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Round Zero levels playing field for mobile games

Round Zero receives roughly a dozen e-mails a week from game developers asking it to publish their game.Round Zero Games

This Finnish mobile game publisher has come up with a data-driven, revolutionary way not to let the personal preferences of its staff influence which games it decides to publish.

Equal opportunity is a core value for Round Zero.

The Finnish mobile game publisher has set out to provide every game developer with equal opportunity to capture the often fleeting attention of mobile gamers by effectively outsourcing decisions on which games to publish to a community of gamers, thus eliminating the personal biases of its staff from the decision-making process.

“We have no gatekeepers making decisions,” tells Daniel Rantala, the co-founder and chief executive officer of Round Zero. “Every game developer will get the same opportunity regardless of how good or bad their game is in our opinion.”

“No one alone can predict whether a particular game will be a success or not.”

The decisions are made by the tens of millions of active users of Hill Climb Racing, a massively popular mobile game series developed by Fingersoft, the Oulu-based parent company of Round Zero. The driving games have racked up hundreds of millions of downloads since the first of the series was released in 2012.

Fingersoft was surprised, but not overwhelmed, by the success, according to Rantala. The game studio quickly began to contemplate how to best make use of its large and growing customer base, ultimately deciding to establish a publishing division.

“But the challenge was that demand from game developers was simply enormous. [Fingersoft] didn’t have the manpower and the process would’ve been subjective,” he says.

Ready for round one

Round Zero was founded to tackle both problems in October 2017. The seven-person startup has since soft launched three of the roughly 170 games it has evaluated and expects to record a turnover of approximately 1.1 million euros in its maiden fiscal year.

Rantala reminds that soft launch is only the first in a series of steps that game developers must take if they intend to stand out from the roughly 1 500 games added daily to the shelves of App Store and Google Play.

“You don’t step into the ring until people start playing your game,” he says, casting light on the boxing metaphor behind the publisher’s name.

“You don’t step into the ring until people start playing your game,” says Daniel Rantala. Image: Daniel Rantala

“It’s no longer enough to create a good game. No matter how good it is, you’ll need resources to push on with marketing, develop the game further and promote user retention. Many don’t have the knowhow, skills or cash coffers to commercialise a promising game for the next five years.”

Data-driven process

The evaluation process is multistage.

Round Zero first provides the game developer with 500–1 500 live users and monitors how the game performs across a variety of metrics including ad conversion, session data and user retention. If the game shows promise, it is then sent back to the developer for updates before being launched for an additional 2–4 000 users.

“Even if a game doesn’t perform well in the first stage, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s bad but simply that it isn’t the right fit for our portfolio,” reminds Rantala.

“If the game continues to do well, we’ll move on to soft launch,” he adds. “That’s when we make a revenue share agreement with the developer. We handle marketing and user acquisition, and take on all the risk.”

Regardless of the outcome, the process offers benefits for both the developer and publisher – the former gaining free users and access to valuable performance data and analyses, and the latter an opportunity to expand and diversify its portfolio.

“The feedback has been exclusively positive,” says Rantala. “Most have indicated they want to test their games through our service also in the future.”

“Difference maker”

Round Zero, he tells, has set itself the objective of releasing 5–10 games during the course of next year, including one that could be characterised as a foray into a new game genre, a departure from the petrol-fumed world of Hill Climb Racing.

“One of the challenges we’ve had is that we’re still largely at the mercy of our user base and have to turn down games that could be successful,” he tells.

The publisher is also gearing up to launch its new development and monetary efficiency optimisation tool after a 17-month development project. The DOME tool is expected to create a plethora of new opportunities to interpret, utilise and enhance the accuracy of the performance data, as well as help to scale up the evaluation process at least tenfold.

“DOME is a unique system, built exclusively for our own needs,” tells Rantala. “Its business intelligence feature will make financial management easier, while its analytics feature will enable us to interpret the data with our own key performance indicators. Let’s say someone takes a break from a game to read and reply to an e-mail. Some analytics tools would interpret that as one and others as two sessions.”

“It may not sound terribly important, but it’ll be the difference maker,” he affirms.

Round Zero’s previous releases, including physics-based tank game Hills of Steel, have surpassed 16 million downloads. Image: Screenshot/Round Zero
By: Aleksi Teivainen