9 things I learned about growing games from Brain Games VP Itay Milstein
How do you scale a game from zero to hero? And how does the job of growing games change as the game gets bigger and better?
In this Growth Masterminds we chat with Itay Milstein, VP of Growth at Braingames. He’s formerly from Wivo and was head of growth at Huuuge Games. Braingames makes Word Farm Adventure, a fast-growing game that is a mashup of word puzzles and a world-building farm sim. Every game and every app runs into roadblocks when launching and scaling. Milstein talks about how his team is overcoming them.
9 things I learned about growing games
I’m doing a new series on getting your first million users, so I’m hyper-focused on seeking out growth experts’ best strategies right now. (Check out the first one with Hannah Parvaz.)
Here’s a bit of what I learned from Itay:
- It’s OK to take a long time
Almost everyone struggles to launch a mobile game into the stratosphere. That’s good, says Itay Milstein, because you learn your product better.
“It’s good that it took us a while … we did many iterations again on the product side, on the marketing side, in order to really understand the value and the quality of our product alongside some sophisticated and innovative marketing strategies.”
- Everyone struggles with the yin and yang of monetization and churn
Yes you need to monetize. And yes, many of the things you do to monetize — especially in an ad-driven game — can cause churn.
“Monetizing better means putting more ads in the game. Yes, that’s super annoying for players,” Milstein says. Part of the struggle is finding the right mix, the right cadence, and the right placement in your game flow and game economy … and that’s something you only learn over time.
- Numbers are NOT all that matters
Yes, numbers are important. CPI, LTV, ROI, ROAS, you name it. But the map is not the territory. At base, your game is about people and what they want.
“We look at the numbers … but at the end of the day, there are people that download your game like me, like you all over the world,” says Milstein. “It’s the game experience, the first time user experience and then the longer retention user experience that needs to be appealing enough, fun, challenging at the same time for the player.”
- You MUST play your own game
Eat your own dogfood. Understand your product like a customer/user/player. You will never be able to market your app as well as you should if you don’t know it inside and out.
Milstein: “it’s super important that you play your own game every day and try to be the least biased that you can and understand the pain points and tackle them without any … game developer’s ego. I mean, put that aside, really try to understand that sometimes you’re doing things wrong and you need to fix them fast.”
- Building a successful game is a roller coaster
Sometimes you’re a hero. Sometimes you’re a zero. Don’t get too high or too low over your successes and failures, because what is most predictive of long-term success is sticking with the journey over time.
“Every day is an adventure,” says Milstein. “At the end of the day, especially startups and gaming startups … it’s a rollercoaster … we had times where we thought that we’re gonna break all records in one day, and we had times when we thought, okay, maybe that’s not the right way.”
- Stick to iOS despite ATT
Yes, it’s harder. Yes, the rules have changed. Yes, you’re getting less data and insight. But you can mitigate that with the right technology, and ultimately: people are still using their iPhones.
“We are advertising on iOS because at the end of the day, what we’re all always saying internally is that okay, basically Apple took away IDFA, but it doesn’t mean all the people in the world that still have iPhones [went away] … and we still need to find a way to reach them,” says Milstein.
- It’s not all about ROAS. CPI does, in fact, really really matter
Positive ROAS is great: go for it. But positive ROAS with high CPIs over a long LTV is not good if you don’t have unlimited cash to dump into the mobile advertising casino. You must, must, must optimize around low CPIs.
“I know that everyone is saying, okay, look at ROI … why do you care about CPI?” says Milstein. “That’s not true. We need those lower CPIs in order to recoup faster, to get our payback.”
- Creative is your path to lower CPI (and AI can help)
Better creatives, more interesting creatives, more compelling creatives, more targeted creatives, more converting creatives is your best current path to optimizing for lower CPI. The platforms reward clicks and conversions, so you have win at the first point of attack.
“We’re working really hard on creatives right now,” says Milstein. “With that AI company … we’re able to get one, two, three concepts per day, which … I think it multiplies the number of creatives that we’re doing in a week by five or six … that’s a good way to deal with CPIs, working on the creative: different lengths, different concepts.”
- Organic is gonna get harder
Everyone loves organic user acquisition (get 26 insights from 6 experts on organic UA here) but it’s gonna get harder. The benchmark is about 30% organic, Milstein says, but that’s going to go down.
