Game developer learnings on mobile user acquisition

Feb 27

Game developer learnings on mobile user acquisition

In this podcast series we ask experienced Appreneurs for one success story and one fail. In this episode of the Mobile Engagement Podcast:

Independent Game developer Nathan Harper is the author of Formula Legend an F1 strategy game that is making a decent income for him on iOS and Android. Nathan chose to make it free to play and then inApp purchase – so that is no advertising! Hear his journey and wins/fails along the way. You can find Formula Legend here for iOS and Android

Engagement Score

We score all out interview anecdotes based on 3 axes of: acquisition, UX and retention – I’ve listed the actionable points below in TL;DR but the main takeaway was Nathan’s insight on focus and targeting communities on that basis – so Nathan’s learnings scores 9,7,0.

Let us know on our Twitter account how you score it.



  • Choosing a niche that still has fanactical but global community gives you clear air to market and target customers.
  • Nathan was actually very analytical in understanding the amount of $ being spent in his target market – car sports second only to Soccer and F1 dominating car sports.
  • In consumer Apps, don’t try to market in a “corporate” – keep it simple and authentic.
  • Target other related blogs, media, forums that are in your space as the focus of your mobile user acquisition marketing. Don’t be afraid to revenue share – its all about win/win!
  • be careful of copyright – it can lead to takedowns!
  • make it easy for your community to give you feedback and respond
  • think about intercepting Appstore ratings by allowing feedback in your App. Tools like uservoice give the users a place to vent.
  • Nathan is early in optimizing his funnel, recently he has discovered at typical attrition curve of users with each race. Now he has data to test-and-learn an engagement strategy for user retention and In App purchases.

Transcript Detail

DAVID: Gidday! This is David Jones. I’m here with Nathan Harper. He’s the inventor of Formula Legend, a Formula 1 racing game. It’s doing really well in the App Store, and I think in Android as well too.


DAVID: So we might explore that a little bit to see how it goes between Android and iOS, but tell us a little bit about what you’ve been doing with Formula Legend. What was the genesis of it?

NATHAN: The genesis was actually another game that I played, which is a soccer game from the UK called New Star Soccer. I looked at that and really liked the model that was employed, the simplicity of the game, and thought, “Why doesn’t this exist for Formula 1?” So I actually went looking for it because I really wanted to play that game. [Laughter]

DAVID: That was the game I wanted to play.

NATHAN: It quickly became apparent that it didn’t exist, so I set about creating it, gave myself a two-week sprint to get a very basic functional version of the game [out], got that in the hands of a couple of people to start playing it who got really interested in it, and I worked out that I was actually on to something, so then I went away to build it.

DAVID: Were you a game developer or an app developer before that?

NATHAN: Yes. I had actually left the corporate world where I’ve been for about 12 or 13 years as a CTO and had just started out on the mobile game development path. I had released one game somewhat unsuccessfully but went into a lot of lessons about marketing and how noisy and big and wide the market and the app stores are.

DAVID: What year was that?

NATHAN: That was 2013. So I actually went and started out remaking a game, a browser-based game that I had made in the late 90s, which had gotten a bit of traction. It’s called BeerMogul. It was a world simulation game where you came in as either a pub or a brewer. If you’re a brewer, you get to create products and brand them. If you’re a pub, you have to attract people to your pub by putting band rooms and restaurants and all that stuff.

DAVID: Right. I love that sim focused completely around drinking. What could go wrong?

NATHAN: It was called “Sim-Beer”, but I thought for legal reasons, I should back that out. And then the idea was that you’ll buy beer from the in-game brewers and then retail it. So it’s an interesting game. It’s got some viral growth but back in the late 90s, browser-based game was really hard to make any money out of it on one advertising. It wasn’t really a concept at that point.

So I left the corporate life, started out as an indie game developer and did a bit of an experiment with a game called BeerTrucker. It’s still available for iOS. It was a time management game based in the BeerMogul universe, with the intent of then going and building BeerMogul as a social game platform I saw what the likes of Supercell were doing with games like Clash of Clans, these large-scale economy games, and I thought, “Well, you know, the beer theme could really work in that space. It’s a bit edgy and it could be a really good game. I’ve got it way into that development cycle when I came across the idea for Formula Legend, and actually decided to put that one on hold while I jumped into the Formula Legend thing, primarily because I feel like it was a short development cycle I can get it to market.

