I have seen a lot of game developers, especially those starting out, say that success comes organically. Just make a good game, release it and players will find it. From my own experience of making and releasing more than 100 games on both the App Store and Play Store this can’t be further away from the truth. This is why I made a case study game, released it on the App Store and let it sit patiently for a month. How many organic downloads do you think I got without doing any marketing for the game?
Your Answer Upfront:
By releasing a game without any marketing you can expect to get around 50 downloads from organic featuring by the App Store itself. Via a press-release, if enough media outlets pick it up, you can expect to double your downloads. All in all, without any marketing budget and minimal industry outreach you shouldn’t expect more than 100-150 downloads for your game in the first month.
In this case study article we’ll go over the realities of the App Store, talk about what it takes to release a game on the App Store and see how many organic downloads you can get by just being on the App Store without any paid marketing efforts.
Before we jump into the case study let me just mention this: Over the past 2-3 years I worked on ton of games for the Hyper Casual industry and I learned a lot about App Store marketing and optimization. I saw first hand what a marketing budget does for a game (literary for tens of games) and how optimizing for CPI helps get a big ROI.
Intro to the Case Study
The idea for the case study arose around December 24th as the blog was nearing the end of its first month of being available on the web. There are a ton of gaming related blogs online and I wanted to be able to stand out from the competition with original content that could achieve two things:
- Give players a better understanding of how the mobile gaming industry works
- Help developers avoid the mistakes I made in the past and hopefully aid the good developers that care about the game, players and profits in equal numbers (as opposed to just caring about profits like 90% of the market does).
Case Study Goal
The case study begins with designing a new game to release on the market. Since this blog is in its early days and my schedule is full with on-going client projects I couldn’t afford to embark on a months long journey. As such I needed to be able to design a game in less than 10 days, during the winter holidays.
The goals for the game were as such:
- Be fast to develop from start to finish in under 10 days
- Have a central gameplay mechanic that’s easy to implement and stands out from the competition
- Gameplay should allow for further expansion in future updates
- Allowing new content to be added in the form of:
- Levels or Environments
- Items (weapons, potions, spells)
- Enemies (different stats, skins, weapons, abilities)
- Allowing new content to be added in the form of:
Optional goals I wanted to target include having better than average graphics (when compared to traditional casual and hypercasual releases) and leverage diegetic design elements.
I wanted to avoid adding any kind of tracking, advertisements or in-app purchases into the game to see if it could be considered a selling point. Spoiler warning, it wasn’t with two players even reaching out to me on reddit to ask for ads in order to get damage bonuses so they can win the game.
The end result of this case was BSG – Dragon Battle (App Store link), a 3D boss fighting game, in which you fight a golden dragon inside of a 3D castle courtyard.
Your camera controls are done by leveraging your phone’s gyroscope while movement and attacks happen through swipes or touches on the screen.
If you try out the game you’ll notice it’s not too different in design from how modern Hyper Casual games are built and released in early versions, with the only difference being the “added complexity” of camera control.
Case Study Assumptions
The assumptions that I had before and during the early stages of the case studies were the following:
- After the initial release day the impressions (number of time my game is organically displayed on the app store) will drop rapidly
- The game will receive less than 10-50 organic downloads in the first few days and then the number will drop to a consistent zero downloads for the remainder of the month
These assumptions were based on my past experiences with game stores in general and the App Store, where the amount of downloads my games would get in-between marketing periods would tend to decrease considerably as soon as marketing would stop.
What are Organic Downloads?
Organic Downloads are downloads of your game that are a direct result of the platform featuring your game in various locations or from users that discover your game through non-paid means (aka a website features and links to the game or someone posts on reddit about it and that drives traffic to the page).
Why are Organic Downloads Important?
Organic downloads are important because they offer the best return of investment with the investment being 0 in terms of driving that download.
On average, all of my mobile releases (either for myself or for my clients) usually have a CPI (cost per install) between $0.40 – $1.50, aka it costs (or my clients) that much money to bring 1 user into the game. In order to make a profit from that user, the user has to generate the CPI cost + 1.
With an organic download you’ll start “turning a profit” from the moment any kind of revenue is generated from the user.
The Game: BSG – Dragon Battle
As mentioned in the previous chapters, the game is a 3D Boss Battle game in which you fight a golden dragon inside of a 3D castle courtyard by using your phone’s gyroscope to control the camera and touch taps + swipes to interact with the environment and fight.
Quick Development Overview
Development happened between the 24th of December and 3rd of January in which the game was designed, developed and tested.
For many of the game’s 3D elements I have re-used assets from previous personal projects I worked on, with new models being obtained from Unity’s Asset Store.
The game’s AI was a straight port from the AI in one of the games I have in development (Ebony Spire 2: Godless), while the player control components were designed in less than 12 hours.
Most of the time was spent testing different combat situations, interaction and wave components.
In the end I estimate that I spent a total of 4 days to implement the game with the additional time being spent on optimizing it to work on low end iOS devices (like the iPad 6th Generation and the iPhone 8).
Pre-Release Period: “Organic Marketing”, Press-Release and Reddit
The only “organic marketing” that I did for the game came in the form or a press release and reddit post on r/iosgaming mentioning that I’ll be releasing a portrait, gyroscope based, boss battle game for iOS at the end of the month. Since the game was still in approval by Apple I did not add a link to the App Store page at the time and I never came back to post about the game.
The press release I sent was picked up by multiple websites, with the most important one being PocketGamer.
