How to Soft Launch in a Crowded App Market

A few years ago, mobile game soft launches were still catching on. Devs could get ahead of their competitors by releasing an in-development game in four to five countries, collecting feedback, and optimizing accordingly.

The industry moves fast. Soft launches are no longer only for niche developers; every serious company now considers a soft launch, and some studios run their soft launches for months. Soft launches go out at a later stage, too. Gamers expect a higher level of polish from their games, which means that soft-launching a rough, early version of your game is a waste of time and money.

Developers today need to consider what they want to test before launch, where they can best accomplish their testing (hint: it’s no longer just Canada), and how many players they need feedback from.

Stress testing the stress test

Beta testing before a soft launch is gaining popularity. Both Google Play and the Amazon Appstore let developers invite select players to a closed beta test or set up an early-access version of the app. Apple offers Testflight, which requires developers to provide their own mailing list.

A beta test is generally much smaller than a soft launch, so it can’t prove out retention or monetization as well. However, a beta gives you time to optimize your app for the larger soft launch, and any negative reviews for the early version can be wiped out. Some developers even launch directly from beta testing.

So you’re ready to soft launch — but where?

Most developers want to test in countries with a similar culture to their target market — so if the target is the US, countries like Australia and Canada are a good fit.

Yet Australia may be too pricey for bootstrapping developers, and Canada is no longer the shining land of opportunity it used to be. Years of being “America’s mobile app guinea pig” have made Canadian users picky and likely to churn at the first sign of trouble, skewing retention rates.

For cheaper top-tier markets similar to the US, developers should look to countries like the Netherlands, Finland, and Sweden.

For technical testing, developers can tap countries with fewer similarities to the US, but which are cheaper and have a large population of English-speaking players — for example, the Philippines or India. These two countries are top choices for soft launches, with low CPIs and enthusiastic players.

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What are you testing for?

An asynchronous multiplayer game, such as a farming game, will have different goals from a synchronous shooter like the newly released mobile version of Fortnite. Countries with low CPI and high density are good for technical tests, such as checking server capacity or testing your support team’s ability to handle a massive volume of tickets. Cheaper countries can also be useful for testing ad-based monetization. For as low as $50, developers can test with 1,000 players in countries like Iran or Pakistan.

For testing IAP monetization, developers can again look to Nordic countries, which have high credit card usage. Most developers also use these countries to test retention because their players have similar retention patterns to the US, but these devs don’t comprise a significant enough portion of the potential player base to damage the game’s potential if they churn during soft launch.

Core gameplay was once tested during soft launch. But with rising costs to acquire users during a soft launch, and because those users expect higher levels of polish, few companies today make changes to gameplay during the soft launch. Core loops are better hacked before and during beta tests, where users can provide more detailed feedback, and developers can keep any negative reviews off the app stores.

How wide should you cast the net?

The number of players you need to acquire is also determined by what you’re testing for. Nexon M’s Director of User Acquisition, Warren Woodward, recommends the following baselines:

Technical tests: 1,000 players
Retention: 3,000 – 5,000 players
Monetization: 10,000 players

To hit these numbers, Woodward suggests using straightforward ads that focus on gameplay.

Finally, set a “kill factor” which lets you know if it’s time to shut down a game. As veteran developer Marc LeBlanc said to a roomful of developers back in GDC 2012, “Don’t polish a turd. It’s a dirty job, and in the end all you have is a shiny turd.” The history of mobile game developers like Supercell has shown the adage to be true: letting go of non-performing games is the best decision a developer can make.

Today’s mature app market has elevated the benchmark for quality, forcing developers to deliver better games at a faster pace well before the global launch. But with the right amount of preparation and planning, developers can still pull off an effective soft launch.