DAVID: Yeah, right. Okay. So you got into Formula Legend. Where is that taking you so far?

NATHAN: It’s been a bit of a journey. It’s just over 12 months old from when it initially launched on the store. It went live with Android and iOS right from the start, used the cross platform development tool in order to facilitate that.

DAVID: Which one were you using?

NATHAN: I used Corona SDK. I found that to be really good. It abstracts you away from some of the differences between the platforms but also exposes them where necessary. So, for example, when you’re coding to specific elements to the stores, in-app purchases, that sort of thing, it’s nice and transparent; whereas more generic functionality, you just talk to Corona and then it deals with the appropriate backend.

DAVID: Right.

NATHAN: There’s very few “if Android, then [of course it’s] in my code”.

DAVID: Right. And you are the developer, right?

NATHAN: Yeah, yes. I do all the coding myself. So I put it out there, it started to get some really good interest from the F1 community, and suddenly one of the lessons I learned along the way was around marketing of my mobile games and, you know, I’ve got that as my “win” so I can go into a bit more detail on that.

DAVID: So you’re going to be like Clash of the Clans and get Liam Neeson to advertise it for you on the next Super Bowl?

NATHAN: Not quite there yet, but generally really good traction. I hit the end of the 2013 season and then kind of re-launched at the start of the 2014 Formula 1 season, which runs about March to November. So it really started to take off with that 2013 season, I mean, out to a point where I got hundreds of thousands of downloads, lots of really engaged users who genuinely take part in the game and contribute as well. So I actually use a service called UserVoice to collect ideas and let people rank them.

DAVID: So UserVoice has a mobile component to it or you just sort of wrap it in or [let the idea wrapped] it inside?

NATHAN: You hit the feedback back in my app and it just jumps up a browser window. It’s nice, you know, mobile friendly when it comes up. And so, lots of people are engaged there, hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of ideas, lot of voting going on…


NATHAN: So I feel like I kind of struck a vein because there’s lots of engaged audience in this space and there was nobody playing in this space. So just back to the game for a minute, it’s a race management simulation game. You don’t get to drive the car. It’s all about management, primarily about race strategy, so on a lap-by-lap basis you’re making decisions about what tires you should be on, how aggressively the driver is going to push, you’re trying to maximize your lap time based on the amount of fuel that you’re carrying, the amount of fuel that you’re burning, and the condition of your tires and…

DAVID: Weather conditions as well too?

NATHAN: Yes, that’s an in-app purchase. [Laughter]

DAVID: All right. Okay, we’ll come to that in a second.

NATHAN: Yeah, so it has variable weather conditions as well, and random elements like accidents on the track and safety cars, and yellow-flag periods and all that sort of stuff, which have come to become a very important part of modern-day Formula 1 strategy.

DAVID: Right, okay. So the strategy really attracted much more fanatical users then in comparison to somebody who might sit on the bus and just kind of like use a tablet or a phone as a steering wheel in landscape mode or –?

NATHAN: Definitely. I like to, you know, my affectionate term is “fan gigs”, and it certainly attracts a certain type. I think, therefore, they end up quite passionate about the game as well, which can be good and bad. You get a lot of users who are super keen to see their ideas in implemented “as soon as possible”.

DAVID: No pressure. “Next week would be fine”.

NATHAN: But, you know, all the input I can get is fantastic, even to the point where users contribute, has started contributing content as well. So, for example, when I built a multi-lingual functionality and implemented my first language, I actually did a paid translation of all the text into German. Then for the next one, I think I was doing Spanish. I actually used Google Translate and did it myself. Within 24 hours of launch, I had suggestions from users, that it was horrendous translation, and people offered to correct it for me. So basically they redid the translation completely and then I put it into the game. Since then, there’s now 11 languages, the bulk of them are fan-contributed where players actually come to me and say, “I really want this to be in Russian,” and I’d say, “Okay, great. Here you go. Here’s a translation pack. Go for your life.”

