Featuring is No Longer a Kingmaker – A Look Behind The Featuring Process

A new initiative we’re kicking off here at TouchArcade is actively fielding pitches from developers, and other people working in the mobile game industry that have interesting stories to tell or tips to share that are relevant to the TouchArcade audience. To kick this off, I reached out to Kevin Flynn who is one of the many people working behind the curtain in the world of mobile gaming that works with developers to both make games better and more successful. We’ve actually known each other forever, far before either of us got involved in mobile. (I believe we first met Kevin at the Britain Crossroads in Ultima Online back in the late 90’s.) Anyway, Kevin has a lot of insight on how the featuring process works, which I think could be pretty valuable to a lot of developers who look at featuring as a magical thing that just happens if you’re lucky… Which isn’t really the case at all.

Featuring is No Longer a Kingmaker – A Look Behind The Featuring Process
By Kevin Flynn

In March of 2018 I was fortunate enough to be invited to speak at the Game Developer’s Conference to discuss working with the App Stores and the processes that go into launching a mobile game. (View slides here.)While audience members said they appreciated a rare glance behind the scenes of how the platforms work, many people wanted more concrete numbers on how a feature will perform. Here’s the problem: in my career in mobile gaming I’ve worked on over 100 releases that have been featured by the platforms, and every single one performed very differently. I have seen two games featured in the exact same position in the exact same genre within two weeks of each other – one of the games received triple the downloads of the other. So, while each feature is unique in the result it will receive, there are still many common factors in why a game will be featured and how to make the most of the actual featuring.

Featuring is Not Everything

While a bad game can’t be saved by any amount of love from Apple and Google, a few years ago featuring could take an okay game and turn it into a huge hit. The sheer traffic a top billing would receive not only would catapult a game to the top of the charts, the game would often stay at the top of the charts in part to being re-featured regularly under a “previous Editor’s Choice” section of the store. These features could bring in up to 2 million installs in the first week, and often another 1-2 million over the next few weeks from being on top of the charts. This means that with an “okay” $2.50 Lifetime Value, a single featuring could earn a game over $10 million – just in the first month!

However, with an ever-increasing volume of new games launching on mobile, the platforms have had to figure out how to share the traffic from featuring across a wider range of titles. They have taken two different approaches, which means developers need to have a unique strategy for each platform. With iOS 11, Apple has started doing daily refreshes of the store. Editor’s Choice is now Game of the Day, and what was once a week-long feature now lasts 24 hours. The results are what one would expect: more games are being featured, but the features are drawing far less traffic. By some counts, featuring downloads for a top feature are down anywhere from 80-90%.

Google has gone a different route; while they have mostly kept to the weekly featuring cadence, they feature far more games at the same time in their New & Updated section – up to 50 titles on some weeks. Assisting the process is an algorithm that will place games closer to the top depending on a user’s gaming habits. Typically, only the top five games and banners are hand placed by the editors – all the others are sorted by the algorithm. This system has been in place for some time now, and Google has had time to iron out some of the difficulties – such as lower than normal downloads – that they initially faced. Today, it is possible to see one of the 50 games featured in the New & Updated section to receive nearly as many downloads as a Game of the Day feature on Apple.

Overall, while the top features aren’t performing as well, more games are being featured so the traffic is being spread around to more games. When you account for the sky high CPI rates featuring is as – or more – valuable than it’s ever been.

More competition, less downloads – and more valuable than ever

Many may jump to the conclusion that spending the time and effort to “maybe” get featuring is no longer worth the effort. If you are a new game you will be competing with thousands of games for one of a couple dozen slots at most, and the results will no longer catapult you to the top of the charts as they would a few years ago.  However, many of the things that the platforms look for in evaluating games for featuring are also things that tell a story about the overall performance of the game and how committed the developer is to success. In addition, with the Cost Per Install rates, features are more valuable than they’ve ever been outside of the top spots.

Despite the platform’s difference in featuring cadence, they evaluate games in a similar way. Both platforms will rate titles on a variety of factors, and then take the final score to map out what will be featured and in what position. Some of the more important factors include uniqueness, how fun the game is, graphics, and what platform specific tech the game has. The platform tech will be weighted depending on what the platforms are trying to showcase at that point in time. For example, if there is a new Apple Watch, Apple is likely to place a greater emphasis on any Watch integration technology.

However, one factor has grown increasingly important over the past few years: metrics. Years ago, the platforms would rarely ask for detailed metrics before featuring a game. While they wanted a game to be able to succeed or fail on its own merits, a large feature push could make almost any game shine. Often, if a game had especially unique gameplay or outstanding graphics, the metrics took a backseat. In today’s increasingly crowded market, solid metrics are a way to show the platforms not only that your game is worthy of being featured, but that it can succeed outside of featuring. It’s a bit of a Catch-22: usually the games that receive the largest features don’t NEED those features to succeed. This has always been the philosophy of the platforms: featuring should never be the core of your go-to market strategy; it should be looked at as icing on the cake.