“Now we have Google Play saying that the store is going to be much more personalized, specific to the individual and not every keyword will activate the same games,” Milstein says. “We see that the organic factor is declining.”
So much more in the full episode
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And, the full transcript: growing games with Brain Games VP Itay Milstein
John Koetsier: How do you get your first million users? Hello and welcome to Growth Masterminds.
My name is John Koetsier. I’m starting a new series, as you might know, in Growth Masterminds. It’s about the cold start, your first apps, your first users. It’s about failing. It’s about iterating. It’s about learning. It’s about growing, figuring it out, and starting to scale.
Our guest today is someone who’s been there and done that.
He’s been the marketing lead at Wevo, head of growth at Huuuge Games, now VP of marketing at Mad Brain Games, who make Word Farm Adventure. It’s a fast growing game that is a mashup of word puzzles and a world building farm sim.
Itay Milstein: Hey, John.
It’s great being here.
John Koetsier: How are you? Super good to have you and you know what? Super good that you’re rolling with it. You thought this was the prep session, it’s the actual full on video recording. You’re rolling with it. Awesome. You’re not shy. Tell us about your current game.
Word Farm Adventure
Itay Milstein: Oh, okay. So, Word Farm Adventure is a word casual puzzle game.
It basically has an amazing story about you as a player trying to save the animals from the evil uncle Jack. Save the farm, renovate it, and then progress to many other amazing locations that we have in the game while you’re solving crossword puzzles, challenging your brain, and enjoying a good word game.
John Koetsier: Awesome. Mashups are such a thing right now. Hey, I mean, taking elements of world building, taking elements of word puzzles, and now sims and everything. It’s interesting how that’s such a thing right now.
Itay Milstein: It is. I mean, it started like a few years ago. I think that it’s called the “scapes” part of the game where you have the core game at, in our case, it’s where you solve word puzzles and again, challenging your brain and spending some time trying to get better at it.
But then you earn some shovels, some stars in other games. And you go and there’s another story to the game where you renovate stuff, where you build villas, mall, county fair. That’s super amazing because it gives two dimensions to the game and one of it is for the people who like to challenge your brain and solve puzzles.
And the other part is more design, the artistic side of the game, I would say. So it’s a great combination for players that love to play in both areas.
John Koetsier: Yeah. Yeah. And it’s got the quick hits of fun. It’s also got the building, the long term build which is a kind of neat combination that we see in other places as well.
Now you’re starting to scale right now. Walk us through the journey. It hasn’t been easy.
Growing games = failing a lot
Itay Milstein: No, it hasn’t been easy. I would say that you have to, we failed a lot. So basically Brain Games is a company we exist for. It’s a gaming startup that has existed for I think three years now. We have several games in our portfolio, Word Farm Adventure is our main title.
We’ve been struggling the first two years with the game. When I’m saying struggling, I mean, it took us some time to understand how to monetize better. If I’m talking about business metrics, how to retain our players longer in the game … a lot of iterations on the product itself, a lot of iterations on the marketing strategy.
Until we reach a point where we have I’d say a solid marketing strategy together with the solid product. And we’re now able to run this machine on a higher scale. And I think it’s good that it took us some while to, it took us a while to, to get there. Because we really built it … it wasn’t like an easy success story.
It’s still not, I mean, we have a lot to go. We have a lot of work to do, but I think it’s good that it took us a while. And we did many iterations again on the product side, on the marketing side, in order to really understand the value and the quality of our product alongside some sophisticated and innovative marketing strategies.
Now I think that we are in a very good position. And we feel very comfortable with scaling our marketing budgets. And yeah, we’re doing it at the moment.
John Koetsier: What was one of the core times when you had to iterate, when you learned something, when something wasn’t working and you had to switch and then you fixed it?
Retention vs monetization: it’s hard
Itay Milstein: So I think that one of the main challenges today, not only for Word Farm Adventure, but for gaming companies and game developers in general, is retaining users in the game. It means that today with today’s competition and you have competition like you never had before the amount of games is just growing.
Marketing budgets are increasing significantly. It means that there are more games that are competing for the same amount of players. With that said, we had to understand what value we can give to our players to keep them in the game longer. But at the same time, we also had to understand how we can monetize faster.
