Volkan Özen is Co-Founder of Cratoonz, an independent casual game studio in Istanbul. He began his career in 2018 as Performance Marketing Specialist at Peak Games. Volkan also held a position as Product Specialist at private bank Yapi Kredi. Currently, Volkan is responsible for all of the marketing activities for the puzzle game, Cat Heroes, developed by Cratoonz.
Read the blog in Turkish.
With more competition and rising user acquisition costs, being a mobile game developer can be challenging. The App Store by itself carries more than 935,000 games, while Google Play boasts over 477,877 games. So as a developer, how do you test the viability of your latest game in a competitive field without hard-committing? It is pretty simple; you do a “soft launch.”
A soft launch means releasing your game only in selected countries or stores. The main goal of a soft launch is to test and optimize a mobile game before releasing it globally. This doesn’t mean only testing for bugs or crashes. You’ll also test for game design, monetization methods, marketing strategies, etc.
Gaming companies have several different strategies for soft launches of casual games. In this blog, I’ll explain how we typically run a soft launch at Cratoonz and the three main stages involved.
Preparing for a Soft Launch
Before starting any soft launch, it’s important to define the geographies you will be testing in and the targets you plan to set.
Selecting the right countries for your soft launch is critical. The countries you choose should be ideal for your game’s genre and should reflect your target markets. In particular, user behavior in the selected countries should match that of your target market. This will result in more reliable results. It’s also important to note that different countries can be selected for different stages of the soft launch. For the mechanic test stage, countries with low CPIs will be useful and for the monetization stage, it’s better to choose countries that have similar payment behavior to your target markets.
What are you expecting from the soft launch? What targets are you looking to achieve? What are you testing? Always include KPI targets like Average Revenue Per Daily Active User (ARPDAU), retention, and LTV. Depending on your type of game, your metrics may vary, so make sure you’re tracking everything that’s relevant to your product. Tracking these metrics in the soft launch will allow you to estimate installs, revenue and retention over the long-term and help you with predictive modeling.
Stage 1: Mechanic Test
The first thing you need to test is the stability of the game. Does the game work properly? Are players able to play the game without problems? Creating different test scenarios for game performance will be useful. For example, for a match-3 type game, you could test whether all combo matches give the right power-ups and whether power-ups are activating in the right order.
Performance of gameplay, backend, and battery usage should also be tested in this stage. Creating a client-based boat device test is one of the most effective ways to measure these. You can do this by creating a simplified real user simulation. These boats play the games like a real player would - behaving exactly like a real user. You can also ask game testers on your team to carry out manual tests on different devices.
Ensuring that data is flowing correctly and that your integration with third parties, such as payment tools, is set-up properly is very important here. Try making a test payment or completing an event in the app and monitor the control dashboards to make sure the correct data is passing.
In order to carry out the Mechanic Test, you can arrange for a group of volunteers or a limited number of people in selected countries to try out the game. Although there is no exact rule on how many people should test the game, at least 15k users will give you enough data to measure results.
Stage 2: Optimization
Retention is the most important metric for a game. For this reason, retention is the first thing that should be optimized during a soft launch. The optimization stage should take place in similar markets to your target market. If the chosen countries have low CPIs, you can keep your testing costs down. The more countries you add to the Soft Launch, the more opportunity there is for you to test and optimize. This will mean fewer surprises during the full launch.
The length of time you spend in the optimization stage will differ depending on the game. It’s important to add features and see how they perform at this point. On the marketing side, targeted campaigns could be added to the UA strategy to measure the target audience. Generally, no creative tests will take place in this stage. Creative assets should be basic and reflect gameplay videos. When you achieve your retention target, your game is ready for the monetization stage.
Stage 3: Monetization
This is the final step before launch. Games have to create their paywall and optimize their pay point. If the game has hybrid monetization (monetized by both in-App purchase revenue and ad revenue), optimizing ads could be helpful in this stage. You can find better ad placements in your game and you can optimize your ad waterfall. At this stage, it’s important to select countries based on their payment behaviours.
The campaign optimization continues in this stage. You can concentrate on ROAS (return on ad spend) optimizer events in the AdNetwork rather than on retention. You should also shift your attention to ROI and LTV. LTV predictions will become a lot clearer at this stage. Although there are a lot of models for LTV prediction, ‘retention, Arpdau and CPI’ are the key metrics to use. Regression based models are often used for this.
You can also start running your creative tests. By conducting A/B tests, you will be able to choose the best performing ads. The creative optimization process should be continuous for casual games. You have to create different scenarios and different types of creatives for every network.
By following all three stages in a soft launch, you’ll be able to determine what works and what doesn’t. Most importantly, you’ll gain valuable insight into how people engage with your game and whether it’s profitable. Don’t get discouraged if your mobile game doesn’t perform well. At least now you have a better idea of what doesn’t work, and you will be able to fix it.