Christian Calderon is one of the best known names in hyper-casual game development. After holding leadership positions at Dots, Kixeye and Ketchapp, in late 2018 he co-founded Gamejam in Vietnam.
Along the way, Calderon has helped prove that hyper-casual is here to stay. Today, these minimalistic games dominate the top download charts. Chartboost has also found that an increasing number of hyper-casuals that reach the top 10 most downloaded positions stay there for 15 days or more, indicating that the genre has long-term staying power.
Calderon joined us for a recent webinar on game design, ad monetization and user acquisition. Watch it below, or read on for a quick guide to his insights on building chart-topping hits.
Market Overview and Trends
In Calderon’s view, hyper-casual is evolving. Publishers are improving performance by focusing on lifetime value (LTV), which requires increasing both retention and monetization rates. Of course, 2020 has presented other challenges.
For one, Apple announced that they will make IDFA more limited, which makes it more difficult to target users. In theory, IDFA changes could negatively impact both user acquisition and ad-based monetization. However, Calderon feels that hyper-casual is in a great position to weather this change, since developers have become experts at making changes and improvements rapidly.
The year’s biggest issue has been the Covid-19 pandemic. Calderon says Gamejam has doubled its business during the emergency in part because it’s located in Vietnam, one of the few countries that managed to stop the virus. But he also notes that the number of users viewing rewarded videos has gone up, potentially helping all hyper-casual publishers.
While Gamejam is both a developer and publisher, many developers in the hyper-casual space rely on larger companies for publishing.
Calderon sees issues with the publishing model some developers accept. Publishers often offer only abstracted reports of game performance, rather than direct performance stats. The feedback that’s so essential in hyper-casual is broken, says Calderon.
Beyond transparent data, Calderon also cautions that some publishers only accept hits and quickly cut underperforming games. He believes this habit can hurt new hyper-casual teams, which need to learn through games that aren’t smash hits but do bring in enough revenue to support a studio.
When it comes to making its own games, Gamejam can whip out a minimal soft-launch title in about a month. The company follows a concentric circle model, where step one is mastering the 5 second gameplay loop.
After launch, Gamejam works to add content, which can range from new levels to entirely new mechanics, including metagame loops.
Draw Story successfully followed this model. Gamejam released the game with a single mechanic: drawing simple pictures. That drew in players, but they didn’t stick around. So the company added in the story of a kid in school, leading to a 343 percent increase in LTV. Later, the company discovered that improving the poor translation job a contractor had done on the game led to another 261 percent increase in Japan, showing that users do notice quality.
For other developers, Calderon recommends starting with a powerful theme that can draw in users, such as love or horror. Benchmarks can vary, but Gamejam looks for 50-60 percent day one (D1) retention and 15-25 percent day seven (D7) retention, although games with worse performance can succeed if their marketing is cheap. Developers should look to break even on acquisition costs within about 2 to 4 weeks.
On Marketing and Ad-Based Monetization
With everyone moving to machine learning supported marketing, Calderon says that publishers will have to compete for users purely on the strength of their creatives.
Creatives can take some time to perfect. Publishers should constantly be making and testing new creatives. Once they find a winning formula, it can be taken across ad formats, such as using a playable ad as the basis for a video ad, or even be reused for new games.
Finally, when it comes to showing ads within the game, Calderon recommends a data-based approach. For each game, Gamejam performs multivariate testing across cohorts to determine when and how often to show ads or offer rewarded ads.
Chartboost is excited to host the Jamboost in collaboration with Gamejam! We will be offering special awards to the Jamboost winners – check it out and sign up before January 22, 2020 at gamejam.com/jam/jamboost!