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Android Marketing for Indies
by Ernest Woo on 04/04/12 11:50:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

Seeing a game through the finish line is one of the most important milestones in game development.  Finally, after months (or years!) of effort, the game is out the door and ready to be played by millions of gamers all over the world… or so it seems.

As many of you know – or will painfully learn - your job isn't finished with the game going gold. You still need to tell the world that your masterpiece actually exists!

I've gone through this process with two Android games, FRG and ErnCon, and would like to share my experiences (from a marketing point of view) with Gamasutra readers.

But first … Why I chose Android instead of iOS

In 2009, I was developing FRG as a standalone desktop game written in Pascal.  The Android Developer Challenge 2 was announced and I saw a unique opportunity to do something cool with my brand new G1.  Since I am a Java developer by trade, porting what little I had written to Android was easy.  Furthermore: FRG became an ADC2 finalist, making me proud of my “baby” and I received two free Motorola Droids from Google, one for being a finalist and another phone for having a semi-popular game in the early days of the Android Market (now Google Play).

ErnCon concept art

ErnCon Concept Art

FRG

When FRG was launched in 2009, there wasn't much to announce.  All I did was post on the android-discuss newsgroup, forums like androidforums.com and java-gaming.org, and that was it.  Proud as I was of FRG's ADC2 performance, ADC2 did not cause a noticeable increase in downloads.  Like most indie game-dev efforts, FRG was developed with a small budget so significant marketing spend was impossible.  Android game-review websites were popping up but most were small and attempted to collect review fees from developers.  I ended up paying $25 for one review which did not seem to drive any downloads, for example.  The reviewer also purchased FRG Deluxe, did the review, and then refunded her purchase!

FRG Screenshot

FRG

How did FRG gain any sort of traction?  Back in the dark ages, the “Recently Updated” list in Android Market was a useful tool to gain exposure for the cash-strapped developer.  There were enough bugs and enhancements to make that I was able to release an update for FRG every 1 or 2 weeks for over a year.  Each update yielded about 700 downloads each week with about half of those keeping FRG on their phones.  Unfortunately as I ran out of things to fix, updates to FRG slowed down and user retention started to slip.

There were a couple noteworthy events afterwards:

  • Being listed in T-Mobile's Top Picks list for 2 weeks brought about 400-500 downloads per day.
  • FRG Deluxe was Free App of The Day in the Amazon App Store around August 2010.  It was downloaded about 88,000 times and even earned me about $400 in purchases the day after.  Note that Android Market downloads were NOT affected at all by being Free App of The Day.

ErnCon

Fast forward to January 2012 when my newest game, ErnCon is under development and 2 months away from expected release.  I made the decision to hire a PR professional and found Novy PR.

The decision to seek outside help was driven by the following:

  1. Time – Although I hired contractors to complete artwork and music, I was the only person putting his own time into ErnCon making it mostly a solo project.  I am also happily employed full time; after getting home from work, I typically spent the rest of my weeknight working on ErnCon.  Weekends were almost completely devoted to ErnCon.  With the game still under development, I did not have time to draft and send out press releases or contact game-review websites.
  2. Money – I had been putting money aside for a while to develop ErnCon and when graphics and sound came in under budget, I realized I had enough to hire an actual professional to work on PR.
  3. Removal of “Recently Updated” list in Google Play – Google removed the “Recently Updated” list in 2011 with good reason.  It was too easy to abuse. Given the number of new apps and games coming out these days, this sort of feature is just not useful for consumers.
  4. Expertise and specialization – I knew I was already behind on the PR front.  Doing the entire launch by myself would only cause ErnCon to launch poorly as I learned the ropes – I didn't really learn anything about PR with FRG since I relied so heavily on “Recently Updated” as my primary user acquisition strategy.  An expert was needed to jump-start the process.

ErnCon Screenshot

ErnCon

Pre-release and Public Beta

By the time I had gotten off my first phone call with Luis from Novy PR, I had already been steered away from stupid mistakes like launching during GDC or PAX East.  The general pre-release plan we came up with went as follows:

  1. Find beta-testers for a private beta to collect input and get the game in people's hands.  Reddit (/r/Android) proved to be a useful place to ask for volunteers for the private beta.  I ended up with over 60 signups from USA, Canada, and various European countries.  Interacting with Redditors also convinced me to support Canada and all of Europe.
  2. Create a trailer for the media and potential players to see before trying the game.  Even though ErnCon is a free download, a trailer still helps to show your game at its best.  I had not even considered creating a trailer for ErnCon thinking it was too much trouble.  Luis insisted that it is an essential part of any game's launch and provided important feedback as I put the trailer together.
  3. Improve the Woo Games website to give visitors a good impression of Woo Games and ErnCon.  It's amazing how sloppy I was with the original Woo Games website using an old default Nucleus CMS theme.  Switching to WordPress, creating a tasteful logo, and listening to feedback from Luis went a long way towards presenting a professional face to the world.
  4. Release a public beta 1 month before launch.  Luis would pitch Android websites to cover the public beta of ErnCon.  A public beta of a multiplayer internet game such as ErnCon is newsworthy and allows me a relatively low-risk way to iron out any final problems in the game before official release.

