In this episode of the Mobile GameDev Playbook, we sit down with Finnish mobile game developer Nitro Games to discuss how to design, monetize and market your mobile shooter for success.
Jon Jordan is joined by GameRefinery by Vungle’s Erno Kiiski and Product Marketing Director at Nitro Games, Jukka Hilvonen, to discuss the popularity boom in mobile shooters, how to succeed in a genre dominated by massive studios, as well as getting some juicy insights into Nitro Games upcoming release Nerf: Battle Arena.
You can also watch the episode on YouTube:
Topics we will cover in this episode:
- Defining shooters
- Target audiences
- A top heavy market share – the big three
- Understanding the audience
- Player motivations
- Battle Passes
- Development and testing process
- Live ops: retaining players and monetising games
- How to succeed alongside the big dogs
- Target markets
- Big IPs and innovation
- Nerf Battle Arena and closing remarks
[00:00:12] Jon Jordan: Hello, and welcome to the Mobile Game Dev Playbook. This is a podcast all about what makes a great mobile game. What is and isn’t working for mobile game designers at the moment and all the latest trends. I’m your host, Jon Jordan, and in today’s podcast, we are going to be talking specifically about designing, monetising and marketing mobile shooters. So that is the topic for today, and we have two experts; we have Erno Kiiski; how’s it going, Erno?
[00:00:37] Erno Kiiski: It’s going great; how are you, Jon?
[00:00:39] Jon Jordan: Great, so Erno, a regular guest, the Chief Game Analyst in the US for Game Refinery by Vungle, you’re giving a high-level view on the trends, and also we have Jukka Hilvonen, the Product & Marketing Director at Nitro Games out in Helsinki. How’s it going?
[00:00:58] Jukka Hilvonen: It’s going super well, thank you.
[00:01:00] Jon Jordan: Good, and you’re our expert expert, not that Erno isn’t an expert, but you’re our particular expert for today’s show. So you guys have been making mobile shooters for a while now, and actually, that’d be a good place to start. Do you want to give us a bit of an introduction into yourself, what you do and a bit of a sort of potted history of Nitro and maybe some of the titles people have heard of?
[00:01:22] Jukka Hilvonen: Yes, so we have been focusing on the mobile shooter games for a while now, as you said, for the past three years, and our past most accessible titles have been first-person shooter called Heros of Warland that was in the stores a while ago, and we decided to remove it because we wanted to focus on new things and right now we have many ongoing projects which are still in quite an early phase but actually we just recently officially soft-launched our newest title called Nerf Battle Arena which is obviously with the Nerf IP targeted towards a younger audience than the traditional shooters.
[00:02:09] Jon Jordan: Yeah, so, sort of more…an interesting title I guess, I guess not so much blood in that one but playing into the basic gameplay sort ideas there…good, so how would you sort of define a mid-core shooter, What defines one? And how do you see the market between – I mean, Nerf is the casualist of the shooter crowd, then you have the very high-end PUBG games as well. From Nitros point of view, how do you differentiate the market and the different types of features you would put in different kinds of games?
[00:02:49] Jukka Hilvonen: Well, we are quite open and flexible with how we define what a shooter is; it involves some sort of shooting projectiles in the game, it can be from a top-down perspective, or top-down camera, it can be first-person shooter – Whatever kind of mobile game that somehow involves shooting. And, regarding the mid-core question, or how we would define a mid-core shooter game, obviously, it is a skill-based game, so you need to be able to shoot other players or their enemies if it’s a single-player shooter, and you need to be able to master some kind of gameplay elements within the game, so I think that’s the definition for us.
[00:03:41] Jon Jordan: And how do you see with the Nerf product, how does that fit in to – I guess the sliding scale of much skill is required?
[00:03:48] Jukka Hilvonen: Well, there definitely is skill required, but initially, when we were thinking about the game and gearing it towards a younger audience, it needs to be more fun and casual like a playground shooter, and obviously Nerf is playing a big role in that from the branding of the physical Nerf gun so we want to target the audience with what happens in the game itself.
[00:04:22] Jon Jordan: And what actually is the target audience for Nerf guns? I’m not the target audience, so I don’t know.
[00:04:28] Jukka Hilvonen: Well, based on our findings and experiments, it’s most likely teenage boys so thirteen to twenty years who are the target audience. Girls are also playing, but those two are the key target audience for us.
