What’s next in mobile: MAG, Ustwo and Flick on discoverability, UA, platforms, AI and more


We invited MAG Interactive ‘s Alice Bowman, Ustwo Games’ Danny Gray and Flick Games’ Ian Masters to discuss discoverability, UA, platforms, AI and more during our Develop 2023 panel.

The ‘What’s next in mobile’ discussion is now available to watch in full below, but if you’d rather scan the highlights, we’ve carefully edited the conversation below too.

Post ATT, how are players discovering your games at the moment, and how is that different from years gone by?

Gray: We’re mainly known for premium games, so the weight of discoverability was on either support from the big platform holders or traditional PR and marketing. And that hasn’t changed now we’ve transitioned into subscription services.

One thing that’s changed is that featuring on app stores is a fraction of what it used to be, so we’re even more reliant on the platform holders backing our games and trying to make make waves ourselves.

Bowman: We’ve been quite lucky in that we’ve not launched a game since the ATT stuff happened. But I guess also that makes launching a game in this environment quite scary and unknown. The impact it’s had on Wordzee has been pretty big.

We’ve now scaled down UA a bit, but we’re still experimenting. Experimenting has really been the name of the game for our UA department, they’re really throwing a lot of things at the wall and seeing what sticks and they’re doing a great job of it. It’s a time of just trying everything new, because we’re almost having to just learn how to do it all over again.

Panellists Alice Bowman (MAG), Ian Masters (Flick) and Danny Gray (Ustwo).

Masters: Every business in the world, when it comes down to it, is about cost of customer acquisition and lifetime value – but mobile, because of direct, per-player attribution and knowing exactly how much a campaign is making, became hyper, hyper optimised towards certain design patterns and certain types of games.

Build-and-battle and eventually hypercasual came out of that, because it found a niche that everything was optimised towards. Social casino is another one.

I think with the privacy changes, because those things are no longer possible, my hope is that it will bring about kind of new designs that are successful and won’t just be the same games just optimised and optimised and optimised – there will be more opportunity for creativity.

Our game launched three years ago, so this was just pre-deprecation of IDFA. So we decided that we were just going to do UA on Android initially, and not on iOS, because we would be able to retain those numbers for longer. And that’s worked for us, but we haven’t been doing UA at scale.

It’s really been about getting enough people in the funnel to drive the amount of data that we need for retention and analytics, while we continue to refine and improve the product. But one of the things that that’s really helped this has been the organics, particularly from Google Play.

Organics can change dramatically, and very quickly in one direction or the other – a big part of the battle is constantly optimising screenshots, store descriptions and trying to join these things up in the funnel.

Also from Develop 2023: MAG’s Alice Bowman on how narrative can help UA, retention, monetisation and more.

Alice, you said your teams are throwing a lot of stuff at the wall, could you expand upon that some more?

Bowman: We’re looking at different creative campaigns and testing different ads against each other to see what’s best, then you end up with your benchmark and everything else gets measured against that.

Moving around the campaigns and targeting different users and things like that has been a real part of the experimentation, and some of the platforms that we were advertising on just turned out to not be worth it for us. So we’ve really had to refine that as well.

What we’ve been trying to do with our UA is focus on users that we can retain for a long time get a lot of value from, which is a slightly more premium UA approach than what most casual games go for.

I think that bigger-scale games would just be looking at the sheer amount of users you can get in, and then optimising from there. I think we’re happy to take a lower number of users as long as we know that they’re going to stay for longer and then spend.

So are you increasingly focusing on the users you have now versus, say, launching new games?

Bowman: I think MAG is doing a bit of both. If we do get to a position where we can launch a new game, we will go for it, even in today’s environment.

But at the same time, we’ve got a lot of strong games and the company has been around for a long time so we’ve got these user bases that we acquired when it was a more favourable climate, and we want to try and hold on to them.

So we’re really looking at how we can look after our users and to feed the more valuable ones that we’ve segmented out to see how we can improve their player experience. So yeah, we’re just trying to take care of them as much as possible. It’s very important to us.

Flick Games commissions artists from around the world to make decks in Flick Solitaire.

Masters: We’ve commissioned diverse and independent artists from across the world for the last three years, we’re now at 43. We’ve actually now started approaching bigger artists with big social followings, so the last four artists we signed, all had over over a million followers and they are now promoting the game as part as part of the deal.

The last artists we signed is Cyanide and Happiness and they’ve done a ‘Tasteful Nudes’ cards deck, which is just amazing. So hopefully that will be really good for us.

Gray: Platform wise, there’s potentially less support than there used to be. So we are trying to get more into the social aspect of things – I always feel a bit weird about TikTok but that’s why you’ve got to employ young people, right?

Bowman: You’re so right about TikTok – hiring people who use the platform or who are part of the community is actually really, really valuable. It can be great to have a community manager who’s actually familiar with those spaces.

Let’s talk about platforms – Ian and Danny can you talk us through how you’re evolving from mobile-only developers into multi-format studios?

Gray: We always felt like we had a bit more of a home on PC and console than the super casual audience on mobile, so it was a bit more of a natural transition.

Alba was the first Steam launch that we did and part of the reason for that is that we have the benefit and security of being on those platforms financially, but in comparison to when we were launching Monument Valley on the App Store, we’re not exposed to that kind of upside in the way that we used to be…we can be secure and we can have development fees paid for and all that kind of stuff, but, you know, how are we going to get another game that’s still paying the bills eight years later?

From September 2022: Netflix game Desta marks a new era at Ustwo – and Monument Valley 3, free-to-play are next.

