How to Stay on Top and Revamp a Five-Year-Old Game

You have three options when your game is a few years old and you want to grow to the next level. Kill it, leave it on autopilot, or roll up your sleeves – keep calm – and continue shipping.

The revenue impact of the two first two can be described as jumping off a cliff or piloting an airplane that is out of fuel. As far as options go, they’re either very bad or just average bad. If certain demise doesn’t appeal to you, you may think, let’s just improve this game that already has some traction. That final course offers a roadmap of peril but when it works, it really works. Following that path of revamping a five-year-old game may lead to Game of the Day nominations or monetization success. Or you may be known as the fool who jumped off a cliff in an airplane with no fuel.

At Dodreams our goal is to grow company revenue because that’s the best way to have an impact on our industry and gaming culture. The best entertainment products tend to be the ones people want to spend time and money on. We need to create and maintain customer relationships. The longer players stay with us and the happier they are to pay repeatedly for the experience we provide, the higher our revenue will be. That’s also how we maximize shareholder value. So the question is, can you do that best with your current game or a new title?

Staying True to What You Already Have

As game developers, we’re always excited about the new game we’d like to make. You want to work on something completely new and do things just the way you want to. But that’s a dangerous thing to wish for. Anyone who has experienced yet another prototype killed because the Man says that your LTV (lifetime value) is lower than CPI (cost per install) knows that the champagne starts to taste bitter. Especially when it’s served with a slap on the back and encouraging words about successfully failing fast from management.

The lousy thing about making a completely new game is that it basically stops learning. It’s of course nice to make all these plans and you can do all kinds of concept tests with UA (user acquisition) assets or wireframes. But even if you have something that can be played and you buy installs, the scale is so small and your content is so limited that can you really say if the game has legs or can be scaled at profit? We chose the path of rapid-learning shipping monthly updates to real players instead of coming out with something new once or twice a year.

Also, when you look at the top10 for the top-grossing mobile games list in February, the newest one is Project Makeover from the fall of 2019. Already for a couple of years, the average age of top-grossing mobile games is over four years. To stay on the top, a game needs continuous development and updates, and a monetization system supporting steady player LTV growth. When it works, you can be like Coin Master, which went from single to double-digit monthly consumer spend nine years after launch reaching $500m lifetime revenue by the end of 2019. In January 2021, it was #4 top-grossing for all games, according to AppAnnie.

Resisting the urge to make a new game can really pay off. Miniclip acquired the Israeli studio Ilyan, the makers of Bubble Shooter, for $100 million as they had gained success from growing games in live-ops. They focused on optimizing ASO (app store optimization) and cross-promotion for organic downloads and they got a high install base in developing markets, such as India.

That’s why nearly two years ago, we decided to put on horse blinders for humans (google it, they exist) and double down on developing monetization for the studio’s viral hit gladiatorial arena racing game Drive Ahead!. It was not due to a lack of gusto in prototyping a portfolio of games. We certainly tried, but spin-offs from Drive Ahead! failed before launch, didn’t reach the scale of the original game, or were not timed right.

Figure it Out or Improve the Old

As always with mobile games, finding your niche in the market is the place to start. We noted already in 2018 how racing was the fastest-growing genre on Android & iOS. It grew eight times more rapidly than all other game genres. So investing time and resources into this game of ours that we love showed some real potential.

We understood that we’re a Head-to-Head battler. We’re not competing only for the attention of players in racing, but games raging from CATS to Clash Royale. It’s human to credit success to our design, but blame the audience for lack thereof. You need to understand how competitive your feature set is with other games your fans actually play. Not a list of competitors in your own head.

The goal was simple enough: to get people not only to play more but also to pay repeatedly in Drive Ahead!. We used 12traits to do player motivation research and understood that they needed to be as good as the best in social and competitiveness, as well as the best in humor and fun. Players downloaded the game primarily for its tongue-in-cheek humor.

The unique strength of Drive Ahead! has been that it grows massively organically, thanks to the virality from the local multiplayer design and video community. It’s a rare example of a casual game that people enjoy sharing and watching game clips. The players are proud of their in-game skill accomplishments and have fun watching the outrageous carnage. They want to spend time with the community.

Cushioning a Leap of Faith with Knowledge

At the beginning of 2020, Dodreams took a major leap in development by turning a five-year-old offline game into a live service. It required us to rewrite every game feature so it could be validated and adjusted on the server-side. You can imagine the technical debt we had to pay!

Luckily we found a shortcut to building a backend with our partner Metaplay accelerating it by months. When our team, for an uncomfortably long period of time, said that this work will be finished in three weeks, every week, it felt like we made a real dog’s breakfast of it all. However, we needed to ship a fancy new metagame designed with the help of focused market and competitor analysis from GameRefinery. And you cannot ship a F2P (free to play) unless you have the technology, capabilities, and processes to build, measure, and learn. And then do it again and again.

We managed to gradually publish elements of the new metagame broken down into sensible chunks. This itself was not an easy task, because these different parts of the system like car upgrading and getting parts for it from the Gacha are intended to work together. You cannot really ship them one after another. So there was this temptation to put your nose to the grindstone for a few months and come out when it’s done. As you know, we already had the horse blinders.

Enlightenment at the End

So, what did we actually learn?

First, related to systematic, purposeful work to further develop a game, you need to know what your KPIs (key performance indicator) and engagement metrics tell you. Are you going in the right direction, and how far are you from reaching your full potential in terms of industry-standard for good? By modeling our formula for revenue, for example, we realized that the quickest way to grow revenue is through engagement rate for rewarded video. But the key to a successful revenue model transformation is our ability to improve IAP (in-app purchase) conversion.

Second, related to leadership, understanding which KPIs we need to improve and much helped us set concrete targets with our team. Instead of complaining about why our game is not making as much money as the other guys down the road here in Helsinki, you can discuss how ARPPU (average revenue per user) is actually pretty good for our market. We need to focus on getting more people to make the first purchase, then a second one, and eventually multiple purchases.

Third, we learned to be bold in experiments because otherwise, you won’t see much impact. Do we dare to touch our sacred core gameplay? Well yes, because we do it through our proprietary innovative business model of testing ideas and game concepts in a controlled environment consisting of a portion of our real users in limited time live-ops events. Thanks to this approach we have been able to go from nearly disposable entertainment to a hobby with our fans. The impact is visible in our revenue through retention from a sense of progression. It’s evident in IAP conversion from providing value to collecting and leveling up cars in the game as you compete with friends to become a Master Car Gladiator.

Fourth, on a personal note, I have learned to become more agile as a developer and humble as a manager. We cannot succeed without a clear shared vision that is also a goal worthy of aspiration. When talking to our team members I ask what they think we should do to reach our goals. I ask for advice on what I should focus on to support them and if there is anything I can do to help. My job is to make sure people have faith in our success – we have all the tools, skills, and resources we need to make it. When you get positive feedback that you’re on the right track, then stop working and celebrate the success. Give credit to the team for making it happen.

Dodreams' mobile game Apple's Game of the Day

Lastly, we learned that our store partners value dedication to the fan base. Show that you ship updates and improve the game no matter what. Just maybe you will wake up one day and see that apparently someone else also thinks that you’re on the right track, and put you up as Game of the Day. This happened with Drive Ahead! In February 2021 nearly six years after its release. It’s not the culmination of our story. It doesn’t mean the game is ready, because it’s a service and it never will be ready. But we are confident in the path we chose.

Dodreams CEO Erik Pöntiskoski
The writer Erik Pöntiskoski works as the CEO of Dodreams and likes wearing sunglasses during winter days and hates going to meetings unprepared.