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Most game developers are dreaming of making it to the top charts. Stories of how your game will naturally grow from there just from the exposure boost motivated bigger publishers to buy installs and spiked the imaginations of smaller developers. When we think of games that 'killed it' in the App Store and became very successful, they all appeared in the top charts at some point.
In the early days of the App Store, the revenue was coming from paid apps and the top grossing chart was aligned with the paid chart. Since free 2 play games started dominating the space, the Top Paid Chart became irrelevant and there is a very big difference between the Top Free chart and the Top Grossing chart. In fact the difference is so big that only 2 games appear in both Top 25 charts. That's 8% overlap for the record.
The top grossing chart rarely includes games by smaller studios, but it's common to see indie titles make it to the top free chart. If you take a snapshot of the free chart in a given day, it's likely you will see 10-15 out of the 25 top games coming from smaller studios. Part of it is the focus of bigger companies on monetization and their genre selection. Another reason is that a game that makes it to the top grossing charts quickly turns the company who launched them into wealthy companies who grow quickly and move out of the Indie category.
Game Factory Studios
Another interesting trend is that the top free chart includes game that were created by companies who adopted a factory approach to game development. These companies will create a few titles every month and will focus on popular genres. The approach allows them to cross promote new games in a large number of self-owned titles and reach quick distribution with low investment.
While the top grossers tend to stick around for long periods, the top free charts have rapid changes. Top grossing games usually reach a positive LTV-CPI number and allow their publishers to increase investment in user acquisition. This gives them means to maintain their leadership position.
Any major news outlet shared a story about some kid draining his parents credit card account by purchasing virtual goods via In-App Purchases. Reality, however, shows that games that focus on kids are much more common in the top of the free chart. It could be that kids are quicker on the trigger with downloading new apps. I'm also giving some credit to the app developers who focus on kids. They try not to trick them into making unintended purchases.
The top free chart contains more sequels than the top grossing chart. I'm attributing that to two things. First, sequels enjoy free publicity and often get featured in the App Store. Second, the publishers cross-promote them in the original titles. Combine that with a positive level of trust from the users and you can see how these games can get over 100K downloads in the first few days. it seems however, that many of them don't deliver on the hype and fail to engage the users enough to be top grossers.
Casino games, card games, slots, bingo and other gambling oriented titles dominate the top grossing charts. You can't see them at all in the top free charts. The main reason is the high LTV these games return. This is a bit sad to see.
Strategy games are also much more common in the top grossing charts. I'm referring to simulation games where the user builds an empire. These games normally requires a high time investment from the user but at the same time the revenue from a paying user is much higher. These mid-core games are appealing to users who are more 'gamers' and are more used to paying for their games.
Hollywood, TV & Sports
Some of the games in the top free chart are based on a popular movie or TV show. This is pretty obvious. Users are more likely to download, press is more likely to review and Apple more likely to feature. You can see some games with strong external IP in the top grossing charts but they are more dominant in the Top free.
So what do we think about all that?
My first thought is that it's a very good sign for smaller developers. Being in the top 25 downloaded games even for a few days still means you are killing it and that opportunity is open for small developers. More over, small developers can adopt the Game Factory approach which is more likely to succeed over time.
Being a top grosser requires focusing on parameters that are beyond pure game play. The good news is that these can be learned. Indies that want to step up to the next level and are prepared to invest time and efforts can certainly make it to the top grossing charts as well.
Focusing on slightly bigger companies - there is a way to be successful at both top charts and really knock it out of the park by adopting one of the following methods:
- Partnering up and licensing Hollywood or TV IP and then building a strategy game on top of that.
- Licensing the rights for a sequel game but focusing on a grossing genre
- Combining casino elements in casual games like King has been doing with Candy Crush and Pet Rescue Saga
Will be happy to discuss more about this or any other game business/production topic. You can find me at Google Plus Yaniv Nizan, the SOOMLA blog or on Twitter.