How Archero Shot to the Top, and How You Can Do Better

How Archero Shot to the Top, and How You Can Do Better

This post is sponsored by Lab Cave, a Mobile Growth Company that provides App Store Optimization and Mediation services for mobile Apps and Games.

Part of Fibonad Group (the largest Spanish digital advertising group offering Branding, Performance and Publishing services), Lab Cave has achieved more than 200 million organic downloads without running any paid acquisitions campaign.

This deconstruct is written by Eva Grillova (Game Designer at Smirk Game Studios) and Abhimanyu Kumar (Mobile Games Consultant).

Unless otherwise specified, all ranking, downloads and revenue data below has been acquired through the wonderful data services of App Annie.


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Enough of the introductions - lets dive in!

If there is one game that everyone has been recently talking about - it is Archero. And for good reason. The game has been able to amass ~$35M+ in IAP revenues alone over a short period of 3 months, while enjoying its time in the top grossing charts sun. Further, it has been relatively successful in both the East and the West - something that not too many games are easily able to achieve.

Cumulative Archero revenues, with ad revenues not included | Source: App Annie

A well balanced revenue market share split across the East and West.

Archero realising this level of success across markets is purely a function of its marketing and design strategies coming together quite well to formulate a very interesting product journey. More specifically -

  1. Hyper-casual + ARPG focussed marketing strategy to shatter CPIs

  2. Hyper-casual core loop to drive retention

  3. Highly simplified ARPG meta system to drive monetisation

*ARPG = Action Role-Playing Game

Given the above visualisation, we’d bucket Archero into the "Other Arcade” genre, as defined by the genre taxonomy we built together with Game Refinery.

Having said all this, Archero is nowhere near its peak potential because it suffers from one fatal flaw - an imperfect meta that cuts the LTV long-tail short. While the game might be seeing a very favourable LTV over CPI equation early on in the player’s journey, it is probably leaving another $35M+ on the table due to meta design oversights.

This deconstruct focusses on what we can learn from Archero’s highly successful marketing and product journey, while looking deeper into a hugely unrealised revenue opportunity that lies ahead - for both Archero and other developers alike.

The Bow and Arrow: Habby and Archero

To understand Archero as a product and its associated marketing strategy, it is essential to first understand some key aspects of the publisher behind it — Habby.

That’s what PewDiePie said in his influencer video ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

The Team

Starting with the basics — the company is based out of Singapore and/or Beijing, China. The uncertainty stems from the company being registered in Singapore, but their employees having marked Beijing, China as their current work location on LinkedIn. The “stalking network for business professionals” also mentions a total of 12 employees in the company, and here is where things start to get interesting.

Going through the profiles of these employees, the identifiable core founding team all left top Hyper-casual game publisher, Cheetah Mobile Beijing, in close proximity of each other to found Habby. Based on their work descriptions at Cheetah, it is also clear that this team has worked together on some of Cheetah’s very successful Hyper-casual titles — primarily on the product and UA side of things.

This is the first piece of the puzzle — a founding team that is skilled in the art of designing highly addictive Hyper-casual core game experiences, while having the expert know-how of quickly validating marketability and scaling rapidly once globally launched. The latter is captured quite well in Archero’s launch week install curve shape.

“IM” stands for Influencer Marketing.

Apple did feature Archero a week later and this is also when PewDiePie launched his influencer video. Half a month later, the Google featuring came. But, App Annie estimates featuring downloads across platforms only to account for less than 5% of total downloads.

PewDiePie’s paid influencer video — 6m+ views!

The Money

Given this massive UA scale and ability to hire PewDiePie as an influencer, the question begs to be asked — where are they getting the money from? - the second piece of the puzzle. While no information could be found about investment rounds, a very interesting connection was found between Habby and BoomBit. Based on BoomBit’s publicly released documents (BoomBit went public on the Warsaw stock exchange on May 14th 2019), Habby’s CEO is also part of a 50-50 joint venture with BoomBit under the name MoonDrip. While MoonDrip is essentially BoomBit’s China focused publishing arm, we can only speculate about a (financial) connection between MoonDrip and Habby.

