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Breaking into Mobile Games Publishing: An Interview with Voodoo
In this interview we speak with one of Voodoo’s Publishing Managers, Hugo Peyron, to find out how they grew from a small studio of two engineers into a game publishing powerhouse with successive smash hits on the appstores.
Thanks for taking the time to talk to me Hugo, could you kick things off by describing a little about Voodoo, yourself, and what drew you into the gaming industry?
Sure. My name’s Hugo and I’m currently a Publishing Manager at Voodoo. I met the co-founders, Alex and Laurent, 4 years ago when the company was still a small startup. I was actually completing a 6-month internship for them at the time. We immediately got on very well and after finishing the internship I was sad to leave them, but I wanted to go travelling.
After going abroad and working a few similar roles in gaming, I finally came back at Voodoo. We were around 10 employees at the time. Our first project was a game called Bool which simply did not work. Nonetheless, we persevered in the industry and released Paper.io – our first major smash hit. It picked up a lot of traction worldwide and since that point we have released a string of #1 hits.
So how did that experience with Bool influence your strategy going forward?
Our strategy changed mainly as a result of the things we were forced to learn and become good at very quickly. To survive at that time, we had to really fine-tune and develop our knowledge of user acquisition, and on extracting the most value out of each user. Firstly, buying users as cheaply as possible. Secondly, extracting those with the most value for our ad-based model. In those first three years, we worked tirelessly on honing our UA optimization and monetization strategy. It was essential for us, just to survive with this average game.
What was Voodoo’s first major release?
It was Quiz Run. It was our first game and it was a game that we created internally, before publishing had really occurred to us as an option. It’s quite interesting because everything we learned during this development process was closely linked to the publishing aspect of the business. We learnt a lot from this experience, mainly because Quiz Run was quite a good game, but it wasn’t a smash hit. It was well developed and the concept was quite new, but for whatever reason it just wasn’t a hit and we knew that it would never change the world for us.
And it was at this point that you decided to tackle game publishing?
Yes, exactly. It quickly became clear to us that taking the publishing route was the next logical step for the business. We were really, really good at user acquisition and monetization and we knew that we had to apply these skills in more than just our own games. We had two games out by that point, but as anyone in the industry knows, developing mobile games from scratch is a painstaking process. We were aware of this and we knew that our real knowledge and skillset was in the business side of things; user acquisition and monetization, and that’s something that you can really leverage and use on several games at any given time.
Was the shift into publishing a difficult one?
Honestly, it was great. It was when things really started making sense, to me at least. When I first joined Voodoo, I didn’t know how to code. I didn’t know how to design. I didn’t know anything about the product, and very little about the industry.
It was a strange situation and I knew I had to find something to do. Based on what we’d learnt from our first two titles, I pitched the idea of publishing and everyone was on board. We were all excited by the idea. It seemed like a great opportunity.
How did it go to begin with?
At first, terribly. When I started the publishing arm we did the classic sourcing like cold calling studios. I started calling people all over France – all day, every day. I would get to the office each morning and call absolutely anyone that I thought would be interested in working with us. After while I realised I could only make 10 or so cold calls a day. It just wasn’t going quick enough. We needed to contact way more than that to find the absolute best of the best. So, we decided on a more drastic approach; one that would help us source studios across the world, not just in France.
Sounds interesting. What did you do?
We created a script that scraped the Google Play store, where you could find the studios’ emails at the time (you couldn’t find them on the iOS app store). That gave us about 36,000 emails in less than a day. We ran A/B tests on different emails, different subject lines mainly. Then we emailed everyone with the best working headlines. After that we got about 500 responses and from that we got one game.
We found Fight List. It was a much better game than Quiz Run, with a unique concept and much, much better KPIs – especially the retention. Then we just applied what we’d learnt about user acquisition and monetization and there was an immediate spark which multiplied our revenue by 100x. It’s funny really; all these different techniques just to get in touch with gaming studios. Now they’re getting in touch with us. Everything paid off.
You mentioned you had 500 responses. How did you narrow this figure down and make your final selection?
We screened and played all the games, but at the same time tried to remain agnostic. From this we created a shortlist of studios where we thought the quality of gameplay was sufficient, mostly by analyzing the code. It they were poorly coded then there really wasn’t much point. But if the design was poor, as was the case with Fight List, that wasn’t as important – that was something we could work with – if the gameplay was good.
It took us a total of 3 weeks to produce a game that has since reached number 1 in more than 40 countries.
We also asked them to integrate our analytics tool and share access so that we could review some core KPIs, and from that we would analyze the retention and error logs. And purely on that we chose the game. Any game with high retention we would consider for launch.
That’s an interesting tactic. How did Fight List do after launch?
Pretty well, actually. It was a major hit in France, Italy and the US. After reaching top game in each country, it stayed up in the top positions of the charts for a while longer – a good couple months. In France, it stayed top overall for about 6 months. It was ridiculous. At that point, we really understood that our ‘A game’ was in publishing.
Who were the developers behind the Fight List?
The developers were two French engineers who were working full time. They weren’t even game developers, yet in their spare hours they created this small game. Before we got involved the design and content left a lot to be desired – and this was a content based game! They’re called Two4Tea. I think what’s very important here is that we found these guys and we re-worked the whole game with them. That’s where we’re more modern as a publisher. We take studios, and we push them to reach their full potential by giving them practical advice and personal tutoring. One of our publishing managers will coach them on how to make a successful casual game. That will be coaching on the product, gameplay, and design.
