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Your toolkit for self-publishing a hit mobile game

Editor’s note: This article is based on Antti Hattara’s exclusive presentation at  LevelUp 2021. Antti is a mobile games industry veteran based in Berlin. He’s currently the founder and CEO of indie studio Starberry Games. Check out the video from LevelUp 2021 below. 

Many developers at some point ask themselves the question: should we launch and run the game ourselves, or should we partner with a publisher? While it may seem daunting to do it alone, it is possible to succeed going down the solo route. 

There are two main parts to self-publishing: distributing a mobile game globally in the app stores on your own account, and operating the game as a service - which entails marketing, analytics, and support. We self-published Merge Mayor: Idle Village and learnt a lot along the way. Below, we’ll share the market tools we used during the tech launch, from conceptualization and production, in addition to the soft launch phase.

Tech launch

Concept

The conceptualization phase is all about market research and gathering customer insights. We used AppAnnie for insights on market size, trends, and our category's benchmarks. We also used Geeklab to test our concept, its theme, and art style by running low scale marketing campaigns that directed users to a simulated app store landing page. 

This is a great way to check if your ideas have market potential and strong appeal - there's no point investing time and resources in building a game that doesn't have an audience. It also helps guide your app store optimization, to see which colors, screenshots, and graphics bring about the highest conversion rates and lowest CPIs. Optimizing these metrics will enable you to scale your game in the most economically efficient way - so getting started as early as the concept phase is highly recommended. 

Once you’ve formed a stronger idea of what your game concept will look like, it’s time to start deepening your understanding of your target audience. This brings us to the customer insights part of the concept phase. 

We used three tools to better understand our players: PlaytestCloud, where we ran usability tests for our concept and tested our competitors’ games; Smartlook, where we collected real recordings from users playing our game, and observed how they progressed over multiple sessions (you should insert a pop up message to the users you're observing that allows them to opt-in to being tracked); and 12 Traits, which provide in-game questionnaires that allow us to build audience profiles and predict what our future audience would care about. 

Production

We’ve reviewed the game concept phase, and now we can move on to our next stage - testing a more built-up product. There is a simple set of tools I believe everyone should be using to test the games as early on as possible in the market. The first is Google Open Beta, which allows you to keep your game under the radar while still running UA campaigns. This means you can acquire paid users, and your game will receive no organic traffic from app stores - it won’t appear in searches or game category lists. Users can leave feedback but aren’t able to leave public reviews - helping you improve your game design and the user experience without the risk of negative public comments.

Now your game is available to install, you want to drive some traffic. Facebook Ads are a great way to start: their campaigns are simple, effective, and suitable for small budgets. In addition, their ad creatives tool provides 30 second videos or banner carousels, using content you've simply captured from your device. For Merge Mayor, for example, we used Facebook Ads to acquire quality users from the UK at $0.35 per install. 

Once you begin driving installs from new users, you want to start using an analytics tool such as Facebook, Google Firebase, Unity, or GameAnalytics to measure your KPIs. At this stage, focus on essential metrics like early retention (Day 1 to Day 3), session lengths, and track how users progress through your levels. 

Soft launch

Upgrading your analytics capabilities

After this testing phase, you’ll step up your game's development as you prepare for a soft launch. As you build out your game, you'll need to answer more advanced questions about your user behavior and game metrics - and for that you need to upgrade your analytics tech stack. 

Try data warehouse tools like Google BigQuery, where you can build the data engineering yourself; DeltaDNA, which deals with the backend and lets you just operate your analytics; or use a full service tool that handles the backend and operations, like Dive. In addition, integrate an attribution partner to get data about post-install actions and where your installs are coming from. The top options are Appsflyer, Adjust, Singular, and Tenjin. 

Thinking about growth

At this stage, start thinking seriously about in-game monetization and expanding your user acquisition. For tracking in-app purchases, make sure to use in-app receipt validation, which helps keep your data clean - you can build it yourself or implement it through your attribution partner. 

It’s equally important to think about your ad monetization early on. For Merge Mayors, we use ironSource's mediation solution to manage our ad monetization strategy: we’re delighted with it, particularly its quick and efficient setup process, integration with AppsFlyer, and its cohort-based ad LTV reporting. 

The next stage is expanding your marketing efforts, using multiple UA channels like ironSource, Google Admob, and Unity Ads, in addition to Facebook Ads. Ahead of your soft launch you should experiment with different campaign types - from app install campaigns to event-focused campaigns. Also be sure to iterate your ad creatives and A/B test many variations to find the top performers. Expanding your marketing is as important as it is time-consuming - you should look into hiring someone to head this effort internally or use an agency. 

Laying the foundation for a big global launch

Leveraging a combination of these tools will help set you up for a successful global launch. Once you’ve shipped your game and begun scaling UA, your work is only getting started. You need to constantly be optimizing your marketing and monetization, and dedicating resources to increase retention through liveops - from frequent game updates to in-game seasonal events. That’s a big topic which needs its own session - hopefully next year I’ll be back to take your through our liveops strategy with Merge Mayor. 

Let's put these tips to good use

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