Not every small studio gets the chance to hook up with a media giant like Disney.
But Madison, WI-based PerBlue has done just that, bringing Disney’s live-action and animated characters together on mobile for the first time in the midcore role-playing game, Disney Heroes: Battle Mode.
PerBlue’s marketing manager Andy Jennings sat down with the Fyber Blog to explain how his team’s flexible, data-driven strategy to mobile user acquisition and marketing is helping the small studio work smart to reach an even wider audience.
Teaming up with Disney
PerBlue has grown from its bootstrapped, college apartment roots back in 2008 to a 50-employee mobile studio specializing in midcore RPG and strategy mobile games. With 25 million downloads in the bag, and a strong history with titles such as DragonSoul and Portal Quest, teaming up with Disney on a midcore mobile game made a lot of sense.
“DragonSoul kind of put us on the map as a company who knew how to operate and build a successful midcore game,” Jennings says. It was so successful that Japanese internet giant Gree bought DragonSoul from PerBlue back in 2016.
Image via PerBlue
PerBlue’s initial conversations with Disney grew into what’s now a solid collaboration, and Disney Heroes: Battle Mode—which launched worldwide in May—is the outcome, charging players with saving their fellow heroes from the big bad that’s taking over the Disney universe.
Staring at spreadsheets
For Jennings, data is king. And that’s how his small, three-person user acquisition team can cope with the demands of running big games like Portal Quest and Disney Heroes: Battle Mode. “It’s all driven by data,” Jennings says. “Our team looks at spreadsheets all day, and we love our job.”
Some user acquisition teams do the same amount of spend as PerBlue but have 10 or 20 people on board, Jennings explains. So the PerBlue team has to make its own spend—which might be doubling every month—more efficient in order to be successful.
“We’ve built up a structure that allows our very small team to efficiently look at campaigns on a regular basis,” Jennings says. “We know what bad performance looks like and what things might cause a bad performance, and we quickly make changes.”
Return on advertising spend (ROAS) is the ultimate goal for Jennings—”nothing else really matters.” But particularly in the early days of a game like Disney Heroes, it’s difficult to get a read on that. So the UA team at PerBlue works with the business intelligence group—who sit right next door—to make sense of game activity in Disney Heroes, taking it as an early success indicator.
“There are some correlations between ROAS and those early indicators,” Jennings says. “So if a user [from a user acquisition campaign] gets to a team level relatively quickly, a certain kind of benchmark team level, then we can see that they’re at least going to be a somewhat dedicated player and more likely to spend. That’s a good early gut check that we use. Then, once we start getting ROAS numbers, we’re able to make a better call.”
Image via PerBlue
And while the creative side of marketing is important with Disney Heroes—particularly with such world-recognizable characters—it still all comes down to the numbers.
“Obviously the IP is strong and helps conversion rates,” Jennings says. “Sometimes you’ll have an ad that has a high click-through rate and high conversion rate. But it brings in a crowd of users that don’t really resonate with the game very well.”
Having a great in-house marketing artist helps the team try out different types of ad creative quickly, gathering data on what works and what doesn’t—and tracking how things degrade over time. “It’s all kind of rough science and guessing,” Jennings says, especially in those early days. “But after a while and enough data, you can get a good feel for how different creatives perform.”
The power of automation
Over the past couple of years, Jennings has really questioned how best to run mobile marketing campaigns. It’s led to a lot of technical progress at PerBlue, including the automation of systems that were previously time-consuming.
“Knowing that Disney Heroes was coming and knowing we were going to be spending on a large scale again, there are several things we put in place that are kind of running on their own,” Jennings explains. “And we don’t have to be as involved with them on a day-to-day basis as we may have in the past. That allows us to deal quickly with stuff. Assess and move on to the next thing.”
The small user acquisition team now gets automated alerts when campaigns either aren’t meeting or are exceeding certain thresholds. These alerts also trigger when ROAS drops significantly or when certain fraud actions pop up.
“Those things were all normally manual checks that would happen weekly,” Jennings says, “and we’d go through all the advertisers and check on them. But now, I get a couple of emails in the morning to say, ‘Hey, this might need some looking at.’ And then we go on with our day.”
Flexibility is key
“DragonSoul was our very first really big game,” Jennings recalls. “And we kind of went from a small amount of spend to quite a lot of heavy, sophisticated spend really quickly.”
That meant a lot of trial-and-error, along with a willingness to learn from mistakes. “I think a lot of times you have to be willing to write something off,” Jennings says, “which is kind of rough. Write something off that you’ve learned, something big in that moment.”
Image via PerBlue
That ability to learn and adapt is something that’s served PerBlue well going forward, and it’s a philosophy that’s embraced from the very top of the studio down.
“With UA, you have to kind of accept when things aren’t working and quickly be able to adapt,” Jennings says. “Some companies are set up in a way that doesn’t allow them to do that. Because they have goals ahead, and those goals don’t necessarily line up with success.
“But I think PerBlue has a really good culture where we’ve been in mobile gaming for a long time. Our people that run the company—our CEO [Justin Beck]—understand that being flexible is super important, and that allows us to adjust. If a week is not going well or a month is not going well, then we try different stuff and we make it work.”
Building strong relationships
Despite doing a lot of smart mobile user acquisition strategies in-house, Jennings still recognizes the importance of mobile ad partners, and particularly account managers.
“One thing I’ve learned over the past couple years is that account managers are super important and have a whole set of knowledge that you’ll never have,” Jennings says. “Either you don’t have access to it, or you just haven’t been in that world long enough. They have insights into waterfalls and potential for volume and what other people are bidding and what sources are good and how different creatives are doing.”
So getting account managers on your side and building strong relationships is remarkably valuable, according to Jennings.
“We can look at the data all day, but our view into the data is limited,” he says. “It’s great to have those solid relationships to rely on.”
Looking beyond IAPs with offer walls
Alongside in-app purchases, PerBlue also looks to offer walls to help monetize its mobile games. They’ve proved amazingly successful, Jennings explains, and are a nice supplement to IAPs.
“We’ve had [offer walls] integrated in our games for five-plus years,” he says, “and they’ve been really good. They’re a great way of telling users how powerful the hard currency could be, as well as bringing in people who aren’t willing or able to afford that hard currency.”
And the presence of offer walls hasn’t negatively impacted IAPs—something that PerBlue has investigated in depth.
“We’ve done a lot of A/B tests,” Jennings says. “Offer walls against each other, offer walls versus no offer walls. And we’ve seen how they affect retention, how they affect lifetime value, general player sentiments. Because the SDKs are so simple, it’s easy to run two offer walls against each other or split out a group of players and don’t show them offer walls and see how they differ. It’s definitely a net positive, and we really haven’t seen a negative impact at all.”
The future for PerBlue
PerBlue is putting a lot of energy into Disney Heroes: Battle Mode right now. The road map goes a long way ahead, with regular updates bringing new characters and game modes. And it’s keeping Jennings’ small user acquisition team plenty busy.
“We’ve got 50 different variables every week that are different right now because we’re trying so many things,” Jennings says. “Scaling UA so quickly and there’s new updates that are coming out and Disney is pushing stuff. So, there’s a lot of noise right now.”
The team’s also continuing to support Portal Quest—”we’re still pushing that as far as we have been”—and Jennings hints that another game is already in the works, although it’s too early for any details.
What’s certain is that Jennings and his small user acquisition team will continue their Herculean mobile marketing efforts at PerBlue, punching above their weight by working smart and always looking at those spreadsheets.