DAVID: Excellent. Just as an aside question there, I was aware of one app that actually the App Store submission process or the review time actually slowed down quite a lot when they went from single language to multi-language. Did that affect you at all?

NATHAN: No, it didn’t.

DAVID: It might have just been an anomaly. I’m not quite sure whether that was really the reason, but that was one of the major changes in that version.

NATHAN: A big variable in the game, you know, app review times, and to actually translate it on both iOS and Google Play, all of the store elements as well, to see if you can actually put in a different language version of all of your products and all of your achievements and leader boards and that sort of stuff.

DAVID: Right. So do you think, given that F1’s absolutely a global sport and so therefore it has global fanatics, or “gigs” as you said, so you think the multi-lingual aspect of it has been a really key part of your sales process or your user acquisition process?

NATHAN: Yeah. It has been pretty important, especially in, you know, the target market is Europe, the sport, that’s where their [serious] base is. My downloads reflect that as well but the map changed significantly after I went multi-lingual.

DAVID: Right. The order of languages that you did that in, was that driven by the popularity of the sport in each particular country?

NATHAN: Yes. So basically I looked at the model and said – well, actually at the time, there was a German world champion and I knew that sport was very popular there, so that was why I picked German as my very first translation. Then after that, after fans contributed a few different ones, I came across some model whereby I looked for countries where Formula 1 was very popular but I had little chance of being able to do the marketing in that country. So, for example, Turkey, Poland, Italy, Japan, in those markets, what I actually did was directly approached an existing Formula 1 property, so generally it was an F1 news site or a fan page or something like that, where they had lots of users or lots of Facebook users or lots of followers, and actually partnered with them into those territories. So they worked on the translation for me, putting it into the game; they then promote it through their website or social media account or whatever it is, and they share revenue from that country as well.

DAVID: Oh, okay. So you track that manually in that sense?

NATHAN: No, actually just straight from the reports through the App Stores.

DAVID: Right. Okay, good.

NATHAN: So there is an element of giving up a little bit more than I would have naturally got out of that country anyway, but for me, it’s more about trying to build a good relationship with somebody who’s actively promoting the product ongoing.

DAVID: Yeah. So, okay, this is a really good tip. It’s like the idea of choosing somebody who’s in a tangential space to you, or a related space to you, obviously not competing with you but they actually are sort of complementary that they become a really great partner for you, and being in media, obviously blogs are a really good example of that, or existing news sites or something like that.


DAVID: So anybody who’s doing games like that out there or any kind of utility or something like that, they may really benefit by sitting back and thinking about who are the people that are in adjacent spaces or in related spaces that you could really tap into.

NATHAN: Yeah. And I think the other lesson in that piece of work is that it’s okay to give up a little bit sometimes in order to get more.

DAVID: Yeah, so classic distribution strategy that, you know, it’s got to be win-win.

NATHAN: And they get exclusive in that country – and that’s okay.

DAVID: Right. So is that what you would like to talk about today that’s kind of like the major “aha moment” or did you sort of mutter something earlier about another “aha” that we could talk about?

NATHAN: Yeah. So there’s a couple of things. I think one of the really positive things that I worked out was that motor sport is a niche; it’s a very big niche. Formula 1 is a niche within that. Formula One Management seems targeted to F1 gigs, like me, is an even smaller niche.

DAVID: Right.

NATHAN: What I found was that the apps that I produced in the past that were much broader, so around the topic like beer and just general gaming, it was really, really hard to get any traction from a marketing perspective.

DAVID: Right. So is that because the message is blurry or because there’s so much competition with other people competing for the same broad space?

NATHAN: Yeah, so much noise in the space as well, and just the fact that somebody releasing a game about beer isn’t really newsworthy, whereas –

DAVID: Well, I think it is.

NATHAN: In my niche, in “a niche in a niche” where I operate, I actually find that somebody releasing a game in that space is actually newsworthy. It’s really interesting and people are ready to engage in it.

