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Ask the Dev Recap: How to Master Marketability for Your Game’s Prototype

by Claire Tak on Oct 6, 2020

Question: What do you get when two passionate gamers come together to talk about how to test marketability for hybrid-casual games? 

Answer: A whole lot of insight and depth into what makes a game appealing—in other words, how to lead game development with marketability testing.

Joining forces in AppLovin’s latest Ask the Dev series is Michael Hoyos, CEO of SRG Studios, and Matt Murphy, Director of Publishing at Lion Studios. Both are experts in publishing and marketing chart-topping games and offer actionable guidance for marketability testing. 

The hyper-casual industry moves fast, so in order to keep up and build a successful game, time is of the essence.

Some quick highlights from their discussion include:

  • Is your game actually marketable?
  • Why studios should consider teaming up with a publisher
  • What to test before killing a game or moving forward with it

Michael, who started in the mid-core space but transitioned into hyper-casual games (SRG’s hit game Ink Inc., recently surpassed 100 million downloads!), explained, “My favorite thing about hyper-casual is the creativity and reinvention of matching up simple mechanics to create brand new experiences. Just when you think [the industry] is running out of ideas, someone comes in and completely changes it.”

When developers should start prototyping

Matt has over a decade of industry experience in publishing, advertising, and marketing. As Lion’s Director of Publishing, he highly recommends that developers prototype their games within a week or two. 

He pointed out, “It’s important to get something out the door and test it to see how users interact with it, especially if you have a unique idea. Get it out there as quickly as possible. If they don’t like it, then move on and then go to the next idea.”

Michael added that he abides by the three-second rule, explaining, “We all have short attention spans. We have to be thoughtful in those first initial seconds—if it’s confusing or doesn’t add value, remove it. If you can’t get a potential player to understand and engage with your creative within three seconds, you’ve most likely lost them.” 

Get into the hyper-casual mindset and don’t get too attached to your ideas

Making a shift from mid-core games to hyper-casual prompted Michael to recall the immediate differences, saying, “I had to unlearn a lot of things. Our way of thinking back then was long-term retention, in-app purchases, and big core loops. In hyper-casual, there’s really none of that. It’s more about ads per session, low-cost user acquisition, or marketability.”

He added that becoming too attached to your ideas and concepts can hinder you from moving forward quickly. “You can’t fall in love with your concepts.” 

Teaming up with Lion Studios and finding success

The reason Michael’s team at SRG decided to partner with a publisher was because they were entering the hybrid-casual space, something that was new to them. 

Lion Studios helped SRG with:

  • Rapid testing
  • What KPIs to look at in order to correctly inform their design and creative campaigns
  • How to understand the data

Michael compared Lion’s capabilities to going to a car mechanic who would help you “look under the hood.”

He recalled, “The Lion family taught us the hyper-casual ropes. Cool ideas are great, but if they don’t go to market and they’re not engaging, they’re not going anywhere.” 

Because Lion Studios also works with other developers, they understand what resonates with audiences and why. They provide deeper insight than if SRG were to tackle the marketability testing on their one. 

“You don’t need to be the smartest person in the room [because that’s where Lion comes in]. It really takes a village to deliver a hit in the hyper-casual space.”

3 best marketability tips

1. Cast a wide net

From a developer’s standpoint, the most important thing is to hit a wide demographic and that you don’t waste time on a game that can’t attract a wide audience. 

Matt noted, “Think about the actual concept of the game. If the concept is very niche and is only going to speak to a core group of users or isn’t relatable, people won’t understand it or find it too challenging.” 

2. The ‘mom test’

Michael, who revealed that he started a gaming company at the encouragement of his mother, said he likes to do the “mom test” when it comes to testing prototypes. 

“I would take prototypes to my mom. I’d say, ‘Mom, play this,’ and literally sit there and watch her play the game,” Michael laughed. 

Then he’d assess if his mom quickly understood how the game worked and how to play. 

3. Evoke emotion

With anything that is interesting or engaging, people tend to gravitate towards emotion. Does it make the user happy, inspired, or excited? Even though simple gameplay may not require an emotional element, it always helps pique more interest and engagement. 

Matt gave an example, “Create a video of someone who is failing at playing a game and being super frustrated. It would make you just want to jump in there and play the game. Or maybe someone is playing the game and absolutely crushing it, and it’s like, ‘Oh my gosh, that looks so exciting, I want to do that too!’”

How to set up a marketability testing process

Michael said their approach to setting up marketability testing is like a science experiment. At the early stage of marketability testing, it’s all about understanding player interest. If you see engagement, move forward, if you don’t, kill the game.

Michael suggested three quick steps for how to set one up:

  • Establish a control group: “One group should be based on pure gameplay.”
  • Use clean graphics: “We like to make sure there’s not a lot of ‘noise’ in our graphics. This means white backgrounds and easy-to-see text on the screen.”
  • Focus on engagement: “It really comes down to getting clear on an idea.”

Pro tip: Have your devs play the top 20 games on the market, regularly

Sometimes, developers get distracted with the bells and whistles of incorporating too much into their games. Michael understands the need to build a game that wows users with cool bells and whistles, but it can also be distracting and unnecessary, especially when focusing on marketability testing. 

He said a good exercise to help reign this back is to have his team play the top 20 hyper-casual games on a big screen in the office. 

“The point of this exercise is to look at the top games and examine the measures of success for marketability. What makes these games so engaging?”

Best practices for engagement metrics

When testing and looking at the data, there are a few scenarios Michael and Matt discussed. 

Good marketability & good engagement: 

  • Great indicators that your game has low CPIs, so move forward with the idea!

Good marketability & bad engagement:

  • Iterate on mechanics, onboarding, UI

Bad marketability & good engagement:

  • Iterate on theme, clarity of mechanics, and visuals

Bad marketability & bad engagement:

  • Ditch the idea and move on

Stay tuned for our next Ask the Dev

The session wrapped up with Michael reiterating, “Hybrid-casual needs to be way more immersive than a typical hyper-casual game. You’ll need to be mindful of stronger retention on these types of games, but don’t go overboard.”

Matt concluded it’s important to know why your users want to play your game. “Then make sure your creatives align well with that audience.” 

Stay tuned for more Ask the Dev videos. Visit our events page to learn more. 

Claire Tak is Marketing Manager, Content at AppLovin.