Habby’s CEO is also part of a 50-50 joint venture with BoomBit under the name MoonDrip.
Source: BoomBit Q1 2019 results summary presentation

Source: BoomBit website

The East-to-West Audience

This brings us to the third piece of the puzzle — the kind of audience Habby is going for with Archero. And here is where Habby has likely hit two birds with one stone.

The first bird - it is definitely targeting Hyper-casual players to help lower CPIs. A keyword analysis shows that Habby is clearly competing for keywords that are either straight up Hyper-casual publisher names (“Voodoo” for example) or keywords that appear in the names of famous Hyper-casual titles, but also mildly related to Archero’s various gameplay elements. And this strategy has been applied across markets, given the massive worldwide appeal of Hyper-casual.

Source: App Annie

Further, the majority of UA videos of Archero are quite clearly focussed on showcasing gameplay moments that would clearly resonate with a Hyper-casual audience. Not to mention, how the overall art style of the game too lends itself to this user targeting strategy. Check out all the videos here.

Those characters in the screenshot is not how Archero looks, but just how characters in a few currently trending Hyper-casual games look. | Source: Facebook Ads Library

The second bird - it is using its more ARPG-esque gameplay elements to target more core audiences. This too can be see in additional keywords the game uses, like “arpg” and “rogue”. Further, and only speculating here, key countries from the East like South Korea, Japan and Taiwan have contributed to half of Archero’s lifetime revenues and these are also countries where ARPGs are very successful. As our friend Anil would say, “Archero is the diet coke version of Diablo”, and one can see the game making sense to play for more core audiences too. It is also quite interesting to see some of the more recent UA videos in Japan really hitting these ARPG elements.

Without a doubt, these three puzzle pieces have played a solid role in the $25m+ success that Archero is seeing today. But, marketing and UA strategies only live on top of a well designed product. And the answer to what makes Archero such a well designed game to justify its audience targeting strategies lies in the core game design.

Core Game: A Happy Affair between Luck & Skill

If we had to highlight only one thing about Archero, it’s definitely the fact of how incredibly playable it is. It is a roguelike game consisting of a chain of dungeons. Each dungeon has in most cases 50 levels, and one would need to complete all levels to finish the dungeon. You can die once and purchase a revival, and that’s it. If you manage to get through, you unlock a new stage with new enemies and skills and the grind begins again.

This is a good place to point out that the bare bone loop of the game is pretty much a Hyper-casual one — “play-die-repeat” while trying to beat your previous score:

A Hyper-casual loop at its simplest.

It’s this simple motivation that got the market used to during the Hyper-casual boom, combined with the best reason to play anything ever: it is a hell lot of fun. And given Habby’s previously identified experience in the Hyper-casual space, it starts to become clear that they took full advantage of that inherent strength in the core game design.

Going deeper to understand what makes Archero’s core so much fun, the following three atomic building blocks of a Hyper-casual game are intertwined in Archero’s core design -

  1. High accessibility

  2. Clear hook and short feedback loops

  3. Immense player gratification

Atomic Block 1: Movement as a Skill

To achieve high accessibility, Hyper-casual games tend to have really simple controls. The one-touch joystick spawns wherever the player touches the screen and is perfect for mobile. Archero’s gameplay consists of two states: Move and Shoot. Movement is controlled by the player, while shooting is automated and targets the closest enemy. Splitting the controls between the player (movement) and the game (shooting) gives the player the right amount of control and agency. It is simple — a true hyper-casual decision — and not a market standard by far for such gameplay.

As they say, one gif is worth a 1000 words — so here’s how it looks when played.

Mastering movement as a skill is key to avoiding enemy attacks, finding right moments to deal damage, and using the environment to survive. It’s the communication clarity and on-screen feedback that helps the player learn how to navigate the game, while providing great gratification. Enemies are optically differentiated from each other by shape, size and movement patterns. Their attacks are also visually differentiated on speed, delay and strength. Learning these differences is necessary, and it’s the high quality feedback that enables it seamlessly.

