The mobile gaming industry is notoriously risky: in a market estimated to grow to $12.3 billion in 2013, a game can make millions or it can get lost in the sea of apps. With profits from mobile games ranging widely from zero to over $1 million a day, much of what makes a game go viral still depends on luck. But a readiness to formulate a strategy can pay off.
Lebanese game development and launch company Gamabox — half of the group that brought us the hugely popular dystopian killer chicken game Birdy Nam Nam — has been experimenting with mobile gaming apps. With two game launches under their belt as Gamabox, co-founders Souad Merhebi and Jean-Christophe Hoelt have been able to draw some lessons about how best to tackle this tricky but lucrative market. “Every day thousands of new games and apps are published. It is hard to get noticed — you have to build a strategy,” says Merhebi.
The company was founded in March 2012 and brought Himzu Bavitch onto the team as an illustrator. A year later — in February — they released the mobile game Ali Hood, which played on a cross between two popular heroes: Ali Baba and Robin Hood. The strategy to market Ali Hood relied on media, review websites and forums — low-budget forms of advertising. Though the game received considerable attention and Merhebi put the number of downloads in the thousands, she did not want to talk about the specific revenues as it did not achieve the success its creators were hoping for.
Merhebi and Hoelt established the company in 2012
After their experience with Ali Hood, in July the company launched Baby Goo Puzzle. This game is designed for children aged from 11 months to three years to solve small puzzles, and was released in Arabic, French, English and Spanish. It has already received positive reviews and has seen considerable success in the French market, with Gamabox already receiving half the return on their investment developing the game. They expect to make a full return within the next three months.
Picking the right model
How a game can thrive in the market is a question asked by mobile game developers everywhere. One thing Merhebi stressed was knowing and adapting to your market, since a good idea is not always enough. “There are many great games that are well done, addictive, yet which still don’t make it,” she says.
Many games’ success is contingent on being there at the right moment. Merhebi says that this can be tapped into “by looking at market trends and seeing if a need exists.” Merhebi and Hoelt realized that parents were looking for puzzle games for their children after spending time with some of their friends whose children loved physical puzzles. The idea came to them to design a game for a phone or a tablet, and after looking in the app store they saw limited competition. Baby Goo Puzzle was developed within a month, which allowed them to release it shortly after identifying the market need.
Making money from online games is a challenge, especially when many games are offered for free. An additional difficulty is pirating: according to Merhebi when Ali Hood was sold at $1.99 per download, only three percent of downloads came from the Appstore and Google Play whereas 97 percent were downloaded illegally. Merhebi, however, believes that paid games can offer more to the customer because they are of better quality, well-polished and consist of finer ideas.
To get money from games requires knowing what the market is willing to pay for. One thing that distinguished Baby Goo Puzzle was that it was launched on a freemium payment platform, where the download as well as the first four out of twenty levels of the game are free — with a cost of $1 to access subsequent levels. Merhebi and Hoelt were happy with Baby Goo Puzzle’s conversion rate of six percent — meaning six percent of people who downloaded the app paid to unlock the extra levels. According to Merhebi this is twice the average global rate of three percent.
The monetary success of Baby Goo Puzzle made Mehrebi and Hoelt decide to re-launch Ali Hood using a freemium model. Merhebi and Hoelt are in the process of collecting analytics to refine the game — in particular looking at user feedback. Much of this was positive, but there were also comments that, for instance, some levels were too hard while others were too easy. To make sure their market is receptive, they are testing new versions of Ali Hood by releasing slightly modified versions under a different name. These versions will be released for a short period of time until they gather enough user feedback.
With high hopes for Baby Goo Puzzle and a determination to revamp Ali Hood, Gamabox is a games platform to look out for in the next couple of months. They are currently talking to Lebanese investors to get outside funding for their games — which up until now have been produced without external money. Though they did not specify the investors, they said that the amounts they were seeking would be enough to launch four to five games. Considering a game in the mobile market can cost between $10,000–$250,000, this could amount to a sizeable amount of cash.