East Side Games on Building a Community of 25 Million — An Inside Look
East Side Games took a big risk. For indie game studios such as Vancouver-based East Side Games, taking such a risk can be the difference between success and failure. The risk: Trailer Park Boys: Greasy Money—the studio’s first IP-licensed mobile game.
In less than a month after launching in April 2017, Trailer Park Boys: Greasy Money, a mobile game based on the cult-hit-TV-show-turned-Netflix series Trailer Park Boys, racked up over two million downloads and reached the #1 spot in Canadian app stores. But the title wasn’t a runaway hit by happenstance—East Side Games has been laying the groundwork for Trailer Park Boys’ success for years.
Since their founding in 2011, East Side Games has grown slowly—but organically. The key, co-founder and CEO Josh Nilson tells Fyber, is making sure everyone at East Side Games knows to put players first. “We have a big sign in our office that just says ‘Community is everything,’ so people really focus on that,” Nilson says.
In the fast-paced mobile game industry, everyone is trying to follow get-rich-quick schemes—or rather, get-more-downloads-quick schemes like how to make your game go viral or schmoozing 101 with app store editors to land coveted feature placements. But there is no silver bullet to growing a mobile game business quickly. Nilson advises mobile game companies to not get caught up in all the growth hacks, but rather engage with their community and build games their players want: “Our most important thing is the player. A lot of people forget that these days.”
In this exclusive Fyber interview, Nilson sheds light on East Side Games’ approach to community building and how they identified their now 25 million-strong audience. He also shares how to win by making ad monetization authentic and natural.
Bringing it in-house
The biggest piece of advice Nilson has for building a mobile game’s community: Make sure your community managers work in-house. To succeed at community management, East Side Games employs seven full-time community managers, working seven days a week. For an indie studio with just over 70 employees, employing seven community managers for a studio that size would sound like a lot to the average mobile game developer.
According to Nilson, however, his studio’s focus on community is what makes ESG different from the competition in the mobile game industry. “You need your community to support you or you’re done ,” he says. But it’s not a matter of having enough community managers, it’s a matter of making sure that your community feels engaged and connected across all of the channels where your players congregate. For East Side Games, and for many mobile game developers, that’s Twitter, Facebook, and streaming platforms such as Twitch.
Creating an experience
East Side Games’ community team isn’t just used for customer communications, they also create and distribute original content to strengthen the relationship with their players. Every week, ESG publishes over three hours of video content on Facebook Live and Twitch. “What a lot of people don’t realize is, our players are just really starved for content,” Nilson says. “If we can serve them more content, they’re going to stay engaged with us. ”
The results of these efforts are off the charts. The Canadian studio has found that some of their most engaged players play Trailer Park Boys: Greasy Money five times a day as well as watch 30 minutes to two hours of video content per week. Nilson likens the consumption of ESG’s video content to the typical weekly TV show.
Nilson says all of this content creation beyond his company’s core game development is part of a broader goal to provide an experience for their players that’s similar to companies known for great customer service and experience such as Fairmont Hotels and Resorts, Zappos, In-N-Out Burger, and Philz Coffee. “All they really care about is the experience,” he says. “I think we’ve forgotten that in games a little bit.”
East Side Games isn’t the only developer thinking of new ways to extend the customer experience beyond just mobile games. Finnish developer Supercell last year created an animated series, organized esports tournaments for Clash of Clans and Clash Royale, and plans to launch an online shop to sell merchandise from various Supercell games. “We are not doing this to diversify our revenue base,” CEO Ilkka Paananen told VentureBeat. “This is our way to give back to our players. Everything we have achieved is thanks to our players.” While this sort of content marketing is leveraged by core mobile games, Nilson believes you’ll see more casual mobile games taking note.
Finding your audience
Nilson is the first to admit that East Side Games didn’t identify their audience overnight. “We built 14 or 15 games before we had one that made money back in the day. Our first couple of mobile games were failures.” East Side Games, however, has never had an unprofitable quarter. “We’ve been profitable from day one,” Nilson says. Now, that doesn’t say East Side Games was rolling money. What it says, according to Nilson, is “We’re really good about thinking of our studio as a business. We’re business people first and foremost.”
East Side Games’ story may sound familiar to mobile game industry veterans. A little Finnish company by the name of Rovio made their fair share of games—51 to be exact—over the course of eight years from 2003 to 2011 before they really hit it big with global phenomenon Angry Birds.
