User Acquisition, the coal that keeps the mobile fire burning

User Acquisition has become a huge industry in the mobile game space in recent years. As more and more developers try to make it big on the App Store the business of generating a user base for new games has exploded. Nowadays it’s almost impossible to break into the Top Charts without a significant investment in UA (save, of course, those very lucky viral hits like Tappy Bird and Crossy Road). Most games launched these days will spend the vast majority of whatever marketing budget they have on User Acquisition. Mobile marketing budgets often don’t stretch far enough to cover other avenues of marketing such as brand building or product awareness, UA is king. UA in its current form has become such a popular method of promotion because it has a very tangible and immediate effect on your game’s numbers. However  it is not without its disadvantages. There’s a lack of transparency between the top providers and developers who use them, the quality of users is inconsistent and smaller developers get a lot less out of investing in UA than bigger devs with deeper pockets. All that being said however, a good UA campaign can give your game a boost into the charts and it’s how the top games remain where they are – UA is here to stay.

Game of War: Fire Age used very aggressive UA tactics to propel itself to it's current rankings on the App Store

Game of War: Fire Age used very aggressive UA tactics to propel itself to it’s current rankings on the App Store

The business of User Acquisition has best been described by Eric Seufert, now VP of User Acquisitions over at Rovio, as a commodity spot market where the commodities (users) are purchased for near immediate delivery. It’s a simple analogy to understand; a buyer/seller relationship exists between those who provide UA services like Facebook, AdColony etc. and game developers who purchase users from them. As the demand grows, so too does the cost of the commodity(the users). You can see that the huge growth the mobile industry has experienced in the last couple of years has resulted in the cost of a user (or at least the cost of an install) rise to about $2.10 a user. There are however some very notable difference between our analogy of a traditional commodity spot market and what we are dealing with in User Acquisition that Seufert has discussed.

  • First, and probably most notably, the quality of the commodity(user) is not standardised, its completely random. You could purchase a user who installs the game once, tells no-one about the game and uninstalls immediately or you might purchase a whale who drops a lot of money on your game in the first month, there is no way to tell.


  • Second the market is hard to understand, there is no transparency by the sellers. The providers tend to obfuscate the actual value of their good and this, of course puts the buyers (in our case the game developers) at a disadvantage. Information asymmetry benefits the sellers who get to sell at the price they dictate to a customer who doesn’t know the true value of what they are buying.


  • Finally, and this is arguably evident in most markets but is amplified in UA: Being able to buy at a large scale gives that buyer a huge advantage. Smaller devs buying fewer users with a lower budget won’t get half as much out of their UA investment as a bigger company would. This means that the buyer at the smaller scale has to interact with the market in a completely different way than the those who can buy large numbers.
Super Cell advertised Clash of Clans in the Superbowl - they have an almost bottomless advertising budget

Super Cell advertised Clash of Clans in the Superbowl – they have an almost bottomless advertising budget

To get into this final point in a bit more detail; for the EAs, SuperCells and Kings of the world who have large dev teams and deep pockets the best way for them to make the most out of an investment in UA would be to build up their analytics system, buy up a large volume of users up front on launch and then analyse and  understand how those users interact with the game. From there, proceed with a more targeted and nuanced UA approach. For a smaller team this is not a good way to use UA, the bias of the market toward the seller and the large-scale buyer does not favour them as much smaller contenders. An investment up front will often not be big enough to compete with the main players of the app store. It’s often much more beneficial to purchase users wisely after the game has been out for a while and you have a good understanding of how existing users play. Soft launch can be a great way to make UA work on a smaller budget, with a localised soft launch letting you gather info on players and then using what you’ve learned for a worldwide launch fueled by informed UA investment.


Often what is seen as the biggest drawback of UA is the lack of consistency with the users purchased. It’s impossible, of course, to know what kind of user you’re getting when investing. The modern channels of User Acquisition, be it through Facebook or Google or App to App advertising like AdColony, TapCommerce, Live Rail etc. will just give you installs but not any sort of consistent quality of users. What most developers would prefer over maximising the number of users would be to maximise the number of users that reach their game’s key engagement points, be that reaching a certain level, returning after a certain number of days, etc. There are some interesting forays into UA that bring in these types of users. Inter-game achievement systems whereby a player unlocks or progress in a  game in which they are already engaged by playing another game promoted through this system has been experimented with to varying degrees of success. Another, more out of the box approach is that proposed by Tiny Loot, a company that pays players to play games promoted on their platform.

Tiny Loot hopes to be the next big thing in UA by paying users to play games.

Tiny Loot hopes to be the next big thing in UA by paying users to play games.

Whatever the future of User Acquisition holds, it’s going to stick around as a core pillar of mobile advertising for a long time. It could be argued that it receives too much attention, but for mobile developers on limited budgets UA gives the quickest, most tangible ROI. Mobile games as inherently viral products will always require at least an initial seed of users, so there is rarely a case where a properly planned and implemented User Acquisition campaign won’t benefit a game, the trick is making that short term bump develop into longer term growth.

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