Pixonic: three key criteria for choosing a niche for a successful mobile game

Igor Klyukin, Chief Operational Officer at Pixonic, the game development company, has written a column for VC.ru about how to choose an idea for a successful mobile game. He reveals criteria used to assess the game concept and gives an example of a successful project: Walking War Robots, with a monthly income of over $700,000.

In case you don’t know, the launch of a commercial mobile game of an average level requires at least $500,000 and 9 to 12 months of development. Not to mention the money and time needed for promotion and project improvement costs. This is a significant investment, which can be compared to founding a startup, whose return on investment is subject to serious risk.

Before I became the COO at Pixonic, I paid attention to risk inspection and risk minimizing even at the concept stage. Subsequently, the company has developed certain principles and procedures for project evaluation, the development of which we are willing to invest in.

I’ll describe three key principles which, in our opinion, a project should follow to have a chance of success. I’d like to mention that these principles do not apply to R&D projects, which may arise during experimentation.

Market demand

At the concept stage try to target a niche where there is money. Guesswork is not part of our method. How can a profitable niche be identified without having launched a game in it before? The answer is to look at the experience of existing projects. The simplest way to estimate a project’s success is to use the free version of App Annie and see if it is in the Top-100 Grossing in the USA and other countries.

If you decide to totally copy a successful game, there will be the risk of competition for users, which you may not stand up to. And if you go away from ready solutions, there’s the risk of making a mistake. The right choice depends on your team’s experience, which leads us to the next point.

Team expertise

No matter what niche you target, there’s always the risk that the development team won’t cope with it. In this case it is good to review the actual experience of every specialist. Ideally, the team will be doing what it has done several times before, but this time it will consider all errors and add any necessary improvements. In other words, if you have decided to develop match-3, you need to search for a team which has launched at least one match-3 or better several of them.

There are rumours that the creators of Clash of Clans created a similar game in a different setting and with different battle mechanics before CoC. In any case, this project is backed by people with great experience of developing to a deadline. This last point is important as quality feedback can be received only when the project reaches users and their behaviour is analyzed.
In practice it turns out that it’s not easy to find a ready team and it is necessary to select specialists with maximally relevant development experience. If you have formed a team, which has already created a successful project and is willing to repeat it, it’s time to consider if the team is able to support the project well.

Company expertise

I like to consider company expertise a unique super ability which creates profit from projects which were not hits with other companies.

Super ability examples:

— The company is an expert in strategy games: it can make them, monetise them and pump them with traffic.

— The company has unique access to the audience through its games, name and platform features. It creates projects which do not cover paid traffic, but generate profit thanks to its huge free audience. It launches games like production companies launch movies: launch, make a profit over several months, then start new projects.

— The company perfectly understands the audience of paid games, it knows how to promote such games, it has learnt how to monetise the audience via video display in the games.

All in all, company expertise depends on the selected niche, monetisation model and principles of work. Most successful companies have their niches, where they have polished working processes. In my point of view, one of the aims of a company is to shape and develop its expertise and simultaneously obtain new expertise. This is needed for project diversification and future risk minimization.

This is not pure theory, these three conditions were shaped by trial and error. I’ll show some cases from our experience, each of which demonstrates the importance of all three components.

Our company created a cool sequence of games “Who is the Killer”. This is a detective story puzzle by indie developer Dmitry Glaznev. He created a simple but interesting game which was downloaded several million times. This was definitely a success for an indie developer, but at this time we didn’t have experience in the promotion or alternative monetisation of paid games and we didn’t manage to obtain it. The profit scale was not successful and the project was returned to Dmitry.

This is more an example of R&D development, however it gave us an understanding of how important company expertise is.
Several similar projects were rejected at the concept presentation stage. One such example was to create match-3 in a midcore or hardcore zombi setting. The producer was excellently acquainted with the required mechanics and we were ready to help with monetisation. But one must know the market: about 80% of the match-3 audience are women, but the zombie setting and the hardcore level suppose male players. We decided not to test how risky the mix could be and had to decline the idea.

We had experience with a project which found its niche and attracted an audience. We saw huge game monetisation possibilities, but the project was developed on a self-written engine and the simplest interface changes were estimated in months of work. I won’t name the team and project for obvious reasons.

Of course, the absence of a result doesn’t prove our hypothesis, for proof one needs a positive example. So, let’s move to the most interesting part, to a case where all three requirements were met. The current key project of our company is Walking War Robots. It was accepted at the concept stage and now its monthly earnings are hundreds of thousands of US dollars.

Market demand

The success of the shooter mechanics of war games has been confirmed by such examples as World of Tanks (PC game), Iron Force (mobile platforms), Metal Storm (mobile platforms) and other projects. There was no WoT Blitz on the market at that time, but we clearly understood that the tank niche was quite full and in the future there would be more competitors on mobile platforms. From a few settings we chose giant robots. To our mind, this setting has its advantages. Robots allow the diversification of gameplay and the audience somehow differs, probably the audience is even broader.

Team expertise

The very definition of a game as a 3D shooter with synchronous PvP of 6 players against 6 screams a bunch of technical risks in connectivity and graphics. One of the biggest risks is the control on mobile devices. Hopefully, the project was selected for a team which had experience of developing such shooters and the above-mentioned risks must have been dealt with successfully at the prototype stage.

Company expertise

I’d name Pixonic’s expertise as understanding Game as a Service and as the skill of dealing with such games. The difference between Game as a Service and other games is that the user stays with the project for several months, in some rare cases for several years, and the game significantly remodels its functionality after its launch.

Our analytical tools and gained experience allow us to boost key metrics with every update, fix found errors and add new features based on user behaviour. These are needed for effective scale and future growth.

But some limitations follow: games with potentially low LTV, paid games and games that are hard to get money from do not suit us. Apart from this we do not consider games with monetisation via built-in advertising.

Our marketing machine is based on the effective traffic boost of free-to-play projects, in which installs are converted to profit within 1-2 months after purchase. We know how to estimate the effectiveness of such advertising and how to correct advertising campaigns on the fly.

To draw a conclusion, I’d like to say that everyone is capable of choosing their own strategy and building their own theories. The most important thing is always to set goals, think through future steps and analyze the steps taken. Even if you don’t reach your aim, the accumulated experience will help to make the next attempt better.