Massachusetts-based Disruptor Beam is perhaps best known for operating Game of Thrones Ascent
, a free-to-play licensed game with some unique peculiarities in its business model that might hold key learnings for other game developers.
is most often recognized as an iPad game, it's actually cross-platform; Disruptor Beam operates it across Facebook, iOS, Android, and the Kongregate web game portal.
It also operates under the aegis of one of the more popular licensed properties in contemporary television, a predictably lavish boon for any free-to-play game operator.
"We've had over 7 million installs of Ascent
, and we've paid very little for those; next to nothing, really," Disruptor Beam CEO Jon Radoff tells me. "It's not a business model of ours to do paid customer acquisition; we really depend on the organic aspects of communities to spread products among each other instead of buying our way into the market."
The specific community he's referencing in this case is the one which has sprung up around the Game of Thrones
Facebook page, which has nearly 14 million followers at this point. He says that by cleaving to a popular license, Disruptor Beam has been able to hit that 7 million install milestone -- which he believes would cost $14-$30 million worth in paid customer acquisition campaigns -- without having to actually pay $14-$30 million.
"We do pay royalties...but if you think of the royalties as essentially what gains you access to these communities of players, then the royalties we are paying are still far less than what you'd pay to acquire customers through an advertising-based mechanism," says Radoff.
Breaking down the numbers
And how do those customers compare across platforms? Radoff says iOS players are typically the most willing
"It's never going to be sustainable to just jump on that paid acquisition treadmill that too many companies are on."
to spend money, but Facebook players are more likely to stick around month after month.
"The highest-monetizing customers are certainly on iPads; that's where we initially launched on iOS, and those customers spend twice as much, retain twice as well as just about any platform we've done, including Facebook," says Radoff.
In terms of percentages, he estimates Ascent
sees a roughly 4-5 percent player conversion rate on iPad; that means 4-5 percent of players in any given month convert to paying customers, which is "very good" in Radoff's mind.
People are less likely to pay when playing on iPhone (~3 percent conversation rate) and on Facebook (~2-3 percent conversion rate). The number of Android and Kongregate Ascent
players who pay for in-game goods are significantly smaller.
That doesn't necessarily mean Facebook is a less valuable platform than iOS, however; it just depends on your needs as a developer and how you plan to build a community around your games.
"I think that overall, free-to-play companies have been very focused on the short-term returns of their customer acquisition efforts," says Radoff. "We're a little bit different from most companies because we're not so focused on placing an ad, paying for it and then needing to get a yield back from that ad really quickly."
Radoff makes a point of pinpointing player loyalty as the chief concern for game makers, especially free-to-play developers.
"I have to say, Facebook does really well at that; in terms of long-term customer retention, we're probably doing better on Facebook than any other platform," he notes. Among the Ascent
Facebook players who have converted to payers, roughly seventy percent of that paid audience has continued to retain within the last 30 days. The next-best platform for retaining paying players is iOS, where Disruptor Beam has seen roughly half of all paying Ascent
players continue playing after doing so.
"We're talking about Facebook accounts going all the way back to February of last year, when we launched," says Radoff. "So over the course of 18 months, we're seeing excellent retention with our Facebook customers."
The chief reason for that, according to Disruptor Beam, is that there's no better place than Facebook for a developer who wants to put her or his licensed product in front of fans.
"We know that when we go to that Game of Thrones community on Facebook, which comprises 15-20 million people that we can reach directly, we know that those people are very likely to install," says Radoff. "They're likely to convert, and we know they're not only going to convert, but they're probably going to stick around for a long time."
Finding and cultivating your community pays off
Radoff believes many of the most successful Kickstarter campaigns for games benefit from taking a similar tack to community-building.
"The Kickstarter campaigns that have been super-successful are the ones that succeeded at really creating a community around an idea," he notes. "I think being successful on mobile is the same thing; it's not about figuring out how to optimize customer acquisition spend, it actually starts with ‘what are my core customers gonna be, who loves me' and then you figure out where to go to engage those people directly," and continue engaging with those people after you launch.
"That's what gives you sustainability, as a company," finishes Radoff. "It's never going to be sustainable to just jump on that paid acquisition treadmill that too many companies are on."