The hit is made, the bigger the damage, the larger the number. The hook is clear: The controls are so simple, everyone will get a grasp of them instantly, while the pleasure of hitting causing a firework of damage feeds into a player’s adrenaline receptors.

To stress on Archero standing out with one touch controls — other games with similar core gameplay either let the player control both movement and shooting (Soul Knight), or move automatically and let the player control “some” attacks (Nonstop Knight). While the former requires additional player’s awareness of where to tap (a two touch system), the latter makes the gameplay experience more automated (aka not as engrossing).

Atomic Block 2: Luck in Dungeon Progression

The player enters the dungeon with a basic shot, which resets every time they die. As the player kills enemies and collects XP, they gain abilities that improve damage size, speed and type. The further in the dungeon, the more satisfactory the same activity feels: faster, stronger and multiplied. Here again, the feedback to player progression is optimised: It won’t stop feeling super gratifying to grow the power that the player yields.

Selecting an ability on level up.

Luck is brought into the equation with what abilities are offered on character level ups — very similar to how Slay The Spire does this. The general pool holds around 50 abilities and the cap on the level in each stage is 11. This means that the player will not be offered all skills in each walkthrough, and will have to choose one of three every roll.

This is an interesting design decision because it gives space for a desired dominant strategy, but hardly ever allows it. Focusing on strong attacks with additional damage and boosting your health is generally the best way to go, but the randomness almost always forces the player to play with less than optimal abilities. This leads to multiple feel good scenarios:

  1. Players get an ability they want → they feel lucky and smart at the same time

  2. Players get an ability they didn’t want and are still doing great → they feel smart

  3. Players get an ability they didn’t want and are not doing great → they can solely blame the game for the misfortune

Massive ability set collected deep in the dungeon.

The ability distribution onboards players used to Hyper-casual simplicity more than well. In the early game, the player is curious about abilities they either don’t know or want to try again to figure each one out. Later in the game, the hook hides in the hopes of hitting the jackpot of all the stronger abilities.

On a monetisation note — the abilities play a key role in defining a conversion point on character death. After a few gameplays, one becomes painfully aware of how lucky they are accumulating all the attack power, making it more difficult just to give that up. Therefore, making for a very strong monetisation hook.

Atomic Block 3: A Meaningful Dungeon

The two blocks wouldn’t be complete if the game wasn’t offering the player a clear hook to get through. It may be less obvious, but nevertheless important, how the game invisibly supports the player through the level chain.

A typical setup for the 50-level stages looks like this:

Archero’s dungeon design.

Normal levels (node 1 and 3) are combined with an angel offer (2) and further support in node 4 before the boss fight. The angel encounter is predictable and creates a notion of stability, offering healing, or a random ability. If the player doesn’t need to be healed, they are rewarded with an extra ability into the limited pool. A true angel!

Archero’s Angel choice screen.

Before the boss level, there always is a healing chest right by the exit door, healing about half of player health. Another angel encounter here would not only feel repetitive, but would also break the difficulty flow leading up to the boss fight.

These two regular encounters create the notion of just-a-bit-more that keeps the player way more engaged than if their health would be just constantly dropping.

Further, getting zero damage from the boss spawns a devil that offers usually a pretty good ability in exchange for some HP — a mechanic borrowed from Binding of Isaac.

Finally, if damage is received from the boss, the player gets to spin a wheel that could result in another ability.

In total in such dungeon setup, there are 5 skill moments and 4 luck moments, where you can gain an extra ability. Purely by the numbers, it is a great example of how well both skill and luck contribute to the player’s success, and how the game ties these aspects to something as innate as the level design.

In opposition: Level layout, enemies distribution and amount vary. Together with the ability rolls, each walkthrough will be different, spanning from totally unlucky all the way to the holy grail of fast and strong attack and feasible amount of enemies. Again, here the hook lies in retrying, but also in beating the odds and charging through all the fifty levels like a hot knife through butter.

Based on the analysis of the above mentioned three atomic building blocks, it is clear that the core design is nothing short of stellar. While this ensures a high early LTV, it is imperative that a team builds out a well supporting meta to stretch out that ROAS curve for great player satisfaction and even greater profit. But, has Archero risen up to occasion here?