[00:04:49] Jon Jordan: And how does that compare to the previous games you’ve done? Is it broadly similar? Or is it slightly younger than the others?
[00:04:58] Jukka Hilvonen: It’s definitely younger than our previous shooter titles, and that’s been really refreshing for the game development team, and myself included because my title is Product Marketing Director, which basically means I help the game development team to understand what is the target audience, what they are motivated by, what they want to see in the game and also, understand the current market landscape like what kind of shooters there are and what might come next in mobile shooters.
A top heavy market share – the big three
[00:05:32] Jon Jordan: It’s probably a good opportunity for Erno to give a bit of a market overview. What have we seen in the shooter market over the last year? It’s been quite busy, hasn’t it?
[00:05:42] Erno Kiiski: It has been quite busy! If we look at the big picture of the market at the moment, in terms of revenues, it’s very top-heavy; three big titles make 89% of the shooter market revenues.
[00:06:00] Jon Jordan: 89% is that? 89?
[00:06:02] Erno Kiiski: 89% in the US –
[00:06:04] Jon Jordan: That is a lot!
[00:06:06] Erno Kiiski: There is COD mobile, PUBG Mobile and Garena Free Fire; those three are the big ones that are generating a lot. But then, below that, which is the rest of the market, which is significantly smaller, but there is a much more equal divide and many more games – and so on. So if you look at just the top-grossing 500, there are actually 17 shooter games, so only those three make the majority of the revenues. But below that top three, there are many variations of the shooter – games like War Robots or Bullet Echo is a more casual take on a Battle Royale, World of Tanks, that kind of game. So a lot of different types. But what is actually interesting, and in common with all of those types of titles, comes down to how those games are designed. So we have the top three, which are cosmetic based shooters, mainly cosmetic based. Still, every single one of those shooter games with a smaller audience has some kind of power progression built into them, and that’s definitely where the market is at the moment because if we look at the cosmetic economies, it’s really hard to pull off without the absolutely massive audience that those top titles have, the instance content cadence that they push out, such as new skins, new cosmetics, new playable content and so on.
But then, as I said, the games outside of that are instead focusing on, let’s say Brawl Stars model or that type of small, it doesn’t break the game, it doesn’t make it too – because it’s a skill-based game, so it’s hard to balance the power progression together with actual fun gameplay, and not make it so pay to win that it’s not fun to play. But actually, even of those top three major titles, Garena Free Fire, if you look at the downloads of that game, it has actually been getting constantly much lower downloads than those top two titles with massive IPs.
If you go a bit deeper on the product side, what they are doing is that they actually have a small bit of power progression in the actual game design, so they have those characters that you develop, and they have a skin that gave you slight benefits in gameplay as an example. But if you look on the monetisation side, it has been monetising much more heavily, with much higher revenue per download than those two titles. But, it’s a balancing act, some players get put off with pay to win mechanics, but then if you have a smaller audience, you can monetise that audience much more highly.
Overall, that’s where the market is at the moment, there are massive big titles with mainly cosmetic economies, and then we have a lot of variation, which has been the situation for a while. We are waiting for some kind of change in the market; at least, I am personally waiting to see something new break and get a piece of the pie from the big three. But it’s super hard; as I said, they are the massive companies with massive content cadence and so on. I can imagine you know the struggle of competing against massive titles –
I want to highlight one good example: recent game PUBG: New State, a game from Krafton that is the developer behind the original PUBG. If you play PUBG: New State on mobile, it’s actually, in terms of core gameplay, it’s smoother, plays betters, it’s an improved version of PUBG Mobile, but it’s really struggling on the charts at the moment because of a couple of things – the monetisation, the content cadence and they are nowhere near the LiveOps framework that Tencent has in PUBG Mobile, and then, of course, pulling players away from PUBG Mobile when it’s been on the market for years, and people have bought the cosmetics and so on, is super hard. But, yeah, it’s a tough market, but a really interesting market that I still see a lot of potential.
[00:10:59] Jon Jordan: It is funny as not that many years ago, we had this idea that people won’t play mobile shooters. You forget these things, but I remember certainly a few years ago, people were saying no one will ever play mobile shooters, and then PUBG came in – other games as well, but PUBG mainly broke that one up. I’m amazed it’s almost 90% of the shooter market is down to those three; obviously, they are massive games, but you kind of think that’s pretty top-heavy.
