
What this tells you: How, and when, players turn into paying players. Taken together with the ARPU and ARPPU figures, the conversion percentage will let you know if your game has a viable monetization strategy for a global launch.
The big picture
Success doesn’t simply mean hitting your target number for one of the metrics above, though. Rather, it’s about the balance between all of them. Simply put, your retention and revenue become part of a lifetime value (LTV) calculation that will help determine whether you can acquire new users for your game — while still turning a profit.
One last unpleasant, yet business-savvy outlook to take is the idea that the initial metrics may simply be … terrible. In this case, it’s best to cut your losses. Large studios like King, Wooga and Supercell are notorious for testing dozens of projects for every one that gets final approval, and permanently burying the losers.
Smaller teams with a dud on their hands may wish to treat their losses differently, however. “For smaller teams focused on single projects, it may be just mean making whatever monetization and retention tweaks are feasible and pushing the game out into the market if there is no budget for paid promotion anyway,” says Burns. “There’s minimal downside for a small team to launch the title if it doesn’t require significant effort or expense to maintain, if only to collect more user data and use the learnings in the development of future titles.”