DAVID: Yeah. So if you’re doing something like that, what you want to do is target the largest possible community so that niche of “a niche in a niche”, you’ve got to actually tap into the global market to actually get a large enough population to be interested in that. So I imagine, you know, if you think about this saying that “I nick off Mick” [Editor: a saying that I borrow (ahem) from Mick Liubinskas] – “left-handed squash players who drive your old Datsuns in on Saturday mornings”, that isn’t going to work for you because there’s just not enough people out there that do that, but this is a large enough population globally, so it’s a sweet spot.

NATHAN: Yeah. If you look at something like F1, it’s actually the second largest sport by revenue in the world, following football or soccer.

DAVID: Okay. So the World Game soccer, not the various other kinds of football, is actually by revenue, you mean by consumer revenues or advertising revenues or…?

NATHAN: The numbers that I looked at are a combination, so the ticket sales, merchandise, sponsortship, you know, it’s a pretty amorphous cloud, but the way they measure it is football is number one, motor sport is next, and then there’s quite a gap that then goes through to sports like NFL and NBA, and NHL out of US. So motor sports is a bit of “bunch-up” of a stack of different things, but by far the dominant player – the bulk of the revenue in that space is Formula 1, 26 million viewers for a race. So, that’s fairly significant. And then it drops off heavily down to Rally and NASCAR who were down kind of around 15 million, 10 million, and then a massive drop-off down to 1 million for teams like IndyCar and [German Touring Cars] and, you know, a big weekend of V8 super cars.

DAVID: Okay. All right, so the “aha” is the right kind of niche?

NATHAN: The “aha” is that if you put yourself in a niche, you can actually market direct without a huge amount of expense.

DAVID: Right.

NATHAN: So just putting them on the App Store isn’t enough. Even having it featured by somebody like Apple may not actually be exactly what you want for a game like this. The reality is you’ve got a niche that’s somewhat easier to target, so you can find all of the Facebook pages that are about the area that my game covers pretty quickly. You find the ones with 10,000 or 30,000 followers. Interestingly, they’ve been really happy to post about it. So you talk to them about the game, build a bit of a relationship and then they’re genuinely interested in F1 news sites. They always came for news, especially if you time it right when they’re not particularly busy with other news. So by going within a smaller niche, you actually have the opportunity to directly market to users at very low cost, without having to buy a Super Bowl ad.

DAVID: So you already mentioned about the partnerships in various countries. From the marketing perspective, are there any other kind of marketing techniques or tips that you tried that have really worked or like, you know, normally this sort of application in the web world would be that means it’s the long-tail keywords, so therefore the competition for, say, in Google AdWords may not be as expensive, and so therefore it’s worth a try. Did you try that, for example?

NATHAN: I actually haven’t. I’ve tinkered a little with paid acquisition. I haven’t had success but haven’t tried very hard, so the challenge – the stage that I feel that I’m up to right now is that I’m trying to – if you think about mine’s a free-to-play game, so if you think about the free-to-play funnel, so to speak, you tip your new users into the top and then some percentage, hopefully about 5% fallout down the bottom, having paid you something. At the moment, I still feel my funnel is too leaky. I’ve got some challenges to fix that in the game, but I feel like I’m getting closer to that point where I’ll be able to aggressively start pursuing things like paid acquisition.

DAVID: Right. Like I said, it’s actually an important point to make that you’ve made a decision—right from the start, as far as I understand from our conversation—to not advertise in the application. You’ve gone purely for in-app purchases. Correct?


DAVID: Okay. So you decided to walk away from advertising, so where best in the user lifecycle do you insert this opportunities for in-app purchases then?

NATHAN: There’s a couple of ways: One is that each season in the game is about 19-20 races long, a race is probably about 2.5 minutes in order to consume it, so the season is somewhere around an hour’s game play over all. Basically what I do is after that first season, I then say, “Okay, here’s an opportunity. You either need to – we’re either going to reset this season back to the start and you’re going to lose your progress, or for a small in-app purchase you’ll be able to continue on with the game.”

DAVID: Right.

