All You Need to Know About How to Soft Launch a Game App

There's no way you can find out about users’ responses to your mobile game, its revenue stream, and overall success before it is released. However, there is a soft launch at your disposal – risk-free and cost-effective preliminary testing. Let’s dive right in.

how to soft launch a game app

What is a Soft Launch?

A soft launch means trialing your app in the market. It means releasing the app to a restricted audience to see whether the product is viable, define an early user base and estimate KPIs before actually marketing it.

Why Soft-Launching a Product is Important

A soft launch will either confirm that a project is a success or show it is not ready for a market push. In the latter case, you will have to postpone the official release and make improvements or start a new project. It is a common practice, as even large and successful game developers abandon projects due to low KPIs observed during a soft launch.

Rush Wars is just one example of this. It was Supercell's MMO strategy, soft-launched on 26 August 2019 in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. On 30 November, however, the game was closed due to the feedback on its repetitive gameplay and updates bringing no improvements. Supercell redirected its resources and developers to more successful projects.

rush wars

Secondly, a soft launch is an opportunity to get early reviews from real users

Positive feedback can serve as customer testimonials, leading to more downloads and social proof of the product’s quality attracting new users. Similarly, negative reviews and error complaints from several players will help you identify areas for improvement.

Make sure users have a simple feedback form during a soft launch. Display your email or other contact information in the app and App Store page. Even if you do not get any regular reviews, there will be a user base available for surveying to find answers to your questions.

Thirdly, a soft launch helps game developers and publishers deal with another challenge – user retention. More than 77% of apps are deleted within three days of downloading, with only 15% of mobile games making it beyond one month.

According to deltaDNA, games that spend more than one month in soft launch can increase retention by 20%.

How to Prepare for a Soft Launch

Before initiating a soft launch, make sure you follow these seven steps:

Step 1: Improve MVP

The app does not have to be completed from start to finish; 25% of all levels and streamlined gameplay mechanics will do the trick. It is important, however, that the app be optimized and bug-free, because if the game crashes or closes unexpectedly, this will distort the feedback and app’s data on user behavior.

Step 2: Identify your Audience

You must have already researched the market during the pre-production phase, analyzed the competitors, and built your target audience’s profile. Good for you! However, a soft launch requires wide targeting by region and one or two parameters like interest in cars and games if the app is a racing game. Then you have to gradually gather more details on the real audience of your product based on the data about the other interests of users who clicked on the ad. This will allow you to minimize non-targeted traffic in the future.

Step 3: Choose Countries for Soft Launches

A perfect scenario would be soft-launching the app in the target market. However, international best practice is against this for two reasons: extremely high CPI, and the risk of the tested product going viral, and the audience losing all interest before the official release, with monetization revenue below the expected level.

Thus, most soft launches are usually carried out in countries with a lower CPI and weaker competition whose population is similar to that of the target countries in terms of the national mindset, living standards, and language. To a greater or lesser extent, these countries have already been identified:

  • For the US, Canada and Australia are popular choices for a soft launch. However, a growing gaming app market and a large number of soft launches caused CPI to grow rapidly in those countries. An increasing number of developers are opting for Ireland and New Zealand since their populations have similar behavioral patterns and are English speaking. 

Pokémon Unite was soft-launched in Canada, Blizzard Entertainment tested its Diablo Immortal in Australia, Bethesda opted for New Zealand when testing Mighty Doom, and Ireland was the testing site for Konami’s New Football Project.

  • For Europe, Finland and Italy will be a great choice for a soft launch, as both European countries have moderate CPI.

Finland saw soft launches of Supernatural City from Rovio, Clash Quest from Supercell, and Gram Games' Pirate Evolution, while Italy was the country of choice for FarmVille 3 – Animals by Zynga and DC: Batman Bat-Tech Edition by Warner Bros.

  • For China or South Korea, Thailand, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Singapore are perfect testing sites to start with. These countries can give you a general view of the app’s prospects in Asia. Moreover, they usually welcome foreign projects, with much of their population speaking English.

All these countries saw the first launch of Tom and Jerry: Chase by NetEase, Villains – Robot Battle Royale by Birdletter and League of Legends: Wild Rift from Riot Games and Gamevil.

  • For Russia, Belarus or Kazakhstan are usually selected for a soft launch, since their population speaks Russian but has a lower purchasing power.

Belarus was one of the countries to see the soft launch of Tacticool by Panzerdog. There is no data on Kazakhstan, but it is where the soft launch of VK Messenger took place.

  • Sometimes, you want to test the peak load performance of your MMO game’s server rather than the user’s interaction with the app. India and the Philippines are the best for this purpose since you can get access to nations with a large English-speaking audience and low CPI.

India and the Philippines saw the test launches of Apex Legends Mobile from Respawn, EA Sports UFC Mobile 2, and LEGO Star Wars Battles by Playdemic (LEGO).

Step 4: Set up a Store Page

Although the final image of the app’s page will take shape after the soft launch, a page for testing still takes more than a couple of screenshots and a few lines of text. Before the launch, identify the keywords, perform benchmarking analysis, and optimize the titles and description.

