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Making Your Mobile Game a Success. Part Two: The Premium Option

, April 30, 2015

In the latest in our series of blog posts bringing you insights from Unity users that have that have thrived in the mobile space, the experts behind games like Threes and Monument Valley explain how to succeed with premium.

It wasn’t long ago that some games industry analysts were predicting the ‘death of premium’. At a time when free‐to‐play was a new frontier for mobile games development, many were quick to forget the merits of the paid‐for game. Now, after rumbles in 2013 that gained momentum throughout the following year, premium should not be discarded yet in the mobile space. Platform holders are again putting premium titles front and center of their app stores, while some of the 2014’s most critically acclaimed, successful titles came with an upfront price tag.

And a lot of those games were made with Unity. Threes, Monument Valley, The Room 2; these and many others prove both the potential of free, and the power of Unity as a platform for building a free‐to‐play mobile success story. If you want a sense of just how successful, look no further than the latest figures made public by Monument Valley studio ustwo; a team that have never been afraid to share their data. As detailed in the London outfit’s recently published infographic ‘Monument Valley in Numbers’, the refined isometric puzzle game was built using Unity in 55 weeks, costing the studio $852,000 dollars. 2.4 million official sales later, Monument Valley has generated $5,858,625 in revenue.

Monument Valley 800x475

81 per cent of Monument Valley’s revenues came on iOS – the game was also launched on Google Play and Amazon; a feat made simple by Unity’s cross platform strengths – and made $145,530 in its first day. Not bad for a title made by a team of eight developers who began work on the game when some observers were still predicting the demise of premium priced games.

Fortunately for their fellow Unity users, ustwo are as generous with their advice as they are with their numbers. Neil McFarland is Head of Games at the studio, and he has some tips for Unity developers with a game that they feel might suit premium.

“I think a developer must understand whether or not their game holds a premium offering; if in fact it is offering content or experience that needs to be free from the pestering a freemium title must insert,” suggests McFarland. “So that means that a premium game should be considered in terms of making a really good and valuable experience right from the start.

“What is your game saying?” continues McFarland. “Why are you making it? Is it different from or better than similar games and therefore valuable to the player? If it is these things then you should stand a good chance of being promoted by the platform holders. They value these experiences because they sell their products and you’re justified in thinking you should be paid for producing the game.”

Threes 800x475

And ustwo isn’t alone in its willing to share the experience of mobile success with the wider Unity community. Asher Vollmer is a game designer at Sirvo, which saw its Unity‐built tile puzzler Threes! explode in 2014, scooping an accolade at the Apple Design Awards (during a ceremony packed with premium Unity‐made winners, such as

Monument Valley, Device 6 and Blek). “I think it’s much easier to have a weird creatively interesting game that’s premium that makes a profit, than to have a weird creatively interesting game that’s free [and makes a profit],” says Vollmer on why he feels premium appeals.

“With free you can fail if you focus on making a game good instead of making a good in‐game economy that people can spend infinite money on.

“Knowing who your audience is important if you’re going premium with you game,” he adds. “I mean, that’s a pretty good, fundamental ‘rule number one’ for good game design. Know your context and know your audience. When you make a premium game your audience is going to be different from when you make a free game. You should think about that audience, and take advantage of that distinction.”

It’s a sentiment expressed by another studio continuing to thrive through premium with Unity‐made titles. Fireproof Games’ series The Room is presently set to continue with the anticipated launch of the third installment in spring 2015, following two hugely well regarded premium releases from the UK team.

The Room Two 800x495

“There’s no one way [to design premium games] for sure but, there’s a few things we’d bear in mind,” explains Barry Meade, Director and Co‐founder at Fireproof Games. “Your game must be commercially aware ‐ that is, know why you’re making it, or in other words, why an audience might want it. Is it answering an un‐served niche ripe for the taking? Or is it a very fun and accessible game anyone would like? Or maybe a brand new game, a genre of its own?”

Regardless, says Meade, it’s not enough to make an idea into a premium title just because you like it. Instead, it has to be best in class in some way.

“I think at Fireproof we’d all say novelty is important here,” continues Meade. “There must be a cleverness to the execution and in some ways it should be a game only your team could make. I certainly wouldn’t listen to anyone telling you to copy other game styles.”