Again, talking about business metrics … sometimes those two things are not going smoothly together.
Cause especially if Word Farm Adventure, which is an ad based game – so it monetizes faster, monetizing better means putting more ads in the game. Yes, that’s super annoying for players. Some players are okay with that, some not, and obviously that’s a big challenge for us.
How can we still keep the game experience good and solid for the players and not make them churn so fast?
John Koetsier: That’s yeah, hard rock, immovable force, right? You need to retain, you need it to be a great experience, need it to be fun. You need to make some money because otherwise you can’t build it, do it, all that stuff.
And so finding a way to make that work, I found it super interesting that you said that it was good that it was hard because you learned the real value. It’s funny because just my last interview – hasn’t even been published yet … by the time this comes out, it’ll have come out – my last interview was with Hannah Parvaz.
She’s a UA consultant. She’s been everywhere, helps hundreds of apps all over the place. And the first thing that she says is understand your users, understand what they want, understand your customers, what they need, what value you’re providing, what you’re doing. And that’s the core of growth that can last.
And it feels squishy. It feels, I don’t know, consultant-speak or something like that, but it’s real. I mean, that, that is actually what you’re doing. You’re providing experience. And if it’s not the one that somebody is looking for they’re not going to stick around.
It’s about the people
Itay Milstein: It’s so true.
I mean, at the end of the day, we look at the numbers. And we’re saying, okay, we need to increase the ROI day seven. We need to increase the retention day 30. And we look at the numbers and we treat them like numbers. But at the end of the day, there are people that download your game like me, like you all over the world.
And at the end of the day, it’s the game experience, the first time user experience and then the longer retention user experience. That needs to be appealing enough, fun, challenging at the same time for the player.
I think every game studio does the same, but it’s super important that you play your own game every day and try to be the least biased that you can and understand the pain points and tackle them without any, you know, I’ll call it like game developers ego.
I mean, put that aside, really try to understand that sometimes you’re doing things wrong and you need to fix them fast. And we are also super close and paying attention to our players at the end of the day with support teams working around the clock and trying to understand what are the main issues at the moment, because, you know, we’re always releasing new features.
New versions, things can go wrong, the features that you work on may not be at the end of the day what you planned when you draw them on the board. So you need to be on top of things, understand, listen to your users, your players.
Play your own game
Play the game yourself. I think that is something that once you understand that you can be your own, how can I say it, you can be your own gatekeeper, I don’t know how to say it exactly, but you can prevent things from happening before they happen.
John Koetsier: I want to underline that piece of advice that you just gave, play your own game, play your own game, feel it as somebody out there who downloads it, feels it, right? Oh, this is annoying. Oh, why did they do that? Oh, why is this here? That’s so important.
And I think that there’s a good chunk of people who don’t play their own games.
And I gotta say that playing mobile games, which is, you know, fun … is also the best way to learn mobile games and what’s good about them and what’s bad about them. And that’s going to give you a lot of insight about growth. I want to ask … you are starting to scale now, but you’ve had to iterate and learn and retrench and figure out and all that stuff …
Did you ever have some doubts along the way? Did you think, are we going to get this? Are we going to solve this? Are we going to figure this out? Is this going to start rolling downhill?
Play the long game when growing games
Itay Milstein: Every day, I mean, I mean, every day is an adventure. Yeah but at the end of the day, especially startup and gaming startup it’s a rollercoaster.
I mean, you know, we started before COVID, I mean, a bit before COVID and COVID was amazing for the gaming industry. I mean, unfortunately for the world, it wasn’t brought for the gaming industry. It was good, so many companies were founded at the COVID basically, many gaming companies, many investors, a lot of investor capital has been invested in the gaming industry.
It means more games, it means more marketing budgets, and at the end of the day, again, I’m going back to competition. With so many games after COVID has ended we took a hit because people went back to reality and gaming in general went down: usage and revenue and everything.
There are so many articles and reports about that. So obviously for a gaming startup that has been experiencing the good covid time and then the bad post covid time bad time it’s a rollercoaster. We had times where we thought that we’re gonna break all records in one day, and we had times when we thought, okay, maybe that’s not the right way.
But that exactly those are the points where you need again, to invent yourself, iterate it sounds like cliche but never give up in a way that you, if you believe in the game and at the end of the day, we do believe in the game.