At the soft launch stage, it is important to develop an attractive app icon, stylish screenshots and a quality game trailer that is vivid, powerful and contains real gameplay. Also, it won’t hurt to learn about the app stores’ tech requirements to avoid it refusing to publish your app after all the effort spent. Here are the App Store and Google Play requirements.

Step 5: Prepare Visuals

Soft launch creative materials should be plain, with a focus on gameplay and a clear call to action. It’s best to create a couple of different format visuals such as static banners and playable ads (however tricky it might be, it completely pays off, says App Annie). Then, use the click statistics to choose a priority format to meet the preferences of your audience.

creatives

Step 6: Define the Key Metrics

CPI

Cost per install, under which an advertiser pays for every app install following a click on the ad, is the most common pricing model for mobile apps.

The US has always been the best market for mobile apps as it has the wealthiest and most willing to pay users. This, however, results in the highest CPI. Hence, developers opt for countries with less-well-off users and lower CPI for their soft launches.

To put that in context, here are Statista’s findings on the CPI of casual gaming apps from March 2020 to February 2021:

  • Average CPI in North America – USD 6.36
  • Europe, Middle East, and Africa – USD 1.12
  • Asia-Pacific – USD 1.29
CPI in mobile games

Even more vivid statistics: according to Chartboost, the US average mobile app CPI in March 2020 was USD 1.05 and USD 1.45 for Google Play and the App Store respectively. Compare that to USD 0.07 and USD 0.84 in the Philippines.

LTV

An important KPI that provides an accurate view of the present and projected average profit per user. An LTV higher than CPI is a promise of the app’s profitability.

For apps with a limited number of users, you can calculate the LTV with the help of predictive analytics.

Monetization

The majority of modern games use either one of these key monetization models: F2P (a free game without any mandatory payments) or freemium (a free to install game with service limitations that require payment to unlock).

If the monetization model selected for your soft launch proves ineffective, choose another one. After all, that’s what a soft launch is for.

Retention rate

Retention rate is the percentage of users who return to and use an app after install.

According to GameAnalytics, a good retention rate is 35% on day 1 after install, 11% on day 7 and 5% on day 28.

Virality

Shows how viral your app is. To measure it, multiply the number of referrals by the percentage of organic installs.

Organic installs

The number of installs not attributed to paid ads. A high organic install rate usually comes as a result of a robust ASO or virality.

These are the main metrics to assess the app’s potential, but you can also track other indicators: more data means more meticulous preparation for the official release. See our blog post with infographics on 10 key mobile game app metrics.

10 metrics for games to track

Step 7: Choose an MMP

One of the critical steps is to find an analytics and attribution service to track user interaction with the app.

A good option is myTracker: detailed reports on all traffic sources, marketing and product analytics, fraud prevention tools, and simple SDK-based integration into the app.

How to Soft Launch an App

The average soft launch consists of three stages:

Stage 1. Stability testing

Testing the app’s stability requires about 1,000 downloads. According to Qualitrix, the acceptable app crash-free rate is 99%. This means that crashes and errors are acceptable for 10 out of 1,000 devices.

Use the following formula to calculate the app crash-free rate:

(1 – (number of errors / number of sessions)) * 100

The number of errors is available on the Google Play Console under the Crashes and ANRs [A1] tab or in the Crashes and Exceptions report in Google Analytics.

Crashes and ANRs tab in Google Play Console
Crashes and ANRs tab in Google Play Console

The number of sessions is also available in Google Analytics or other analytics systems such as myTracker.

Number of sessions in myTracker.
The number of sessions in myTracker

The errors can have different causes, but the most common of them are:

Device overload – the app is using too much memory or overloading the processor. As a result, the app is forcibly closed by the system.

The solution is to optimize graphics and resource consumption by the device.

Internet problems – the app requires a stable high-speed internet connection to transfer large data batches, but users are playing with a 3G connection. This results in delays, lost connections, and inability to play multiplayer online games.

The solution is to optimize the loaded data.

Unexpected behavior – the app is designed for certain use scenarios, but the players behave differently: leave blank fields in the forms, interrupt the loading of levels, or press the same button many times. This leads to system crashes and closing of the app.

The solution is to conduct more pre-release tests.

It is normal for the app to have significantly more errors than you expected, as it is impossible to foresee everything. This stage of the soft launch is specifically intended to reveal and fix bugs before the app’s official release.

The Asia-Pacific countries with the lowest CPI – India, the Philippines, and Thailand – are the best candidates for this testing stage.

Stage 2. Retention testing

At this stage, you need 2,000–5,000 downloads to test the app’s user retention. Liftoff offers the following average retention rates for mobile games:

Day 1 – 30%

Day 7 – 10%

Day 28 – 5%

Retention rate is the number of users who returned to the app divided by the number of users who installed it on a certain date. This number is available in any mobile analytics system.