Daddy Was A Thief 800x475

Of course, it would be rather unwise to disregard free‐to‐play all together if you plan on releasing a mobile game. It remains a dominant trend across mobile development, and despite some headline grabbing statistics about user acquisition and retention’s increasing costs, free can still work for teams of everysize.

Fortunately, Unity users need not always commit one way or the other with their game’s business model. That’s because of the simple fact that the engine’s cross platform advantages don’t demand target platforms each receive an identical version of a given title.

Rebel Twins is a small Polish studio founded in 2012, which has seen its hit game Daddy Was a Thief prosper on both Android and iOS mobile phones for some time. Partly, the success came from the fact that the game is both freemium and premium. That is to say, it is a premium title on iOS, and a freemium release on Android; a simple result of the studio identifying an opportunity in using Unity to adapt their business model to suit each platform.

“Daddy Was A Thief is a paid app on the App Store,” says Cezary Rajkowski, Rebel Twins Art Director and Developer. “We’re not a huge fans of freemium models and dual‐currency systems which usually ruin gameplay. Unfortunately premium game sales are almost non‐existent on Google Play. That’s why our particular focus is on free games supported by ads for Android users. We tried to be fair so there is only one in‐game currency and you can unlock everything by just playing.”

It’s a model that has worked well for Rebel Twins. By offering a paid version and a player‐friendly free version, the studio has seen its game downloaded over 3.3 million times, and to this day enjoys well over 600,000 active users. And the total Rebel Twins spend on marketing, user acquisition, advertising and so on? A wholesome zero dollars; a figure any studio should like the sound of, whether they are opting to go with premium, freemium, or both.

Other blog posts in this series:

Making Your Mobile Game a Success. Part One: F2P Game Design

Making Your Mobile Game a Success. Part Three: Acquiring Users

16 replies on “Making Your Mobile Game a Success. Part Two: The Premium Option”

I just released my first Unity built, premium game Bugchinko on the app store last week. Without any love from Apple or the game review sites, my game has sold less than 100 units. However, it was widely pirated across China and they seem to dig it. (sarcastic Yay!) Well over 800 scores posted to Game Center, yet less than $100 in payouts. This is the reality of the situation.

Threes, Monument Valley and Device 6 fail to mention all of the attention and accolades they garnered before their games were even released on any platform. In the end, its all about promotion and notoriety if you want to sell your game. If you don’t have visibility in the App store, your game will be just one of thousands floating in the abyss. And to top it off, it will be pirated almost immediately so F2P makes even more sense now.

Personally, I’m at a crossroads that many fellow developers have found themselves in. Scrap the premium and figure out how to get ads into the game so I can try to recoup a fraction of my dev costs. I wish there were more stories about this reality and fewer of the glorious success stories.

Probably because the name of your game contains a common slur used to insult Chinese. They probably checking to make sure it wasn’t really bad but just an innocent name given your game on your part.

Actually, Pachinko is very common in Japan and across Asia and is one of the more popular forms of parlor entertainment, aside from gambling. In translating some of the sites Bugchinko was pirated on, it’s pretty clear they actually like the game. In fact, the silver lining in the whole situation is that it’s gotten more love there than it has in the US.

A few of the Chinese sites have even written up elaborate reviews and taken their own screenshots of the game to accompany the articles. I’m currently seeing 200+ new scores posted to Game Center each day, over the past weekend. It just illustrates the realities of why F2P is so overwhelmingly popular with indies and big publishers alike.

We at Imoox Studio recently developed our Puzzle game: ‘Fireheads’. It was made with Unity and it was released on both Google Play and App Store this month. Without spending a single cent on advertisement, we have only seen a few hundred downloads of our freemium game on iOS (thanks to the more organic way that App Store has to promote new apps) and only a tenth of that on Google Play.

It is indeed a tricky thing to acquire downloads on Google Play, if not almost impossible without gaining some sort of momentum through PR, Social Networks or good old marketing. Specially for new studios that want to compete on an already saturated market.

I wonder if releasing a premium version of the game for 2-3 dollars could help out the game…

Just my two cents.

Another thing people forget about GooglePlay is that these are mostly tablets being given by their parents to young children. These children tend not to do any search whatsoever. I would be surprised in fact if parents don’t look search in the app store from their children given the game content of so many games.

