Treat every game as if it were an IP: how to design your starter pack and increase your day 0 conversion?

Starter packs are an important tool to optimize your early conversions. Even though those starter packs will account for a small portion of your overall revenue, they are crucial because they are helping users decide to interact with your title on a monetary level. As far as actual content goes, every title will be different. However, when it comes to the timing and pricing of that offer – and more importantly, the nature of the contents of the offer – there are some general patterns which should help guide your design efforts. Treating every game as if it were an IP means trying to identify what’s iconic about your game’s genre and thematic – and offer just that to your users. That means when designing your starter pack don’t think game systems and performance, think thematic and aspirational.

When should you display your starter pack?

Very consistently, users convert the most on the day they install your game. If you were to take a more granular look – say level, tutorial step, or minute since install – then you’ll probably see a significant portion of users converting as soon as they are shown an offer and/or have the ability to spend. In most games users will be “on rails” for the first few minutes. They will have to follow a rigid script they can’t deviate from. The moment users are “off the rails” and able to interact freely with the game (including doing an IAP purchase) you’ll start seeing users convert.

min_to_convert

The graph above shows how long after install – in minutes – users are converting, and how many users converted at those minutes. You can reproduce that graph for your game with a simple query.

min_to_convert_query

In the imaginary example above the strongest single influx of conversions occurs between 4 and 7 minutes after install (the orange bar). That timing coincides with the end of the tutorial. Regardless of the specifics of your game, you should see that a significant proportion of your payers will have converted within of few minutes of installing (the green line). It’s not unusual to have 10% or more of your lifetime payers convert within 20 minutes of install – and remember the longer your game has been live in the store the lower that proportion will be.

So, based on this, you should aim to have your starter pack appear as soon as your basic tutorial is finished, within a few minutes after install. And there are 2 reasons for this. The first and most important one is that an important segment of payers convert as soon as the tutorial ends. That means users are naturally predisposed to convert within a few minutes of install – very simply, if users weren’t predisposed to convert as soon as they had the material possibility to do so, they wouldn’t be doing it. Displaying a starter pack immediately after the tutorial is a way to capitalize on that natural tendency to convert after the tutorial is over. The second reason is that the more time passes the less installs will be active in your game. That means the later your starter pack appears, the fewer users will actually see it and buy it. The conversion on your starter pack (the % of users seeing the offer who buy it) might be higher if you trigger it later. But the total number of users who buy it will most likely be lower.

What motivates users to convert on install day?

Ultimately, you’ll never be able to indubitably determine the subjective motivations of your users by looking at a collection of isolated data points. But you still want to find a way to leverage your data to provide guidance. The best approach is to start with a few working theories on user motivations, determine what specific actions would confirm or infirm your assumptions, and identify the data points that match those actions. This approach won’t provide you with reassuring, black or white conclusions that don’t require a judgment call on your part – that’s an understandable but unrealistic (and therefore unproductive) expectation. But this approach will allow you to test your assumptions and evaluate their likelihood. Looking at what users did before and after converting can provide some interesting insights as to what their motivations were.

When you look at what users did before converting – specifically did they win or lose – you’ll see that a majority of users convert after a win (redeposits are a different beast – usually most redeposits occur after a loss). In addition, users converting earlier tend to convert after a win more than users converting later. That would be consistent with the assumption that users who convert early are not driven by utilitarian concerns as much as late converters (incidentally users who convert later tend to have a lower LTV).

percent_converting_after_win

When you look at what users did after converting you can see something interesting. Namely, most users have never played the mission they play after converting. Said differently, users convert and then discover a totally new mission. They convert despite having no idea what the mission they’re about to play next is. Again, that’s especially true for users who convert on install day.

Those two points together don’t paint the picture of users who convert in order to achieve a game-centric objective (beat a mission, get a 3-star completion rather than a 1-star completion, etc.). If my motivation to spend in a game is to beat a mission or perform better, then I’ll be more likely to convert after I’ve failed to win a mission. Conversely, I won’t convert before knowing what’s coming next. Once I’ve tried the mission, and actually see if I can beat it or not, then it will make sense to convert to perform better if need be.

While it can be hard to pinpoint exactly what is motivating this, it seems clear that this behavior is not consistent with rational, feature and progression-centric motivations. On the other hand, if you switch perspectives and assume people download mobile game so they can enjoy an entertainment product, then the data concerning before and after behavior does fit that narrative much better. Users are not converting for utilitarian concerns. They simply like the game and the experience and are happy to spend money to further engage with the game in different ways. Of course, this remains an interpretation – there are very few cases where you can do away with those – but it’s an interpretation that’s coherent and that intuitively it makes sense.

Determining the content of your starter pack: what’s the IP of your game?

So, if users converting on install day spend because they like the game and the experience – rather than because they want to achieve something –you shouldn’t try to rely on feature-centric aspects as much as experience-centric aspects. You should focus on identifying what’s aspirational about your game and sell what’s iconic about your game’s genre and thematic.

If your game has an actual IP, then it’s relatively easy to identify those “experience-centric aspects”. It’s the defining features and characteristics that drove the user to install your game in the first place. If it’s a sports title, what is the most exciting part of that sport? Is it the throw-in or scoring a goal? Who is the main superstar users want to play as? If it’s a game based on a superhero universe, then what do those superheroes do (even though all superheroes save the day, the Care Bears and GI Joe have different methods)? Who are the coolest superheroes fans love the most? So, when you’re dealing with an IP you can sit down and make a list of what characterizes that IP and what fans like the most. That’s what drove users to download the game in the first place, and that’s what you should be showing users in your starter pack once they’re out of the tutorial.

