A breakthrough of 10 million downloads — How does CharStudio from Lviv develop games for the US and the UK

How could a small game development studio reach 10 million downloads in the App Store and Google Play? What are the main steps in creating a casual game for the U.S. and UK markets? Why are mobile games now competing with Netflix? Yaroslav Charkovskyi, CEO of the company CharStudio from Lviv, describes their story.

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The CharStudio team. Photo provided by the company

CharStudio employs about 25 people today. They have up to 10 active games in their portfolio, and the total amount of downloads in the markets is slightly more than 10 million. The games are mainly popular in the USA, UK, Germany, and France.

I will try to explain our experience in detail. In the beginning it was difficult sometimes, but to this day still magical.

First CharStudio games and releases on the App Store

In 2010 I was a third-year math&mechanical engineering student. I realized that this was a good path for starting a career in IT. I was looking for freelance work – I had created websites, developed different modules, and started working with applications.

One day I received an order to develop a browser game, and I started trying out how games are basically programmed. But after a while, I went to Norway as an AIESEC intern and referred all freelance cases to my brother Igor and now a partner, who was also a software developer.

I was an intern for 2.5 years, and Igor actively started programming various games during this time and implemented quite a lot of projects. When I returned to Lviv, I began to think about what to do next – work for an IT company or launch my own startup. At that time, my brother set up his own freelance strategy: he discovered how to develop and sell games. So I decided to start developing games, too.

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Charkovsky brothers in front; Ihor – on the left, Yaroslav – on the right

It wasn’t easy at first, but I worked on my portfolio. I was selling game licenses at a price from 500 to 800 dollars. The growth was becoming more complex, so my brother and I decided to form our own registered business.

At that time, Match 3 Games were gaining popularity, and one of our customers from Belgium recommended that we publish a game to the App Store. We released it, and it gradually began to bring a stable income of several hundred dollars monthly. Since then, we have partnered with this publisher and have seriously focused on mobile game development.

Christmas Sweeper was almost an accidental success

Among all the projects, Igor created the Christmas game named Christmas Sweeper. It quickly began to gain momentum in the United States.

This game has not been in stores for a long time, but this was what it looked like:

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It was just another game in the Puzzle category for us, but the players really loved it. We had a game downloaded tens of thousands of times for the first time. I consider it almost an accidental success.

After seeing the result of the seasonal game, my brother started developing Christmas Sweeper 2, which surpassed even further. This game is still in the App Store and Google Play; it has continuous profit and a loyal pool of players who have downloaded more than 1.3 million times.

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After the 2-nd Sweeper’s success, we started a game development company. That’s how CharStudio was founded. 

The first project we took on was Christmas Sweeper 3. We realized we had found our niche and should scale the holiday game idea.

And we achieved it. In 2014, the Christmas Sweeper 3 monthly earnings brought us to a budget level where we were ready to hire people and rent an office. Our company really looked like a full-fledged business.

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We had fluctuating successes with other games, but the Sweeper series still gives us a stable profit. Christmas Sweeper 4 was launched a few years ago on Unity, but the game’s popularity is just starting to grow.

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We have a total of 10 games today and more in production. Our Sweeper series at the moment gives us 90% of the profit. 

How long does a mobile game live?

A moderately popular game’s lifetime is about 3-5 years. Hyper-casual games and some others usually live less, and some games can generate profits for 10 years and more.

The game lives when a developer constantly programs into it new functionality, new mechanics, locations, and levels. That’s how we have been developing improvements for Sweeper 3, which is more than 8 years old. We are working on the game every day, not leaving the players behind, communicating with them, and adding various features, new events, and competitions. That’s how we are breathing life into the gaming community. 

I really love this version, and I still play in Sweeper 3 even when we have new editions. 

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Six steps for creating a mobile game

Let’s overview how to create mobile games step-by-step. 