NATHAN: That also gives you a big functional upgrade, so that’s where you get where the conditions, additional tyre compounds, safety cars, all sorts of stuff, and that’s basically where I “tip” all of my new functional development into that part of the game and then it trickles out into the free-to-play game.

DAVID: So you’re saying you’ve got just one in-app purchase then?

NATHAN: So there’s that. There’s also in-app currency purchase, which is another pretty popular area. Basically it’s about giving people the opportunity to upgrade their cars faster or continue their technical development rather than functional change.

DAVID: Okay, good. So if you don’t mind, you know, I’m sitting here looking at a particular chart of your user drop-offs, which is basically a user retention chart. It follows a pretty typical curve; that people are dropping off after a number of different games, or with each game, they drop off. What are your thoughts about that? What do you want to do there on that?

NATHAN: Basically I produce that chart in order to see if there was some significant point or a cliff, because I wanted to know whether players were getting to race 5 or race 7 or whatever it was in that first season and then falling away for some particular reason. If that was the case, I’d be able to drill into that and perhaps insert an offer there or something like that. But it didn’t turn out to be the case. It’s turned out to be extremely linear, or front-loaded. So the most people drop off after one race and then there’s a long tail down to race 19 of the season. So as a result of that, I’m looking to review the way that race 1 works because they essentially come into the game as a newbie, they put in a very low Formula 1 team, a back-marker team, and it’s their job to just do it.

DAVID: “I’m 23 out of 25 racers!”.

NATHAN: So somehow I need to – I don’t want them running really well by getting to that point, and I’m not sure how I’ll do that yet. I’m working on it.

DAVID: Okay, good. We can come back and check with you in the future to see what you’ve achieved. Maybe if I hang on to this chart here, we can do a comparison at some stage and see if we can flatten it out a bit.


DAVID: So what about the fail? Have you got anything in your little kit bag that you can talk about the fails along the way with this particular one?

NATHAN: Coming out of the corporate world, my career has always been about trying to make your organisation look bigger than it is, so when I started off marketing the game, getting press releases and, you know, “BeerMogul games announces its new release of Formula Legend”, or talking about this studio that was BeerMogul games. It wasn’t getting any traction; We would publish it. You know, I had approached these guys with fan sites or with a page with 30,000 followers on Facebook, and they didn’t know my press releases and all my approaches, and I couldn’t work it out. The interesting thing was I was in a startup accelerator in Wollongong, “iAccelerate”, where I’m still in today. I was seeing other people around me getting really good traction. You know, they could present nice things to media or to other outlets and people would follow it up straightaway or they would print what they said. I thought, “I couldn’t work it out what I was doing wrong. And then I realised that they’re being genuine, they’re just being themselves, and saying, “Hey, I made this game and I’ve just released it. I think your followers might be interested in finding about it.”

DAVID: Right.

NATHAN: And so I decided to do an experiment and I completely changed my tack, dropped the “company persona” from it and just started talking about “Hi, my name is Nathan and I made this game. It’s Formula 1, and blah-blah-blah.” And you know what? It worked. So my big fail was trying to be a company, trying to be something that I wasn’t, when in reality just being myself was much more and could’ve worked.

DAVID: Do you think that’s isolated to games or do you think that can bleed across into other things as well too, because it’s certainly one of the things we found, that actually personal communication tends to work better than that kind of like “spray and pray” approach.


DAVID: Like if it’s about context, it’s about personalisation, it’s about authenticity, and you’re genuinely interested, then you’ll actually get a much more human response because you’ve put out a human touch in the first place.

NATHAN: And I think people are much more likely to engage in promoting you if they think you really are just a guy who’s coding, who’s making a game, than if you’re a company. They feel like they’re being asked to promote your products for free. But the reality is they’re much more likely to engage, especially because they think you’re a bit of an underdog as well.

DAVID: Great, all right, very good. Well, that’s really good. I had one more question to ask you. It was kind of in the back of my mind when you’re talking about UserVoice in getting the feedback like that. Actually I have two questions: Do you feel as though that’s been useful for you in terms of hijacking, say, negative product reviews in the App Store, that people are able to vent through another mechanism, in that way, you kind of redirected their anger? Or on the negative side, does it mean that people who are positive tend to talk about them in UserVoice rather than actually go to the App Store and rate you, which is obviously great for attracting more users?

