App case study: How Monument Valley game generated $4.5m profits with a team of just 8

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With mobile games proving big business, what exactly does it take to make it to some of the best game lists of the year? Ustwo, the developer behind indie smash hit Monument Valley, has provided a rare insight into the production costs, pricing strategies and sales breakdowns that helped the award winning puzzler become one of 2014’s success stories.

Case study summary:

• Small game developer creates standout puzzle game app that bucks trend for freemium with one-off price

• 10 months making the game, with a big focus on throwing away elements that didn’t work, testing with gamers and non-gamers alike

• Team of 8 developers generate nearly $6m in revenue in one year and wins numerous 'game of the year awards


The challenge

Monument Valley was launched by Ustwo Games in iOS in early April 2014. Going against the trend of 'Freemium' games that are free to play but require in-app purchases for more content, the platform puzzler was sold on the App Store at the premium one-off price of $3.99.

"For Monument Valley, a premium price made sense, because we were developing a traditional/premium product," explained art direct Ken Wong. "Our value proposition is actually more similar to a film, rollercoaster ride or museum exhibit: pay once, see amazing things for two hours, then reflect on the experience."

The solution

While Monument Valley rests in the popular puzzle game genre, it takes more than challenging mazes and striking artwork to dominate and stand out amongst the competition.

The game was created by a small team of just eight developers and is the 158th top grossing game for iPhone in the US, according to mobile marketplace analyst App Annie.

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Ustwo isLondon-headquartered digital design studio and does the bulk of its work for brands like Sony, Barclays, Channel 4 and American Express. But this work funds a separate division making its own apps and games.

Previous projects including games Whale Trail and Blip Blup, fiction apps Papercut and Nursery Rhymes with StoryTime. Monument Valley used the lessons learned from all those previous apps, and has become the company’s biggest hit yet.

Speaking to the Guardian, Neil McFarland, director of games at ustwo said ustwo spent 10 months making the game, with a big focus on throwing away elements that didn’t work, as well as regular user testing with gamers and non-gamers alike to tune it.

“We were very much influenced by a couple of core ideas. One, we wanted it to be a game that people would finish: a complete narrative that we wanted people to get to the end of. And second, we wanted it to be broadly accessible to people,” McFarland told the paper.

“That meant testing with as many different types of gamer as possible, to make sure the puzzles were accessible and solvable: hard enough to be rewarding, but not so hard that people drop out. We found that it’s really easy to make a hard puzzle, but much harder to make one that gets that balance right.”

Right from the start, ustwo knew that Monument Valley would be a paid game rather than a freemium title, although McFarland points to Whale Trail – which started paid before switching to free with in-app purchases – as proof that the company isn’t against the business model.

The results

The firm announced an impressive $4.5 million profit in an infographic that breaks down the game's success, showing that the premium price point has its place in the market.

For paid apps, it was placed 16th, earning around $17,500 per day. The top paid app, Minecraft Pocket Edition, earns $52,100 daily.

And, for a little bit of context compared to freemium, the top grossing app, which has held that position for quite some time, Clash of Clans, was bringing in $5.2 million per day as of February last year. It's currently sitting around $1.6 million per day.

According to the infographic, Monument been officially downloaded 2,440,076 times (that doesn't include piracy; only five percent of Android installs are paid, and 40 percent on iOS, Ustwo said), and installed on over 10,000,000 devices.

The expansion ‘Distant Shores’ was installed 575,608 times -- a rate of around 24 percent of Monument Valley players -- and it was Metacritic's most reviewed mobile game of 2014.

View the full infographic below:

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