Mobile hyper-casual games are having a moment.
On a platform historically dominated by puzzle, social casino, and build-and-battle titles, hyper-casual games are changing the status quo. They’ve managed to combine simplicity, approachability, and creative business practices to produce unique, profitable gameplay experiences that have seen them dominating the app store charts, at many times occupying the entire top ten free spots.
While one or two hits would suggest a fad, the sheer volume and consistency of hyper-casual titles managing to gain traction in the app stores suggests that there’s an evergreen strategy at play, and that’s worth examining. We’ve picked out the top three lessons that every game developer can learn from the success of the hyper-casual genre.
Cultivate Retention Over Acquisition
Digital real estate is getting increasingly difficult to come by. Data suggests that most users have 11-20 apps installed on their devices, while a 2017 report by App Annie concluded that on average, most only use nine apps per day. Combined with rising install costs, all signs point to a future in which publishers will need to dedicate equal if not greater effort to retaining their existing users through a steady stream of engaging content releases as they do managing growth funnels to bring in new installs. Fortunately for them, many hyper-casual publishers have found a way to achieve that same effect without relying on any single app’s install footprint.
Through the power of cross-promotion, hyper-casual publishers are able to take advantage of natural churn tendencies to direct traffic from one app in their portfolio to another, cultivating a large and diverse user base in the process. Combined with a regular release cycle, hyper-casual publishers can make portfolio-retention a key metric, rather than limiting themselves to the performance of any single title. In an increasingly service-driven publishing cycle, all developers would do well to work regular content releases into their launch cycles. Doing so will allow them to hold onto user attention, which is becoming increasingly hard to come by.
Shorter Gameplay Wins Out
There’s mounting evidence to suggest that offering shorter gameplay sessions may be advantageous to achieving commercial success, regardless of platform. Gone are the days when developers could cater only to players with more time than money. Today, everyone’s a gamer, including adults with careers and families. With more time commitments crowding their schedule, developers have an opportunity to offer modern players meaningful gameplay experiences that are small enough to fit into what little free time they have. This has been a staple of successful mobile game design from the beginning, allowing developers like King.com to gain traction with titles that fit into transit trips, bathroom breaks, and baby feedings.
Most recently, hyper casual publishers like Voodoo have taken this to the absolute extreme with titles like Hole.io and Helix Jump, both examples of bare-bones, lightweight applications that let players enjoy meaningful gameplay experiences in less than five seconds. In the case of Helix Jump, players are immediately launched into the game on startup, with the main menu UI disappearing as soon as they start engaging. This commitment to bitesize gameplay has been a major contributor to the majority of recent mobile successes, and there’s already belief among professionals that it’s just as relevant to console and desktop publishers. In the case of modern battle royale games, there were a variety of factors that contributed to the success of Fortnite over PUBG, but time-to-value was arguably a major one. In Fortnite, players are able to get in and out of matches more quickly, whereas PUBG puts players through longer load times, pregame waiting periods, and lengthier matches, making it harder to fit sessions into busy schedules. This and other examples suggest that on a long enough time horizon, shorter gameplay wins out against the alternative.
Multiplayer Drives Engagement
The success of .io hyper-casual games, in which small groups of players participate in casual competitive gameplay sessions, points to the value of prioritizing multiplayer functionality. Not only do their chart positions suggest high download and engagement numbers, but the ability to interact/compete with other players, however nominally, also serves as a powerful monetization driver. With the majority of modern publishers relying on rewarded ads and cosmetic upgrades to drive revenue, creating opportunities for players to contextualize their own achievements against those of other players can have a powerful impact on conversion rates.
With all that said, multiplayer features can be a tall order, even for experienced developers, often necessitating additional technical overhead that a minority of game developers have experience with. Thankfully there are a variety of turnkey solutions available through platforms like the Unity Asset Store that take care of the heavy lifting for a nominal fee. With a little creative reskinning and modification, these templates can be used as a foundation for building .io games on par with any of the most successful titles in the app store.
Love them or hate them, hyper-casual titles are here to stay. Their unique simplicity and ability to harmonize with hardware constraints has earned them considerable commercial and critical success. It’s the kind of achievement that all developers need to pay attention to if they hope to enjoy the same.