How to stand above the crowd

Four years ago, when my business partner Adam Flanders and I first founded Mobile Game Partners, our goal was simply to help bridge the gap between developers and the platforms. We both had a long history in mobile game publishing working for major companies like Kabam and Glu but saw that the most value added by publishers was in helping developers get noticed and featured by the platforms. With most of our clients, we were able to come in 8 weeks before the proposed game launch and be able to successfully gather the needed information, present them to the platforms, and usually get platform support for our clients.

Today, the entire process is radically different. Games now need to be extremely well rounded in all areas to be considered for featuring. Our work can now start six months before launch to ensure we have enough time to work with developers on the economy, user acquisition plan, analytics, metrics, gameplay, new user funnels, tutorials, platform specific tech, QA, customer service, and a dozen other items. If a game fails in any of these areas, it’s likely to not beat out the competition. Where we used to mainly be a business development consultancy, we are now needing to take on whatever roles that clients are lacking in.

When submitting a game to the platforms, developers should make sure to send over all the following information at a minimum:

  • Metrics information including retention, LTV, and conversion rates
  • Post-launch game update roadmap for 12 weeks
  • Marketing plan and budget
  • Screenshots and a trailer (no longer than 90 seconds)
  • Bullet points of the key parts of the game and what makes it unique
  • What platform tech is included at launch, and what will be added later

One thing to keep in mind is whoever reads your submission at the platform will typically review HUNDREDS of submissions in any given week. Make sure your submission is concise and gets your main points across quickly. No matter what happens, thank them for their time. Keep in mind even a mediocre feature still means you beat out 98% of other titles that week. Never complain about your placement, even if you aren’t thrilled about it. Developers should use this as a chance to build their relationships with the platforms. We have had clients not get featured on launch, but who ended up making major improvements and getting featured 6+ months later and after that got into a steady featuring cadence of every 3-4 months resulting in millions of downloads.

Platforms have the same goals as developers – so go for it

The featuring process can be a lot of work, stressful, and you may not get the results you’ve been dreaming of. But the platforms and developers want the same thing: games that will keep audiences engaged for a long time. Going through the process will usually result in developers having a better game, even if the game isn’t picked.

Our Take

Thanks a ton to Kevin for this behind the scenes look on how featuring works, and his thoughts are something we’ve heard echoed from many different developers and publishers who are always unwilling to go on the record- Largely out of fear of the consequences of biting the hand that feeds them, for lack of a better way to put it. No one wants to be known as “that developer who complains about Apple." It’s also fascinating to us that the platforms have shifted gears so much to be interested in pre-launchg metrics as part of the featuring process. Back in the good ol’ days, featuring genuinely seemed to be about Apple discovering cool little games and bringing them to the forefront of the App Store instead of wanting to know things like what your seven day retention rates are.

Overall, it seems like a bad direction to take, as I (and I’d assume most of our community are on the same page) are way more interested in weird games, cool experiences, and all the other odd qualities that combine to make what’s referred to around here as a “hidden gem." My favorite era of the App Store is still the early days when random games like Jelly Car would be released, and take everyone by surprise. Back then, no one cared about key performance indicators.

It’s also fairly evident that the new design of the App Store has been massively detrimental to driving downloads, and I’m really curious to see what (if anything) Apple does to help “solve" this “problem," or if they even view it as a problem. Call it hubris, Apple just being Apple, or whatever else, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the Apple stance on this issue is “Not our problem, the new App Store is better, deal with it."

One could also potentially argue that featuring has lost a lot of its power across both the App Store and Google Play due to app download fatigue, for lack of a better way to put it. In 2018, everyone has apps and games on their phone that they haven’t even launched. Even total non-gamer types who barely even follow what’s going on with the App Store seem to have games they downloaded for free, apps someone told them was cool, and everything in between cluttering up their phone. The drive to find a cool new game, or a neat new app seems to have largely vanished because if you’ve had a smartphone for a few years now chances are you have an app that does everything you’d want your phone to do.

In the game space, free to play games that operate as a service are so good at retaining their players that (for instance) if you play something like Clash Royale (Free), Supercell is so good at constantly updating the game, running events, and other similar things that there’s basically no reason for you to ever play (or download) anything else. In all forms of entertainment, consumers are absolutely drowning in choice. In that sense, it’s never been a better time to be a consumer, or a worse time to be a content creator.

Interested in submitting a story like this one?

If you’re in the mobile industry and have an interesting story to tell, or a fascinating perspective to share, we’d love to hear from you. You can send pitches to me directly, either via email or Twitter. (My email is my first name at toucharcade dot com.) These are not paid articles, and we’re going to be pretty selective about what we publish. These editorials are intended to share useful insight, not promote your company or studio.