ErnCon's public beta was announced on February 28th.  Coverage of the public beta occurred over the next few days and brought in over a thousand active installs.  The trailer itself became a point of contact with players as it was embedded and linked to from various websites.  Coverage also reached an international level with French, Italian, and even Chinese Android websites covering the beta.  This was great for the beta as it gave me the volume of users needed to test ErnCon's multiplayer architecture.  Bugs were found and fixed, the game was adjusted based on user feedback - I was pumped for the actual launch.

Droid Gamers Coverage

Droid Gamers Coverage

Ready, Set, Go!

ErnCon was launched 3 weeks after the public beta was announced.  A press release was sent over Business Wire while Luis began pitching Android websites again.  Coverage was about the same as the public beta netting another 1000+ active installs in a few days.  Unfortunately Luis and I noticed an odd phenomenon where the public beta generated more coverage than the official launch!  Regardless, coverage from sites like droidgamers.com, androidpolice.com, and frandroid.com were instrumental in driving downloads for the launch.  Interestingly, FrAndroid – based in France – brought the most active installs to ErnCon.

FrAndroid Coverage

FrAndroid Coverage

As happy as I was with the coverage ErnCon received since the public beta, I was disappointed with the overall numbers of the launch itself.  When looking back, there were some interesting circumstances that may have affected coverage both the public beta and the launch:

  1. February was a great month for shmups – by the end of February Shogun, Neoteria, and ErnCon were announced for Android.  Media websites lumped the three together in their end-of-month coverage and players had a great range classic-style shoot’em ups to play.
  2. Public betas for Android – public betas of games on Android are uncommon enough that announcing one might be interesting to a journalist.
  3. March was a great month for big announcements – March 21st was chosen as the official release date of ErnCon to take advantage of the post-GDC lull in game news.  Other developers were thinking the same as March saw news from many high-profile mobile games.  Taken together, these announcements would keep any journalist busy:
    1. Angry Birds Space – although Angry Birds was released a day after ErnCon, I don't think this hurt ErnCon as much as you may think.  Although most websites covered Angry Birds, coverage wasn't 100 percent Angry Birds all day every day.  ErnCon was also lumped in some end-of-week game lists with Angry Birds Space.
    2. Draw SomethingDraw Something became a “thing” with the media during March with subsequent acquisition by Zynga.
    3. Humble Bundle for Android 2 – any Humble Bundle is worth checking out for quality indie games.  The announcement of the second Android bundle included some highly anticipated ports of iOS games like Canabalt.
  4. Android news websites don't cover games – there are very few Android-centric gaming websites.  Droid Gamers is probably the biggest Android-only gaming website and they were quite happy to cover both ErnCon's beta and release.  There doesn't seem to be an Android equivalent to Touch Arcade that is the definitive Android game review site.  Most Android news websites seem concerned with the latest Android hardware, custom ROMs, non-game applications, and ports of notable iOS games.

Android Police Coverage

Android Police Coverage

Lessons Learned

Launching ErnCon forced me to learn a lot about games PR and marketing.  Many good things also happened as a result:

  1. ErnCon has a great trailer – an entire blog post could be written describing the things I learned putting together the ErnCon trailer.  When posted on YouTube and linked from ErnCon's Google Play page and various review sites, the trailer acts as an ever-playing commercial to attract players.  When a website embeds your trailer, you can also use it to gauge how much interest that website is driving by looking at the breakdown of views by source.
  2. Websites reporting on your game result in motivated users – After the launch, I started a Tapjoy Rewarded Installs campaign that drives about 400-500 downloads but only 100-200 active installs per day.  The public beta and launch announcements drove about 4500 downloads with about 2500 active installs.  According to my Google Analytics tracking, Tapjoy players engage less than the players who installed ErnCon during launch.  This is probably because most are just looking to collect their Tapjoy rewards.
  3. Quality results when searching for ErnCon – searching for “ErnCon” on Google returns relevant results pointing to ErnCon reviews and ErnCon's Google Play page.  Prior to public beta, searching for “ErnCon” would cause Google to think you were searching for “enercon”.

Ultimately the experience was worth it.  With some professional help, I was able to jumpstart a user-base for ErnCon that I can cultivate into something great especially given how important a thriving user-base is for a multiplayer game.

Hopefully this post will help you understand some of the (many) challenges in marketing your Android game. Feel free to leave a comment here on Gamasutra or via email at contact@woogames.com.


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Comments


James Coote
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Thanks for the article. I'll be releasing my own android only game later this year, so good to see what worked and what didn't.

I wonder if you got more players from beta testing because it helps players feel involved and like have a stake in the game development, because of the feeling of exclusivity for the private beta testers, and the allure of playing something that is brand new, hot off the production line?

