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Creatives and performance: Why I became obsessed with art and science

Let’s face it - not every one of your game’s creatives is going to have a sky-high IPM and drive quality users by the thousands. As Creative Lead at ironSource, I’ve helped design and launch enough creatives to recognize not all of them are hits. But, I’ve learned to celebrate these failures and learn from them - doing so gets you closer to unlocking the secret sauce of success. Even those who don’t feel they have creativity running through their veins can still crack creatives and help a game scale quickly and profitably. Here’s a framework for doing just that so you can gather and apply the learnings that optimize your game’s creative strategy. 

Step 1: Start chewing over the data 

Before you start building a great creative, you need a marketable concept - this starts by analyzing data to determine what’s performing well and what areas need improvement. We’ve broken down three ways you can approach creative thinking and how to use performance metrics to back up your decisions:

Current top-performers, future playables

When designing your video creatives, test a few versions that highlight different parts of your game, like the core mechanic, metagame, and other relevant parts. Analyze each of these themes by looking at performance KPIs like IPM and CVR and quality metrics like retention and ROAS so you can confirm what aspects and themes are resonating with your users. Then you can take these top-performers and adapt them into an engaging and interactive creative, like a playable. Spoiler alert: At the end of this process, measure your playable’s performance by looking at in-game metrics to see how well your creative attracted quality users. 

Embrace your inner sonar by tracking industry trends

If your gameplay is the foundation for your creative concept, you can build another layer by applying trends in the industry and in your game’s genre. Trends perform well because users are familiar with them and they already have a track record of success.

The first version of the creative for the game Wheel Scale by Supersonic used a drag mechanic. In the sixth version, it was swapped for a drawing mechanic because this was trending in the top charts. The creative with the drawing mechanic achieved 45% more scale, a 5% higher IPM, and boosted CVR by 34% - and importantly, all while keeping LTV stable, which indicated the quality of the users was still high even as the mechanic in the creative changed.

Think like a game designer

Game designers prioritize gameplay and staying true to the core concept as they brainstorm new ways to level up in the next update. Stepping out of the shoes of a creative designer and into those of a game designer can help you meld the two worlds - creativity and hooking users with gameplay. As you adopt this new perspective for your creative strategy, you can come up with a new hook that entices users while highlighting the core mechanic. For example, if you have a match-3 mechanic and a bakery theme, you can introduce a storyline in your creative around building up your bakery and feature a Muffin Woman character while showing actual gameplay. Now, your ad appeals to users who enjoy a story-based game, like a bakery theme, and play match-3 games. Hold up: If your game doesn’t have a bakery theme, this tip still applies to you. This theme in your creatives could be something that resonates with your users - try testing it as a wild card before implementing it into your game.

Analyzing the impact of these three approaches comes down to looking at the data. With each tweak to your creatives, check the KPIs, apply your learnings to each variation, and optimize as you work towards uncovering your game’s secret sauce. We’re going to get into this more soon, but keep in mind that this cycle of learning and optimizing is an endless process - you should design new creatives and measure their impact continuously. 

The next part of the framework is all about executing and optimizing after getting into the creative mindset.

Step 2: Time to improve performance

When first launching your UA campaign, you can’t know for sure what creatives are going to succeed -  even someone with decades of experience in the industry can’t know with certainty what’s going to work. Take our creative team, for example: Many of us have been designing creatives for years and years, but we still place friendly bets about which iteration will perform best because the results can always surprise us until we finish running the test. 

Great execution comes down to macro A/B tests that compare the impact of making a drastic change to your creatives and micro decisions that change small details. Designing many iterations that initially change large aspects then making minor tweaks ensures you’re testing as much as possible and gathering data to optimize efficiently while not missing out on an opportunity to give your creative performance a boost. Let’s start with the macro changes.

Go big: A/B test major elements

While small tweaks can help you quickly fine-tune creatives, macro A/B tests can unlock success by changing a big part of the design. Some common examples of major features to change include the lead character (female vs. male, animal vs. human), level difficulty, and camera angle. Just because it’s a big change doesn’t mean it necessarily takes too much time or resources to test - you can test many of these features directly through Unity. 

One of the elements that we often A/B test is the beginning of the funnel - the tutorial screen - which is essential for attracting and engaging users. Idle Barber Shop Tycoon from Codigames demonstrates this type of macro decision in action. We tested two different versions of the tutorial in the playable - one that highlights the barbershop environment and another that leverages a trend of showing characters with strong expressions by having users wake up the sleeping hairdresser. The version that used the sleeping character earned a 60% engagement rate compared to the 54% ER of the other creative. This iteration attracted potential players with a visual hook that reduced user reaction times (time to engage) by 33% - it became the winning version and achieved over 100 million impressions.

Making both micro decisions and macro changes then analyzing the impact can help you make more efficient and impactful decisions as you iterate on your creatives. Knowing exactly what worked - and what didn’t - helps you identify the opportunities for optimizing creatives and, in turn, gameplay. You can close the loop of UA and monetization by integrating the concept or feature that performed well from your playable into your build. To know if your change made an impact on monetization and game performance, track its impact by looking at in-game metrics.

Refine the little things

In the past, creative teams thought their work was complete when they finished designing and launching an ad set. Now, you can’t head to the beach the moment your creative goes live - it’s a cycle of crunching the numbers and optimizing performance so you get the most out of your creative strategy. Use in-ad metrics like engagement rate and drop-off to pinpoint parts of your interactive creative that are failing and then make small quick tweaks to improve performance. Not every creative is going to help you scale exponentially from the get-go, but each creative does contain important information about performance and what’s working with your users. Recognizing what pieces of the creative are failing can help you quickly identify and adjust them to try and unlock scale. 

Let’s say a playable ad of yours isn’t scaling well. Looking at the data, you notice users are dropping off quickly or failing the game in the first few seconds  - this could indicate it’s too short and/or challenging. So you add a feature to increase the duration of gameplay and give users an automatic extra life so they don’t immediately fail. Now they play all the way through to the end card, feel less frustrated (although striking the right balance of frustration can be a very strong feeling to motivate them to keep playing), and want to download your game and keep playing all night.

Small changes can create a sense of urgency, too - a trend we’re seeing that encourages engagement as users feel compelled to overcome the challenge and beat the level shown in the creative. You can accomplish this by adding features like a timer, showing characters asking for help or panicking, including a red flashing border, or increasing speed. To see if a quick tweak like this worked, look at your data and check if it boosted key metrics like engagement rate, CVR, and IPM. 

Finding your secret sauce

Each game is going to have its own recipe for the secret sauce of creative success - it depends on your genre, concept, and specific elements within your game. But if you approach your creative strategy in a way that focuses on testing and iterating then analyzing the data to help you extract a hook, you can find your unique recipe and unlock scale into the long-term. With each successful campaign, gather insights and build a knowledge center that you can apply to your next set of creatives. While every game’s user acquisition strategy will need to strike a different balance between the creative, the bid, and user quality, you can more easily find this formula by applying your learnings from previous campaigns.

Editor’s note: This article is based on the exclusive presentation that Creative Lead at ironSource Elad Gabison gave at the virtual LevelUp 2021 conference. Check out the video from LevelUp 2021 below.

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