  1. Step #1 — Market Analysis. We need to analyze what games are popular now, how each category or genre grows, what are the trends in game design, etc. The deeper we research into the market, the better we will understand what players are interested in. This step is sometimes skipped, but then game developers often lose their money. You can make a really wonderful game that surpasses all competitors in terms of mechanics, but you won’t have any success with it if the niche is currently in decline.
  1. Step #2 — Game Idea. You need to consider what the game will be about, what setting, what type of game, and what genre to choose. What makes you different from others? Where is the heart of your game?
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  1. Step #3 — Concept and MVP. At this stage, a developer creates an MVP. It’s a basic mechanic that can be evaluated and tested by friends to get the first feedback. I believe this is the right approach — to do something small first to feel and understand whether the game will be engaging. We can also publish a game MPV on the markets and buy traffic in a test country to evaluate the functionality and see how players interact. If it turns out that something is nuanced with the game, we can stop development as quickly as possible to avoid unnecessary costs.
  1. Step #4 — Game Design and Game Development. If we are satisfied with the MVP metrics, we complete the full development. This is a very big topic that needs to be considered additionally.
  1. Step #5 — Soft Launch. When we have decided that the game development is complete, we can release it, but this should be a soft launch limiting the audience and testing the metrics. It often results in the tested game becoming great, but we need to add balance and make some levels more difficult or simpler. We can call this process polishing up the game.
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  1. Step #6 — Game launch. At this stage, we fully release the game and take a step back to analyze, do marketing, and hope for success.
  1. Step #7 — Scaling. If everything is flowing good, and our ARPU (Average Revenue Per User) pays off the initial marketing budget, then we scale the game. We use localization, work with traffic, development of updates and releases. Finally, we do it again in a cycle. Until the positive trend in the niche begins to decrease. 

You may face the problem when the traffic acquisition becomes so expensive that it is unprofitable to attract more players. In this case, we freeze the marketing campaign and consider how to stay profitable. There may come a phase when a game has a base number of loyal players, but new ones no longer download. Then you need to profit from this game as long as possible and give the remaining loyal players new content but not as much as before when you were scaling-up the game.

Mobile game profitability and finding game publishers

You can sell any game because you can profitably buy traffic for it. People won’t like the game, but it will still be profitable for the owners for a while. I know studios that choose such a short-term strategy for themselves and bet on the number of games, and not the quality. 

If you plan to make money from the game for years, then the audience must constantly expand, and the game must receive positive reviews.

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But remember that even an captivating game does not always earn significant money. Traffic in a specific category is so expensive that the profit does not cover its production costs. You need to find a compromise. 

And we always need to analyze market metrics. Players consciously limit how much they are willing to spend on games. It depends on region. A player in Japan spends on avarage of $200 in the category “Casual Games”; in South Korea they spend $110, and in the USA up to $80. This is the most important metric, when we calculate future revenue, because we operate not with downloads but with formulactic strategy.

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The CharStudio team

Basically, mobile game studios focus on app development and then collaborate with a game publisher. A publisher analyzes the game, buys test traffic, and then observes whether it is worth publishing the game and scaling it. I would say it is difficult for a small studio to work without any publisher, but we at CharStudio try both strategies; work with publishers or independently release games.

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Top mobile game studios are usually both developers and publishers. We consider such a model as an example to follow.

Sometimes a developer makes a game and it becomes a instant hit. This occurs in 2 cases – either the game is brilliant at its core, or the game is just satisfingly good, but the developer has invested in it to create more visualy-bright and engaiging functionality. 

Mobile games compete with Netflix

No one can say for sure how mobile games will develop further. Let’s experiment and consider the example of Match 3 Games:

  • At one time, everyone just played Match 3, and everyone liked the simple mechanics.
  • Then it becomes not really interesting for the players to simply pass the levels. So, developers started adding meta-elements to their games – when you play Match 3, you collect stars or crystals and spend them to build something.
  • After the meta-elements, developers started to add story plots to their games. So players build something to achieve specific goals and experience a shared story together with the game charecters.
  • Now there is a trend to create a dramatic cinematic-like story as possible. It should be non-stop action, and also there should be engaging drama in the plot. Even casual games start competing with companies like Netflix, which also focus on their retention rates and engaging mechanics.

This approach greatly increases development costs. But a good story is worth the money to pay the game plot authors; it is also necessary to implement all their ideas qualitatively in mechanics.

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We at CharStudio have grown with the mobile market’s development. Now the market has already formed, and companies need large budgets to compete with major studios with thousands of employees. We manage to compete with them by developing niche products, like Christmas or Easter games. It’s such a small market for big companies, but it’s advantageous for us right now.

We are also evolving towards game stories and plots, although not so quickly. After all, it is not only investments but also our creativity that matters. Because we believe games are an art.