Ernest Woo
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You're welcome James! Based on my experience (not just with Woo Games stuff), many players are VERY interested in how games are developed but are not necessarily looking to make their own game like you or I. Being a part of the game development process and looking "behind the curtains" holds immense value to them and many will take the opportunity to participate in a beta, public or private.

Paulo Pinto
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One thing that you don't mention, but I would like to know is how much do you split your game engines between Java and C/C++?

Is the performance offered by Dalvik + GLSL good enough?

Ernest Woo
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ErnCon and FRG are pretty basic: 100% Java. Since ErnCon is based heavily on FRG code which was originally meant to run on a G1, I'm still relying on fixed function pipeline. For the type of game I was trying to make, pure Java and fixed function was good enough.

Not using shaders is preventing me from doing certain things so I'm working on converting everything to shaders . . .

Derek James
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Thanks for the write up. I'm a full-time indie game dev primarily on Android. The article would be more useful if you stated from the outset what your goals in terms of game development on Android were. Looking in the market, it looks like both the apps mentioned are free. Are you monetizing them in any way, or are you planning to in the future? I'm not sure marketing makes much sense for a hobbyist. Honestly, I'm not sure it makes much sense for someone who does it for a living. I've tried a substantial amount of marketing effort, but it is simply too expensive and/or time consuming for an indie to get any kind of measurable return, at least from my experience.

Also, I disagree that Google justifiably removed the Just In category. Not showing updates is reasonable, but they threw out the baby with the bathwater by not showing new releases of any kind (except the most popular, just creating a positive feedback loop for the top-performing apps). People could get around this by re-releasing apps under new names, but that wouldn't be very effective, and Google could simply limit the number of apps you can publish per month. I've been a full-time indie with Android since 2009, and I can tell app discovery has gotten worse over time. The market has gotten more competitive and crowded, but the means for indies to get discovered has also gotten worse.

Ernest Woo
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FRG was developed as a free-lite/paid-full game typical of mobile games back in 2009. ErnCon is a freemium game with in-app-purchases to access premium robots and fighters and other in-game weapons.

My primary goal as an indie developer is to make the kinds of games I want to. A secondary goal is to explore various aspects of game development (technical, business, artistic) on my own terms and timeline. With ErnCon, I was pretty comfortable with all the technical aspects of developing a mobile multiplayer game so I took the opportunity to explore the business aspects - primarily marketing and PR.

Depending on what your goals are, marketing and PR (whether you spend money and/or your time) may not be needed - what I've done is definitely not for everybody. ErnCon is a multiplayer game which needs a player-base so I opted to jumpstart it with an official launch. ErnCon's beta and launch brought in the same number of players that took me over 2 months with FRG.

I agree that what Google has done with Google Play is not good for indie developers. I was at Google I/O 2011 at the Android Market session thinking exactly what you've said when they announced all the great new features that would benefit established brands and developers. Without the "Recently Updated" list to lean on, I'm now pondering what to do next to promote ErnCon post-launch. How do I make ErnCon newsworthy again? What are my options? I don't think there are easy answers to that and I'm still learning.

Chris Moeller
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Good article! It's nice to see what other developers are doing, and what worked for them.

I'll have to spend more time on my trailer next time ;)

Ernest Woo
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Thanks! I think I'll write a post about putting the trailer together (the technical and artistic aspects behind it). That was a fun process especially since I'm proud of the end result (as you can see from the article). If you want any direct feedback or advice, feel free to contact me.

Joseph Truax
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Very nice post! Thank you for all of the valuable information you have given us. I will be using all of this over the next few days as we prepare for our Android, iTunes and Amazon launches. We are highly excited and can not wait to show our very simple but amazing original retro action/arcade game.

Thanks again!

Aleks Van Lunteren
profile image
I'm an internet marketing specialist from Amsterdam and I have developed a successful marketing package that includes promotion on Android forums, Facebook sites, Android review sites and add a Google +1's to your Google Play page. This will most likely generate tons of downloads (which will generate even more downloads!)

Promotional package includes:
- Positive custom written reviews on 20 most visited Android forums
In previous projects, the average forums post was read 372 times during the first three month. Which accounts to 7.440 message views.
- Your app will be submitted to 20 most popular Android review sites
These sites write reviews on apps that are submitted to them. This will generate lots of app downloads when your app is listed.
- Post a positive review including your Google Play URL on 50 of the most Liked Android Facebook pages
Direct exposure to potentially 1.7 million Facebook users, most reviews will be listed in search engines as well.
(Upgrade to 300 Facebook pages for an additional $50).
- Add 250 Google +1's to your Google Play app page.
The more Google +1's you have the higher your app will be ranked in the Google Play Top Free or Top Paid pages and the Google Play search results.
(Upgrade to 3000 Google +1’s for an additional $100).
Note: You will even be able to view detailed statistics of the traffic that visits your Google Play page through our promotional package.

Complete package: $130

Please contact me for more info!

Aleks van Lunteren
Amsterdam, The Netherlands
androidmarketingpack@gmail.com


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