Understanding the audience
Jon Jordan: Ok so, I don’t know if arena type games rely on branding, I suppose to some degree. But how do you, how does Nitro think about the market it’s going into? I guess, particularly in the US, Nerf is a more US-centric brand than others. How do you try and position yourself? How do you take learnings from the things that are going to work and come up with a differentiated product that will work for your audience?
[00:12:01] Jukka Hilvonen: Well, I’ve been, for the past year, mainly focusing on the game’s interface and trying to understand the target audience and how we can position our games in a way that they are different from the current market. The main thing is the target audience and trying to understand what they want and getting to the first principles like not the features specifically but the motivations, hopes and values of the target audience, because from those, if you’re a senior developer, you can have a million ideas how to do a feature, so they target that particular audience. So that’s the first thing, and of course, after that, it’s the theme of the game, the mechanics of the game, and also the art style or tone of the game. That’s how we position using those four parameters so that something new in the market could fly.
[00:13:07] Jon Jordan: What do you think the motivations are?
[00:13:10] Jukka Hilvonen: Well, there are multiple different peer-reviewed models that are currently in use in the market, with different service providers. Like of course, GameRefinery has its own, and I think the first one, to my understanding, is the model used by Quantic Foundry. And uh, all of those other models are based mostly on that. But there is, of course, the first relevant thing is, does the target audience want to compete against other players or not? Do they want to be in the same team, or do they want to compete head to head with other players? Or some kind of combination of that. Or do they just want to enjoy the single-player experience? That’s the first defining factor that we need to take into account. And then there are dozens of other things like how skill-based, or what is the master motivations, how do they want to master the new titles and new games, and how skilful the new title requires, that’s obviously one thing for the shooters specifically. There are other things, but I would say these two are the main motivations that we look at in addition to several others.
[00:14:35] Jon Jordan: And you said it’s a three vs three arena game, is that right?
[00:14:39] Jukka Hilvonen: Yep, actually, there are multiple game modes within that game already, so there are multiple ways you can have fun in the game.
[00:14:47] Jon Jordan: And do you think, going back to the competition side, because you’re a slightly younger audience, are they in some weird way more competitive than older audiences? Because kids are very competitive, aren’t they, so how are you playing with that idea?
[00:15:06] Jukka Hilvonen: I wouldn’t say they are more competitive. I think they want to have fun in the game and collaborate within the game. So team gameplay is – of course, we have the PvP aspect in Nerf Battle Arena already; that’s the key thing for us as well. But then it comes down to enabling the target audience to communicate within the gameplay session when they are going against the other team. One specific thing that we found out is that our target audience often wants to prank themselves or other players; this can be done in multiple ways; of course, the challenge in mobile is how you enable in the UI because the screen is so small, but these are the kinds of things we have learnt so far.
[00:15:57] Jon Jordan: And I guess when it comes to actual commercial success, how do you think about monetisation? As I guess you’re with an existing brand, I guess you have worked with a licence holder. Has that impacted the way you approached that? I guess you might have more of a light touch compared to other games.
[00:16:19] Jukka Hilvonen: Yeah definitely, we have to use hybrid models with advertisements and in-app purchases, and on the IAP side, cosmetics is one of the key drivers for the game, and we have put a lot of effort to have the pipeline that allows us to produce new content constantly. Then, of course, we have the Nerf blasters themselves that we are offering as an in-app purchase for the players so they can have their favourite gun in the game and have fun with it.
[00:16:57] Jon Jordan: I guess Erno, something we’ve spoken about a lot over the podcast for a whole year for every genre but particularly for shooters in Battle Passes. So, I’ll just ask Jukka before going back to Erno. Are battle passes a thing? Or not?
[00:17:10] Jukka Hilvonen: Yep, I think it’s still is, until someone finds a new genre-defining game mechanic that makes the Battle Pass obsolete or less important than it is nowadays. But definitely, it’s still there.
[00:17:27] Erno Kiisk: Yeah, especially in shooters, and especially in games where there are not as many progression vectors necessarily in any other way, that’s where Battle Pass is very relevant for monetisation and especially engagement and extra progression for the players as you feel you’ll get somewhere when playing the game. Naturally, that’s why Battle Pass is a perfect fit for this genre, but nowadays, it’s all around, used in the same manner in Slots or Match-3.