Meta Game: When the Grind becomes Real

Archero has taken a crack at this with its highly simplified ARPG meta systems. But slapping on an imperfect meta in a short period of time without considering possible downstream design impacts (balancing, scaling etc.) is usually not the best way to do it. Archero is also victim to that, as the meta systems seem to have been added during a short-lived soft-launch period and likely a month before global launch.

“IM” stands for Influencer Marketing.

From the archives of the almighty Internet | Source: Reddit

Considering Archero’s systems specifically, that just does not feel like enough time for optimisation. And here is not only where the cracks begin to appear in Archero’s perfection, but also the extent of hugely unrealised potential in this product is visible. The revenue impact of this is captured in the top grossing rank trend graph below, where the ranking downtrend can be seen in both Eastern and Western markets alike.

Archero’s downward trend of top grossing rank across key East and West markets

The Meta Loop

There are two main aspects to the meta-game. First, the player collects coins and XP every time they exit the dungeon, that helps upgrade talents (passive boosts) and avatar level. Second, dungeon play-throughs also drop items to equip and scrolls that can be used to upgrade them. Packs of three items of same type and rarity can be fused and elevated to a higher rarity.

Archero’s complete game loop.

Both the talent and item systems follow common RPG schematics. Levels take longer to reach, and incremental stat gains are balanced out by challenge in the dungeons. However, there are three weak spots that leads to the game catering significantly more to early players compared to later ones. In other words, key reasons for the dwarfed LTV long-tail and hence money left on the table. More specifically, the ingredients in this recipe of meta disaster -

  1. A mismatch between the speed of talent upgrades and their relative contribution to current stats

  2. An overall dwarfed chance to collect any low tier items and triggering the subsequent fusions leading all the way up to stronger items matching player progression

  3. Uncompelling chest purchases that do not tangibly hold any real chances of receiving better items than currently equipped

All three have a negative downstream impact on overall game progression speed, rewarding moments and long term goal setting. Let’s take a look at each system separately.

Talents

A talent can be purchased every time a player levels up AND if the player has enough coins. As dungeon difficulty increases in deeper content, avatar level ups are infrequent, coin income is slower and the player impatiently anticipates the next chance to interact with the talent system. While creating this craving is great, there lies an important flaw in the system.

Archero’s talent rolling in action.

There is a mismatch between the speed of talent upgrades and their relative contribution to the current stats. While this follows a standard time-level curve, large gameplay impacts through interaction with this system are only felt in early gameplay. This is because the first time a talent is unlocked, the player either gets a significant boost to an existing stat or access to a fresh new skill. In relation to early dungeon difficulty, the impact of talents feels quite tangible.

However in higher levels, the increments in the talents stay steady. After unlocking strength, with a base value of 200, each next upgrade of this talent will add only 100, (if player rolls for it in the first place). With longer and longer time intervals in between opportunities to interact with the talent system — due to the dungeon difficulty, coin income and avatar level gates mentioned above — these steady upgrades makes “the wait” not rewarding enough. This feeling is further multiplied by the fact that the player has no control over which talent to upgrade, due to the system’s randomised nature of which talent to upgrade next. The ultimate downstream impact is slowed down progression with some level of frustration, leading to lower product engagement and therefore LTV.

Items

Items either drop during dungeon runs or can be purchased directly from chests in the store. A total of six slots exist for armour (1), weapon (1), ring (2) and companion (2) items. All items come in multiple rarities, and dungeon drops (~20% chance) always yield a “Common” (lowest tier) item.

Items equipped screen.

For a coin and scroll fee, each item of a certain rarity can be upgraded up to a fixed level. Coins and scrolls are dropped in abundance, leading to a healthy item upgrade frequency. At the same time, items of a certain rarity are capped at a max upgrade level. Maxed out items will need to be fused to jump between rarity tiers to not only increase the item power, but also the level upgrade cap. The catch is this — all items involved in the fusion process need to be exactly the same in terms of type and rarity. And this can be a little frustrating for three major reasons.

