The annual no-holds-barred Christmas holiday slugfest between mobile game developers has a new twist this year: marketing and user-acquisition costs will likely hit an all-time high and surpass any revenue earned over the festive season.
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The cost of getting new users through paid-for click-through ads on mobile phone apps and Facebook is skyrocketing.
Industry executives say there are more mobile games than ever aspiring to become the next "Candy Crush Saga" or "Clash of Clans" and developers are spending to get there.
That poses a challenge for thousands of developers ranging from San Francisco-based Glu Mobile to independent studios hoping to follow in the footsteps of outfits like Supercell and King, analysts say.
Spending peaks globally during the holidays, when developers pull out the stops to try and draw in many receiving Apple or Google Android devices on Christmas morning.
This time round, heightened competition could double or triple the amount spent on marketing cost per install or CPI, wiping out typical revenue gains of up to 200 percent.
Most developers rely on click-through ads paid for each time a user clicks on an ad and installs their game. The ads appear on screens as banners or title referrals between developers. This practice peaks during Christmas, because developers want their games at the top of Apple's or Google's app charts, a benchmark for the industry akin to Billboard and music sales which then can spur further downloads.
Developers hope to recover costs through downloads and in-game purchases of virtual goods. This year, costs per install "will be about 4 bucks on average and that's twice of what the games will actually make," said Misha Lyalin, CEO of mobile game company ZeptoLab. "It's not like everybody is going to die, but there will be some losers."
Industry dynamics have shifted in the past year. The emergence of a handful of dominant players like King (Candy Crush Saga) and Supercell (Clash of Clans), in which Japan's Softbank is invested, has driven up marketing costs, said Joost van Dreunen, CEO of research firm SuperData.
"You have a lot of companies trying to make it to the top 10 and the incumbents are trying to maintain their position before the holidays, and what that effectively does is it shoots cost-per-install costs through the roof," van Dreunen said.
CPI -- the cost paid per download to acquire users each time they click on a mobile ad-- was less than $2 last Christmas. It will range between $4 to $7 this year in the United States, according to SuperData.
Developers currently rely on a small number of user-acquisition platforms like Chartboost that support click-through ads. Those platforms offer limited reach and intense bidding for spots quickly drives prices higher.
SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST
To be sure, marketing costs should stabilize after Christmas and the mobile gaming market continues to expand at a torrid pace: analysts expect 40 percent growth in 2013 to $14 billion.
But the cost of getting games in front of players far outpaces that expansion.
"A lot of people are going to fail and there's going to be more and more consolidation," said Andrew Green, who heads business operations at game studio TinyCo, which is backed by Andreessen Horowitz and Pinnacle Ventures.
Some devise ways to rise above the fray. Cambridge, Massachusetts-based indie studio Tap Lab, which makes the Monopoly-like "Tiny Tycoons", decided to forego marketing and focus on holiday-themed content -- like custom virtual goods, or animations of flying reindeer.
"We can find ways to rise above the clutter without facing daunting CPIs,.....(like) creating a lot of content so we can (have) a very serious push after the holidays when the price points come down," said Tap Lab CEO Dave Bisceglia.
Others like Glu Mobile are turning to emergent platforms for game-specific ads like Facebook, placing ads in newsfeeds. With over a billion users, the social network offers much wider coverage and helps developers target specific demographics.
"If next year you don't see the introduction of a new channel like a Twitter or a YouTube or someone like that, you might see CPI costs really jump," says Chris Akhavan, Glu's president of publishing.
Those with deeper pockets focus on brand building. ZeptoLab grew "Cut the Rope" -- in which players feed candy to a green monster -- to 400 million downloads in three years with constant updates, TV spots and tie-ups with Burger King and McDonalds.
"The whole chart manipulation game is becoming a thing of the past," Akhavan said. "For the savvier and more successful companies in this space, it's become all about ... trying to turn an ROI (return on investment) on your ad spend."
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