User acquisition for mobile games is a drug we’re all hooked on: Mistplay CGO Jason Heller on a different way to grow in 2023

By John Koetsier March 29, 2023

That the mobile growth industry is hooked on growth is not shocking. Water, in breaking news, is also wet. But how gaming user acquisition experts recruit new players for their games is evolving in 2023, and I had a chat with Mistplay chief growth officer Jason Heller about what user acquisition for mobile games looks like from his perspective.

“User acquisition is a drug that we’re all hooked on,” Heller says in the latest Growth Masterminds episode. “The dirty secret in gaming is significant churn, right? So you have to keep feeding the beast.”

Feeding the beast is, of course, spending more and more money every single month to fill the top of a very leaky user acquisition bucket to replace players who churn. All good, except that less churn and more retention would result in higher LTV and better profitability. In additional utterly shocking news, the less game publishers have to spend on UA the more they can pocket.

Mobile game growth options

So what do you do?

  1. Try to boost engagement and retention (like everyone else)
  2. Cross-promote games across your studio’s titles to change external churn to internal churn
  3. Buy smaller studios to acquire their players and then work on #1 and #2
  4. Make something so amazingly good the whole world just downloads it on general principle, plays it every day, and never leaves (just a little hard and requires just a smidge of luck … but keep trying)
  5. Build a rockstar ASO and SEO and influencer strategy to funnel 99.753% of all even semi-related online interest directly to your app
  6. And … keep paying the piper (AKA the user acquisition ad tax)

There’s value in all answers, but industry experts know: advertising exists for a reason.

Breaking through the avalanche of information dumped on Humanus Digitalis in 2023 is hard. Awesome ads in excellent contexts delivered via smart technology have a shot.

Given you’re still going to need to boost user acquisition for mobile games with ads, what does Heller think works this year? I wanted to specifically ask him, because Mistplay (which is about .01% the size of a Meta or a Google … don’t fact-check me on that) did surprisingly well in this year’s Singular ROI Index. As in: 14 mentions in the total document. And, a staggering 9 rankings in various top network lists, including perhaps the most important ranking of all: the top overall list for all-round excellence by a mobile ad partner.

How does a small ad network compete?

And, more importantly, do so well?

Briefly, in Jason Heller’s words, by play-to-earn, by loyalty, and by community.

Yeah, play to earn. But not that kind of play to earn

A good chunk of Mistplay’s success might be attributed to play to earn, which Heller is trying to reclaim from the web3 crowd:

“I’ve stopped using that phrase as much as I would like, just because the web3 companies have kind of hijacked it a little bit and it’s a very really different kind of beast, right?” Heller says. “There is a movement of play to earn in web3, but it’s a speculative crypto/NFT kind of market. It’s not what we do, which is help game publishers reach users who actually want to play their games, spend time and money in those games, and earn based on the time and money they spend in games. So it’s a totally different beast, but that is what we do: we are a play to earn platform, and that’s the value prop to the user.”

Rewards, in other words, matter in user acquisition for mobile games. And, of course, for retention. But building the community side is equally important in a privacy-first SKAdNetwork era on iOS, and Privacy Sandbox on Android. 

First-person data driving user acquisition for mobile games

Mistplay develops a first-person relationship with gamers that persists over time and throughout their gameplay in multiple mobile games. That first-person relationship means that gamers earn rewards for their gameplay in multiple games — a strategy I’m baffled that more studios don’t adopt internally — and means that Mistplay has strong privacy-safe data on what games individual players like.

And which ones they buy digital goodies in.

“The interesting thing about being a UA source with a ton of first party data — because we’re not a network, we’re a community — we get a little bit of luxury that not everybody enjoys,” Heller says. “We can follow a user along their journey. We can re-engage somebody when they stop playing a game on behalf of a client.”

That’s important right now because in the middle of our 3 to 5 year ATT and Privacy Sandbox transition, mobile game publishers are also faced with a double whammy courtesy of a declining economy. The challenge is a profitability squeeze as CPIs are going up while ROAS is going down, mostly due to declining in-app purchases.

Live ops for “retained revenue”

Interestingly, Mistplay is planning to release a live ops tool in the next 6 to 12 months that will leverage what Heller says is the platform’s “uncanny” ability to predict D7 revenue and in-app spending to serve UA clients better.

And to drive long-term value.

Not D7. Not D30. Think months, even years of “retained revenue.”

“We’ve got massive aspirations,” Heller says. “If you look at the games that really are driving what I would call retained revenue: how much revenue is retained without having to go out and spend tens of millions of dollars on user acquisition … like Roblox, right? If you look at the day 30 retention trend of a Roblox versus let’s just use a Coin Master, or another great, amazing, high grossing IAP game, the difference is not day 30. The difference is day 180, day 360 and probably multi-year cohort life cycle. It’s amazing how they retain users over the long term.”

Not everyone can be a Roblox or a Minecraft or a Fortnite or a Clash of Clans, of course, as Heller readily acknowledges.

But that’s the standard he’s aiming for: retained revenue via smart user acquisition and — even more so — great gameplay and community and value in an experience that players rarely churn from.

Much more in the podcast!

As always, there’s much more in the full podcast. Watch it above, or subscribe to Growth Masterminds on any of the podcast platforms you love, including:

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