Item fusion success screen.

First, there are several types of items, each with different stat structures. At the same time, the dungeon design incentivises pure item power, while property differences between items take a backseat. This pushes players to use items on the highest tier (relative to their inventory), which could very likely be the item most invested into. Eventually, this makes most future item drops less rewarding and quite insignificant, thereby leading to a very very slow item fusing experience and hence slow game progression.

Second, waiting for an item is a valid strategy in gacha systems. But it is not well justified as part of the meta game in Archero, since there is no way to convert unusable items into anything valuable — leading to a very very long wait, and further slowing down progression.

Third, even if the player is working towards fusing a certain item, their speed of getting there is heavily affected by luck around item collection, as items can only be gained rarely and randomly from dungeon runs and gacha. At the end of the day, one never knows what item they’re going to get, leading to a third progression speed barrier.

Needless to say, three more progression barriers = further damaged long-term LTV.

Chest Purchases and Item Inventory

Given all the progression speed barriers mentioned above, one of many natural F2P design decisions would be to offer pay through mechanics. This is Archero’s gacha (chest) system.

Archero’s item inventory screen.

There are two types of purchasable chests (Golden and Obsidian), and both drop exactly one item. Both can be opened for gems (60 and 300, or $1 and $3 respectively), though if a player waits long enough, the Golden chest can be opened once for an ad view (24 hour wait) while the Obsidian chest can be opened once for free (7 day wait). Archero further offers bundles for money containing multiple chest keys, coins and gems, amongst other things.

At some point of the progression speed drops discussed above, these chests and bundles becoming quite tempting purchases. Unfortunately, the earlier one makes the purchase, the better — not only because the drop is better relative to their inventory count/quality, but also relative to currently equipped items that are heavily invested into later into the game. Further, the fact that these chests offer a single item drop doesn’t make things any better. And at a $3 price point for the Obsidian chest, things can get thoroughly steep long term. Not to mention, how an unrewarding purchase experience is pretty much LTV poison.

This clearly ties back to the design flaws called out in the Talents and Items section above, because the later into the game one gets, the lower the incentive from the chest system to either upgrade talents, get better items or engage with the fusion system. Between early players and players who have gone this distance, the only thing left in between is a pile of coins and unusable items. You guessed it — not a very fair monetisation fix to the progression speed problems, and hence a further dwarfed long-tail LTV curve.

Converting Archero into a Real “Happy Hobby”

Given the points mentioned above, one will notice that Archero mutates into a highly “grindy” experience on player maturation. And given a clear transition of player motivation from beating a high score in the Hyper-casual core to getting farther along the content in the game’s ARPG meta, the overall grind driven by poorly designed base meta systems can lead to quite a frustrating player experience.

Compromising on long term players will have negative revenue consequences related to medium-long term churn, eventually resulting in an unsustainable UA treadmill for Habby. A further shot in the foot occurs as neither adding content past the medium-term player journey is justified, nor having a long-term content plan.

So what can Habby do to realise the currently undermined LTV long-tail?

#1 — Fix the Progression Speed

While we called out three broad issues in the current meta — slow meta progression speed, lack of medium-long term rewarding moments, and absence of long term goal setting — the root of all these evils is definitely the slow progression speed. And Items are the heart and soul of progression speed in Archero.

Fixing the systems related to progression speed automatically makes various reward moments more “rewarding”, while also making the game more fertile for longer term goal setting features — possibly executed through great live ops.

Our top suggestion: Improve the fusing system to create a need for more items, and simultaneously increasing the inflow of Items through various faucets and/or store purchases.

#2 — Jigsaw that Difficulty Curve

As they say, long term progression can be a bi… difficult nut to crack. It’s a common practice in causal games to provide relief with a level up. Simulation games will give you coins and buildings; Clash Royale will increase your tower strength. It doesn’t matter that the game balances out the time you need to spend or plays with matchmaking to keep you from being too powerful. It’s the feeling that counts, the feeling that justifies the time it took you to get there.

