Being a mobile game developer is a tough job these days since you have to deal with an oversaturated store and new user acquisition costs are extremely high. The App Store by itself has more than 811000 games, while Google Play is filled with over 327000 games. On top of it, mobile gaming is growing at record speeds, with year over year revenue increases in excess of 10 percent. 

More than half of all gaming revenue worldwide is projected to be from mobile games in 2019, and increasing internet penetration rates in traditionally underdeveloped nations means that the mobile gaming user base will be massive in the near future. So as a developer, how do you test the viability of your latest game without hard- committing? It is pretty simple, you do a “soft launch”. 

Exactly what is a soft launch then? Essentially you are releasing an early test build of the game in a few small territories, prior to the global launch date. The goal is to monitor user retention data, the performance of the monetization model, and various key performance indicators before you commit to a full- scale global launch. The soft launch doesn’t have to be a perfect, bug- free experience. But it must have the core gameplay loop in action so that you can receive feedback from players. This way you can find out why certain users are leaving your game before you make the official launch with full commitment to PR and marketing. 

Soft launches will essentially act as a launch before the actual launch. You are simulating the real world performance of your game in a test environment that is typically a small territory or country whose culture resembles that of your main market. You lower your launch budget and get a feel for how the monetization models in your game work with actual users before you go all the way and commit to a giant market such as the U.S. or China. Soft launches also give you valuable data on game retention, which is essential to understanding the lifetime value of any game.

Why Should You Do Soft Launches?

If you’re a small studio looking to attract publishers, keep in mind the fact that many publishers will not offer monetary support unless you provide them with soft launch data. Especially important for F2P games where you want to test monetization and user retention before releasing the game worldwide. Sometimes you might even have to make the tough choice of killing your game because it appears to be unsustainable based on early data from the soft launch.

To further elaborate on the topic of soft launches, we came up with a list of reasons on why you should do it

  • Lower risk of failure, since you get a good idea of game performance prior to the actual launch date and can implement changes accordingly.
  • A better understanding of your player base and their preferences, since you get user feedback during the soft launch.
  • Optimization of the First Time User Experience (FTUE), through A/B testing of the tutorials and User Interface.
  • If LTV>CPI*, your game is profitable. If LTV<CPI, it might be a wise idea to kill the unsustainable project instead of spending money on a full-scale launch and marketing.

*LTV refers to Lifetime Value of a game, while CPI refers to Cost Per Install. LTV is a projection of the average revenue generated by each new user during their lifetime within your game. It should be greater than the Cost per Install, to maintain a profitable game. CPI is simply the ratio of total ad expenditure to the number of installs. Of course, there is more to LTV and CPI analysis than what we can explain here, check out this article for a better understanding of these terms.

Benefits of Doing a Soft Launch For Your Game

To summarize what we learned, a soft launch is an introduction of a new app or service (game in our case) to a limited audience for the purpose of testing user retention and profitability prior to the full- scale release. One key thing to note here is that your test audiences should be as similar as possible to the target audience. Full-scale product launches require a massive amount of investment; hence you want to make sure everything is working as intended before pushing the big red launch button. A soft launch has 4 core elements associated with it- Onboarding, Monetization, Reception, and Retention.

Onboarding is how you determine whether the FTUE (First Time User Experience) is good or not. What does the test audience think of your tutorials, do they like the UI, etc.

Monetization within your game can be tested via a soft launch. Are the ads too intrusive? Are you giving away too many freebies due to which players aren’t incentivized to spend money? Is the Lifetime Value per user greater than your Cost Per Install? Once you gather all this data, your company can plan the actual launch for optimized user engagement and maximum profitability.

Reception of a game is how your player base reacts to the marketing and product benefits.

Retention gives you an idea of how many players will stick around after N number of days from when they first downloaded your game. This is typically measured in intervals of 1 day, 1 week, and 28 days.

The Difference Between Soft Launch and Alpha Testing

During the alpha testing phase, game developers distribute early builds among qualified testers, colleagues, or friends. Basically, alpha testing takes place within a tightly knit circle of test subjects. While it does provide insight on technical shortcomings within your game, it may not be fully representative of how well your game will be received by the general audience from different regions of the world. 

A soft launch is like a beta, but with a wider range of test subjects. You are using actual customers on a test server within a specific territory that mirrors the behaviors of your main audience in a larger market. Instead of just testing game performance on multiple devices, you get to see how actual users react to the monetization model and you can browse through game retention data to customize ad offerings based on various regions of the world. Some game developers don’t even put their names on the app during a soft launch, to avoid bad PR if things go south. While alpha tests are comprised of subjects who are already engaged to the game, soft launches give you a real-world perspective on things prior to a global release.

How To Plan A Soft Launch

First, you need to establish the number of days for which you want to run the soft launch campaign. The average soft launch and optimization period for a game is around 40 days. Another thing to note is how many versions or builds of your game you plan to maintain during the soft launch. 

Next, you need to come up with a minimum number of players needed to test your game during the soft launch campaign. Anticipating the number of people who will play your game during this phase allows you to set up test budgets. You can use various methods to acquire this minimum number of the user. It can be done through cross-promotion using other games in your portfolio, or PR campaigns. A simple formula to calculate the budget for your Soft Launch period-

Soft Launch Campaign Budget = (Max Versions x Users per version x Cost Per Install)

Cost per install will vary depending on the ad network, country, and other factors so do your research prior to this phase. Some ad networks like Chartboost will provide you with the average user acquisition rates, sorted by country and genre. It usually takes around 200 to 300 minimum users perversion of your game before you can acquire significant amounts of data on retention, monetization viability, etc. And in the meantime, you will also have to calculate development cost for the entire period of your soft launch campaign.

