It's a commonly held myth that to attain high rankings in your category on Google's Play Store (formerly Android Market) you need at least tens of thousands of dollars to have the slightest hope in hitting the top 10. For an indie developer self-publishing, it can seem a formidable challenge to reach those top spots. Let me assure you though -- it's possible to scale those charts without actually spending a penny on your first Android game.
That's not to say that a large launch budget isn't always necessary -- you'll certainly have an easier time acquiring users and the Play Store is becoming increasingly more competitive by the day. However for those teams wanting to go the self-published route, taking more ownership over their titles and having a good chance to compete against the big boys -- there's hope. At Papaya, we've worked with a range of different developers from the very large, to the very small and have successfully helped a number of them push their game into the lucrative top spots without actually spending anything on marketing.
Read on and I'll explain the steps.
What can reaching those top spots actually do for your game? It's critical to understand the value a top rank will bring you for your game because this should affect your later decision-making when faced with pressures to launch a game before it's actually ready. Expect at least 15,000 installs a day for making it to the top 20 of casual and at least 25,000 daily installs for making it top 10. Buying this traffic from an incentivized ad network would start from $2,500 per day. If you go the non-incentivized route, you're looking closer to $10,000 minimum per day.
What should 15,000 daily installs equate to in revenue? Well assuming your game is freemium, with good retention rates and monetizes from virtual goods at a high ARPDAU of $0.10, then you should expect minimum DAUs of 20,000 and daily revenues of at least $2,000 per day. With hard work growing your DAUs and maintaining stickiness to create a high proportion of (high spending) true fans, your game could eventually be earning you tens of thousands of dollars, daily.
The exact details of the ranking algorithm are a closely guarded secret and understandably so -- there are thousands of developers all trying to rank their apps but a small, finite number of positions at the top. Even so, from experience we have an understanding of some factors that contribute to how a game ranks on the Android market.
Launch window - New apps tend to have an easier time ranking. The logic for this is sound. Users want to try new games. This gives new titles a chance. See this as the Play Store's algorithm giving your game a little test to see if users actually like your game. Likewise, apps that have been on the market for more than month will find it very difficult to rank.
Retention - It's still not entirely clear how Google Play calculates this but most likely a combination of active install rates and a stickiness formula such as DAU/MAU. In simple terms -- high quality, fun games get high rankings!
User reviews - Scores count to some extent, but since these can be easily manipulated, their effect on ranking may be greatly overstated. Still -- they're essential for users to decide whether or not to play a game and will affect your install rate.
Daily number of installs - Driving installs will have the effect ranking your game higher which in turn gives you more installs. This self-sustaining spiral of growth is the goal and it's how we're going to get your app into those top spots.
Get familiar with the way the Play Store ranks games. A great desktop solution is App Annie, whose free Android ranking tools are both reliable and comprehensive. To get a feel for the ranking algorithm yourself, pick some newly-launched apps and keep an eye on how their rankings change when the app is updated and fixes are made. When you're ready to launch your own game, monitor its rankings daily and make note of how rankings change in line with your own updates and fixes. Also make note of how changes in your game's performance metrics translate into ranking increases.
Make your game social and freemium to create a low barrier to entry for anyone to play. Make it fun for free players as well as paying players. Simply providing a restricted, stripped down game for free players will lead to a higher uninstall rate which affects your rankings. A well-made freemium game should be able to convert around 5-15 percent of your users into paying users. This doesn't make your non-paying users any less important to you though. If these users are enjoying your game, they may not contribute directly to your revenue, but they are potentially your most effective free viral marketing channel. Your non-paying players are also potential paying players of the future, so don't put up too many walls that restrict gameplay or make their experience less fun. Allow them to enjoy the game and offer the opportunity to purchase items that add value to their experience, as opposed to simply unlocking vital parts of the gameplay.
Optimize your gameplay with social features and give your users incentives to be social. Enable sharing and social features that make use of asynchronous gameplay. Utilize friend lists, challenges and social sharing features for a high K factor. A great example of engaging social gameplay is in Sega's Fallen Realms for Papaya. After you acquire friends, you bring them onto your team to assist slaying monsters in dungeons and you help level up their character - even when your friend isn't playing. For gamers, it pays to be social!
SEGA's Fallen Realms strikes a balance between social and gameplay and hardcore dungeon crawling elements.