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How Backflip Studios Stole Christmas Again and Again

how-backflip-stole-christmas

Backflip Studios loves the holidays—and justifiably so. The Colorado-based mobile game company, best known for hit dragon breeding game DragonVale, has spent each of the past four winters watching fans mow through seasonal content as if it was holiday candy.

In winter 2014, for instance, Backflip Studios released a special event called “Season of Goodies” in the game, complete with holiday-inspired dragons, decorations and the ability to give extra gifts to friends. The result? A surge in user retention and daily sessions per player as well as longer session length.

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DragonVale’s game director Bryan Mashinter says that between the extra time, money and—for the lucky ones, at least—new mobile devices that crop up around Christmastime, the holiday season is a critical opportunity to drive business growth for mobile game developers.

Backflip’s senior marketing manager Jason Dalrymple agrees. He believes that, for mobile devs, changing your strategy during the holidays separates the most successful studios from the pack. “The best developers adjust their user acquisition strategy and game content strategy to take advantage of these holiday shifts,” Dalrymple says.

But what does it take to build and execute holiday-themed content that boosts revenue and user acquisition performance during one of the best times to grow a mobile games business?

Learn From the Ghosts of Christmas Past

DragonVale holiday content doesn’t magically appear under the tree. In fact, the dragonvale-charactersstudio plans content roughly six months in advance, further expanding those plans around three months before launch date. “It’s many phases of brainstorming, planning and implementing,” Dalrymple explains.

An important element in this planning process is determining what worked well and not so well in the past. Dalrymple remarked how users in 2014 had some ideas about how to change the game’s tiered prize system. This year, he says, “we’ve modified in-game events based on that feedback.”

Build Anticipation

DragonVale’s holiday content affects the game’s monetization and user engagement metrics across the board. According to Dalrymple, when Backflip runs holiday events in DragonVale, the game experiences 15 to 25 percent rise in DAU, 30 percent growth in session length, and increases across ARPDAU and daily sessions per player.

When Backflip runs holiday events in DragonVale, the game experiences 15 to 25 percent rise in DAU, 30 percent growth in session length, and increases across ARPDAU and daily sessions per player.

A boost from holiday content, however, is hard-won. “We do everything we can to inform all players of the update, including push notifications and in-game messaging,” he says. “We also try to tease the release to players and social communities a week or so before.”

The downside of holiday-themed content, of course, is over-saturation—particularly with new users. “You have to walk a fine line,” according to Dalrymple. “We’ve found that advertising the details of the event to potential new users can turn them off and decrease conversion rate because they have no context for that kind of messaging.”

Engagement Is Everything

DragonValeXmas_Icon_1024x1024Adding a blanket of snow to a game might help capture some extra organic and paid installs, but affecting player engagement during the holiday season requires deeper changes. DragonVale’s regular holiday events help boost its chances of a feature placement in the crowded mobile app stores, but the depth of that content is what keeps those new players engaged. “Our in-game holiday events don’t necessarily lift our install conversion rate,” notes Dalrymple, “but we know that users brought in during the events are highly engaged.”

Engaging holiday content, in turn, allows the company to increase mobile game user acquisition bids and eventually bring in more players.

Engaging holiday content, in turn, allows the company to increase mobile game user acquisition bids and eventually bring in more players, Dalrymple explains. In addition, because many large brand budgets are exhausted toward the end of the year and there’s increased inventory from newly activated devices, mobile game advertising costs are lower, which can compound install volume on certain marketing channels. Backflip, in other words, has created its own winter snowball effect.

Ignore the Grinches

Even in the midst of all the holiday festivities, Mashinter has learned a sobering lesson, one that he calls “super valuable”: “Every single decision I make will make someone mad,” he says. At one point, the game provided users with a “wish” they could use on anything in the game. Who could dislike that? The answer: a small group of users.

But Mashinter says the trick is to focus on the vast majority of users and their responses to holiday-themed content updates instead of the few grumpy outliers. “Ultimately, most folks appreciate that the game world changes,” he notes. “It makes it feel vibrant and alive.”

And if that’s not the true meaning of the holidays, we don’t know what is.