Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on LevelUp by Joakim Achrén, the Founder and CEO of Elite Game Developers (a Helsinki-based company that helps gaming entrepreneurs in starting their first games company). You can find the original version of the post here.
No, this is not an article about how the hyper-casual market has peaked. This isn’t an article about how poorly hyper-casual games generate value for advertisers who buy ad inventory. And this isn’t an article about how crowded the market of hyper-casual games already is and how big studios are cloning and fast-following all the successful hyper-casual incarnations.
No, this is an article about why hyper-casual has positively impacted the gaming industry and why its approach to development should be emulated by other genres.
1. Fast shipping speeds up the learning curve
This past fall, I’ve been running a lecture series at the Oulu Game Lab (OGL), a game development school organized by the Oulu University of Applied Sciences situated in Northern Finland. This semester, the school decided to focus on developing hyper-casual games. Initial reactions were that this was a very bad idea. People said that hyper-casual games aren’t “real games”. And even if they were real games, they’d restrict the creativity and artistic freedom of the students, who should be able to experiment.
Throughout the course, I witnessed something I’d never seen before. In just a few months, the first-year students were pushing their builds to the App Store and running Facebook campaigns to drive installs to their games. They were monitoring metrics to see the session lengths, level completions, and some early retention numbers — not to mention the CPI (cost-per-install) and other user acquisition metrics.
Essentially, these students learned all the necessary activities that you’d need to learn to run an effective mobile games team — in a semester. They were able to learn it at an accelerated pace because hyper-casual games can be developed and launched in a matter of weeks. Last year’s students were making PC games for Steam, and the entire year was just spent on the concept and prototyping. Meanwhile, the latest batch of students will gain skills which they can immediately use in their own gaming startups or in other industry jobs.
It’s not only the students who are figuring out the magic of rapid development in hyper-casual. Since hyper-casual games are mostly glorified prototypes of “real games”, it doesn’t take a big team to put something together in a few weeks and ship the game out for testing. The more skills you have, the more you can focus on building frameworks and tools to accelerate the rapid game development process.
Umami Games from Copenhagen, Denmark, operates with a team of three. They are putting out new hyper-casual games into soft launch twice a month. They build out the core gameplay, in which they experiment with the theme and the gameplay, and quickly see if the development work of a few weeks is paying off.
Meanwhile, bigger hyper-casual developers like Voodoo have built up developer networks, where they help small studios develop hyper-casual games and then publish the best ones. Since the development time is so short, Voodoo’s publisher activities see dozens of new games go through their pipeline every month. Picking the winners has never been more effective for a game publisher.
2. Low CPIs reduce the barrier to entry for small studios
Hyper-casual games have low LTVs as users don’t tend to stay long before jumping to the next title. Low LTV, of course, means developers can afford to bid at extremely competitive and low CPIs, which range from $0.10 to $0.50 for this genre. The low CPIs are capitalized on by developers with clear advertising creatives and data-driven marketing.
Due to this, and the large audience size, small game development studios like Umami don’t need large marketing budgets to acquire players. In fact, running soft launch tests to find which games justify a proper worldwide launch is relatively inexpensive.
3. Using creatives to test marketability before development
Games aren’t worth much if there isn’t a large enough market interested in downloading them. This is why testing marketability must not be ignored. The hyper-casual market has done the wider industry a favor by highlighting this.
Since hyper-casual games don’t need to look like anything more than game prototypes, developers typically build animated concepts of the games to serve as ad creatives. This way, they can understand if a game concept has an appeal before even a line of code is written. If you run a video ad that illustrates the core gameplay, you can measure people’s interest in the game. If the ad performs well, it can be used as evidence that the gameplay is a winner and it’s justified to continue the development of the game.
4. Inspiring new genres
Mid-core developers have picked up the tricks of hyper-casual development and brought them to new gaming genres. Archero, developed and published by Habby Games, launched earlier in 2019. On the surface, it looks like a hyper-casual game — you kill the monsters with your arrow-shooting character, and then you run to the exit and another level starts. But in fact, Archero is a game that combines a hyper-casual core loop with a role-playing (RPG) metagame and an elaborate in-game economy.
Similarly, Playgendary has been dabbling in the same space for a while now. Their Masters game series, which includes games like Partymasters, Pinatamasters, and Golfmasters, all rely on a similar game structure. They’ve built a hyper-casual core experience, tied with an elaborate metagame.
Why are developers building out these metagames, when they could just as well release them as hyper-casual games? There is a flaw in hyper-casual: pure hyper-casual games don’t attract players for long, and they become throw-away games. Retention day-7 is already a lost battle — where industry standards would expect 20%, the average hyper-casual title can’t reach more than 10%.
The developers of Archero and Partymasters are figuring out that their games can achieve similar low CPIs that hyper-casual games see, but with higher player life-time values (LTV). This is because of the RPG metagame, which provides a sense of player progression, in which the player is in a loop of getting better gear to beat harder content. Players form a daily habit of returning to the game for longer periods of time, and retention numbers start to equal those of mid-core games. To reach high LTVs, the progression loop is amplified with in-app purchase monetization, which is unheard of in pure hyper-casual games.
Another way to look at this: Habby and Playgendary could have built traditional mid-core games but decided to create a hyper-casual experience on the surface, which enables a wider audience, and later in the player’s journey, the game reveals the underlying progression elements and in-app purchases.
What the future looks like
I recently held a lecture at a game school, and a student approached me afterward. He was curious to know if old-school game development, where you build a “real game” and then you launch it to success, is over.
I told him that it is still possible, but the risks of failing and not getting any money out of your game are high. Would you want to dedicate a team for 12 months on a big project, and then realize that the game has no appeal?
I’m not advocating hyper-casual as the “be all and end all” way of developing games, but I do advocate you to take a close look at the development processes of hyper-casual games. The benefits are clear: you gain new possibilities of rapid development, measuring appeal early and reaching a wider audience.
To hear more about Joakim and Elite Game Developers, check out his podcast.