The featuring by PocketGamer led to multiple app websites to scrape the game’s description and images and offer it for “free download”. If you want to read more on the practices of scrapping game data that some shady websites do, I wrote an article on this titled “Is It Safe To Download APK’s online” (I even analyze the “downloads” of the game they’re offering).
Another important thing to mention is that I made the game available for “Pre-Order” on the App Store so people could “register” to download the game on launch day automatically.
Post Release Marketing and Results
The game released on January 10th worldwide, with 25 pre-orders amassed in a week. After release I haven’t posted about the game at all anywhere and just kept a closed eyes on ahrefs for backlink mentions, the App Store analytics page and new releases threads on r/iosgaming.
How Many Organic App Store Downloads Can You Get Without Marketing?
The game has been available on the App Store since January 10th. In a period of 34 days the game achieved 135 downloads.
- 53 Downloads came from the App Store search function (for various keywords)
- 38 from web referrals (Pocket Gamer, Touch Arcade, App Scrapping websites)
- 30 from the App Store Browse Features
- 12 as referrals (recommendations) from other similar apps.
United States accounted for 35 Downloads, followed by Mainland China with 15 and Vietnam with 10 downloads.
iPhone accounted for 73% of all downloads with iPad achieving the remaining 27%.
Case Study Takeaways
Let’s go over the takeaways from this little case study and see what we can learn from it. The most important thing to keep in mind is that the approach I took to “marketing” and “releasing” this game is pretty similar to what a beginner would do upon releasing a game.
If you expect to be able to drop a game on the store and have the store do the job for you, be sure to brace for disappointment. The development of the game only accounts for 1/3 of the work that needs to be put in and I hope this case study helps someone to avoid jumping head on expecting a ton of visibility.
Sending Press Releases Is Not Enough
A press release email sent to GamesPress can help you get picked up by some mainstream media outlets but the traffic/installs you get from the mainstream media won’t be enough.
If your marketing campaign basically stops at “email GamesPress and sit back” I invite you to re-evaluate things. This case study is proof that you won’t get far.
Posting About The Release On Reddit Is Not Enough
A ton of people spam reddit daily with “news” of their game’s imminent release. I see a ton of those posts on r/iosgaming even outside the self-promotion days and, unless the game is a big, well known, IP your post will pretty much be ignored by most users.
A better suggestions would be to check out “recommendation threads” where people ask about “What game should I try” or “Is there a game like [Game_Title]” and, if your game matches what the author is searching for, you’ll get far more downloads and interest from redditors.
Being Covered By Pocket Gamer Is Not Enough
In total, I believe PocketGamer is responsible for about 25-30 downloads of the game, with 25 of them from the pre-order period as it was the only publication linking to the App Store pre-release.
Like I mentioned many times, I love PocketGamer, but don’t count on them to take your app to the top of the charts. Still, an amazing publication to follow and read.
Getting A Mention From TouchArcade Is Not Enough
Touch Arcade mentioned us on reddit in their highly upvoted new releases thread on r/iosGaming and I could definitely see a spike in Impressions and Downloads.
As I mentioned previously – posting about your game on reddit won’t help, but the weekly release threads garner a ton of eyes, especially those curated by TouchArcade of NimbleThor (whose YouTube channel I can recommend to anyone looking for new games).
Things This Case Study Doesn’t Account For
This case study hasn’t looked at the importance of App Store optimization, keyword selection, image quality and featuring a trailer of the game uploader per Apple’s specs.
The case study also hasn’t dealt with the release of constant updates to see if new traffic can be obtained from the platform (to see if the platform pushes you to new eyes).
I tried to temper my personal influence and avoided posting about the game on my main twitter account or on my main studio mailing list and I tried to do the bare minimum necessary in order to answer the questions this study poses: How many organic downloads can you get for your game with no marketing. I was not expecting a TouchArcade mention, nor was I expecting any YouTube videos to pop-up.
Further Case Studies
This is just part 1 of the case studies I want to do on this and other games I have in the pipeline. I’ll let the game sit for a few more months and then I’ll release a small update to it. I want to see if there are any impressions and organic download changes when a game gets updated.
Afterwards, I plan on doing some more spicy and interesting case studies with it and test to see what are the best avenues for paid marketing. Further case studies planned:
- How many downloads can you get by spending $1000 in marketing on:
- Reddit ads
- App Store ads
I already have the budget ($4000) for this series of case studies mostly set aside but I don’t want to rush into it just yet.
I’m also preparing more games for this case study series with the goal being to track different types of games to get more data points. Right now I’m porting Space Mercs (a space combat game I released on Steam a few years ago) over to iOS for another series of case studies.
Where To Next?
You’ve reached the end of this article and hopefully this case study was helpful to you. I write extensively about the mobile gaming industry, their tactics and how greed influences a game’s design, subjects which were brought up in this post.
I believe that you might be interested in more articles on game monetisation. So if you want to stick around, you can check out “How Do Free Mobile Games Make money“, “Why Do Mobile Games Have Fake Ads” and “Why Do Mobile Games Have In-App Purchases“.
There’s also a monster post (about 4000 words) that answers the question: “How Hard Is It To Make A Mobile Game“. It goes in depth with actual examples on how Experience, Resources and Financials affect the difficulty of developing and releasing new mobile games!
If you like our content and want to stay up-to-date, you can subscribe via the mailing list widget on this page! Or give us a follow on twitter. Is there something else you’d want covered on our Best Smartphone Games blog? Let us know in a comment below.