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Tobias Walter and Anmol Diddan are part of Google’s Unskippable Labs and Human Truths teams, respectively. They recently conducted research and analyses to understand mobile gamers’ motivations and the creative elements that influence them to install a mobile game.

Even before the pandemic, gaming was a global phenomenon. As smartphones proliferated, so did access to gaming. And as lockdowns set in, worldwide game app downloads increased 30% in the first few months of the year compared to the last few months of 2019. In the United States, 30% of people report spending more time on games compared to before the pandemic.1

Trending up arrow over a mobile phone game representing the stat: 30% increase in worldwide game app downloads from late 2019 to early 2020.

As gaming continues to grow, so do the questions we get from app marketers about how best to drive game installs. To unpack that question, we took a big step back to first understand the motivations behind gaming. Then we looked at actual gaming app ad campaigns, for Universal App Campaigns in particular, to see if there were patterns of creative elements that were more successful than others in driving installs. (Spoiler alert: There were.)

The bottom line: Driving gaming app installs requires tapping into the motivations behind why people game, and building creative assets inspired by those motivations. That may seem obvious, but the executional elements of a gaming app marketing strategy can be quite nuanced.

Motivations for casual versus core gamers

As any game marketer knows, the world of gaming is largely divided into “core” gamers, people who devote a significant amount of time and energy to gaming, and “casual” gamers, people who dabble in games to pass the time.

Reaching these gamers effectively requires knowing why they’re playing and how they’re engaging. To learn more, we conducted qualitative research with hundreds of casual and core gamers in Japan, the U.K., and the U.S.2

An infographic shows how core and casual gamers approach the hobby. Core gamers spend more hours and more money on games than casual gamers. Casual gamers are more likely to play for relaxation, while core gamers tend to play for the challenge.

Creative implications for core versus casual gamers

To analyze what kinds of creative elements are most effective for driving game app installs, we examined thousands of the top- and bottom-performing gaming ads for Universal App Campaigns globally — both for complex core games, like Fortnite, and for simpler, casual games, like Candy Crush.

From there, using a combination of human review and machine learning, we identified patterns in the creative elements that were successful at driving installs, or not. We learned that there are key creative levers worth considering to reach core and casual gamers, and they differ for each group.

An infographic shows what gets core gamers excited about a game, like showcasing customization, characters, and maps, highlighting what the player controls, featuring high-quality graphics, and leading with a strong message.

To showcase these best practices, we made ads for a fake core game that we dubbed “Captain Unskippable.”

An example of a successful core game ad

What this ad does well: Introduces the game universe in high quality, highlights the choices the player can make, showcases progression, and features messaging that speaks to core gamers’ desire to challenge themselves.

And for purposes of variety, we made this tutorial-style ad to showcase how to master the game. Since core gamers want to dive deeply into the game, multiple assets are key.

An infographic shows what gets casual gamers interested in a game, like keeping the gameplay simple, showing the demo from several angles in a real-world environment, and messaging a relaxing experience.

To showcase these best practices, we made ads for a fake casual game.

An example of a successful casual game ad

What this ad does well: Showcases the simplicity of the game including a hand demo, uses simple bright sound, and features messaging that taps into casual gamers’ emotional needs for a distraction or break.

Make room for experimentation

While there’s no perfect recipe for a successful game install ad, the hope is that these creative levers provide a solid starting point for knowing what works best. Though these creative elements may seem prescriptive, there’s still much room for creativity and experimentation within them. The most sophisticated game marketers are testing constantly.

For example, consider testing various perspectives, calls to action that tap into varying elements of challenge or relaxation based on gamer type, music choices, or even feature highlights. As long as game marketers anchor in the driving motivations behind core and casual gamers, and build creative assets with those in mind, they’ll be well on their way to successful install campaigns.