In the Tapjoy App Spotlight, we take a deep dive into the engagement, retention, and monetization strategies employed across the mobile industry’s most unique and successful titles. Through industry data-driven analysis, we identify the measurable relationships between development decisions and business outcomes to offer publishers actionable insights they can use to build successful portfolios.
After more than a year in app stores, the mobile version of the popular PC game ARK: Survival Evolved has achieved a remarkable level of sustained success. Translating this massive multiplayer survival experience from PC to mobile was no small feat. War Drum Studios began with an ambitious vision to load the mobile app with a full suite of features, and they worked closely with Studio Wildcard to make it happen.
Thanks to ARK’s brand recognition, unique design, and an aggressive content release cycle, the mobile app has already become massively popular. With minimal paid user acquisition and an innovative adaptation of its native PC gameplay loop, War Drum Studios has managed to execute a seamless transition into mobile environments, fostering engagement with an expansive and valuable new audience.
From the start, War Drum Studios set out to simplify mechanics without compromising aesthetics. While the title had to be optimized for the limitations of mobile interfaces, it was imperative that this not come at the cost of the exploration and discovery experiences to which the PC version owed its success. That said, fitting ARK’s expansive open-world survival gameplay onto mobile devices presented a number of technical and design challenges, some of which Art Director Morgan Hughes discussed in a presentation at the 2019 Unreal Engine Conference. What was originally intended for long-term, curiosity-driven gaming sessions on desktop would need to be scaled down to offer meaningful and compelling gameplay interactions at a fraction of the time and with fewer input capabilities.
Features had to be cut and systems rejigged. The number of in-game creatures was reduced to roughly 80 in the interest of concision and size while user interface elements were scaled up to accommodate touchscreen inputs on tablets and phones. A more forgiving combat system was introduced in order to fuel a time-based virtual economy that promoted regular scheduled engagement at shorter intervals as opposed to longer sessions.
The cold-open approach to survival gameplay that’s common to desktop survival titles also had to be replaced, knowing that mobile users are often likely to churn within even the first few seconds of gameplay. A more curated experience was developed, as War Drum Studios added a linear quest system designed to better orient players with its mobile-specific systems and encourage pursuit of meaningful rewards as early as possible. Players were introduced to all aspects of the virtual economy, including rewarded ad placements and power of premium currency, within the first intended session. This ensured they were well educated by the time the game’s open-world aesthetics were reintroduced and monetization strategies could be put into place.
Finally, by treating the mobile version of ARK as its own entity, the developers at War Drum Studios were able to give players experiences that are exclusive to this version. Speaking with Tapjoy, War Drum Studio’s Lead Community Manager Jordan Kleeman said, “Since we treat this as a separate product from the PC and console game, there’s lots of things we’ll do that are unique to the mobile game, like weekly dungeons. This sort of mobile-only content keeps a steady stream of users coming back to ARK week after week.”
The mobile version of ARK: Survival Evolved is unique in its approach to user acquisition, in that it makes little to no use of paid advertising. While paid UA is often a staple of mobile game marketing strategies, they are actually the minority contributor to the title’s DAU. Organic acquisition, thanks in large part to its existing brand recognition and frequent content release cycle, has been sufficient to drive a steady flow of high quality installs for the entire year that it’s been in the market.
A quick glance at the game’s version history shows that it’s not uncommon for the developers at War Drum Studios to push 1-3 and sometimes even five releases per month. Each update involves exciting new content, rather than just bug fixes. Kleeman regularly releases developer update videos which review upcoming app features. The studio’s commitment to fresh content allows them to consistently reactivate their existing player base with update notifications for fresh content, ready to be consumed.
As Kleeman told us, these updates are “incredibly important” to ARK’s ongoing mobile success. “The games industry is moving more and more towards live service games,” he said. “It was important to us… to make sure that we’re constantly releasing new things to keep our players engaged and give them reasons to keep coming back.”
This is the kind of developer activity keeps users equally engaged, and that sustained user engagement has earned ARK a substantial visibility in the app stores. ARK: Survival Evolved has benefited from hundreds of store category/country feature placements on the Google Play store in the past month alone. ARK has been featured across 16 countries in the following categories:
Many of these featured placements have been in the “Best New Updates” section, which provides a visibility boost in addition to the natural spike in DAU resulting from update notifications that players receive whenever new content is released. Frequent content updates have kept players engaged and a strong relationship with store platforms has kept ARK visible to new users allowing for continued organic growth. It’s this virtuous flywheel that has allowed War Drum Studios to consistently keep ARK in the charts. These app store features have enabled ARK to maintain a consistently high rate of new downloads, despite the absence of a paid UA strategy.
Unlike desktop, ARK’s mobile version employs the free-to-play business model. Revenue is generated through rewarded ad placements and in-app purchases; according to Kleeman, “the split is probably 30% ad revenue, 70% in-app purchases, with most ad revenue coming from our offerwall and rewarded video ad placements.” ARK uses rewarded ads as part of their core engagement loop, providing players the ability to level up, progress through content faster, or acquire the Ancient Amber virtual currency. The app also offers a number of “free gifts” in the form of valuable objects, including food, medicine, or armor. These free gifts can be acquired by watching a rewarded video ad every two hours.
As the game’s only hard currency, Ancient Amber figures prominently into ARK’s virtual economy. The use-cases of this currency are tied directly to gameplay mechanics, as opposed to timers or cooldowns. While this can lead to a relatively low average revenue per paying user in other game genres, the sophistication of ARK’s gameplay systems and economy design provides ample opportunity for players to derive value from repeat purchases. Paying users typically convert on multiple premium items, making for an active late-game community responsible for generating the majority of the game’s revenue.
That said, ARK does offer things like timers and cooldowns too. “We have a wealth of in-app purchases,” Kleeman explained. “‘Paying for convenience’ is sort of our motto for the items we sell in-game.”
To further cultivate this dynamic, War Drum Studios employed a VIP program monetization strategy. It uses the relatively new subscription-based monetization functionality provided by Google and Apple to offer its most devoted players a better class of gameplay experience designed around frequent engagement. The “Primal Pass” IAP can be purchased on a monthly or annual basis and includes the following features:
ARK’s powerful brand recognition has allowed it to sustain consistent profitability and reach. The decision to optimize in-game assets for older devices allowed it to thrive in geos where current gen device adoption is lower. At the time of writing, App Annie data places ARK’s Android version among the top 10 grossing Android apps within Mexico (#6), Ecuador (#7), Saudi Arabia (#7), Colombia (#9), and India (#10).
“We knew making the transition from console and PC to mobile would be a challenge, but our investments in mobile-specific game aesthetics paid off. ARK is also a powerful brand, and that brand recognition has been a primary driver of our success on mobile. Our PC community is already highly active and engaged, and many of these same users have taken the liberty to review our mobile edition publicly and positively. There’s always active discussion on our forum regarding the ARK app and we are incredibly grateful for this vibrant community.” – Marc Diana, VP of Partnerships and Marketing at Studio Wildcard.
In addition to the top grossing charts, ARK benefits from prominent visibility in its gaming sub-category charts on both Android and iOS
This sustained community engagement and consistently high review scores have increased the app’s visibility radically, resulting in a steady flow of organic downloads.
Key: = # of positive reviews, = # of negative reviews
War Drum Studios has managed to translate unique open-world gameplay, varied monetization strategies, and a strong content development machine onto mobile platforms in order to make ARK: Survival Evolved a major success story. Though theirs might not be the most universal approach, it’s a valuable reminder not to underestimate the potential of a strong franchise to navigate new environments and generate value for its creators.