That will probably improve now that GooglePlay requires app / game ratings but it will take a child safe filter before parents allow children to search. And expecting a child to search and pay for a game? Forget it. Be reasonable here.

Older children and adults tend to have the more expensive iOS devices hence more searches and more downloads.

Even with the above considered though it’s clear GooglePlay has corrupted the search results too much infavour of paid advertisers.

Thanks for the thought-provoking article… the numbers are interesting, and the info about the difference between the iOS and Android ecosystems in surprising – useful info indeed.

However, putting my cynical hat on for for the purposes of stimulating discussion, the takeout is a little unclear for me. If I understand correctly…

1) You can make A LOT of money with a unity game on mobile! WOOH UNITY! ;)
2) If you are charging a premium price, make a premium game. Duh.
3) You don’t need to spend a cent on marketing. (Did Monument Valley get featured on House of Cards for free, just because it was so awesome? If that is the case, I look forward to playing the Dreamcast 4 version…)

OK – cynical hat off!

Now, assuming that, yes, your game is indeed of sufficient quality to merit a “premium” approach, what strategies are available to ensure that it succeeds in the marketplace?

– How do you get your game featured?
– How can you leverage the fact that it is premium?
– What steps must one take to justify the price in any communication?
– What about a free game with an option to “Go Premium”, like Smash Hit or Does Not Commute?
– Does making a free demo help?

Can anyone share the benefit of their experience, and shed some light on these questions?

Thanks once again!

@Ben What Mike B said…

Don’t discount the importance of marketing and advertising. It sounds like you didn’t even tell your friends and family which would equate to at least a few downloads, if just for the support. Additionally, submit to blogs, big and small, and get social with it. Google “how to market indie games” or something similar and start promoting!

Most friends & family aren’t into tablets and such. My friends with kids that did have tablets, well I decided to publish to a new version of Android that was more free of bugs so their kids couldn’t download. The one friend that did have a kid with an Android version new enough kept the game long enough that I know they had fun with it, but he didn’t leave a review. Naturally I’m not going to pressure or expect a child to review a game I published. You might guess I had small enough download numbers t evaluate what was going on with my game.

The game, free, no advertising, in game or for the game, seasonal and competent was a good trial for me to evaluate prospects of GooglePlay and it is not good without fistfuls of dollars. The game was given all it needed to be noticed and show up in GooglePlay search results at a reasonably newly released search results but never got within the 1st 5 pages, even with seasonally relevant search terms and being restricted by game genre. Advertising dollars at work and at amounts your don’t have.

When you do have a stranger that downloads and leaves a review, those are more naturally more unbiased.

They keep talking about social but really that is clouding the issue – is your game / app good enough that you’d honestly play it and recommend it? All the games I played before Unity have been but that’s a very short list. Social is really just a euphemism for an uncoerced recommendation and yet you hear of advertising to buy social recommendations.

So my personal advice to others making a game is unless you have good distributor that has connections with advertising businesses do not spend a dime of your own money on advertising. Try to build a game that you incrementally improve until it’s fun enough that those playing it that haven’t uninstalled the game, give the game good word of mouth. It is the only reasonably approach for people like yourself and I.

I’ve created two free games with Unity in the past. None of them have received a single download through the Play Store so far. I guess the stores are just too crowded for most indie developers’ games to get even noticed…

What have you done to promote your games? I noticed you did not even mention their names here which would have lead to at least one download.

Well, I’m not here to advertise (I’m not that desperate) ;-)
I used Admob to create a one-month advertising campaign. But obviously that did not work out…

GooglePlay is somewhat of a farce for app publishers without very huge advertising budgets.

I get maybe one or two downloads a month and how I don’t know because I know the searcher must have to go through pages of results to get to my app, the search engines even showing most results that aren’t even similar to the search terms used because the search engine owners are trying to promote app and games that have paid advertising and corporate interests associated with them. On GooglePlay about 1/4 of my downloads were from these redistributors illegally redistributing apps and likely from developers trying to create an AppAnnie competitor and such activities.

I know from my own experience that they consciously weight results against people like yourself and I.

The only realistic thing you have to fight this is an advertising budget like Monument Valley as Device 6 and such.

The game and app search engines are truthfully, unfair and dishonest, given what their search engines say you are searching for and what those search engines actually return in their results.

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