Can you give another example of a game you published?
Sure, I can give you a relevant one right now. We used the same tactics to release Snake VS Block, which right now is a big hit game at position #1 in most of the app stores.
In this case, it was a very similar process. We found a studio made up of just two guys, called Bento. They had been making games for 7 years and up until this point they were never successful. They’d even worked with Ketchapp. Then we met them and gave them some feedback over a 2-week period. 5 days after that they had refined Snake VS Block. We tested it thoroughly and launched the new, improved version one week after that.
What kind of feedback did you give?
It was a mixture of consultancy and coaching. I organized a call with them where they analyzed the market. What’s working? It’s arcade games with very simple gameplay. Something that isn’t too stressful. Something that is ‘snackable’ and enjoyable in short sessions. Something that is endless.
We integrate GameAnalytics in every single one of our games.
They analysed the market intensely for 2 weeks, throwing ideas back and forth. And that led to a published version of Snake VS Block in a 3-week turnaround. 2 weeks of intense coaching, after which it was made in 5 days by them. That’s a total of 3 weeks for a game that has reached number 1 in more than 40 countries. We identify people who have potential, then we coach them so that they have the best chance of releasing a hit.
How do you increase exposure in the initial phase of launching a game?
We have a few contacts at Apple who manage featuring in Europe and we’ll speak with them and see what we need to do to get a feature. Usually it’s to do with integrating the latest iOS features. Each time we release a game we send them a roadmap. Paper.io was featured worldwide, so was Snake VS Block. But to be honest, featuring will give you around 100K downloads. In the long run, it’s not that useful. Studios should really focus on user acquisition. That’s what we do, that’s our strategy. For example, with Snakes VS Block we had a feature which got us around 200K downloads worldwide. In comparison, last month we did 20 million downloads – all from UA.
Do you push a lot of cross-promotion in your network of games?
We don’t focus on cross-promotion currently, mainly because the space that you use for cross-promotion is then unavailable to an advertiser, and usually cross-promotion will work on the first interstitial, and that’s the most valuable one. We calculate how much money are we losing when we use that space to cross-promote. I personally don’t think that using the first interstitial to cross-promote is the best solution. It’s the old-school solution. That’s why in September this year we’re going to start building our own in house cross-promotion SDK.
Can you share some information about how you use GameAnalytics at Voodoo?
Sure. We integrate GameAnalytics in every single one of our games. For us, the most important thing it does is to help us check the retention of potential partners. We look for the highest numbers possible. If a game has low retention we will kill it. We kill about 19 out of 20 games that we test.
We have a rule that every single feature we add must have a positive effect on the core KPIs…
So, I’d say a key benefit of using GameAnalytics is that we can quickly see if a game is or isn’t worth our time and coaching. It takes us a few seconds to set up; it’s just a line of code, yet it’s huge timesaver. When you’re in the production phase of a game retention is king. For every single version of a game, if the retention doesn’t show any increase then we won’t launch. GameAnalytics gives us a clear and accurate insight into that.
What other KPIs do you think are important to track? And do different team members check different metrics?
When it comes to other things that we check, it’s the number of sessions played. We also use funnels, where we’ll check for example the number of people who play 50 sessions, or 100 sessions – which is linked to retention but not exactly. We have a rule that every single feature we add must have a positive effect on the core KPIs, so with every update to the game we closely review the player analytics to benchmark performance and learn whether our efforts have led to positive results. Every single person in the team uses it. Me: a product manager, designers, developers. Everyone feels a lot of ownership over whether a game is successful or not. And everyone is checking GameAnalytics daily to see what we can improve.
Can you give any practical examples of design changes you’ve made to gameplay based on analytics data?
In Snake VS Block we found that session length was too long, so we A/B tested to see whether a faster pace would make the game more ‘sticky’ or cause retention to diminish. In fact, we found that making the game more difficult made the game ‘stickier’. Why? My explanation is that people want a ‘snackable’ game. If something takes longer than 15 minutes, that’s going to dissuade them from coming back for another challenge. Casual gamers just want to play whilst on their commute. It could just be for just one bus stop. If the game takes longer than that, they won’t open it. That’s why for example Clash Royale is so successful. They made just a small ‘snackable’ game where you can enjoy the whole experience in around 3 minutes.
For any developers reading this, are you open to being contacted with more games in the production phase?
Definitely. When a company reaches out to us we’ll organise a Skype call for about an hour, where we give an overview of what we do, our processes, how we work, our philosophy – and lots of really useful tips on how to make a successful casual mobile game. After that we stay in contact with each studio via Skype and have weekly calls, giving them tips on how they can change and improve their game. We also usually help them with the design; we have 3 in-house designers and we’re always on the lookout for great new games to keep them busy!
Finally, what are your plans for the rest of the year?
Well, as we speak the team is working with game studios in about 30 different countries, on more than 60 titles. We expect to release 4-5 hits by the end of year.
Do you have a great game in production? Are you looking for a publisher to help with the launch? You can reach out to Voodoo at email@example.com
Since the original time of writing this post, Voodoo has in fact released another smash hit. It’s called Flappy Dunk and it’s currently ranked #2 on the iOS app store in the US, beaten only by Voodoo’s other title: Snake VS Block. Impressive stuff.
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