[00:18:07] Jon Jordan: I’m going to put you on the spot here. Do you have any percentages?
[00:18:11] Erno Kiiski: I don’t have it here, I would pull it up, but I think in the top-grossing 100, it’s somewhere around 60% to 70%, just in the top-grossing 100, no matter the genre. Something like that, I can double-check.
[00:18:29] Jon Jordan: It’s fascinating how quickly that can come on board. Fortnite, I suppose, is what popularised Battle Pass as a system. Then you basically saw, certainly on the shooter side, and then flowing into what you would consider, genres that wouldn’t fit well with Battle Passes have managed to adapt it. It’s such an interesting combination of retention, progression, and monetisation.
[00:18:59] Erno Kiiski: 64% at the moment in the top-grossing 100! Looking back one year, the number was 45%, so still a lot of increase inside of the year, even though it’s been a trend for a while.
Development and testing process
[00:19:14] Jon Jordan: So, in terms of Jukka, what stage are you at? From your point of view, you’re looking at the market and filtering that through to the design team. Are you at the stage yet where you are getting users to playtest? Has that happened yet? When’s that going to happen? Because that can clearly, it’s interesting that developers with mobile can playtest or soft launch much quicker than game developers have been able to do in the past. How does it play into the whole development process?
[00:19:47] Jukka Hilvonen: Yeah, well actually, when we have a new idea, we start with the marketability testing, so we use our partners who can easily produce good enough marketing assets for the game that makes a good enough impression like what the game is about, then we test in the early funnel and see what combination of different themes, whether it’s zombie or military or modern warfare or whatever; what resonates best with the UA and then when we understand our position, our target audience and the potential marketability of the game, then we start to really nail down the scope of the game. And of course, we use very early playtesting with a partner like Playtest Cloud, which is a good service that we can pinpoint our different versions of the games, so definitely those things are important in the early funnel.
[00:20:54] Jon Jordan: Have you started on that process yet? Or is that still in the future?
[00:20:58] Jukka Hilvonen: Yes, we’ve started them. Nerf Battle Arena is already in soft launch in Canada, Finland and Ukraine. We have tested that game with our technical tests for a while now, and now it’s in official soft launch.
[00:21:15] Jon Jordan: Has there been any surprising feedback that you’ve noticed, or is it a bit too early for that?
[00:21:22] Jukka Hilvonen: Maybe it’s a bit too early; of course, during the prototyping and preproduction of Nerf Battle Arena, there will be issues in the UX that we never saw because we’re so close to the game as a team, and we never understand how easy you have to make the UX of the game for it to work for most people, those sort of things are important in the early funnel.
Right now, we’re in a phase that doesn’t focus on the live operations; that’ll come later. We’re trying to validate the product for market fit.
Live ops: retaining players and monetising games
[00:22:00] Jon Jordan: Erno, you were also talking about the pace at which big games do their Live Ops. Can you give colour to that? Obviously, these are much bigger teams, but it would be fascinating to hear how big of a focus it is.
[00:22:18] Erno Kiiski: Well, we actually did this bigger shooter analysis, especially for the top three games, and Fortnite was actually part of the analysis as well, but as an example, let’s say Call of Duty: Mobile they have at the same time about eight to ten limited time content gachas, so naturally they are using various mechanics of selling their cosmetics through gacha mechanics. The most unique skins are sold with what we call a ‘box’ gacha mechanic, which means that you have, let’s say, ten items then you sell something for – you pool the gacha one time. Then the item gets removed from the pool, and then you have only nine items, so the chances to get the rarer items gets higher, but the price also goes higher. That’s actually how they are monetising the most unique cosmetics and often requires eight to ten pools if you want to get the super unique skin from there. That’s the kind of feature aimed at the very high spenders and unlocks the spend depth for that one, and it’s definitely not for everyone. You have those gachas, and then you have six to eight direct-purchase bundles, you know what you’re going to get, you buy a bundle of cosmetics at the same time, and about every two days you get a new gacha, multiple times a week there is a new one brought to the players; and that’s just monetisation of the game.