Retention rate in myTracker
Retention rate in myTracker

Boosting the retention rate is an iterative process that includes hypotheses, analytics, and continuous improvements. It requires configuring custom events in specialized trackers.

For example, you can hypothesize that the tutorial is too long and complicated, causing some users to leave the app without ever reaching the in-game store or viewing the first ads.

To test this hypothesis, you need to compare the number of users who started going through the tutorial with the number of those who completed it. If over 50–70% of the players leave the app at this stage, then obviously there are problems with the tutorial. It could be too long or too boring.

That is where the iteration process begins. You can experiment by cutting the tutorial’s duration, adding some action, or breaking it down into mini blocks. Following each of these steps, you need to measure the number of users again to determine whether the app’s retention rate has improved.

Tip: to quickly figure out the problem, try looking at similar games with a million or more downloads to understand how a certain system works. These are commercially successful products that have already tackled such problems.

For this testing stage, consider Finland, Italy, or other countries with a Western mentality and a low CPI.

Stage 3. Monetization testing

At this stage, you need about 10,000 downloads to confirm or reject the app monetization hypotheses.

There are five main monetization models in mobile games:

  1. Ad monetization
  2. In-app purchases
  3. Paid games
  4. Subscriptions and freemium
  5. Mixing different strategies

Read more about each of these models in our app monetization guide, complete with tips and working strategies.

how to prepare for app monetization
Infographic from the 2021 App Monetization Guide on myTracker Blog

Ad monetization

To estimate this, eCPM is used, i.e. revenue earned per 1,000 ad impressions. There are three main types of ad format in mobile games: banners, full-screen static ads, and rewarded videos. According to research by Appodeal, the average eCPM in the key markets from April to June 2021 was as follows:

Banners: USD 0.14–0.44 for iOS and USD 0.04–69.14 for Android

Full-screen static ads: USD 2.03–10.23 for iOS and USD 0.51-USD 11.51 for Android

Rewarded videos: USD 2.00–14.94 for iOS and USD 0.38–13.40 for Android

In-app purchases

This is estimated using ARPPU, the average revenue per paying user.

According to Wrappier, around 2% of mobile game players make in-app purchases. The cost of acquiring users who will make in-app purchases is USD 77.45 for iOS and USD 86.72 for Android.

Statistics by region:

  • North America: 3.4%, with an average acquisition cost of USD 112.22
  • Europe: 2.6%, with an average acquisition cost of USD 56.15
  • Latin America: 1.8%, with an average acquisition cost of USD 27.13
  • Asia-Pacific: 1.6%, with an average acquisition cost of USD 67.68

This monetization tool is only suitable for apps with large user acquisition budgets as only 15% of the top gaming apps in stores deliver a high ARPPU value.

Source: gameanalytics.com

Paid games

There are only three paid games in the App Store’s Top 200 and zero in Google Play. This is because this monetization model is chosen in three scenarios:

  1. An already successful game is being ported to mobile devices. Examples include Minecraft and My Child Lebensborn, which are the two most popular paid games on App Store and Google Play.
  2. The game has unique and distinct gameplay, such as Incredibox – a musical beatbox game set in a sandbox environment.
  3. The game has a massive marketing budget, allowing it to compete with other paid apps, including the Kingdom Rush franchise, in terms of value for money.

According to statistics by Sensortower, the average price of a Top 200 paid game in the App Store and Google Play ranges between USD 1 and USD 5. No more than 10 games in either store are priced at above USD 10.

Subscriptions and freemium

These are also estimated by ARPPU.

According to a survey conducted among 400 mobile app developers from the US and UK, 56% of them use a paid subscription model for their apps, while 36% say this is the best way to generate revenue. The freemium model placed second, with 54% of the mobile developers using it and 33% rating it as generating the best revenue.

According to AppLovin, subscriptions and freemium are the most profitable monetization models.

They have distinct advantages when it comes to anticipated revenue and user retention; however, they are incompatible with other models and require developers to constantly produce high-quality content.

There are two main ways of integrating these models into a mobile game:

Disabling ads for a small price, allowing the user to retain all of the rewards associated with watching them.

VIP account – ads are disabled, and the user receives additional rewards, such as in-game currency, unique heroes, or new levels.

Mixing different strategies

Using rewarded ads in combination with in-game purchases is the best way to improve the revenue generated by your app.

Monetization testing is the most expensive and important stage of a soft launch, where you will calculate the LTV and decide whether to release or scrap the app. Canada, Australia, Ireland, and New Zealand are all suitable for monetization testing.

Takeaways

The soft launch is an integral stage of developing a mobile game as a commercial product. Basically, this is a process of trial and error: by learning from your mistakes, you will be able to make an informed decision on what to do with the project. The more data you receive during the soft launch, the more informed that decision will be.

A good option is myTracker: detailed reports on all traffic sources, marketing and product analytics, fraud prevention tools, and simple SDK-based integration into the app.

Looking for an analytics and attribution service to track user interaction with your app? myTracker will help you make a successful soft launch by assessing your current performance and grow your project after it is released.