If you love playing games on your smartphones like I do, it is also likely that you periodically check out the top apps/games on the store, in search of your next addiction. The past few years have seen many garage (read indie) games achieve blockbuster status, Flappy Bird or Ketchapp’s 2048 come to mind. However, there are few games that are always at the top in of the app-store charts and are always in a user’s consideration list.
Here is an attempt to unpack one such super-title - Subway Surfers and understand the elements which make them tick on a super competitive app store.
Subway Surfers is an endless running casual mobile game, downloaded almost a billion times across platforms. The game was co-developed by Denmark based Kiloo & Sybo Games. Launched in May 2012, the game continues to feature in the list of top downloaded games.
Pick any evergreen gaming title and you will find that the latest update to the game is no older than 30-45 days. A Subway Surfers game update for instance involves a totally new game location (new city) every 3-4 weeks. For a jaded subway Surfers user, there is a whole new look and feel to the game, while the ground rules for game play still hold. There are new city-specific characters, skateboards and so on. The studio dedicates a team of artists, developers, testers and so on to focus solely on updating game versions and ensuring that the game remains fresh.
While it is important to give a fresh look and feel to the game with updates/new levels, it is also critical to keep game objectives consistent. It can be bothersome for the user if the game objectives on an update or a new level are unrelated/different. Across game versions, users on Subway Surfers maneuver their way through obstacles & collect coins in the process. Even the game dynamics around power-ups remains consistent across updates.
While a top app-store position may drive a good set of new users to your game, game developers around the world will tell you that the larger challenge is to keep an existing user base engaged on the game. If you check Day 7 retention (an accurate metric to gauge game retention), these super titles command a number greater than 25%. To give you a perspective, most casual games on the store find it impossible to get into double digit percentages. Subway Surfers also incentivizes users to complete a “Daily Challenge”. It is also interesting to note that these daily challenges are built into the core game-play. Users are then rewarded with bonus coins and the incentives get bigger if you complete multiple daily challenges in a row.
In addition to adding new characters/levels/game elements, the game also create a sense of urgency amongst their users by limiting availability of these products for only the first few days of the product launch. These games also offer loyal players free characters, making it lucrative for users to come back to the game more often.
A large chunk of smartphone sales today is propelled by the advent of sub-$100 Android devices, putting smartphones within the reach of users across developing markets. While an iPhone may seamlessly render your latest high-adrenaline racing game, a fair share of handsets do not support games high on graphics & memory usage. Even if they do, the gameplay is heavily compromised and non-uniform across users. Developers at Subway Surfers for instance, test every single game update across a spectrum of devices and ensure optimum performance across devices. The other possible impact is that users on low-end devices refuse to update to the newer versions of your game fearing compromised gameplay. There is a tendency to latch on to older versions, which typically do not carry most new game features.
Additionally, these sub $100 android devices only carry a few hundred MBs of storage space and installing a new app very often calls for uninstalling a game installed prior (and you don’t want your game to be that one)
While it is a no-brainer now to incorporate social platforms in your game, it takes some real effort to make these platforms work for you. Gathering Facebook page Likes at massive scale can prove to be a highly efficient way of acquiring new users & ensuring maximum adoption of a game update across existing users.
Social platform based leaderboards are a norm now, and games these days reward you if you are lucky to have friends engaged on the game!
Games like Subway Surfers really take this to the next level by setting up time-bound localized leaderboards (may or may not be linked to social platforms) where you not only get to compete with your friends and beat them, but also track how well you are doing on the game with respect to users in your city/country.
Over 90% of the apps on the store opt for a freemium model and the sole motive is to maximize app reach across users. Research would tell you that only a small subset of users are willing to make in-app purchases and hence it is all the more critical to supplement the IAP revenue stream with a well thought out ad monetization strategy. In order to make your ads non-intrusive to the game experience, you will need to place your ads in what is called a “logical pause point” in the game. It is also important to associate the right ad-format at the right pause point. For instance, a full screen interstitial ad would make sense when there is minimal in-game activity. In Subway Surfers, the user is shown an interstitial ad when he/she hits the home button after losing a life. Adding Custom frames to your static interstitial ads would create a uniform look and feel to ads from multiple ad providers (Subway Surfers uses the standard frame as given in the screenshot across ads from all their ad network partners)
Rewarded video is the new kid on the block, loved by developers & users alike. Rewards from these units keep the user playing (game developers love high engagement rates), and users love the rewards that let them play more (no money spent on IAP). Further more, the effective revenues generated from these ads are far higher than other ad-formats. Once a day, a user is rewarded with 2 keys (check the 2 keys button on the screenshot above) if he/she choses to watch a video ad; These rewards also act as a forcing function for a user to play the game daily. One good way to fine tune your ad experience is to work with a limited set of ad-providers, and standardize ad experience across ad providers.