NATHAN: The interesting thing is that I actually haven’t had problems with people venting in the App Stores. I have thousands of reviews and mainly positive, average of 4.3 out of 5, so I think I’m being very lucky in that sense. And when the negative ones do come up with Google Play, at least, you can respond to them and your responses are seen by users as well. And genuinely, what I do – you know, somebody will put a review and it says, “This is buggy and it crashed”, you know, or something crazy like that. Then I’ll respond and I’ll say, “Great, let us know about it. I’m really trying to fix it. Here’s the address of our UserVoice.” A lot of times, they’ll do it, and then I’ll actually ask them to go back and adjust their review, because then I can actually engage with the end user. So there’s a little bit of that.

DAVID: Okay. So you break them out of the App Store process, get to actually talk to them directly and you can actually convert somebody from perhaps an opponent to an endorser for you at some stage.

NATHAN: Yeah. And they’re going to expect a reply. You know, people rant on the App Store it’s all the time.

DAVID: Exactly.

NATHAN: And when you actually respond, they’re like, “Oh, this is really interesting.” But the actual UserVoice site, it’s all about contributing ideas and voting on them, so people don’t tend to rate it on that site. They’ll say, “Hey, you know, you really should up a second pit stop and this happens in this part and this should happen.” So they’ll actually be asking for functional change or improvement rather than reporting issues.

DAVID: Okay, great. When you were talking before about multi-lingual stuff, it’s obvious for you to do because you wanted to reach the global audience and to talk to them in their own language is great. There’s this terminology called App Store Optimisation. Did you do that with any kind of wisdom about ASO or did you just do it out of plain common sense?

NATHAN: I’ve read a lot of articles about ASO like everybody and tried to gain the system, but I think the reality is that’s really, really hard, especially my space, because the keywords are trademarks of Formula One Management.

DAVID: Right.

NATHAN: So I actually used those keywords very early on and got my hands smacked.

DAVID: So this is Ferrari and all that sort of stuff?

NATHAN: Formula One Management, the actual entity that owns the commercial race sport.

DAVID: Oh, okay, right.

NATHAN: So if you used and “F” and a “1” next to each other on the App Store, then you’ll get into big trouble, and essentially I was taken down and all sorts of legal threats. That was addressed by taking it away but –

DAVID: Is that fail #2? [Laughter]

NATHAN: Yeah. No, that was #0. That was my first one.

DAVID: Last question: What is the revenue difference between Android and iOS? Graham was talking in a previous episode about basically 20-25%. Are you seeing the same sort of thing?

NATHAN: No, I’m not. They’re actually very even for me.

DAVID: Okay. Again, it’s something that’s possibly something applicable to people everywhere, so nations that might have a higher dominance of Android, whether that’s Asian nations or maybe India or wherever.

NATHAN: And parts of Europe as well.

DAVID: Right, okay.

NATHAN: Especially a lot of users around Spain and France, Android is big, very big. But the interesting thing is that it requires double the downloads.


NATHAN: So twice as many downloads on Android for exactly the same revenue, so conversion rate is about half. But maybe it’s a happy coincidence for me is that generally I run it about double the downloads on the Android, so revenue looks even to me but the reality is the conversion rate is a lot lower.

DAVID: Right, okay. So given that Graham was working with paid up front and your way is free to download and paid later, it’s really around the nature of the App.

NATHAN: And that is very different in the Android world. So I’ve got colleagues who release games on the Android site paid up front, and it’s a very different proposition, for Android users are a lot less likely to put the money up front, much more likely to engage in new game if there’s a free or a [light] version of it.

DAVID: That’s great. Well, thank you very much. I think there’s so much good value there in terms of game stuff and also understanding a bit more about the in-app purchase. So, if we get a chance to catch up later on to find out about your experiments to do with user retention, that would be great.

NATHAN: Okay. Thank you.

DAVID: Thank you very much. Cheers!



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