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MOBAs, TV advertising and ethical free-to-play

By on January 12, 2015

Mobile battle arena card game, Heroes Charge, just launched superfan feature “Legendaries”, giving their elite players a unique set of rewards for their time and money spent in-game. They have also launched a mutimillion-dollar TV ad campaign recently – they say, in a bid to overcome the mobile games’ industry’s soaring UA costs, following a challenging Autumn launch. Deputy Editor Zoya Street met with producer Jim Ngui to discuss their approach to free-to-play game design.

Heroes Charge is about collecting characters from an ensemble cast, and battling them against enemies and other players’ teams. It’s a successful formula that developer uCool is trying to reproduce for ethical free-to-play on mobile. They have a DAU/MAU ratio of 24%, which suggests that their player engagement is in-line with industry leaders such as Zynga and Angry Birds at their peak. Their players spend on average 60-90 minutes per session playing, with 3-4 check-ins over the course of the day. Jim Ngui reports that their D30 retention is 28%.

uCool discussed their own personal free-to-play ethics early in development. They decided it was important to have a clear time-to-dollar ratio at work in all their wait mechanics; the goal is not to obfuscate players, but to make it clear that they can pay to speed things up or take things at the slower pace. Even at that, they hope to give players a smooth on-ramp to level 40ish. The friction comes later, when players love the game. “uCool was founded by a team of industry veterans who had been very successful in the free-to-play space but wanted to try a new approach to monetization that not only wouldn’t interrupt the player experience, but would enhance it. A model that would be embraced by community and that would sustain the game so that we can continue to provide hundreds of hours of fresh content each month for free.”

“Gamesbrief informed a lot of my thinking,” says Ngui. “We believe when you focus on creating the best game experience possible and put players first, you can be successful in the free-to-play space without in-your-face monetization tactics.” Ngui showed me that they’d designed their UI to make it as easy as possible for players to get started within seconds of loading the app. “This is the bouncing red ball”, he said, gesturing to a little red dot that highlights suggested actions that the player can take immediately to start feeling rewarded for loading the app. There’s a lot to do in Heroes Charge, so  it’s important not to force the player to think about what to do first.

red dot 1 - the world of Kron

I spoke to Ngui because I was particularly interested to hear how game developers can use TV as a user acquisition channel. In a metrics-oriented industry, traditional media buying seems to stand against the preferred MO – how do you make TV-led traffic measurable?

“As an indie studio in a sea of very large competitors, the challenge has been how do we get attention for our hit game in this very crowded space and grow our player base amidst skyrocketing mobile UA costs. We knew we needed to be strategic with our marketing spend and as we looked closer at what TV could offer our game, there were many things that made TV appealing.”

Ngui spoke to the value of TV as a place to capture a broad-reach, mainstream audience, at a potentially lower cost than online channels. “If done right, adding TV to the marketing mix can actually bring CPA down. There is a huge variance on what you might pay which can range anywhere from $0.50 to $50. Depending on how you do your buy, TV can deliver tremendous ROI.”

The key with TV-based user acquisition is timing; matching traffic spikes to times when ads were aired, in order to compare the RoI of different ad slots. “From our holiday campaign which launched on dozens of cable channels worldwide including Comedy Central, Adult Swim and ESPN, we know how many new users we acquired from the commercials that aired, their average play session, how active they are, and how they’re progressing through the game. We’ve also learned which times, channels, and shows work best and we’re iterating on that.”

About Zoya Street

I’m responsible for all written content on the site. As a freelance journalist and historian, I write widely on how game design and development have changed in the past, how they will change in the future, and how that relates to society and culture as a whole. I’m working on a crowdfunded book about the Dreamcast, in which I treat three of the game-worlds it hosted as historical places. I also write at and The Borderhouse.