So you need to keep on going, iterate things and get some successes.
John Koetsier: Love it. So in those successes, and it’s nice to see you have had those days where, wow, where it’s going straight up the graph and the charts looking amazing. That’s incredible. And of course you’re going to have those days where what the heck is happening here.
Hardest part of the cold start
If you look at the journey, starting a new game in this insane competitive environment is super challenging. What’s the hardest part of the cold start? Is it getting your first few hundred users? Is it, what is it?
Itay Milstein: Sometimes it’s individual for the game type that you want to launch.
So as a game developer, again, we have four games. One of them is World Farm Adventure, which we have talked about, but we have three more that we developed and are still developing in house and also when I was Huuuge Games as the head of growth, the growth department basically was responsible for launching new games.
So I’m quite familiar with the challenges of launching new games. And I’d say that the biggest challenge at the end of the day is seeing your idea that you think is going to be like the best in the market because you did the market research and you have the best design team and the art is amazing and the product, I mean, what can go wrong … crashes when you launch the game
And that’s okay. Leave that aside. The fact that you were upset about that. It’s also the amount of time, resources that you invested in developing a game that you see like in one moment that you mean, it’s not one moment. It’s that launch, soft launch, takes a few months.
But if it doesn’t go up, a lot of investment will go into the trash. And the biggest challenge for us is obviously, again you design the game, you build the product, you launch it in marketing, and then you understand that you have a lot of iterations. It’s not magic.
I don’t know a game that just launched and everything went smoothly and was okay.
John Koetsier: Flappy Bird.
Itay Milstein: Yeah, it’s not … it’s a long way. There’s a long way to go. There’s a lot of changes to do. I mean, from the moment that you launched the game till it’s ready to go to global launch, it could be two, three, four months if you’re lucky … up to one, two years. Yeah, it’s a long way.
Privacy, ATT, and growth
John Koetsier: Growth today is different than it was even two years ago. Device identifiers, IDFA is scarce. GAID is probably going away. It’s going away according to what Google has said. There may be some changes on that. We’ll see how that goes, but it’s going to be different. What’s working for you in the new environment?
Itay Milstein: I mean, things have changed. That’s right. The deprecation of IDFA was a big thing, still a big thing. It doesn’t mean that we’re not advertising on iOS, okay, and that’s important to say. Obviously, the rules of the game have changed. And it’s much more difficult. I would say, to reach your exact target audience.
There are still some ad networks that offer different solutions for advertising on iOS devices. If you’re talking about SKAN specifically, I would say it’s still a big challenge. We are doing SKAN.
We are advertising on iOS because at the end of the day, what we’re all always saying internally is that okay, basically Apple took away IDFA, but it doesn’t mean all the people in the world that still have iPhone [went away] … and we still need to find a way to reach them. And so I’d say that the rules of the game have changed, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re not, I mean, another advertiser that I know as well, specifically are doing fairly well on iOS.
You just need to try. You need to test your schemas, you need to follow best practices and test. And at the end of the day, I believe we still have [opportunity] …
By the way, as for us, it’s still not going so smoothly. And, but we know that it’s a market that we must advertise to. So we’re still trying and testing.
If Android would do the same, that would be difficult. That would be difficult because, you know, you still have your safe spot on Android devices. You know how to target. And also for us, again, as an ad revenue based game obviously the mediation part, the ad monetization part is our bread and butter. So when you’re buying users that don’t have your IDFA for them, and also advertisers that advertise in your game, I mean, you’re not able to maximize your eCPA for those users, at the end of the day, because no one knows who they are.
There are issues, but I think that at the end of the day, if you want, and you can, and you have the resources to test IOS, you’ll be there.
John Koetsier: Hopefully those two challenges balance out somewhat.
You can’t exactly target anymore. So hopefully the price is going down a little bit, although when you get somebody in and they’re seeing ads … people who are buying those ads can’t exactly target either. So there it is going down a little … hopefully that cancels out somewhat.
Itay Milstein: Hopefully!
John Koetsier: Hope is not a strategy 🙂
Okay, let’s end here.
How does the growth job evolve as your game matures, you’ve iterated, you’ve learned, you’ve got a core of users, you know what works, you know the value you provide, and you know how to move forward.
