In the world of mobile games, Concrete Software has been around a long time. Founded in 2003, the team at Concrete makes arcade-style fun in the form of hits like Rapala Fishing – Daily Catch, NHL Hockey Target Smash, and a host of card games under the Aces banner.
In an industry where the hottest thing has blown up and flared out more than a few times, and trends have come and gone, the team at Concrete has been diligently pushing out fun and practical games from their office in unassuming Eden Prairie, Minnesota
We talked with Concrete CEO and Founder, Keith Pichelman, to get a better perspective on what it takes to go the distance in the mobile industry.
The Time Before Apps
“When we founded Concrete Software, we were making mobile apps,” Pichelman said.
Though the term ‘app’ wouldn’t become popular until Apple opened the iPhone to 3rd party developers in 2008, Concrete’s utility apps like Driving Log, Links Scorecard, and a few feature-phone games like Shoot Stuff occupied a space in an industry before many people knew there was an industry there.
“In 2004 we launched Aces Texas Hold’em,” he said. The game was an immediate hit. “Customers loved it. Instead of making more feature phone apps, we started porting Texas Hold’em to other platforms like Palm, Blackberry and Windows phone,” sensing a trend, Pichelman and team doubled down. “From that time on we’ve been concentrating on making mobile games!”
Growing their Games Catalog
“Our inspiration comes from a lot of different places”
As one would expect for a company that has been making mobile games since before everyone and their dog had a smartphone, and when the stylus reigned supreme, Concrete Software has made a lot of games.
“Our inspiration comes from a lot of different places,” Pichelman explained, “Many times we find a good brand partner to work with, and come up with fun game ideas based off their brand – like NHL Target Smash.” Instead of creating a traditional hockey game, which is a very niche title on mobile, the team at Concrete built a casual, fun, skills game instead. That emphasis on having games be accessible has brought them great success.
No matter where the idea starts, the project managers and leadership at Concrete take input from throughout the company, resulting in better apps, from better concepts.
“We’ve done ‘Appathons,’ where the company breaks into groups and builds out ideas in a couple of days,” Pichelman said, “The game Jellyflop! came directly from one of these appathons!”
Concrete Software is also big on testing, with Pichelman emphasizing the mantra ‘Test Early and Test often.’ “It can be a sobering experience to watch users struggle to start playing your game,” he said. “It’s important to work hard to make that first time user-flow as seamless and easy as possible.”
That emphasis on testing leads to early user on-board testing using UserTesting.com, and soft launches in countries while the team analyzes how users play the game in the wild before moving to a wider release.
One of the big tricks to Concrete Software’s long-term success has been their willingness to experiment and try new things. Reading the archives of announcements on their website is almost a perfect history of smart decisions in mobile user acquisition, engagement and monetization.
When it comes to user acquisition, Concrete has fully embraced social media as a tool. “Our strategy has traditionally been centered around Facebook, but we’ve recently started reaching out into other channels,” Pichelman said.
Social media has become a cornerstone of their engagement strategy as well. “We do a lot of social media promotions,” Pichelman said, “We get users excited with competitions, like in Rapala, for showing their real fishing catches,” he divulged a small secret – the inspiration for engaging Rapala fans outside of their app came from one of their paid Facebook ad campaigns.
“It became something we never expected – from this paid Facebook ad for the app, we had almost 100 people spontaneously posting pictures of fish they caught,” Pichelman said. This community-driven extension to a fairly standard ad campaign brought in a swathe of organic users on top of paid users.
The approachable and fun promotions have definitely paid off. On top of more than 5 million downloads already in Rapala Fishing – Daily Catch, users spend an average of almost 20 minutes per session in the game.
In the title PBA Bowling Challenge, fans get teased new bowling balls, and with regular updates to its current stable of apps, Concrete manages to keep all its users looking the next big things in their favorite apps. “We make sure to message these promotions directly to players, promoting them via push notification and messaging inside of our games too,” Pichelman added.
Readiness is also at the core of Concrete’s recipe for success. “We treat games as a service, and users expect games to continue to grow and have content added to the game,” Pichelman said. How might that translate for new publishers? “Be ready to release your new game,” Pichelman said. “Don’t just throw it out there.”
Monetizing the Friendly Way
“We try to make sure any monetization we add is user friendly,” Pichelman explained. This emphasis on making ads work with the user experience instead of interrupting it has led Concrete Software to integrate a lot of rewarded video solutions in their titles.
“If we are going to add more ads, we try and make it something that’s a little extra, or helps the player out in the game by doing, it,” he said.
Someone with as much experience in mobile as Pichelman no doubt has some advice for people wanting to follow in Concrete Software’s footsteps.
“First and foremost, make a great game. Make sure everything in the game is great,” he explained. “Adding more cool stuff that isn’t quite ready will just hurt the overall game.”
When it comes to monetizing a new title, his advice is also about diligence. “Think about monetization while building the game. We love the rewarded video and incentivized ad model and have lots of great examples in our games.” Rewarded video is something a developer can build in after the fact, but by working it in from of the start, it can feel far more natural, and users don’t have to be introduced to it at a later date.
“First and foremost, make a great game. Make sure everything in the game is great”
Concrete Software’s team is a tight-knit group of 25. “We have a nice mix of young, smart, and talented people who have come to us early in their careers, and a group of veterans who bring experience from all over the gaming industry,” Pichelman said.
This mix allows Concrete to be passionate and drive hard to create awesome, innovative games while having the experience to make sure they’re heading in the right direction and avoiding mistakes early on in the process, Pichelman explained.
Concrete Software has attracted talent like Studio Director Chip Pedersen, who’s worked all of the traditional games and mobile industries, from the very first NHL game for Xbox, to Apple. Jason Pfitzer had a job at Game Informer (another Minneapolis gaming institution) and now does UI/UX design at Concrete.
Another former member of the gaming press, Rawson Stovall, Concrete’s Senior Game Designer, got his start as “The Vid Kid” reviewing games on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, and was the first nationally syndicated reviewer of video games in the United States. He was 12 at the time.
With such wide variety of employees, a sense of community is important. It’s common for the team to play different board games during lunch, and even staying late to unwind with game nights. “When people visit, we hear how everyone seems to be involved and really care about what they’re doing,” Pichelman said.
The Next 13 years
Concrete Software isn’t done yet. “We’re really excited about all the new technology in tracking and analytics,” Pichelman said. “We’re looking forward to really understanding and treating our customers individually.” He also said that working in better targeted and relative, more interactive, native ads will be a huge benefit for users and the company alike.
But what about any new titles?
“We’re going to keep improving our current titles for a little while, making sure our users are getting everything they want!” said Pichelman passionately. “We’ve begun speaking to a lot of different brands about our next title, though we haven’t set anything in concrete,” he grinned.
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