Then we have the actual player events or player engagement events where you have your new modes, new weapons, new maps and stuff like that. All of that is supported in Call of Duty with various task-based events; often, there are at least two to three events per week at the same time. So let’s say a new map gets released, then there are tasks for that, then if you play that map, you unlock cosmetics. We actually calculated for two months period. There were actually 300 cosmetic items to be unlocked just by playing; it includes smaller ones like guns, weapon skins, and weapon skins with lower rarity, which is just a copy-paste with different textures. The amount of content you can unlock just by playing is super high. And then, on top of that, you have the monetised content, and then, of course, you have to create the limited-time game modes and stuff like that.
That’s just a little bit of insight on that one; it’s insane, I always knew that it’s high, but when we actually did the analysis and followed them really closely for two months, you actually realise how much work there must be and how big a team you need to support those massive games.
[00:25:40] Jon Jordan: I guess it’s particularly interesting because it’s the sort of pace of mobile, I guess because mobile devices, we always have them and we’re always looking at them every ten seconds to see what’s updated, so mobile games have to be operated at a pace in which we use our mobile devices, whereas if you’re on a console you’re probably – you know, you might play one or two sessions a day on a console. You just don’t have the same sort of refresh into the content.
[00:26:05] Erno Kiiski: Yes, and you know the competition is tougher than ever, especially for those top shooters. They want to keep those players engaged; the ways they will go is crazy.
[00:26:18] Jon Jordan: I’m probably guessing that the Live Ops teams on those titles are probably bigger than your entire team at Nitro.
[00:26:28] Jukka Hilvonen: Yes, most likely.
How to succeed alongside the big dogs
[00:26:32] Jon Jordan: So, given the situation, how do you approach that? Sort of by taking the best practices from realising how you can use Live Ops to engage your community, but obviously coming up with something that fits your company and how you can operate. How do you find the sweet spot for you guys and the product you’re working on?
[00:26:57] Jukka Hilvonen: A couple of points. I think the first one is I don’t think that we even, internally here, try to compete against the top dogs of the top three shooter titles, as they have massive armies of content production in Asia or wherever. At this point, at least, it doesn’t make sense to even think about competing against them, but I think we already have developed our partner studios and partner network over the past ten years, and we’ve been making games and have a good list of studios who can make the content very fast, and cost-efficient; that’s definitely something. And then thinking about shooter genre in the broader spectrum, there’s thinking about target audiences there are multiple ways of differentiating your product in the market. So let’s say all the players don’t like to go head to head with other players, they like less intense gameplay than the current top shooters, like a sniper game that can differentiate itself from other titles in the mobile shooter space, so there are multiple ways of doing mobile shooters that can bring us revenue and don’t need to compete against the top dogs.
[00:28:34] Jon Jordan: Do you think your game, because you can’t compete at that level of content or maybe being in the top-grossing monetisation, do you see your game as something that is played alongside these other games? How do you see the broad idea that people are playing your game – Do you want them to play your game as their number one game, or do you think of the game your making as “Well, they will always play a bit of Call of Duty or something, and they will play us alongside that.”.
[00:29:08] Jukka Hilvonen: I think there is a cross-section between people who both like head to head intense competitive shooters. Then there is Nerf Battle Arena where you can go and have fun with your friends and just have a relaxing time whilst at the same time competing against other players. It’s not as competitive as other top shooters, and Nerf Battle Arena is most like a playground shooter, so to speak.
[00:29:40] Erno Kiiski: Yes, and just to add to that, I definitely agree there are possibilities of finding overlap from there. That’s why I see – let’s say you make modern warfare shooter and try to compete directly against Call of Duty; it’s like, “Ok good luck!” You have to have enough differences on the product side to make the gameplay and make the players time worthy of engaging in your games because if you have a similar game to Call of Duty: Mobile modern warfare shooter, it’s really hard to get people to play your game against a game with a massive team behind it, who can support the players in a totally different scale.
[00:30:31] Jon Jordan: And how much? I mean, we’ve sort of mentioned it a little bit, and obviously, Erno is the US expert, so we focus on the US market, but Nerf, I would imagine, has a global appeal so, how much have you looked at – Are you focused on North America and Western Europe markets, or have you looked to support other geographies and territories? Where actually the brand name of Nerf might be super strong, I don’t know, in the Philippines or something.
