Warren Woodward is the Director of User Acquisition at NEXON M, the San Francisco division of Korea’s largest mobile gaming company and one of the ten largest gaming companies in the world. Their hugely popular games include DomiNations, Titanfall: Assault, and Battlejack.
In mobile gaming, the soft launch is critical - especially with oversaturated app stores and high user acquisition costs today. It tells you how well your game will be received by users in a larger worldwide launch, giving you a rough estimate of how much you should invest in marketing it.
Still, the soft launch can be an overwhelming process, and it’s not always clear what should or shouldn’t be done. In 2017 alone, Nexon will soft launch about a dozen games, and we’ve learned through trial and error what works best for our games. Here are a few of our best practices.
What is a soft launch?
The soft launch is everything that comes before the official worldwide launch. App developers pre-launch their game in markets similar to their target market, so they can make sure that the official launch goes as smoothly as possible. Think of it as a practice run.
Your soft launch checklist
Outline main goals
It’s important to understand that soft launches are purely a learning experience. During this time, you’re prioritizing speed and clean data over ROI, which you’ll focus on later during the worldwide launch. Your main goal as a marketer is to gather quick and clean data so you can make the right business decisions later on. This data will help you figure out your bid strategy, and map out the LTV curve of the game.
Determine traffic sources
In terms of traffic sources, you should use just 3 to 5 that you’ve already had a lot of experience with and have proven to work for you. The objective for traffic at this stage is to minimize variance and get a good read on typical user behavior. Traffic sources with fraud or low quality installs will warp your data.
Be aware you may need to pay higher CPIs at this stage. There are two reasons for this. First, you need to compensate potentially weaker creative performance by overbidding. Second, time is of the essence, and since you only have just a few days or weeks per phase o soft launch, you may need to overbid to make sure you’re at the top of your network’s waterfall.
There shouldn’t be too much targeting at this point in your game launch. Of course, you can target gamers if you’re a game, but don’t exclude too much. Again, you want a read on average player behavior.
Words to live by
“Don’t launch bad games!” Be honest about improvements that can’t be made in the window between soft launch and release. Maintaining a mobile game as a service is incredibly expensive. If you don’t see indicators of a high LTV, you most likely won’t be able to compete with the top games in the UA ecosystems to profitably bring in users at scale.
The perfect soft launch creative strategy
During a soft launch I suggest using the 3+3 rule. That means minimum of 3 unique video ads and 3 static concepts (these can double as both ads and endcards).
If you have an in-house creative team, give them at least 6 weeks to produce the best creatives possible. If not, you can ask your ad network to help develop creative assets for you.
Since it’s just a soft launch, the creatives should be simple and straightforward, focusing primarily on gameplay.
Three phases to a soft launch
A typical soft launch is comprised of three phases.
Phase 1: Server stability
In the first phase, your goal is to check server stability. In other words, does your game crash?
You should have about 1,000 players for this sanity check. But don’t expose your game to key markets yet. If your target audience is the US, for example, you should stick to regions like Southeast Asia, where low CPIs can make for an affordable stability check.
Phase 2: Retention test
In the second stage, you’re testing retention. Look at Day 1, 7, and 30 retention - are your players sticking around?
Many companies test this stage in the Nordic countries. They have similar retention behavior to the US, but there’s less market exposure. That way, if the game still has major issues, you’re not jeopardizing your target markets. A good baseline for this phase is 3,000 - 5,000 users.
Phase 3: Monetization test
In the third and last stage, you’ll be testing your app’s monetization strategy. How are players engaging with the game economy and in-app purchases?
A good baseline is 10,000 players here. This is when you want to open your soft launch up to Canada or Australia, where players are most similar in behavior the US.
How to work with an ad network during a soft launch
By the end of your soft launch, you’ll have enough data on player engagement and behavior to tweak your app so that it’s ready for the worldwide launch. In Part 2, we’ll talk about best practices for tackling the worldwide launch and what you’ll need to look out for. For tips on successfully launching your app from the ground up, check out our blog post on "How to Market Your App Successfully".