Doesn’t mean the challenges will end, they will continue, the roller coaster will continue, but does the job evolve a little bit?
Itay Milstein: Yeah. I mean, now it’s basically, we’re just getting started, right? Cause we’ve been through a lot. Now the product is good. So all the pressure is on the marketing team, my team. And now the story is about scaling. That’s true. That’s basically our challenge because think about that again, as an ad based game, for example, CPIs – cost per install – is so important for us.
CPI matters even if you’re getting positive ROAS
We really need to keep it on … I know that everyone is saying, okay, but why do you care about CPI?
That’s not true. We need those lower CPIs in order to recoup faster, to get our payback. I mean. You don’t have to agree to pay super high CPIs. If you insist, if you are building the right strategies, you’re also able to significantly reduce your cost per install.
And the thing that everyone is saying, and that’s true, that if I can invest in the CPI index over the years, you know, buying the user, a player, In 2011, 2012, less than a dollar a paying user in the U.S. Obviously today the numbers are much higher than that.
So I think that still, yes the increase in competition, increase in marketing budgets, at the end of the day that’s the main reason for CPIs to go up, but with the right creative strategy with putting a lot of attention on CPIs you are able to keep them low. And I’m talking a lot about CPIs because you asked about what you do, like what’s the growth mindset at the moment. So the growth mindset at the moment is to scale, but when you’re scaling the budget significantly – 10 times, 20 times, 30 times – from what you’re spending right now, obviously you expect CPIs to go up.
That’s our main challenge at the moment. So we’re working really hard on creatives right now.
We just signed on a new partnership with a new, very innovative company that basically creates marketing creatives specifically for gaming using AI only. What we so far did with the internal video editors … that we still love them and they’re still working for us and do an amazing job …
But now with that AI company which I’m not sure if I can tell the name, but I think they’re still under the radar … we’re able to get one, two, three concepts per day, which … I think it multiplies the number of creatives that we’re doing in a week by five or six, something like that.
So that’s a good way to deal with CPIs, working on the creative: different lengths, different concepts. And that’s our challenge at the moment, growing the game, is growing the game in marketing budgets, growing marketing budgets, it’s CPIs going up, performance going down. That’s not the case.
We’re trying to keep it very low. That’s what we’re doing.
K-factor and organic user acquisition
John Koetsier: Is there any organic component to your growth or are you focusing entirely on paid and maybe are there verticals that work better with organic?
Itay Milstein: John, that’s a good question because it’s just like something that we just discussed about. So from my time at Huuuge Games, it was, I think, almost three years ago, we had a very solid benchmark for what is a K-factor. I would say, like, how much of your daily installs come from organic?
And we had, I think, the benchmark in the industry, it’s around 30% for the benchmark. Yeah, obviously there are games with much more and there are games with less … and now we have Google Play saying that the store is going to be much more personalized, specific to the individual and not every keyword will activate the same games and so on … we see the opposite.
We see that the organic factor is declining for us at the moment and that’s not so good because at the end of the day, you want to enjoy this organic traffic. But if you look at it from a different perspective and say, okay, I made it with a very low percentage of my installs coming from organic traffic, it means that once I’ll be able to increase that I’ll probably do much better than what I’m doing today.
So we’ll be very glad if our organic factor will go up than what we have now, but still we are doing well without it. So once it is added, we’ll be in a very good place.
John Koetsier: I think that’s a really smart way to look at it.
And I think that organic is interesting. You can get it when you’re super established and you have a brand and people know you because that snowball starts to roll. As a small company, there’s an opportunity maybe in a niche where you have a super passionate core group that spreads and everything like that, but in between those extremes it’s really challenging.
And that should grow over time.
And honestly, organic won’t save you if you don’t understand your game mechanic and you don’t understand your LTV and you don’t understand your monetization and your retention and all that stuff. In any case, this has been a ton of fun. I’ve really enjoyed having the conversation.
Anything else that you want to share that you’ve learned, maybe recently, that would be helpful for others who are growing to their first million users?
Itay Milstein: Just again, play your game, iterate, try things, and if you believe in it, I believe that that’s the secret sauce for success. We have a long way to go. We still need to grow our game. It’s still a big challenge at the moment.
But yeah, it was super fun. Thank you for having me, John.
John Koetsier: Thank you so much.