[00:30:58] Jukka Hilvonen: Yes, we’ve done extensive market research, and there is definitely a global appeal even in Asia; at least I didn’t think Nerf would be so big, but it’s globally appealing. But of course, the main market still is the US and North America, where that brand originated from, but there are multiple big countries where the brand is recognised.
Big IPs and innovation
[00:31:25] Jon Jordan: Erno, looking ahead, what do you think will happen? We say we’ve got these 800lb gorillas dominating the market, although there is another fifteen or so in the top 100. Obviously, those games are still relatively new, aren’t they, maybe two years something like that? Do you think those games will continue to dominate that market? Or do you think it’ll provide more opportunities for people to come in with more innovation as they get older? Because new games are always exciting, aren’t they? If it’s something new, people are always interested.
[00:32:02] Erno Kiiski: Yeah definitely, I think for sure they are going to be there, most likely, for a long time. There is always going to be one of those top dogs, but I definitely see something like, you know, one Battle Royale game basically took over the market through innovation, so something in that sense, some small tweak to the gameplay that can make it go viral and find massive audiences and then disrupt those crazy Live Op machine that big games are.
Something that is brewing at the moment is minigames on soft launch; it has been on the PC side for a longer period of time. This Escape from Tarkov kind of survival shooter game combines PvE shooting and PvP shooting together and has a Battle Royale element. There are actually quite a few of those in soft launch at the moment from quite big companies; Netease has some of those in the works. That could be something PUBG already tried; they had this Meta Royale mode in it for a while; it was quite an interesting try out for them to have a kind of survival shooter. So I assume those types of games might find some new market share. But then again, it will be most likely one of these big companies because the idea is already out there, so it’s not as revolutionary as Battle Royale was. But that remains to be seen.
Something I’d like to see personally on mobile is a shooter that utilises even more PvE stuff, so you know Destiny on mobile; that type of shooter. I know Shadow Gun tried it years ago, and it wasn’t so successful, but that’s something I’m personally waiting to see.
[00:34:20] Jukka Hilvonen: Well, look for Nitro Games!
[00:34:21] Erno Kiiski: That’s good.
[00:34:24] Jukka Hilvonen: There is definitely one thing we’ve been looking at, which is boomer shooter kind of genre which is growing on the Steam and PC side of things, like playing with old strong elements on original shooters like DOOM or Quake and having that same level of experience and being able to bring that to mobile. There are multiple avenues on how to do it and make revenue with those kinds of games, but we’re looking at it.
[00:35:03] Jon Jordan: And I guess more generally we have Apex Legends: Mobile and Valorant presumably coming out at some stage –
[00:35:10] Erno Kiiski: Yes, there is a lot of big IPs and titles at the moment, you know “Coming next year!” in the shooter space as well; Ubisoft is creating a division mobile version. There are multiple at the moment bubbling under with big IPs; you know, big console or PC IPs. Let’s see what the next year looks like when those get released. Are they able to actually get market share from the behemoths?
Nerf Battle Arena and closing remarks
[00:35:37] Jon Jordan: I think it’s always interesting, isn’t it? We have the basic gameplay mechanics like shooting, which sort of – you know – the one great thing about shooters is everyone can turn up and vaguely know what they do from second to second, even if they don’t know the meta of what they are doing. I guess it’s the same for Match3, and it’s always surprising how game designers can take those really enjoyable gameplay mechanics and build other stuff, hybridisation or whatever, build all that around those, come up with things that seem really crazy but work really well in the mobile situation.
Cool, well, thank you very much, Jukka and Erno; that was a really good discussion with what’s going on with shooters in mobile. We should say, when is the game out, Jukka? Do you have a date yet?
[00:36:27] Jukka Hilvonen: Which game?
[00:36:28] Jon Jordan: Nerf Battle Arena
[00:36:32] Jukka Hilvonen: We don’t have a date yet; it’s currently in soft launch in Finland and Canada on iOS and Android, so if you’re living in those countries, please take a look; it’s awesome.
[00:36:42] Jon Jordan: Awesome, we’ll have to get a plugin. And, thanks to both our experts and thanks to you for listening and watching. Don’t forget every month, we’re talking to the people who are deep in the mobile game sector; we’re looking at the big trends and how people are addressing those and coming up with cool products that millions of players will enjoy.
Please subscribe through your usual channel, and thanks for watching this one. Come back next time. See you soon.