CEO of Kooapps
Launching almost 50 games in the last decade, Kooapps have established themselves as a leading developer of mobile casual games such as Snake.io. With over 250 million downloads, they specialize in the “unified casual genre,” which are hypercasual games that are layered with midcore and hardcore elements.
With every member of the team working on a few live games at once, it takes a lot to manage their diverse portfolio, bring in new players, and monetize each game effectively while keeping the actual game experience as good as it can be.
In this interview, CEO CK Wang shares how his team have taken their games to the next level with innovative monetization and user acquisition (UA) strategies and the tricks he wishes he knew when starting out.
Unity: Can you share a bit about how you got started in the gaming industry?
Wang: I played a lot of games growing up, like StarCraft, and have always been a gamer. I went to Stanford for my undergrad and bachelor's degree was in electrical engineering and my masters was in computer science. After Stanford, I started my career at Microsoft’s Game Studios.
I’m really interested in artificial intelligence and machine learning, but this technology was just emerging and the market wasn’t ready for it. After my internship I wanted to go back to Microsoft and work on something else I love: Gaming.
I started working on Fable 2 for Xbox 360 but it wasn't as creative as I was hoping it would be. I moved to Microsoft Research and did machine learning and data science there for a couple of years, and it turns out what I do now is a blend of both gaming and data science.
Unity: What interested you specifically with the mobile space?
Wang: Mobile is very metrics driven and a lot of what we do is lifetime value (LTV) predictions.
I remember when Steve Jobs told the world the App Store was launching in 2008, I was at Microsoft and started making iPhone apps. At the time, app stores were like the wild west, a very different era where anything could happen in this new space.
My hobby creating iPhone apps and games sparked my monetization journey. Kooapps launched our first game in 2009 which was a sushi conveyor belt game called Suzy’s Sushi House which was a puzzle and memorization game.
This game generated enough revenue to help with the initial seed funding for the whole company.
Unity: What successes has Kooapps experienced since it was founded?
Wang: The first success was a flashcard app which I sold for ten dollars per download. I was getting many downloads a day straight off the bat with no marketing. This opened my eyes about the industry and the possibilities I could pursue.
I hired an artist, sound contractors, and from there we created Tip a Cow and Snail Race, and expanded into all sorts of free to play games in various categories. But Pictoword was our first big hit and really put us on the map. It was first released in 2013 and has reached over 50 million downloads during its lifetime so far. From there, we launched Snake.io which reached over 180 million downloads to become one of the top .io games on the market.
Unity: What makes you excited about the mobile industry and working at Kooapps?
Wang: It’s really our customers. Our favorite review on the app stores for Pictoword is from a little girl that had learning anxiety and was skipping school. She was falling behind and needed to see a psychologist to help with her learning anxiety. She started playing Pictoword which helped her learn in a fun and engaging way.
She started going to school and enjoying learning. This game really changed her life and opened our eyes to the educational impact that we can have.
We’ve since created Pictoword School, a version specifically for kids and we're now testing in schools with 300 kids and helping them learn English. We believe that every kid can learn, they just need a safe environment where they're not afraid to fail. This is the power that mobile education games can have on people.
Unity: Where do you see the mobile gaming space headed?
Wang: The mobile gaming space is known to be super competitive – but I actually think that era is over, and it's starting to really open up. A lot of people have moved to Web3 as that’s the next hot thing. Mobile gaming is no longer new and shiny.
App stores are also taking down apps that haven’t been updated for several years. We're very hopeful that the future is going to be great for the mobile industry where quality games can really stand out.
I’m also excited about multiplayer. I think that over the next five to 10 years, more multiplayer games like Snake.io are going to show up at the top of app stores which will reinvigorate the industry. There’s going to be new mechanics, types of games, and genres as a result of the emergence of multiplayer.
Unity: What are the goals you strive to achieve at Kooapps?
Wang: For our day to day monetization goals, we focus on average revenue per daily active user (ARPDAU) and for user acquisition, it’s return on ad spend (ROAS). We keep a very close eye on these metrics and optimize to improve performance where we can.
A longer term business goal of ours is to build a platform with our user generated content and build a marketplace to allow anybody to create content and sell to players on our platform.
Unity: Do you have any tested and proven monetization strategies that have worked for you?
Wang: What’s worked well for us is focusing on in app ads (IAA) for our monetization strategy over in app purchases (IAPs). If you’re a smaller studio, typically you start off with very few daily active users (DAUs) so you really have to think about how you’ll monetize because IAP conversion rates are sub 1%.
You really have to think about monetizing a mass audience, not just depending on IAPs from high in-game payers.
Unity: Were you open to implementing ads right away?
Wang: Not at first. I wish I knew at the time that money is money and you should want to make some money so you can sustain the success of your games. We were very reserved with ad implementation at the beginning and it actually took us two years to get started with rolling out interstitial ads.
When we first launched Pictoword, we relied on IAPs instead of ads. With that approach, we reached low seven digit revenue. To take it to the next level we really needed to implement ads. Our mindset completely changed as the industry changed. After hyper casual originated, the industry really kicked into high gear. More people got used to ads, especially if they don’t impair the player experience.
We decided to implement ads across our games, continue building games our audience loves, and do user acquisition as well to keep the lights on. I think a lot of smaller studios are creating games and they’re afraid they’ll ruin the player experience but they also need to accept the reality that you have bills to pay and families to feed. You just need to implement your monetization in the right way.
Unity: How did you get started with user acquisition?
Wang: For the longest time – just like with monetization – we did not want to do UA. We actually never did UA at scale until 2020. At first I thought we're not going to buy our users and if we just make good games, people are going to come. It was like this in the early days, like 2008 when I started till around 2014.
We hit 100,000 DAUs and saw a steady increase in revenue, but to generate a bit more we had to do UA. Using tools where we can see ROAS for each UA campaign really helped us identify which campaigns are doing well so we could double down on them.
Paying it forward
Unity: What do you wish you knew when you were just beginning your monetization journey?
Wang: I would say the big pieces are figuring out your revenue per daily active user for the genre of game that you're making. And then, after that, I recommend picking the top five or six ad network partners. From there, you're probably 80 percent of the way to a solid strategy.
Once you scale and hit 3-5 million monthly active users (MAUs), for example, you can then think about converting them with IAP. Considering a method like IAP after you’ve achieved scale can help you convert your audience more easily. If you have 5 million MAUs, you may be converting around 50,000 people or less within that audience. In-app ads can support your IAP strategy in the long run.
Unity: What advice would you give other publishers just starting out with ad monetization?
Wang: You don't know what you don't know. Meeting people and learning from them, for example, with waterfall optimization can help you learn without too much trial and error. Now that the industry is more mature, partners like Unity can teach you how to set up waterfalls.
Check out blogs about setting up waterfalls, adding mediation, as well as player experience and ad tear downs. You could also find me at places like GDC and other events where I speak and share helpful survival tips for studios and things to consider to sustain the success of your games.
Unity: Any final words you want to share with other publishers?
Wang: It’s all about how you go through the tough times as a team. It's easy to go through the good times but it’s going to be a continuous roller coaster of highs and lows. How do you stick it out when challenges arise? How do you come together and resolve conflicts?
The way you handle challenges when there’s friction and things go south can make or break a company. Overcoming these challenges together is critical so you can focus on building and growing your games to keep your players happy, engaged, and coming back for more.
CK Wang has a BS in Electrical Engineering, a MS in Computer Science from Stanford University, and teaches server-side web development at the University of Washington.
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