Where To Soft Launch A Game?

Once you have allocated the budget, time period, and a minimum number of test subjects for your soft launch, the next step is to decide where you must launch your early access version of the game. This one can be a little tricky since you need to choose a test demographic which matches your main audience very closely. 

Try to find a territory which mirrors your target market in terms of spending habits, language is spoken, etc. For example, the U.S. is your largest English speaking market when you launch the game globally. To try and get a feel for how U.S. players will react to your game, you can test the monetization and technical gameplay in a smaller English speaking territory such as the Netherlands or Ireland. If you’re targeting the East Asian region- China, Japan, Korea, etc., you might want to manage the soft launch via a local publisher. But what if you aren’t sure about your market? In that case, check for other popular games in the same genre and examine their demographics to see which countries they perform well in.

According to market research, Canada ranks number one in the list of soft launch countries for 2016. This is because its play and monetization behavior resembles the U.S. very closely, the main difference being in the volume of users. There are three major Geographical regions to select from- EMEA (Europe, Middle East, Africa), NALA (North America and Latin America), and APAC (Asia Pacific). 

Cost per install will vary depending on the country. Big mobile game devs like Rovio and Kabam prefer to soft launch their games in Finland, Norway, and Sweden. But these countries are quite expensive in terms of cost per install. The NALA region generated game revenues of USD $13.8 billion in 2017, and Canada is the number one soft launch country here with Brazil being the fastest growing market for mobile games. 

The APAC region is undoubtedly the largest market for mobile games in terms of both revenue as well as the player base, generating a massive USD $24.9 billion for 2017. China, Japan, and South Korea are the market leaders in terms of revenue generation. Due to their relatively small population and high-income audience, Hong Kong and Singapore are great places to carry out a soft launch for your games in the APAC region.

Some countries have relatively low usage numbers for Apple devices; hence it would be unwise to soft launch in these territories if you have an iOS-only game. Most English speaking countries like USA, Australia, Canada, UK, etc. have a high iOS penetration rate. Asian countries like China, India, and South Korea are huge mobile gaming markets with majority Android devices. One exception would be Thailand, with 31 percent iOS penetration and relatively low Cost per Install of USD $0.86 on average (based on data from 2017).

Know your KPIs

If you think about it, the main reason we do soft launches is to gather user data for maximizing retention and monetization opportunities. In other words, we are looking for Key Performance Indicators (KPIs). You are trying to monitor acquisition costs by region, fluctuation in retention rates, user traction, and monetization. Before launching the test build for your game, make sure you have integrated an analytics service into it. You can either create your own, or use a 3rd party tool- Flurry, Swrve, and deltaDNA are some of the most popular ones. Align your objectives with your KPIs and ask industry experts for advice prior to pushing the launch button. 

Do’s and Don’ts For Soft Launch

Do’sDon’ts
Setup and test integration of desired toolsDefine soft launch ownerSet clear goals and KPIs Define a kill factorTest creative assets and marketing channelsSkip testing in favor of marketingStart with soft launch before you have a planPlayer base will grow organically Expect a soft launch will save your gameMake decisions driven by emotion/ assumptions



Improving Game Retention

The main goal of a developer with any F2P mobile game is to keep the players around for as long as possible. Game retention is not going to be ideal on version 1.00, so temper your expectations accordingly for the soft launch. Target retention rates to maintain a profitable game are 40/20/10 percent for D1/D7/D28. Why do we measure retention in 7- day intervals? Simple, because it allows us to detect repeating patterns in user behavior since most people log in more often on weekends and their spending patterns also follow weekdays. Retention rates can also vary depending on the game genre. Casual games will have higher retention rates compared to MMOs or RPGs, whereas the MMO or RPG will have a higher monetization rate. 

Utilize analytics to pinpoint where users are leaving your game, and use this in correlation with the progression system to predict which levels or bosses need redesigning. Sometimes you might even have to overhaul the core game mechanics. The first couple of days will give you insight into how good your tutorials and user interface are. Retention rate analysis for day 30 and beyond helps with optimizing the core gameplay loop and making balance changes.

  •  Have at least 40 to 60 hours of gameplay content in your soft launch, enough for it to last a month
  • Plan a content pipeline with regular updates to extend the lifetime of your game
  • Design an energy mechanic or some type of timer to delay progression. This should stop the user from playing, and they will come back once the timer for an upgrade is up. You can also lower rewards for players who stay longer. 

Conclusion

Begin a worldwide marketing campaign only after your soft launch is successful, and when you’re satisfied with the KPI metrics. Make the necessary iterations and keep a clear set of goals in mind. Data should be the sole determining factor when it comes to deciding what does and doesn’t work. While soft launching your game, follow the Build, Measure, and Learn loop. According to this principle, you release your game to the market as soon as possible, measure performance, and iterate based on user data. Keep repeating the loop until you get ideal performance metrics that align with your vision for the game. 

Sometimes you will have to make tough calls. If your game is not achieving its desired performance metrics even after several iterations, you might have to cut your losses. Determine where the problem lies- is it an issue with the monetization? Is the game retention data close enough for further improvement? Do users report any major bugs? Or perhaps it is a defect in the core gameplay loop which will require a radical redesign of the game. Either way, there is no statistical evidence which suggests you continue supporting an unsustainable game if it is irredeemable even after several months of development. It is quite heartbreaking to see a game that you poured so much time to get discarded into the dustbin of failed ideas.

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