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Nestled in among commercials for big brands such as Budweiser, Doritos, and Coca-Cola in Super Bowl XLIX were spots for not one, not two, but three mobile gaming apps, making it painfully obvious that we had entered the era of big-budget productions and even bigger-budget marketing campaigns. This movement might be innocuous in and of itself except for the inverse truth that comes with it: that plucky startups and indie game developers with small or no marketing budgets would now have a difficult time gaining traction in the new mobile gaming landscape.
For indie game developers, the initial promise of mobile platforms like iOS and Android was that it offered a level playing field. Suddenly, anyone could build a game, launch it for free, and instantly deliver it to millions of consumers around the world. Game development had become democratized. Indeed, we saw many hits come seemingly out of nowhere. While the Nintendos, Electronic Arts and Sonys of the world were still trying to figure out their mobile gaming strategies, we saw huge businesses built on the backs of hit games from independent studios.
But given the current climate of app marketing and the big budgets being poured into mobile gaming, it is easy for a pessimist to conclude that the days of indies are numbered. Supercell is reported to spend close to $1 million per day marketing Clash of Clans, while King, the developer behind the hit game Candy Crush Saga, revealed in its earnings report that it spends even more than that on sales and marketing. How can indies possibly compete?
The signs of increasing mobile gaming advertising budgets are everywhere. While the Super Bowl might have been the most obvious indication, you can also find mobile games being advertised on the pages of magazines and newspapers, on the sides of busses, and on the walls of subway stations — all places where you’d expect to find brands but relatively new places to to advertise for cost-conscious, ROI-driven game marketers.
Earlier this year, Clash of Clans took over several of the largest billboards in Shibuya Crossing, Japan’s version of New York’s Times Square. In an age where app discovery is a challenge even for marketers with the largest of budgets, how can the independents compete?
And yet, by many standards, the indie scene has never been stronger. We still hear of success stories like Crossy Road, the endless arcade hopper that was built by a three-person studio in Australia called Hipster Whale and at last count had surpassed 90 million players; or Threes, the numbers-based puzzle game from three-person indie Sirvo; or two-person NimbleBit’s business simulation game Tiny Tower. The list goes on.
The success of Crossy Road and other games from independent studios proves that with the right mix of unique art style, fun mechanics and clever marketing, it is still possible for indies to get traction. It helped that Crossy Road was featured by Apple early on and received rave reviews from fans and critics alike. But more important to the game’s success was Hipster Whale’s strategy of building in virality mechanics right from the start, knowing that they could not compete with other developers for increasingly expensive Cost Per Install campaigns.
Other independent studios must get similarly creative when it comes to marketing their own games. If you can’t outspend the big guys, what can you do better than they can? Grassroots marketing and public relations can go a long way towards creating buzz, and certainly the press are interested in writing about the success of David versus Goliath. Community marketing within a very narrow niche can help a game gain a cult-like following and, in some cases, even go mainstream.
Indies must also learn to stretch the value of a dollar. Super Bowl ad budgets may be out of the question, but there are still inexpensive and hyper-targeted advertising sources that can drive cost-effective installs. Obsessive monitoring and optimization of such campaigns using attribution analytics can help ensure a positive ROI. And intelligent customer marketing can help keep users playing (and spending) for longer and longer periods and make the most of those UA campaigns.
All of which is to say that it’s not that independent studios can’t succeed—just that they must think creatively about how to get their games noticed, and they must try to implement their own strategies as opposed to beating the big studios at their own game.
Fortunately, pluckiness and innovation are exactly what indies do best.
Ran Avrahamy is head of marketing for AppsFlyer, a leading mobile advertising attribution & analytics platform that enables app marketers, brands and ad agencies to optimize their marketing spend by measuring their campaigns across more than 1,200 integrated mobile ad networks.
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