The systems in Archero do not exactly build up to support this notion: the player has to grind for XP, then pay for a talent, and after all that effort there is still no tangible result. All while the avatar is the main instrument to carry the player progression. One can be stuck in one dungeon for months, but they will keep levelling up and if this process doesn’t feel gratifying, its presence is heavily undermined.

Our top suggestion: Leverage Archero’s ample number of levers to balance out the reward feeling against the challenge players are facing. For example, introduce a global % improvement to all stats on level up, while balancing out subsequent dungeon difficulty. Another example, rework the coin — talent relationship so that players can further invest into relevant skills, and in turn increasing the ownership of their progress.

#3 — Live Services, please!

The grind is real and there’s no way around it. In a content driven game, it’s necessary to slow the player down. The good news is that when having an engaging core loop and solid content, which is definitely the case for Archero, this is easy. And as we all know: The problem isn’t the grind, it’s the constant grind of the same thing, same dungeon.

Playing around with endless modes, larger dungeons, enemy waves, extra speed mode… sounds like fun. The system is there, pre-balanced and ready to be reaped. And since there’s also an energy system present, it should be easy to gate players in limited content or offer opportunities where the main mode and the temporary content can support and balance out each other.

Our top suggestion: Repurpose and resell existing content as innovative new modes, gate participation and separate from the main energy system, and reward consumables that can be reused in the base dungeon runs.

The New Era of Arcade Games

Having said everything above, Archero does validate old school, fun driven game design that we see disappearing in favour of data driven high production values game design. Clearly, Habby shows us the power of a team executing brilliantly on its product and marketing strengths to capture Eastern and Western audiences alike. Further, Archero is a great lesson in taking hardcore mechanics, stripping back the non-essential and making them massively appealing and marketable to a broad audience.

Transitioning into a full fat mature mobile game is really Habby’s next challenge, because there is clearly a lot more opportunity to be capitalised on across global markets. One can have a lean Hyper-casual fun focused core design with valuable early game monetisation, but without a solid meta that supports the LTV long tail, the game will fail to engage and grow a steady audience that monetises regularly. The pressure is then on UA, which is a pool of limited size — only getting more expensive as time passes. And navigating this pool will only get harder with competitors soon emerging and trying to solve for Archero’s unrealised potential.

Taking a step back though - Isn’t a highly fun/addictive core loop with well designed supporting meta systems really the recipe for a great game upon which a strong business can be built? Wouldn’t that be a highly potent force to reckon with in today’s F2P world? We believe Archero is shining the light on a new design trend that is going to infect other sub-genres alike. In other words, we will likely continue to see hybrid monetisation models and light meta systems cherry picked from other genres being built on addictively fun cores.

PS: This Might be the Start of Something New For Hyper-casual Games…

We had a long lasting data driven debate on whether Archero signals the start of something new for hyper-casual games. We made the prediction at the beginning of a year that the Hyper-Casual Party, as We Know It, Will End. And quite frankly, Archero has everything we predicted - a hyper-casual loop, super light meta and a strong ad monetization supported with IAPs. But again, data proves that we’re not at the tipping point as the Hyper-casual games category has in-fact been growing during the last two quarters and hit record numbers during last two quarters.

Hyper-casual games downloads

Hyper-casual games downloads

We nevertheless choose to stick to our guns and argue that this growth is not sustainable (incredibly high competition + extremely low entry barrier) and that sooner rather than later hyper-casual games will take a page out of Habby’s playbook and start implementing hybrid monetization model. This shift is incentivised by market realities and the notoriously one-sided deals current top hyper-casual publishers are known for.

We aim to cover this trend soon. Subscribe to the Deconstructor of Fun’s newsletter and we’ll notify you when our analysis on the next stage of hyper-casual games has been concluded.

Lab Cave Logo.png

This post is sponsored by Lab Cave, a Mobile Growth Company that provides App Store Optimization and Mediation services for mobile Apps and Games.

Part of Fibonad Group (the largest Spanish digital advertising group offering Branding, Performance and Publishing services), Lab Cave has achieved more than 200 million organic downloads without running any paid acquisitions campaign.

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