Even though you might not be working on a licensed IP, you should still approach your game the same way when determining the contents of your starter pack. While it might not seem as obvious when you’re thinking about a genre or thematic in general, the same exercise applies. What are the concepts associated with your game thematic? what are the recurring tropes? the stereotypes you’d expect? This is what semiotics focuses on: the creation of meaning, myths and symbols. If you are looking for a good example of this (and a fun summer read) then I suggest you read Roland Barthes’ “Mythologies”.

Let’s take an example and say you’re working on an amusement park builder game (this is unrelated to any games in that genre that exist – there probably aren’t many examples I can take that haven’t been made yet anyways). The IP version of that is Disneyland, but the same thought process applies to the no-name version of an amusement park. You would start by asking what are the concepts associated with that thematic? What are the iconic elements of that thematic. Ultimately, you should sell in your starter pack what’s comes to mind when users think about and amusement park builder. If you were to write down what characterizes an amusement park, a (non-exhaustive) list would contain.

  • Rides – the bigger and steeper the better
  • Fun – an amusement park is about a good experience
  • Ride diversity – the better the amusement park the more rides (and more varied rides) there are
  • Customers – amusement parks are crowded (the better the park the more crowded it is)
  • Popularity – the better the amusement park the more popular it is
  • An amusement park mascot
  • Ride price and revenue generation
  • Concession stands
  • Line ups
  • etc.

Of course, you wouldn’t be wrong if you mentioned the gardener or security guards – most amusement parks have some. But you probably wouldn’t be very in sync with what your audience is expecting when downloading your game. The art of this exercise consists precisely in being in tune with the market and what it associates with your genre and thematic. Your “IP” is the amusement park management. That’s what drove users to install your game. Even before playing it, users have expectations about what an “amusement park management” game contains – because they associate that to a series of images, objects and themes. So, based on that, let’s say your starter pack should feature a unique ride that is very cool, looks fun and dangerous and attracts a huge lineup (it should!).

Hard currency and consumables might be better in getting your users to progress faster and more efficiently, but it’s not aspirational and doesn’t build on what attracted your users to install your game in the first place. If your user is installing a theme park resource management game, then s/he is probably attracted by the thematic and is more interested at this point in having a cool ride – rather than having a effective stats bonus.

Now if it’s a park management game, each ride might generate resources and/or provide boost to a specific stat. You shouldn’t actively avoid an opportunity to combine thematic appeal and performance. Five minutes after install your users probably don’t have a solid grasp on what popularity is or what it does. But they will probably assume higher popularity is better than lower popularity. So, you can have your super cool appealing ride and on top of that a stats boost. At this point your stats boost might have a stronger impact for what it represents rather than what it actually is. The stats boost probably won’t drive users more than the offer itself, but it’s an added benefit. And there is little to lose by giving more rather than less here.

Final words: what about the price?

I haven’t discussed prices here for a few reasons. The first one is that price will most probably not be the number one factor in getting users to convert on install day. A lot of evidence points to the fact that users converting soon after install are not driven by price or instrumental considerations. They mostly convert because they enjoy the game and want to indulge. Mobile games are a form of entertainment – virtual items in mobile games are not goods of first necessity. So, you should focus on providing appealing content rather than an appealing price. Said differently, if you had to choose between increasing value by decreasing the price or increasing value by increasing what you’re giving at a same price point, then I’ll always advocate giving more at a same price point. Having users make a $9.99 transaction will make a bigger difference to your bottom line than having them make a $4.99 transaction. On the other hand, including a more premium item (sniper, car, hero, etc.) probably won’t make that big a difference. Of course, assuming the tuning of those premium items isn’t broken…

Second, although the main priority of your starter pack is to increase the number of early conversions, you probably still don’t want to jeopardize revenue or later conversions. There is a fine balance between users converting and the revenue you get from those conversions. You’ll get more users converting on a starter pack at $0.99 than $9.99. But you’ll probably not get 10x conversions. Also, the additional users you are likely to convert at artificially deflated prices won’t end up being the same. While a dramatically lower starter pack will drive more conversions, you will be decreasing the quality and spending potential of the users converting on that offer. You will have more users converting at a lower price point, but less high-potential paying users who will spend again. Another important consideration is that having too low a starter pack might price-anchor unfavorably the rest of your game – and ultimately hurt later conversion numbers. If the first offer users see too big a discount, then that makes your default bundles and offers seem disproportionally high – and less attractive. So, having a starter pack at too low a price might both hurt the revenue you get from that starter pack and damage conversion in the long run.

Because of all this my guiding principle would be to price your starter pack higher rather than lower. But “higher rather than lower” is not a price. Ultimately the price of your starter pack is one of the few aspects of your game you should simply AB test without question. The guidelines from this post can be summarized as:

  • Trigger the starter pack as soon as possible
  • Tie-in the starter pack with an element of discovery about your game (before a new mission or game mode they haven’t played yet)
  • Make the starter pack feature the items that are the most iconic about your game and thematic – your game’s IP
  • Price the starter pack higher rather than lower

Use these guidelines to determine your starter pack, then AB test different options to see which one is the best for your game. Focus on giving users what they came for in your game. Don’t think systems, think thematic and symbols.

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