So it kind of forced our hands a little bit to expand the number of people who are going to play the games, because subscription platforms are not the same size of user base that we used to have, they’re kind of young platforms.

The difficult thing with it has been our design focus. So we try to make the most platform perfect, touchscreen, small form factor game, but the more we go down that path, the harder it’s going to be to adapt that to a larger screen and a different piece of hardware that people interact with in different ways. Trying to bridge that gap is proving a little bit difficult.

With the last game we launched, Desta, not only were we aiming for three different platforms in mobile, PC and console, we’re almost aiming for three different types of people who want different things.

And I think at times, I let too much of those three audiences get in my head and maybe made a few too many sacrifices instead of being hyper-focused on exactly who the game was going to be for. So I think that that’s a risk that we’ve definitely, definitely learned from.

An important lesson I’ve learned as well is not talking about things as ports. A good multiplatform game is one that’s been designed as a multiplatform game from the beginning, so that we can avoid a lot of those design mistakes.

So instead of going all the way down the mobile path and going hey, how does this work on PC? We’re trying to figure out exactly how it’s going to work on all three of those things from the jump and not, you know, six months before launch.

Try to be clear about the player niche you’re looking to fill if you’re pitching the Apple Arcade or Netflix team, says Gray.

Danny have you got any do’s and don’ts for folks who want to pitch the Apple Arcade and Netflix teams?

Gray: I think really it’s about trying to be honest about what the niche is. There’s no point in making something for a subscription platform that would exist as a free to play title on the App Store, right? Equally, there’s no point in doing something that would be better as a PC or console game for a subscription-based platform.

It’s about doing something that’s still for that form factor, that interaction scheme, but also a more casual audience as well. And trying to do something that still requires attention-based design to a certain extent.

I wish that there was a bigger emphasis on short form content – I’m always gonna say that because of the things we’ve traditionally made, but sometimes I feel there’s a bit too much of a leaning towards games that last forever. I would hate for the idea of casual, shortform games to disappear – we see those things persist on PC and console, but there’s a whole area of games that are kind of dying a little bit on mobile, that makes me immensely sad. So we’re still pushing for a lot of those things to exist on subscription based platforms.

Working with these subscription platforms is a great way to develop your own IP in that way as well. You’ve got a secure place to develop something from the ground up and there’s no reason why you can’t do another version of that game or a sequel, or take it back off the service.

Thinking about NFTs as an alternative revenue stream? Read ‘Google Play’s new NFT policy: a game-changer for web3 games, or too little too late?

Just to talk a little more about alternative revenue streams – Ian you’re also exploring adding NFTs into your game, is that right?

Masters: We make a game that’s all about collecting art, so for us NFTs and limited editions for players to collect is a very natural fit for us. We haven’t done it yet and we will only do it when the time is right – you know, we could have probably exploited that a year or so ago and we didn’t, because it’s not what we’re about.

The investors I’ve spoken to understand that we’re committed to one game and building a business, but you know, we’re not going to take that money until we’re sure it’s the right thing for the community and artists.

What’s working for you right now in terms of live ops that keep people playing?

Masters: In our game a new deck goes in roughly every month, and there’s a lot of players looking forward to that. We do things like ‘Thank Flick it’s Friday’ where you get double rewards, so Friday is always higher in terms of time spent, but we’re still pretty basic in what we do live ops-wise.

Gray: With Desta it was the first time we had regular content post-launch so it’s been a really good learning experience. We managed to deliver new level content every two weeks, which is unheard of for us.

We had to frontload so much of the content development so we weren’t really responding to how players were playing the game so much.

For us it’s going to be really important to keep hold of the kind of content we love to make, which is meaningful and emotional and feels handcrafted whilst delivering regular content for people. I think it’s going to take us a couple of years to get right. But we’re trying.

This photo comes courtesy of Develop organiser Tandem Events.

We all know it’s tough out there but as we wrap up I wondered if you could give us a reason to be cheerful, or a big new trend you see coming up?

Bowman: I think one of the really exciting things is that now that we can’t target who is seeing our adverts, we’re getting a pretty diverse player base.

And yeah, there are negatives around that from the fact that we can’t monetise as well, but it also means we’ve got more different types of people playing our games, which means we’re going to make more varied, more exciting types of games to cater to that bigger audience.

Masters: I think to your point about the targeting – how about we just figure out ways to monetise fairly and gently and in ways that players are happy with and not have such predatory tactics that we’ve seen in the industry before. So I think that that’s positive, for sure.

Also with going crossplatform…while I don’t think it solves any problems, it does create more opportunities to be discovered, and to get that luck that you need.

Interested in using AI tools in gamedev? Read ‘Ex-Miniclip exec’s new studio is all-in on AI – and built its debut in five months‘.

What about AI tools, are you using any right now and how do you see these tools fitting into mobile game development?

Masters: We’ve done some AI creatives for user acquisition to concept scenarios that we think might get people’s attention.

Initially they performed well and the conversion for the ads was really good, but in the end we just got ‘lower quality’ players – I know that’s such a horrible term – but it they’re not as good a match for your game and they don’t retain as well. You get people who are more likely to leave, so we’re not using those at the moment.

Bowman: In my team we’re only using it for internally concepting things and not for any of our content that’s going out to players. I have really mixed feelings about it – it’s here and people are using it so you either go along with that or fall behind.

But I think it’s a shame, particularly for juniors in the industry, that this is the way things are moving for content, because a lot of those content roles are how people get their first job in the industry.

Gray: We’re trying to write some kind of internal policy around it because people keep asking. We do kind of need to make a statement – a lot of people end up working for us because of values so we do owe it to the employees to actually make a stand on how we think about it.

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