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20 million downloads later: What First Touch Games has learned about free-to-play

By on May 3, 2013

This is a guest post from Charles Chapman, director and owner of First Touch Games

We recently passed a pretty big milestone at First Touch Games: we achieved our 20 millionth download.

Any respectable games consultant or product manager will tell you that download numbers are a vanity metric and ultimately meaningless. That’s true of course, but it’s also the one metric that people do talk about. Ultimately, with all other metrics (ARPU, ARPPU, LTV etc.) being a product or function of downloads, they’re still worth caring about.

Whilst downloads don’t necessarily lead to profits, I think it’s still a fantastic result. We have made enough money to give out bonuses to the team in October and January. We’re still a small team of 10, and to think that so many people around the world have downloaded our games is, as I’ve said, mind blowing.

These downloads have been split over 3 games and the breakdown is roughly:

Here’s a graph of our downloads over the past 17 months:

As you can probably see, a large amount of these downloads can be put down to a single event, which was a fantastic bit of support we’ve had from Apple.

12 Days of Christmas

Score! was part of Apple’s 12 Days Of Christmas promotion, in which over the course of 12 days a different piece of paid content is given away for free. Score! was only one of three games included in the promotion, alongside high-profile TV Shows, Books and Music tracks.

Our inclusion in the promotion was a happy accident. We were approached by Apple in late November about it. Of course we agreed instantly, but I didn’t have huge expectations. Though we would profit from In App Purchases, I was hoping for it primarily to improve our profile and brand.

When I woke up bleary-eyed on the morning of the 27th, the day after Boxing Day, I’d actually forgotten it was our day to be featured. As I sleepily checked my Twitter feed I was surprised to find an unusually large amount of tweets and comments. I checked our AppFigures account, and we were number one in around 50 countries. Had I not been in bed I would certainly have needed to sit down.

I spent even longer than usual that day checking the App Store, checking the global iTunes charts, and seeing comments and coverage on social media. Late in the day I saw a post on Facebook that we were even featured on the front cover of the Daily Telegraph. I’m sure my Dad was particularly delighted by this!

Within the 12 Days of Christmas app there were 3 other slots for other games that users might like. We’d suggested our other two games, Dream League Soccer and Fresh Tracks Snowboarding. Then for the third slot we’d given Apple a few suggestions of soccer apps from other UK developers we’re friendly with, and New Star Soccer was, deservedly, selected for the final slot. We saw big download increases for those games too, and I understand New Star Soccer also saw impressive increases.

The end result of all this was that all 3 of our apps remained at high chart positions until the middle of January and we had well over 8 million downloads over that period.

How did we get featured?

We were incredibly lucky and fortunate to be featured in such a huge way by Apple, and also the support they gave for Score! previously. We’ve had a New & Noteworthy feature on release in May, and a couple of other more prominent features on a few app stores around the world. We then had Editor’s Choice in August in the UK, which gave us another bump up the charts.

This support from Apple is obviously crucial. You might think we have a direct hot-line, and we spend our time wining & dining various key people, but that’s not the case at all. We have a developer relations contact, who I understand is the same contact most UK developers have, and we most definitely don’t have any direct line. The first we knew of our Editor’s choice was when it happened, and other than the 12 days of Christmas promotion, we’ve never known that we’re going to be featured before it happened.

So if we don’t have a direct line, how did we get featured? As I see it, Apple like products that make their devices look good, do something new, or different. Score! seemed to tick the boxes here. It looked good, not Infinity Blade good, but definitely at the upper end. It was also something properly new, with a control method that really suited the device. We’ve definitely been fortunate to have had the coverage we’ve had though, and whilst I don’t necessarily think that you make your own luck, you can definitely do things to improve your chances.

You still don’t need a marketing budget

These are tales from over a year ago or so, but I still believe decent apps can still make an impact — even without Apple support, or a big User Acquisition campaign.

As rule we don’t do any paid user acquisition. We have experimented with a couple of things, most notably with Free App A Day which we did for Score! back in August. This worked out well for us, and gave us a decent number of downloads in the USA, which was a region we’d traditionally struggled with. The only other thing we’ve done has been a couple of small AdMob campaigns paid for with our ad revenue, which we did in late 2011. We had mixed results with these, and we’ve not run any campaigns since AdMob removed the 20% bonus for transferring ad revenue.

Currently, paid UA isn’t part of our strategy at all. We’re profitable, but our games don’t make enough revenue per download to justify the high costs involved. Our advice to other developers is to spend your marketing budget on polishing the game or localising it for other territories — provided you have a fun game to begin with, your money is best spent on tweaking it as you learn after launch.

Looking forward, we’ve just released our big update for Score! which is being very well received so far, and completes the move from a paid game to a fully free game (and a non-evil one at that!). We’re also looking to build on the success we’ve had with Dream League Soccer, and hopefully establish one or two more products over the coming years. We’re still a small team, and it’s fair to say that we’re more focused on the games’ design than the data, despite being pretty committed to F2P. Our games could perhaps make more money with more aggressive monetisation, but at the same time they wouldn’t be the same games.

As I said we’ve been incredibly fortunate to have been involved in 12 Days of Christmas, and that’s not something we can ever realistically hope to repeat, so our next 20 million downloads will probably be just as tough if not tougher to achieve.

I say tough, but in truth the past year and a half has been my most enjoyable and satisfying of my 15-year involvement in games. I’m looking forward to every moment of what lies ahead.

About Charles Chapman

Charles Chapman is director and owner of First Touch Games, an independent developer working in the mobile space.