Over the past couple of years, East Side Games pivoted to casual game development for mobile, particularly games that can be played entirely with one hand. “The challenge in today’s mobile gaming market is, most people don’t know their exact audience that they’re trying to hit,” Nilson says.
In the case of Trailer Park Boys: Greasy Money, East Side Games created an idle game that’s narrative, linear, and episodic with a clear “end” to the game (until new content is added, of course)—a stark departure from the typical clicker game. With Greasy Money, the studio sought to make a casual mobile game for people that don’t identify themselves as “gamers.” “Once we identified that audience for a casual game you can play with one hand that’s narrative and indie, then the pieces fell together fairly quickly,” he says.
Another key piece of advice Nilson has for identifying a community: “You have to set aside a really healthy amount of time for your closed beta, open beta, and soft launch.” With the quality bar at the highest it’s ever been in mobile gaming, it’s critical for even casual games to launch with a firm grasp of their target audience. “Make sure you’re always talking to your customers,” Nilson says. Those early players, Nilson emphases, are the reason why a game ends up with a huge player base down the road.
Knowing how long to spend identifying an audience for a game is a different matter. “I get the same question from a lot of people about how long should I do my open beta,” Nilson says. His answer: “I have no clue. It depends on your game. It depends on your audience.”
Nilson warns developers to beware of satisfying themselves over the audience they’re trying to reach. He admits that this was ESG biggest mistake they’ve made. “You should never build a game that you want to play,” he says. “You should build a game that you’re passionate about and you’re in love with, and then you put it into the wild. Then you build the game that your fans want to play. Once you release it, that’s not your game anymore. Building a game you want to play is a hobby.”
Making ad monetization authentic
Capturing an audience is one, albeit big, piece of the puzzle for ESG. A second piece for the studio is making money. When Nilson envisions ad monetization in games, he thinks of hockey video games for consoles. A die-hard Edmonton Oilers fan himself, Nilson believes great mobile game ad integrations parallel ads on the hockey rink boards in NHL video games. “Before ads in mobile games, you’d see real NHL hockey ads on the boards,” he adds. “I don’t mind ads on the boards in NHL video games because it feels authentic.”
It’s authenticity, Nilson says, that’s key for integrating ads in a mobile game. When integrated authentically, players don’t mind ads. “You don’t see people refusing to take a subway because there are ads [inside the train],” he says. “In fact, what you’ll see is, if there’s a really creative ad campaign people will actually spread them around socially.”
Trailer Park Boys: Greasy Money is the perfect example of a mobile game with an authentic integration of mobile ads. The studio uses the mockumentary format of the TV show as the ideal opening to integrate rewarded video ad monetization.
Every so often in Greasy Money, a camera crew appears in the trailer park, recording one of the star characters Ricky. If a player taps on the camera crew, they can watch a rewarded video ad in exchange for liquor, the game’s soft currency. Greasy Money also incorporates a stacking mechanic allowing players to watch multiple video ads in a row to extend a currency multiplier.
Nilson has a simple checklist for developers to integrate ads in a mobile game with authenticity:
- Fully opt-in: “The key to an effective ad is how they are always user opt-in,” he says.
- Fit the theme: “We always try to bake [ads] right into the story, so it makes sense,” Nilson says.
- Provide value: “You want to offer them something of value. It’s not a one-way transaction,” Nilson says.
- Think global: “One thing that you have to be aware of with rewarded video is geos around the world,” he says. “Not everyone has access to the same inventory as the U.S., Canada, or the U.K. There are some countries that don’t have inventory, so you have to have your game balanced in a sense that if people just don’t have access to rewarded video that it will still work.”
- Send reminders: Nilson recommends sending push notifications, so you can let players know when they can interact with an ad. And write the push notification copy to fit the game’s theme, such as: “It’s not rocket appliances, watch a video to double your money!”
And if a game can’t meet this criteria, Nilson suggests: “If you don’t have an effective way to make [ads] authentic for the player, then just don’t do it yet.”
East Side Games plans to double down on video content creation on Facebook and Twitch by year’s end to continue meeting the consumption needs of their growing user base. On top of that, ESG formed its first live ops team, focusing on new content and features for Greasy Money and future titles. In the past few weeks, the studio’s first limited-time event went live in Trailer Park Boys where players can unlock Orangie the goldfish, a fan favorite character from the series.